Hoffa and the Underworld

Hoffa and the Underworld

It was all very odd, even eerie, as if by some trick one of my youthful political fantasies had come true in a perverted form. There I sat, in a union hall jammed with cheering truck drivers, listening to their union president denounce the capitalist press, radio and TV as instruments of the bosses and shouting at the tough, burly teamsters that they could never expect anything from their employers and that without the union they were helpless.

The reality of that meeting was tinged with fantasy for me because it took place not during the hectic thirties, in Minneapolis, when the Dunne brothers, leaders of teamster Local 544, were the heroes of the Trotskyist movement, but in 1959. This meeting was in Detroit and the speaker was Jimmy Hoffa, talking to his own local union while a CBS crew filmed, him for TV.

Now, obviously Jimmy Hoffa is not committed to overthrowing the capitalist system. Indeed, quite the opposite is true—Hoffa is a staunch defender of American capitalism (after all, it’s been very good to him) and his speech was a singular exercise in vulgar demagogery. But at that union meeting Hoffa symbolized, as he does in general, some of the most crucial problems facing the American trade unions.

Except in one extremely important way, I consider Hoffa a characteristic product of the old AFL tradition. I’ve known Hoffa for only three years, ever since I went to Detroit to write about him for The Reporter, but during this time I’ve seen him in a wide variety of circumstances, behaving in many different ways. In spite of these opportunities and though I’ve frequently talked to him at length, followed the McClellan Committees hearings rather carefully, read a great deal about him and often discussed him with his subordinates, as well as with employers, public officials and knowledgeable newspapermen, Hoffa still remains an enigma to me.