Martin Scorsese’s film “The Irishman” is set in the world of the most corrupt Teamster bureaucrats and their Mafia associates and revolves around the disappearance and murder of Jimmy Hoffa. Yet the film never really discusses Hoffa and the working Teamsters. I wrote a passage (below the image) to explain who Hoffa was in my book Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (London/New York: Verso, 1990). People who are mystified by Scorsese’s film might find this picture of Hoffa helps to understand what was really at stake in those days.
“The Teamsters in the freight industry in the 1940s and 1950s identified with Hoffa, and saw themselves in him. They were mostly white men who, like him, had grown up during the Depression. They had known what it was to be evicted because their parents couldn’t pay the rent, or to go without supper because the family couldn’t get credit at the corner grocery. They had seen the long, bitter struggle in the 1930s to organize industrial unions, even if they had been too young to participate. Little Jimmy Hoffa, muscular and crewcut, wearing his white socks and black shoes, proud and pugnacious, a little guy standing up for little guys, was one of them.
“It is true that Hoffa came from a working-class family, knew hardship, worked on the loading docks, led a strike, became an organizer, took his beatings and meted them out, and rose through the ranks to the top of the heap. That was all true. Hoffa was not a phony, and the tough swagger and dare-me pose that he struck were not merely a mask.
“But it was also true that he had been recruited to the union by labor radical Sam Calhoun, trained by revolutionary socialist Farrell Dobbs, and for years associated with the backsliding socialist Harold Gibbons. Hoffa, of course, never denied his association with men like Calhoun, Dobbs, and Gibbons, and in both his autobiographies he credited Dobbs with being an organizational genius. But what he did deny and ridicule was the importance of their ideas and their idealism. And that was the meaning of Hoffa’s tough guy pose; it was a denial of the importance of moral and political principle, and an affirmation that all that counts is power.
“While he was a popular and charismatic leader, Hoffa was also a union boss, a dictator who tolerated no opposition. He once screamed in open court that he would kill a man who had testified against him. He crushed local unions that fought for their autonomy and destroyed rank-and-file movements that rose to fight against him. He did it, he said, for their own good. A demagogue who could stir up class hatred without raising class consciousness, Hoffa never helped the Teamster membership to learn to think and act for itself. On the contrary, he imbued in the union membership a sense of dependency. He, Hoffa, took credit, and shouldered all the blame. Hoffa organized the union. Hoffa negotiated the contracts. Hoffa settled the grievances. Hoffa took care of the Teamsters until they could no longer take care of themselves. That was Hoffa’s greatest crime, greater than his own enrichment at the expense of the members, greater than involving the Mafia in the union, both of which were terrible evils. But worse still, Hoffa gave the Teamster members the appearance of power and the swagger of self-confidence, while depriving them of the only possible source of real confidence, the control of their own union.”