Viewpoint: 'The Irishman' May Win an Oscar, But It Shouldn't Win Union Members' Hearts

The late Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa talking on the phone in a car.

There’s something to admire about Hoffa, who improved the lives of millions through strong contracts and solid benefits. But Hoffa’s personal corruption and “tough guy” style set the stage for decades of decline. It’s not a model of union leadership we need. Photo: Ninian Reed

Martin Scorsese’s movie The Irishman—up for best picture at the Oscars this weekend—is sparking interest in union president Jimmy Hoffa, 45 years after he disappeared.

Few have embodied the tough “labor boss” more than Hoffa, who headed the Teamsters from 1958 to 1967, when he went to federal prison for bribery and jury tampering.

There’s something to admire about Hoffa, who improved the lives of millions through strong contracts and solid benefits. Compared to an empty suit like disgraced former Auto Workers President Gary Jones, he looks pretty good.

But Hoffa’s personal corruption and “tough guy” style weakened the union and set the stage for decades of decline. It’s not a model of union leadership we need.

HOFFA’S ACHIEVEMENTS

While his mob ties got the headlines, Hoffa was much more than a mob associate. He helped transform the Teamsters into one of the most powerful unions in North America.

Membership exploded from 146,000 members in 1935 to 1.5 million in 1957, just prior to Hoffa’s taking office, and reached 2 million by 1976, the year after he disappeared.

Hoffa’s crowning achievement was the National Master Freight Agreement. First consolidated in 1964, at its height it covered 400,000 workers at 16,000 trucking companies. By the early 1970s, local and intercity trucking was almost completely unionized.

The NMFA dramatically improved wages, benefits, and working conditions. It also gave the Teamsters control over a vital sector of the economy. Virtually no goods could move without Teamster labor, and Hoffa used that fact in bargaining.

While Hoffa deserves credit for crafting the NMFA, he did not come up with the idea. In the West, a Seattle official (and future Teamster president) named Dave Beck had been stitching together a regional master agreement since the 1930s.

And in the Midwest, a band of socialist Teamsters radiated outward from Minneapolis to organize over-the-road trucking. They cut their teeth on the 1934 strike that made Minneapolis a union town, then spread their vision of militant industrial unionism.

They won over many officials to their campaign, if not their ideology. President Daniel Tobin even hired one of their leaders, Farrell Dobbs, as an organizer.

Dobbs was an early mentor to the young Hoffa, then an organizer in Detroit. Hoffa appreciated Dobbs’s strategic thinking and militancy, though he had little use for his politics.

Ultimately Hoffa turned on his mentor. Tobin shipped him to Minneapolis in 1941 to help trustee the local and dismantle the socialists’ organization there.

But it was Hoffa who took the blueprints that Dobbs and Beck had drawn up and created a truly national freight agreement.

PIECING IT TOGETHER

Although Hoffa had little formal education, he knew the economics of the freight industry better than the employers did, and he used that knowledge to get them on board.

Sometimes he showed employers that unionizing would reduce competition. Other times, he played off large companies against small ones. He used militant strikes against some, and gave sweetheart deals and payoffs to others.

And he got local leaders on board. Before Hoffa the union was a collection of regional fiefdoms. To create a national agreement, he had to get employers to dramatically increase wages in some regions—and get union leaders in larger cities to bring wages down to the national level.

He intervened skillfully in local disputes, supporting rank-and-file insurgencies when it worked to his advantage, as in Los Angeles, and crushing them when it did not, as in Philadelphia.

The resulting master agreement transformed an unstable, brutally exploitative job into a more stable, decent-paying one with an employer-funded pension. And Hoffa wasn’t shy about striking. As a result, Teamster power and membership grew.

ON THE TAKE

Hoffa landed in jail for jury tampering, which might sound minor. But it’s important to understand the crimes that put him on trial in the first place.

One case concerned skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from the union’s Central States Pension Fund via a shady Florida real estate deal. The other case concerned Test Fleet, a carhauling company Hoffa incorporated in 1949, using his wife’s maiden name to avoid detection.

Test Fleet offered its services to another car-haul company to help it break a Teamster wildcat strike. In effect, Hoffa created a company to scab on his own members, who lost their jobs. He was convicted of bribing several jurors in this case.

