You may have seen the ads; Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, are all together in a new movie, “The Irishman.”   These are my favorite actors and director, and my favorite subject; labor unions.

However this new movie is based on a book featuring confessions of a thuggish convict, without supporting evidence.   The convict, Frank Sheernan,  claims that he personally killed Teamster union leader JImmy Hoffa.  Sheernan also asserts he helped run weapons for the Bay of Pigs invasion,  handled the rifles for the assassination of John Kennedy, and gunned down “Crazy Joe” Gallo, a well known New York Mafia figure.

Mob authors and law enforcement figures generally scoff at these assertions. Nonetheless, these yarns will soon play on movie and TV screens everywhere.

I would not mind if  Scorsese turned the Sheernan charcter into a Forrest Gump of the underworld, everywhere at once.

But if the movie closely follows the book, (titled I Hear You Paint Houses) it will also give credence to Sheernan’s claims that union leader Jimmy Hoffa was a mafia boss who personally committed, and ordered murders, and invited hoodlums to run the union. 

Hoffa was a powerful, if flawed person, and his memory deserves better.

Now, 60 years after Jimmy Hoffa blazed across the American labor movement and the newspaper headlines, permit me to remind folks what Jimmy Hoffa did.

Jimmy Hoffa successfully forced corporate America to pay fair wages to over two million semi-skilled workers in the trucking and warehouse industry.

 Before Hoffa, companies considered those workers trash.  You’d have to wait all night for an hour or two of work unloading trucks at petty wages.

After Hoffa, those workers could afford houses, and had health plans and pensions.

It started during the 1930s Depression, when a young, but courageous 16-year-old Jimmy Hoffa began his career by dramatically smashing a crate of strawberries onto the warehouse floor and leading 300 Detroit workers out on a strike that won higher wages and shorter hours, and a union for those folks.  
His charismatic leadership, even as a teenager, meant that grown men voted for him to lead their union. Hoffa rose rapidly in the Detroit Teamsters.  He was fearless. Countless beatings and arrests did not prevent him from organizing thousands of local truck drivers and warehouse workers into the union, even after his brother was gunned down on a picket line.
Within a few years Hoffa helped organize over 100,000 long-haul truckers in the Midwest into the Teamsters union, even during the the Depression. He allied with militant socialists in the Minnesota Twin Cities to wage a comprehensive campaign across a dozen states. His tactics included general strikes, hand-to-hand combat, boycotts, bombings, sabotage and blockades of freight routes.

In the 1950s, Hoffa achieved leadership of the national Teamsters, and organized all of the workers at virtually every trucking company in the United States, along with warehouses and dozens of other industries. Hoffa even directed the organization of 100,000 trucking and warehouse workers in the Deep South, the most effective organizing campaign in the South in US history.

By the 1960s, Hoffa helped pull 2 million working people up into the middle-class with strong teamster contracts. Hoffa introduced pension plans to US industry. Few people have ever won increased wages and benefits for as many working people in all of labor history.

Hoffa’s  Teamsters were able to raise wages for hundreds of thousands of workers at once, with master, national contracts.

Any union member could walk into the Teamsters building and right into Hoffa’s office, without an appointment or getting screened by a secretary.  He’d remember your name and call the boss on the phone right then to straighten out your beef.  If you knew him, he was tough, but caring.

But Hoffa was also deeply flawed. He helped thousands of black workers to win large wage increases, but in the 1940s, he tacitly allowed the highest-paying trucking jobs to remain mostly white.

Teamster strikes could turn violent,  But in those days, fighting was self-defense against employer-backed thugs, and private armies.  Union officers frequently ran up long arrest records from picket line brawls.  

And organized crime wanted into the wealthy Teamsters pension fund.  By the 1950s, hoodlums had muscled into control of local teamster unions in places like Chicago and New Jersey.  The thugs demanded that Hoffa loan Pension fund money to their schemes, including Mob-run hotels in Las Vegas.  

In 1957, Senator McClellan’s “Rackets” Committee, whose lead investigator was a young Robert Kennedy, angrily criticized Hoffa for not removing the mobsters from the Teamsters.  It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Some of the hoodlums were popular among their membership.  But some of the unions were “phony,” with no members, that existed to extort employers.

Hoffa failed to act against the hoodlums.  The AFL-CIO, the umbrella group of most US unions, expelled the Teamsters.

The Senate hearings provoked criminal investigations, and Hoffa was convicted of jury tampering and union fund mismanagement.

The McClellan Committee also proposed new legislation that outlawed the “secondary boycott,” meaning that union workers could now be fired for refusing to handle non-union goods.  Hoffa had exploited the secondary boycott tactic to help build the union, because union truckers had been able to refuse to handle freight from non-union sources.  Those days are gone.

While Hoffa was imprisoned, the Mafia began stealing from the Teamsters pension fund with the cooperation of Hoffa’s successor, Richard Fitzsimmons.

President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence after 4 years, but Nixon, as a favor to Fitzsimmons, imposed parole requirements prohibiting Hoffa from holding union office for 10 years. 

Many say Nixon received a $1 million cash bribe for commuting Hoffa’s sentence, while banning him from union leadership. Hoffa angrily condemned that parole condition, and pledged to drive out the hoodlums when he was allowed to run for Teamster office again in 1980.

Hoffa left his house to meet with a Mob-connected Teamster officer in 1975, and never returned.  The prime suspects in his disappearance were themselves murdered.  Now Sheernan claims he killed Hoffa, despite 40 years of FBI reports that fingered different killers.

James Hoffa Jr.,  Hoffa’s son was elected to head up the Teamsters in 1998.

These days, the Teamsters are down to roughly 1.4 million members, from a peak membership of about 2.2 million in Hoffa Senior’s day, mainly because the Nader-backed legislation that de-regulation of trucking.

The resulting unfettered competition drove most union trucking firms bankrupt.  These days Teamsters also represent cops, flight attendants, car rental clerks, bakers, brewery workers, cannery employees, and dozens of other occupations.

The Hoffa story is somewhat personal for me. In the 1970s, I got out of jail, and worked at minimum wage, and was probably on my way back to jail.

 Then I got a teamster job at good wages, and was able to live honestly and raise a family, thanks to that teamster contract.  So I am personally grateful for the opportunity to straighten my own life out, thank to decent teamster wages. 

The antics of Frank Sheernan, upon whom the movie is based, also bumped against my own life.

By 1980,  a company called Country-Wide Personnel started hauling paper for Crown-Zellerbach in northern California.  The former C-Z workers came to work at the same warehouse, they drove the same routes in the same trucks.

But now their checks came from “Country-Wide, not C-Z, and the wages were much lower than what C-Z had been paying.  I belonged to a leftist group called Teamsters for a Democratic Union.  We spread the word about this outrage, and investigated through our own contacts about Country-Wide, since the Teamsters seemed impotent against them.

We discovered that County-Wide had been bribing Frank Sheernan  to allow those cut-rate contracts.  Sheernan stifled any grievances over the Country-wide wages.

  Between our agitating, and belated law enforcement charges, Sheernan received a lengthy and well-deserved prison sentence,

Anyone with a strong back who could read shipping labels could be a Teamster driver or warehouse worker.  At many Teamster jobs I took, I’d often meet fellow ex-cons there, grateful, like me, for their second chance to earn an honest well-paid living.  One problem of today's economy is the current lack of these decent-paying jobs for folks who can't go to college.

Thank you, Jimmy Hoffa.  Your body may lie in an unmarked grave but the good you did lives on, in the hearts and paychecks of millions of working folks and their kin.

  • September 28, 2019