Jimmy Hoffa unquestionably ranks as a dominant figure in the annals of American organized labor, and very likely the most memorable as well. The late Teamster leader ruled his union with a combination of energy, charisma and autocracy, and the last thing anyone wanted was to cross him the wrong way. Some did and paid a price. A new book, Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster’s Story (Borealis Books), recalls just how unpleasant things could get for those who challenged him or his allies. Author Steve Harper recreates the world of his father, Jim Harper, an insurgent member of Teamster Local 544 in Minneapolis. The elder Harper, who died at age 73 in 2001, for a brief time, during 1959-61, posed a real threat to Hoffa’s dominance. The book, aside from serving as an invaluable social history of the labor movement, also is a cautionary tale of the difficulties of reforming a union from within, whether or not going through proper channels.
Hoffa was a native of the Detroit area. That’s where he grew up, organized and fought before coming to Washington. It is also, needless to say, where he “disappeared.” But Minneapolis legitimately could lay claim to being the birthplace of the modern Teamsters. And Hoffa’s connection to that city was more than ephemeral. In 1934, during the heart of the Depression, a fiery young Teamsters organizer in Minneapolis, Farrell Dobbs, an avowed Trotskyist socialist, led a general strike that grew out of a Teamsters strike. A riot broke out ten days later. It was a bloody affair; several Teamsters beat to death two special deputies. The next day police sent in an armed convoy to escort a truck filled with strikebreaking workers. Unarmed strikers blocked the convoy. To end the standoff, police fired on strikers, killing two and wounding dozens more. Several months later, after Minnesota’s governor had declared martial law, employers began to give in. Dobbs then hit upon an idea. Sensing that long-distance hauling between cities was the future of the trucking industry, he sought to win contracts requiring all drivers coming into Minneapolis terminals, plus all warehousemen at the terminals, to be covered by a uniform contract. He took that idea to other cities, creating a Teamster lock on a growing portion of the nation’s intercity trucking. With the new National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (enacted in part as a response to the Minneapolis riots) granting exclusive representation to unions winning a majority of worker support, the Teamster future seemed limitless.
But successful organizing meant building a cadre of organizers. And in 1937 one of the men who arrived in Minneapolis to work for Farrell Dobbs was 24-year old Jimmy Hoffa. The young man was ambitious. “Hoffa was extremely successful in helping organize the locals,” noted the younger Harper in an interview. “Several years later, he was sent back by the Teamsters’ leadership, who were afraid Dobbs and his people were getting too big for their britches. This propelled Hoffa into the national Teamsters spotlight.” Hoffa was elected Teamsters president in 1957, taking over the IBT reins from Dave Beck, supposedly signaling a new era in transparency. It’s all but forgotten today, but Hoffa actually ran as a reformer. He aggressively announced his intention to clean up the union, then in the process of getting the boot for corruption from the fledgling AFL-CIO. A lot of people took him at his word. Hoffa projected a hard-as-nails populist incorruptibility, no small reason why the union now was adding about a thousand members to its ranks each week.
One of the people who initially found Hoffa appealing was a Minneapolis native, Jim Harper. Harper had served as an Army paratrooper. When he got out, his life took a turn for the worse, and he served a little over a year in Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Prison for passing $50 in bad checks. After his release, he went back north and found work as a driver for a Twin Cities trucking firm, Werner Transportation, and eventually joined Teamsters Local 544. It was well known that the union’s leaders were crooked. Acting on a tip from a friend that local President Fritz Snyder and his cronies were stealing dues money, Harper demanded an audit. With a true reformer like Jimmy Hoffa in power, he believed, the time was ripe for change. Come election time, Harper put together a slate of candidates to run against Snyder’s people. “To my father’s astonishment, all three of his guys won,” recalled Steve Harper. “He became the center of a gigantic cause that made front-page news in Minneapolis and St. Paul.”
Hoffa, for one, didn’t like the results. He personally visited Minneapolis and in no uncertain terms told Harper to cease all opposition. Harper refused. Soon he would get a strong taste of the kind of “reform” Hoffa really had sought. For 18 months Jim Harper and his wife received any number of death threats. In one instance, while outside a local restaurant, the couple was accosted by a mysterious man with a gun. The Teamsters already were under scrutiny by a federally-appointed board of monitors, and adding to Hoffa’s concerns, there was the looming possibility of a collapse of a major Florida land deal financed by Teamster pensions, bank loans, and funds from a businessman (eventually prosecuted and convicted) named Ben Dranow. He could ill afford media coverage of Harper’s challenge to the Local 544 leadership. But intimidation worked – at least with the local executive board, which concluded, “the evidence presented did not support the charges.” Harper’s days as a Teamster now over, he found work as a supervisor at the Minneapolis terminal of an Iowa-based trucking company. Hoffa would be destined for other places, in 1967 for a stretch in federal prison on charges unrelated to the Minneapolis controversy, and in 1975 for a permanent disappearance, courtesy of forces loyal to then-Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons, forces that included Tony Provenzano and other ranking members of the Genovese crime family. Jim Harper was watching television when the news broke about Hoffa’s apparent kidnapping and death. “They’ll never find him,” he remarked. He got that one right.
Steve Harper, now a Chicago-area lawyer, was only 7 years old when the battle for control over Local 544 was peaking. He can remember his father buying a guard dog and building a firing range in the basement of the family home. After his death in 2001, the younger Harper wanted some closure on those years. Writing a book would be the way to do it. “On my father’s side,” he said, “I wanted to know why a man who had a wife, four kids and a dog would persist in a crusade like this after the most dominant figure in labor at the time told him to stop. On Hoffa’s side, why would this gigantic figure in the labor movement, with millions of things on his mind – including federal prosecutors wanting to send him to jail – care about some inconsequential insurgency in Minneapolis? I wanted to trace each of their lives to the moment of their collision.”
He insists that while his father was opposed to the misuse of his union’s funds, he did not become anti-union. And despite his near-lethal run-in with Jimmy Hoffa, he retained a certain admiration for the man. “He (Hoffa) was one of those people, based on my father’s description, who had personal charisma,” said the younger Harper. “He was fearless and had gone through tough times in his early years. The working man could look at this guy and say, ‘He’s got guts. We need somebody like this.’ Even when he was being investigated, as far as working-class guys were concerned, the government was making the guy a martyr, throwing unprecedented resources at him to put him in jail.” All of this suggests that when a popular union reformer wins power, a little bit of due diligence goes a long way – and not just with the Teamsters. Steve Harper deserves credit for conveying this lesson as high drama. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 7/30/07).