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Hoffa Made Me a Hero
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Did I ever tell you about the time Jimmy Hoffa made me a hero? Not Jimmy junior, the current president of the Teamsters Union, but Jimmy senior, who of course held that job before his son.

It's a great story, if I do say so myself. Would in fact have made a great movie, probably even better than the one about Jimmy senior, "Hoffa," with Jack Nicholson in the title role.

The scene: San Francisco, 1963. The protagonist: me, a reasonably bright-eyed journalist in his 20s, just starting out as the labor reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the three highly competitive daily newspapers in a highly unionized city where labor news still mattered a lot.

In comes a steely-eyed editor, a no-nonsense general in the Chronicle's frenzied circulation war against the other papers.

"Get it fast and get it right," he says to me -- "but mainly get it first."

No easy task, getting it first. The labor reporters on the other papers had a bit more experience than me.

"OK, so they've got a little time on you," says Mr, No-Nonsense. "But if you can't learn more in 25 minutes than those jokers have learned in 25 years, well ...."

In the next scene, we meet a police reporter and former member of the city's major Teamsters Union local, Birney by name, who offers assistance to the young labor reporter. He has contacts, says Birney, and they tell him local Teamsters are rebelling against Hoffa's plan to include them in a nationwide truck drivers' contract that he would negotiate and enforce,

"They think Jimmy's trying to take over everything," says Birney.

He was, of course. But that was not the main reason for the rebel voices, the naive young reporter was saddened to learn. It wasn't local autonomy, union democracy or any of that high-minded stuff that moved them. No, it was that old devil money. Their own locally-negotiated contracts set their pay higher than that of Teamsters in most other places, and they'd have to give up their superior position if they were lumped into a contract with every Tom, Dick and Harry who might be carrying a Teamster Union card.

But Jimmy had lots of friends, including the officers who ran the San Francisco local. They decided they'd give Hoffa what he wanted without even bothering to ask their members what they wanted.

This is where it starts getting exciting. Into action springs the eager young reporter to discover that the rebellious Teamsters have forced their officers to call an emergency meeting at which members will be allowed to vote on the question.

I had it first and I had it right, bless Birney. Jimmy's friends were not pleased, though, by my report that "San Francisco Teamsters are in revolt against James Hoffa and their local officers." Jimmy, it soon was to become painfully clear to me, was not happy either.

Next in this scenario we hear the harsh voice of the Teamster local's secretary-treasurer.

"Wrong! You're damned wrong! You just come to that meeting when they vote. Won't hear hardly anybody talk against Jimmy, no matter what you been saying in that damn newspaper of yours."

But what about that business in the Teamster constitution barring reporters from union meetings?

"Forget it. Just be there; we'll get you in."

Now comes the big scene. It's about 8 p.m. outside the meeting hall. Three reporters, one much younger than the others, stand by the doors, peering in at hundreds of Teamsters milling around noisily.

The smiling secretary-treasurer emerges, puts an arm around the young reporter's shoulders and leads him inside, ignoring the demands of the rival reporters for entry.

"Look, we might get in trouble if you sit down where they can see you," says the union officer. "You just stand back there -- behind that curtain off on the side. You can hear everything. Stay right there, OK? Right there."

It turns out the Teamster local's members are as anti-Hoffa as I had reported. The officers try mightily to explain how Jimmy had only their best interests at heart, but can hardly be heard over the angry shouts of dissidents,

But why, then, was I invited into the meeting? The curtain parts and I quickly find out. A burly guy who I'm sure is six-five, 250 pounds minimum, demands the notebook in which I had been furiously scribbling the choice comments of members regarding the character of Mr. Hoffa and what he could do with his plan. Naturally, I refuse.

He grabs the notebook from me. Naturally I try to grab it back, all five-ten, 155 pounds of me . I'm a reporter, after all.

Bam! Pow! Two rights to the head, Next thing I know, the big guy is pulling me up from the floor by my necktie, cocking his fist to do it again. But a nearby Teamster tackles him. Out the door I stagger and then, after a brief detour to an emergency hospital, into the Chronicle, noteless and bruised head throbbing, to write a stirring account of "shouting, angry truck drivers" voting 2-to-1 against Hoffa's plan.

The story was displayed prominently on page one. The story of my courageous action in covering the story was only a modest little item on an inside page. Ah, but I was page one news in the rival papers .

One paper even ran an editorial citing my heroic performance as evidence that "despite the hazards facing reporters, the American press is living up to its obligation to inform the people to the best of its ability."

A touch of uplifting movie music would be appropriate at this point, before turning to the final scene, in which Birney the police reporter is sent out in search of the villian. He soon finds him, a truck driver with a long record of arrests for malicious mischief and disturbing the peace. Just the man you'd hire for putting a smart aleck young reporter in his place,

But you know, I forgot to thank Jimmy.

Copyright Dick Meister