On Jimmy Hoffa's 100th Birthday, Still No Sign of Him

The body of the infamous Teamsters president has been missing for nearly 40 years.

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Today marks the 100th birthday of Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous Teamsters president who was last seen in 1975—and whose body has never been found.

[PHOTOS: Searching for Jimmy Hoffa]

While there's no absolute truth he is dead, few believe the legendary union leader is shuffling around an old folks home at age 100. U.S. News described the Teamsters as "a tough, aggressive [labor] union" and Hoffa as one of its "corrupt leaders" in a report published after he was last seen in a restaurant parking lot in suburban Detroit on July 30, 1975. Hoffa was there to make peace with Mafia leaders, according to the FBI. Fraud, jury tampering, bribery and murdered witnesses were among the list of charges brought against Hoffa and other union officials in the 1960s. Hoffa served four years in prison before President Nixon pardoned him in 1971.

While it's still a mystery whether Hoffa's body will ever be found, as recently as last year police searched under a Michigan driveway in a vain attempt to find him. Despite last year's disappointment, leads still come in. Former mobster Tony Zirilli told NBC last month that Hoffa's body was buried in a field 20 miles away from where he was last seen (it is unclear whether the tip was ever investigated). But still nearly 40 years after his disappearance, the Hoffa myth endures.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 18, 1975, issue of U.S. News & World Report.


THE STRANGE CASE of James Riddle Hoffa is focusing public attention once again on one of the nation's biggest and most powerful institutions - the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The Teamsters is a tough, aggressive union that has grown into the biggest in the country, with a reach that extends far beyond the trucking and transportation industries in which it began.

Airline pilots, local police, grape harvesters, brewers, social workers and seamstresses - to name just a few groups - now are represented by the giant union.

It's a union, too, that has been enmeshed in controversy for decades. Among its leaders have been some of the outstanding labor chieftains in the nation - as well as some of the most corrupt.

Violence has marked a good deal of its history - battles among rivals for power in the union, and warfare against those who fought Teamster leaders or organizational drives.

The Teamsters' connections span the nation - geographically, socially, politically. Some of its leaders have had ties with underworld figures. Some have called Presidents their friends.

Yet for all the publicity given the Teamsters, its internal affairs are shrouded in secrecy. Two decades of recurrent scandal and numerous grand-jury probes of its activities have prompted the Teamsters to draw away from the press, the public and the rest of organized labor.

Not even the imprisonment of two of the last three national Teamster presidents, however, nor the union's ostracism from most other segments of the labor movement, have lessened its growth or, seemingly, its power.

The Teamsters union, in short, is a labor movement all its own. To its far-flung organizers, practically every working American represents a potential Teamster. Long ago, the union cast aside the notion that it was merely to bargain for truck drivers.

(Sources: Teamster financial reporters, U.S. Dept. of Labor)

Today, the Teamsters union stands at a record high in membership and financial strength. Its 2.2 million members make it half again as large as the second-biggest union, the United Steelworkers. Only the United Auto Workers, with a huge strike fund, has greater financial resources at its disposal.

The Teamster formula for successful expansion is no secret. It's a combination of aggressive and well-financed organize workers other unions often ignore - and a reputation for getting results at the bargaining table for its members.

In 1974, the national union spent 8.5 million dollars on organizing projects. The 850 local unions that make up the Teamsters spent several times as much in money and manpower in the search for new members.

In the year that ended June 30, 1974, the Teamsters participated in one third of the 8,858 elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board to determine union representation.

The "little guys." No plant or office is too small to interest the Teamsters. Their magazine is replete with notices of organizing victories in tiny shops of all kinds - 10 ambulance drivers in New York City, a dozen printing-plant workers in Los Angeles, seven office workers for a Chicago scavenger service.

Few occupations are ignored. San Diego policemen have voted to affiliate with the Teamsters, as did police forces in Arlington County, Va., a suburb of Washington, and San Clemente, Calif.

The union now bargains for hospital workers in Chicago, bakers and egg candlers in St. Louis, bacteriologists in Crozet, Va., bottle washers in Tampa, dental mechanics in Philadelphia.

Sometimes organizing efforts get Teamster officials in trouble. One former union official in California, for example, wasconvicted of accepting a $10,000 bribe from farm businessmen to hamper organizing efforts of the rival United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez.

The growth in membership has meant huge sums - running into the billions - put aside in pension funds for workers. And it is alleged misuse of pension funds that has been the source of most grandjury probes into Teamster leaders, and resultant convictions.

