Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Hoffa's Last Hurrah
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Release this year of the DVD of "Hoffa," a movie first shown in theaters a dozen years ago, once again subjects us to director Danny DeVito's outrageous view of Jimmy Hoffa as hero, as a man who may have bent or broken the law, but did it - and whatever else he did - solely to help his beloved Teamster Union members.

DeVito actually claims Hoffa "dedicated every waking hour to benefiting people" and in fact did "more for the labor movement than anyone else."

Well, as a former labor reporter who covered Hoffa and the Teamsters, but who is not trying to hype a movie portraying Hoffa as savior of the working class, let me assure you it just isn't so. Anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of organized labor knows that.

I'm not in the least sympathetic to those who, like the Kennedys, attacked Hoffa for personal political gain or, like some others in politics and business, did so in hopes of weakening the labor movement. But neither am I sympathetic to those who would now glorify Hoffa,

Yes, Jimmy Hoffa was brilliant, dynamic, incredibly hard-working, extremely loyal to friends and family, and lived simply, almost frugally. But he was a violent man with a vicious temper, ruthless, sometimes paranoid, a man who truly saw life as a jungle. He was exceedingly ambitious, single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of power, with the Teamsters his vehicle.

As Teamster president, Hoffa was a dictator who brooked no opposition and used virtually any means he thought possible, legal or illegal, violent or non-violent, against union members, employers and anyone else who challenged him.

Skillfully playing jealous lower-level Teamster officials off against one another, Hoffa transformed the union into a highly-centralized organization with him at the controls. He made the key decisions on strikes, on whether to press member grievances against employers and union officers, on the pay of officers, on just about everything, rewarding those friendly to him, punishing the unfriendly.

Nothing more clearly illustrated Hoffa's decidedly non-heroic approach than what turned out to be his last hurrrah as Teamster president. That was the union's national convention in Miami Beach in 1966, less than a year before Hoffa was stripped of union office and imprisoned for, among other crimes, allowing the Mafia access to Teamster pension funds.

Delegates gave Hoffa exactly what he sought, probably the greatest power ever handed an American union leader. That included virtually unlimited control over negotiating the contracts of Teamster members everywhere - all 1.7 million, more members than any union in the world could claim.

Delegates also guaranteed that Hoffa would get the money, however much it might be, needed to continue his ultimately unsuccessful battle to stay out of federal prison. They raised his salary 75 percent, to $100,000 a year, then the highest pay for any labor leader anywhere, and re-elected him by acclamation to another five-year term. Finally, they gave Hoffa the means to hold onto the power even if he was imprisoned, by naming as second-in-command a lackluster crony, Frank Fitzsimmons, whom Hoffa had designated to run the union as a caretaker.

Hoffa stood at the podium, jaw clenched, eyes agate hard, snapping off words like a B movie tough guy. The impression - and it was clearly intentional - was of a man on the very edge of violence, who might smash you in the face if you crossed him.

He strutted, he shouted, he pounded the podium, he directed an unrelenting stream of venom at his many enemies, some real, some imagined. He seemingly knew every delegate's first name. But he showed little warmth and rarely smiled, except toward his wife, children and grandchildren, strategically placed on the stage behind him.

He controlled the floor microphones himself, demanding- and getting - utter loyalty, and adulation of the sort expressed by a delegate who told his cheering colleagues:

"Even Christ himself could not take the responsibilities and carry out the numerous duties that go with the office of General President, the 134 Disciples of the Executive Board notwithstanding."

Hoffa never even said, "Thank you." He was voted the power, and he took it, as richly deserved.

"To hell with our enemies - you judge me!" he declared, waving high the official report of this previous five-year term., It showed the greatest reason for the widespread rank-and-file support of Hoffa - that Teamster pay and benefits far exceeded those of most other blue-collar workers.

The 1800 convention delegates, all of them union officers, also were rewarded for supporting their president. Hoffa proposed, and they most gratefully approved, a measure that granted hefty pay and benefit increases to all Teamster officials.

Like the union's members at large, the delegates left the thinking to Jimmy. By ceding all decision-making to him, they made Hoffa and the union inseparable in the minds of Teamsters and the general public. To oppose Hoffa was to oppose the union, to attack him was to attack all Teamsters.

Hoffa was the besieged radical fending off the wicked establishment hammering at the Teamster gates. Every new attack, be it from unfriendly journalists, politicians or rival unionists, was seized on as further proof that the Teamster troops had to gather closely around their general.

We in the press corps became on-the-scene embodiments of the enemy that was trying to imprison the Teamsters' indispensable leader. He constantly flayed us. He ripped dispatches from wire service teleprinters backstage to read to delegates, interpreting them as vicious, unjustified attacks on the Teamsters for quoting some of the few dissident delegates. He yelled down at us as we moved to the rear of the auditorium to interview the few delegates who dared vote against Hoffa proposals but didn't dare tell their fellow delegates why.

At the end, Hoffa called a press conference to denounce us as liars. One reporter, a pugnacious, red-haired Irishman from the New York Daily News, risked a free-for-all by informing Hoffa that the feelings were mutual. But though Mr. Tough Guy Hoffa clenched his fists and glared ominously, he left it at that.

Heroes had more important things to do than fight reporters. Too bad, though. Would have made a great movie scene.

Copyright Dick Meister