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Historial Present


The long and somewhat mythic saga of the Teamsters Union in the last half- century came full-circle last month when Jim Hoffa was elected its president in a government-supervised election. There's plenty of irony in that and in the union's recent history, too.

I went to work for the union in Washington 40 years ago as its magazine editor and press spokesman, as in "sources said." Its newly elected president was a 44-year-old named Jimmy Hoffa, and the ironies began. I had been hired four years earlier by the local Teamster leader, Harold Gibbons, who became Hoffa's campaign manager as they looked toward the 1957 union convention where Hoffa would decide to be a candidate against incumbent Dave Beck. As it turned out, there were a half-dozen other candidates, too, in case anyone has heard that the Teamsters Union wasn't too democratic.

In 1956, Gibbons assigned me to write a booklet about Hoffa's life because, he said, "not too many people know who this kid is." Despite the fact that in the same year Hoffa negotiated the first 12-state uniform contract in the trucking industry (later to become the first national contract), his star in the union firmament was in fact eclipsed by some better-known lights -- Frank Brewster, Bill Lee, Tom Hickey and Einar Mohn. The booklet was titled "The Name Is Hoffa."

Hoffa won that 1957 election in a wide-open convention whose outcome was uncertain until the veteran No. 2 man, secretary-treasurer John English, gave his support to Hoffa on the eve of the vote. Gibbons kept charts and graphs in his Miami Beach hotel room, mapping possible delegate support for the various men.

Imagine Gibbons' surprise when Bobby Kennedy, then counsel to the labor-baiting McClellan Committee of the '50s, called it a "rigged convention" and, in the ensuing controversy, the courts appointed a Board of Monitors to supervise the union. It lasted until the next election in 1961, when Hoffa was re-elected, virtually by acclamation. Does any of this sound familiar?

I returned to St. Louis after that and remained with the union until 1970; a short time later I joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch. But as attorney general under Jack Kennedy, Bobby kept up his attacks on Hoffa -- Kennedy always accused the union of being mob-dominated, and, in fact, some pockets in the union were in cities where the mob dominated their very cultures -- and their battles are legends in themselves. After several trials, Bobby won a victory on a charge that Hoffa tampered with one of the juries that acquitted him. And Hoffa went to jail.

When Hoffa had done his time, he announced he would run for union president again. By now, various successors to Hoffa in fact appeared to have succumbed to mob pressures, and Steven Brill's biography of Hoffa makes a convincing story of how Hoffa actually controlled mob elements in the union. A major irony in the saga is the unsolved disappearance of Hoffa from a Detroit parking lot in the early '70s, presumably a mob hit to prevent his taking office again.

By the late '70s, the Justice Department, once headed by Kennedy, negotiated a deal, offering amnesty to members of the union executive board in return for government control of the nation's largest and most active union. An apparatus of government lawyers and a new bureaucracy arose to run the Teamsters affairs. It decreed a new election by mail ballot from every Teamster member (a million-and-a-half) rather than voting by delegates, as is the custom in all large unions, not to mention the Democratic and Republican parties.

In that first election, government regulators ruled the young Jim Hoffa, son of the legend, ineligible for office because he was a Teamster lawyer and not an official. The government found a white knight named Ron Carey, member of a small dissident group within the union, who won the mail-ballot election.

Five years later the union treasury, once prosperous enough to mortgage the headquarters of the United Auto Workers as a sign of solidarity during a long UAW strike, was virtually broke, thanks in large part to the cost of paying government lawyers and the new bureaucracy. Carey in his one term had dismantled some key structures that had contributed to the union's vitality.

Then another irony arose. The government found that Carey himself had misused union funds in his quest for re-election; he was ruled ineligible, and a new election was ordered. This time the young Hoffa won an overwhelming victory, and the government couldn't do anything about it.

It was a sweet taste for Jim Hoffa and his sister, Associate Circuit Judge Barbara Crancer of St. Louis County, in their long battle to vindicate their father's name. It was a full circle no one could have envisioned 40 years ago, and a tribute within the union for the legacy their father left behind.

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