Childhood & Early Life
Jimmy Hoffa was born on February 14, 1913, in Brazil, Indiana, United States to John Cleveland Hoffa and Viola (née Riddle) Hoffa. His ancestors were originally Pennsylvania Germans and immigrated to Indiana in the mid-1800s and his maternal ancestors were Irish Americans.
His father was a coal-driller who succumbed to lungs disease in 1920 when he was just seven. Following this tragedy his mother who he later described as a person "who believed that Duty and Discipline were spelled with capital D's" took to laundry to sustain her family.
While studying, Hoffa and his three siblings also got into after-school jobs to help their mother run the family. In 1924 he and his family relocated to Detroit where he spent the rest of his life.
In pursuit of supporting his family, he finally dropped out of school at 14 years of age and started to work full-time as a manual labour.
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He joined a grocery store chain in Detroit on a loading dock working with laborers in unloading produces from rail cars to warehouse. The job offered poor work conditions with substandard wages. Laborers were paid only for actual loading and unloading whereas they had to be present for a 12-hour shift.
His bravery and aplomb got him associated with union activities in his teenage. Impressed by his organising skills the workers of the grocery chain accepted him in a leadership role and in turn Hoffa organized his first labour strike that saw the workers landing up with a better contract.
He left the grocery chain around 1932 and thereafter accepted invitation to play the role of an organizer with the Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit.
He along with other union leaders thrived in unifying different local unions of truckers and in this manner membership of Teamsters union which was 75,000 in 1933 rose to 170,000 in 1936, to 420,000 in 1939 and advanced further during the ‘Second World War’ reached a million counts by 1951.
Many strategies to strengthen union in different companies to win contracts were applied by Teamsters including secondary boycott and quickie strikes in which Hoffa played an instrumental part. Over the years Teamsters emerged as one of the most strong and effective unions in the US.
In December 1946 he became president of Local 299 and in a short while began leading the unified group of locals of Detroit region. Thereafter his role furthered as head of the Teamsters groups in Michigan.
During those times gangsters played influential role in controlling truck unions and all through the 1950s Teamsters was under such influence. Such effect grew with time and saw Hoffa gradually getting associated with elements of organized crimes while effecting development of IBT.
He suppressed an internal rebel brewing up against Dave Beck in IBT by attaining Central States regional support for the latter at the 1952 IBT convention held in Los Angeles. As a result of this Beck, the incoming president of IBT, made Hoffa IBT’s national vice-president.
His new responsibility as vice president saw him travelling across the country and he spent less time in Detroit. Meanwhile in 1955 the headquarters of IBT shifted from Indianapolis to Washington, D.C.
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Major criminal investigations were carried out against him in 1957 following the work of the John Little McClellan Senate Labor Sub-committee. For the next few years Hoffa avoided convictions whereas Robert F. Kennedy, as counsel to the McClellan Subcommittee, tried hard to get him convict.
The 1958 convention of Teamsters held at the Miami Beach, Florida, saw his election as its new president.
He was re-elected as president of Teamsters in 1961, however as Robert F. Kennedy became the Attorney General that year, the latter began a crusade against organised crime which included a ‘Get Hoffa’ team of investigators and prosecutors.
The most significant feat of Hoffa related to union activities came in 1964 when he brought nearly all North American on-the-road truck drivers under a national master freight agreement. However, he couldn’t get much success in bringing workers of airlines and other transports within the union.
He was found guilty of trying to bribe a grand juror and faced 8 years sentence in 1964 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Another trial in Chicago later that year convicted him of inappropriate use of pension fund of Teamsters leading to 5 years sentence that would be successive to his earlier sentence.
After three years of unsuccessful appeals, in March 1967 he started to serve his imprisonment terms at Pennsylvania’s ‘Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary’.
In 1970 his book ‘The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa: An Autobiography, as Told to Donald I. Rogers’ was published.
On December 23, 1971, he was released from prison after President Richard Nixon reduced his 13 years sentence to the time served. He received a onetime lump sum pension of $1.7 million from Teamsters, the first of its kind by the labour union.
Early release of Hoffa raised suspicion of a secret deal between Nixon and IBT union, which although supported Democratic candidates, had earlier backed Republican Nixon during his presidential re-election bid in 1972. Allegations of a secret payment to Nixon by IBT worth $1 million also did the rounds.
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As a condition of his pardon agreement, Hoffa was prevented by President Nixon from union activities till his original prison term that was till March 1980, had he served full sentence. Hoffa although relieved from his release was quite disappointed by such condition and tried in vain to overrun the order.
On July 30, 1975, sometime after, 2:45 pm he vanished from Machus Red Fox Restaurant’s parking lot located in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, where he supposedly went to meet Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano, both mafia leaders and associated with union activities of IBT.
His autobiography ‘Hoffa: The Real Story’ was published a few months after his disappearance.
According to a truck driver, he saw Hoffa in a maroon 1975 Mercury Marquis Brougham that moved out of the restaurant and nearly bumped into his truck. He claimed Hoffa was sitting in the backseat with another passenger with a covered long object in-between them that he thought to be a weapon.
Several investigations were undertaken for years by different investigating agencies including FBI but they could not reach a conclusive result. Finally in 1982, after 7 years of Hoffa’s vanishing, he was declared legally dead and on July 30 that year a death certificate in his name was issued.
The 1992 French-American biographical crime film ‘Hoffa’ was based on him. Other biopics featuring his character included ‘Blood Feud’ (1983) and ‘Robert Kennedy & His Times’ (1985).