The Life and Legacy of General President Emeritus Hoffa
“I shook his hand!” “He remembered my name.” “He was always one of us.” “He changed my life.” These comments and hundreds more like them still can be heard at Teamster retiree meetings held at union halls and truck stops all across the country.
The man they speak of, who was regarded as a friend by some, a miracle worker by others and a brother by all, was James R. Hoffa, General President of the Teamsters Union from 1957 to 1971. The words are spoken with a sense of awe and reverence that has not faded in the long decades since he first took office. Few of us have the opportunity to impact the lives of millions of workers. Hoffa did.
Today, Teamsters everywhere celebrate the anniversary of Hoffa’s birth on Feb. 14, 1913.
Born the son of a coal miner in Brazil, Ind., and growing up in working-class Detroit as the economy took a turn for the worse in the country, Hoffa understood hard times and the fear of an uncertain future first hand.
Early on he decided he could help bring a better life to those he knew in the neighborhood and on the job. At 18, he and four young co-workers took on the large Kroger grocery company, striking for better wages and working conditions. After the success of the strike Hoffa caught the attention of Teamsters Local 299 and joined their staff in 1934. He became an ardent organizer, working long hours and taking every opportunity to bring new members into the union.
A natural leader, Hoffa’s role in the union quickly expanded to business agent, and by 1941, the 28 year old was head of Local 299. Hoffa’s vision for workers went beyond his local, so under the guiding hand of mentor Isaac Litvak from Local 270, he and another young leader, Bert Brennan from Local 337, began to seek ways to expand and improve labor’s status in Detroit.
His skills and easy rapport with rank-and-file workers broadened his popularity throughout the Central region, first on the Over the Road Drivers Committee, then later earning him a position as Trustee on the General Executive Board in 1947, and election to the board as a Vice President in 1952. Hoffa was elected General President at the national convention in 1957.
Always seeking to improve the lives of workers, Hoffa became a catalyst for change through groundbreaking events like the signing of the National Master Freight Agreement in 1964, which brought more the 450,000 workers and 16,000 companies under one contract.
While seen as a tough and effective negotiator for members, Hoffa brought labor’s voice to the public in other ways as well. He taught seminars at Harvard Business School and appeared on popular news shows such as Face the Nation, The Brinkley Show and Meet the Press. He also created a political education arm of the union called DRIVE to help members better understand labor issues and ensure they had a voice on Capitol Hill.
Hoffa loved interacting with the members and would frequently visit truck stops and freight terminals to hear what the members had to say. He would even stop to shake members’ hands when he saw them on the job.
Hoffa had an energy and charisma that inspired members and created a bond within the union. They would wait in long lines to shake his hand and bring young children to see him at rallies. He helped improve their lives, giving many the opportunities to buy homes and cars or have health care for the first time—opportunities they never forgot. He gave them hope and dignity and a chance to view their lives and their jobs with pride.
He was their man, doing the right thing at the right time for their country. They never forgot him. He was the man who introduced himself as “I’m Jimmy Hoffa and I stand up for the American workers.”