Evidence developed by federal agencies points to loans from pension funds to underworld figures and to friends and families of Teamster officials. There have been cases of bribes and kickbacks - and of murder of witnesses for the prosecution.

Pension-fund money in large amounts has been invested in land-development projects, resort hotels, gambling casinos and other real-estate types of loans that financial managers of other pension funds might regard as too risky.

A special consultant to the Teamsters' Central States pension fund was convicted in 1972 of accepting a $55,000 kickback on a loan made by the fund. More recently, six officials were acquitted of other charges connected with the pension fund, but a federal grand jury in Chicago is continuing its investigation into other allegations involving peision-fund misuse.

The latest episode involving Jimmy Hoffa is likely to intensify investigations into Teamster financial affairs. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, probing into the Hoffa case, are expected to delve deeply into the turbulent world of the Teamsters.

Early start. Much of that turbulence has swirled around Hoffa. Born 62 years ago in rural Indiana, Jimmy Hoffa grew up in Detroit and led his first strike at age 18, when the Teamsters was still a placid organization of 95,000 local drivers, concentrated in such major cities as Chicago, New York and Boston.

Hoffa built his empire around Local 299 in Detroit with his wits and his fists. "If you went on strike," he later said, "you got your head busted. I was in jail 18 times within 24 hours. Every time I showed up on the picket line, I got thrown in jail. Every time they released me, I went back on the picket line."

As the Teamsters grew, Hoffa steadily climbed the steps of the union hierarchy, becoming national President in 1957. By then the taint of corruption had already been cast on the Teamsters.

Dave Beck, Hoffa's predecessor, was accused in hearings of a special Senate committee - run by Senator John McClellan (Dem.), of Arkansas - of taking gifts and loans from trucking employers. He later served a term for falsifying income-tax returns.

The McClellan Committee looked even more closely at Hoffa. It found that he had secretly speculated in Florida land that was sold to rank-and-file Teamsters in Detroit. He was acused of engineering the grant of Teamster charters creating bogus locals to be run by New York City racketeers in order to gain control of the union there.

"Hoodlum empire." The Senate Committee's conclusion about Hoffa: "Hoffaruns a hoodlum empire, the members of which are steeped in iniquity and dedicated to the proposition that no thug need starve if there is a Teamster payroll handy."

Indicted unsuccessfully many times, Hoffa was convicted twice in 1964 for jury tampering and for defrauding Teamster pension funds of almost 2 million dollars.

Though imprisoned in 1967, Hoffa did not resign from office until mid-1971. He was pardoned by President Nixon in December, 1971 - on condition that he remain away from unions until 1980,

Within minutes after Hoffa tendered his resignation, Mr. Nixon appeared at a Teamster executive-board meeting in Miami to congratulate Frank Fitzsimmons, a Hoffa disciple, upon formal elevation to the presidency of the union. A year later, the union endorsed Mr. Nixon's bid for a second term.

Mr. Fitzsimmons has not exercised the sweeping authority over Teamster affairs that Hoffa did. Acording to Teamster sources, Mr. Fitzsimmons has kept peace within the union hierarchy by giving the 15 national vice presidence autonomy to govern in their regions.

These vice presidents forced Mr. Fitzsimmons to repudiate an agreement he had made with AFL-CIO president George Meany in 1973 to end a jurisdictional war with the United Farm Workers. That repudiation only worsened relations with the AFL-CIO, which had booted the Teamsters from its ranks in 1957 for failing to rid itself of corrupt leaders, chiefly Hoffa.

Few unions relish a fight with the Teamsters over jurisdiction - or anything else. In fact, unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO have sought Teamster cooperation during strikes. The reason: Whether goods are trucked in and out of companies during a strike can determine its success or failure.

More rough stuff. Recent violence in Detroit's Local 299 has been tied by Teamster sources to Hoffa's desire to resume leadership of the union.In late June, Ralph Proctor, a Local 299 trustee and Hoffa loyalist, was savagely beaten by two men outside a Detroit bar frequented by union officials.

Days later, a union-owned automobile assigned to Richard Fitzsimmons, Local 299's vice president and son of the national union chieftain, was destroyed by a bomb outside the same tavern.

David Johnson, the elderly president of Local 299, set aside his retirement plans earlier this year and ran for re-election in order to thwart the hope of young Mr. Fitzsimmons to succeed him.

Before his disappearance, Hoffa had hoped to use Local 299 as a platform for challenging Frank Fitzsimmons for the presidency of the national union at the 1976 Teamsters convention. A bid by Hoffa to remove the ban against union activities is currently under consideration by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

Whatever the outcome of the Hoffa case, it is clear that more turbulence lies ahead for the Teamsters.