Before he was a labor union icon and subject of a fascinating murder mystery, Jimmy Hoffa’s humble beginnings started in the town of Brazil, Ind., in 1913. After his father died when Hoffa was a boy, the family moved to Detroit.
At the age of 14, Hoffa left school to work full-time as a laborer. He organized his first labor union at the age of 20 while working at a Kroger grocery distribution center. Under Hoffa’s leadership, the workers planned a strike to improve their paltry pay and poor working conditions.
Hoffa’s plan was brilliant. He and his co-workers, later called the “Strawberry Boys“, waited for a truck of perishable strawberries to arrive. Then the workers went on strike. Management had to choose between negotiation or losing the expensive strawberry cargo. They chose negotiation. In an hour, the strike was over.
In 1932, Hoffa helped to organize Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit. The Teamsters had been active since 1903, with headquarters in Indianapolis. However, they were still loosely organized. Hoffa took a leading role in helping to consolidate power within the organization.
Hoffa was a charismatic speaker who quickly became popular with the workers. By 1946, Hoffa had become president of the Local 299. Hoffa was particularly good at strategizing and came up with an effective plan to win concessions from management using strikes, boycotts….and some illegal methods.
During this time, Hoffa began consolidating local trucker unions in Michigan into a more centralized structure. Several of these unions had ties to the Mafia. As a result, Hoffa had to collaborate with the leaders of organized crime to accomplish his union goals.
Hoffa quickly advanced through the ranks to lead the Michigan Teamsters‘ statewide organization. In 1952, he was chosen to be Vice President of the Teamsters. When Teamsters President, Dave Beck, was convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison, Hoffa’s ambitions to become president of the organization were realized.
In 1964, Hoffa succeeded in gaining a National Master Freight Agreement which covered nearly all over-the-road truck drivers in North America. It was his crowning achievement for the labor union.
By this time, Jimmy Hoffa had been under investigation for his connections with the mob for several years. He was eventually convicted on charges of pension fraud and attempted bribery. Hoffa entered prison in 1967 to serve a 13-year sentence, but President Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971.
Hoffa‘s release wasn’t without strings. Nixon barred him from union activities until 1980, effectively stripping away his power. The Teamsters awarded Hoffa an unprecedented $1.7 million pension.
Hoffa was working on a plan to reassert his control within the union when he vanished on July 30, 1975. His body was never found. It is widely believed that he was murdered at the behest of the Mafia to prevent him from regaining control over the Teamsters. Although numerous theories have been bloomed regarding Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982.
The intrigue surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance continues to captivate the public. Countless TV shows and movies have attempted to recreate that fateful day and solve the murder (including an episode of ‘Mythbusters‘) To date, no one has succeeded. We may never know exactly what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, but his effect on America’s labor movement will not quickly be forgotten.