To be fair, it is plausible to think that Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa Squad” was more concerned about Hoffa’s control over strategic sectors of the economy than they were about bribery and corruption. But Hoffa’s corruption made his prosecution possible.

‘IT’S MY UNION’

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As bad as his corruption was, the consequences of Hoffa’s leadership style were even worse.

The problem was not that he centralized leadership. It would have been impossible to negotiate a master freight agreement had the union remained fragmented. The problem was that he personalized leadership.

Hoffa famously worked around the clock, involving himself in the smallest union matters. He gave out his phone number and took collect calls from members to handle their problems. He often visited union halls, freight terminals, and picket lines.

But he conflated Teamster power with his own personal power. Hoffa seemed to believe “I am the union.” We see this in The Irishman when he is asked why he wants to be Teamster president again. He replies, “It’s my union.”

Hoffa reinforced the idea that workers’ problems should be fixed by a strong leader—not by the workers themselves.

This worked up to a point, in a highly regulated and fragmented industry where he could play small carriers against each other. But it was not a viable long-term strategy, especially when the industry was deregulated by the government and then consolidated into far fewer, and larger, companies.

PATRONAGE NETWORK

It’s tempting to see the union’s postHoffa decline as a problem of bad leaders. The presidents who followed him were bland, spineless, and corrupt, until Ron Carey in 1991.

The responsibility for that lies with Hoffa himself. In consolidating his power, Hoffa created a patronage network that prized loyalty above all. Its linchpin was a new system where Teamster officials received multiple salaries and pensions.

At the union’s 1961 convention, the first where Hoffa presided, delegates approved a generous officers-only pension plan, and another one for staff. Officers could often draw on both.

Delegates modified the constitution to allow International officers to draw salaries from subordinate bodies, legitimizing multiple salaries for what were often no-show jobs.

Hoffa held the power to dispense and withdraw these multiple pensions and salaries—and he used them to keep officials in line.

OPPORTUNISTS AND YES-MEN

Simultaneously, Hoffa crafted constitutional changes that insulated officials from accountability to members. Local officers and business agents were automatic delegates to the convention, with almost no member-elected delegates. More stringent meeting attendance and “good standing” requirements made it harder for rank and filers to run for local office.

The Executive Board was given the power to merge locals or transfer members between locals and the president to trustee locals and control intermediate bodies.

Opportunists and yes-men entrenched themselves. Once Hoffa was gone, they were left in charge. They shared Hoffa’s disposition for patronage and self-dealing, but lacked his militancy, charisma, and strategic shrewdness. They weren’t interested in tackling the deregulation and consolidation that effectively dismantled the NMFA.

MOB INFLUENCE

Hoffa’s defenders argue that his ties to the mob were what it took to win in the “jungle” of the transportation and warehouse industries. “Twenty years ago [around 1939],” Hoffa declared, “the employers had all the hoodlums working for them as strike-breakers. Now we’ve got a few and everybody’s screaming.”

That’s also the Hollywood take. The 1978 Sylvester Stallone movie F.I.S.T., loosely based on Hoffa’s life, shows workers teaming up with mobsters to “convince” a company to unionize. Danny DeVito, director of the 1992 biopic Hoffa, said of the mob, “Sure he knew them. Sure he did business with them. But did they control him? Not at all. What controlled Hoffa was his desire to do anything to help the people in his union.”

The reality was different. It’s true that some Teamster shops were organized with mob muscle, but the mob’s goal was to benefit the mob, not members.

And they got what they wanted, including fraudulent loans from the Central States Pension Fund (known as “the Mafia’s bank”), payoffs from employers for lax contract enforcement, “ghost employee” arrangements, and extortion of businesses by threatening to withhold deliveries.

Members who dared question these cozy arrangements put their lives at risk.

NOT A MODEL

Hoffa is no model, but other Teamster history does give us ideas for how we might revive our movement today.

They come from the tradition of Hoffa’s organizing mentor, Farrell Dobbs. That tradition combined persistent shop-floor organizing with ambitious strategy unafraid to hurt employers. It was the force that animated the 1997 UPS strike, one of the largest and most successful strikes in U.S. history.

Organizers in this tradition understood that a union’s power does not come from a brash, wily negotiator. It comes from the members.

Barry Eidlin is an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University, the author of Labor and the Class Idea in the U.S. and Canada, and a former organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union. A longer version of this article first appeared in Jacobin.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 491. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.