An unexpectedly enthralling academic account of Jimmy Hoffa’s tactics and aspirations, from Barnard College historian Russell.
Russell’s contention here is that Hoffa’s Teamsters—at two million strong the largest union in American history when Hoffa disappeared in 1975 (a case still open at the FBI)—was a strictly economic mission without ideological subtleties, a union on the prowl for material improvements over social transformation. And to a large extent he succeeds by demonstrating that the Teamster’s power base—nonintellectual, native-born, craft-hierarchical WASP truckers—were devoid of any radical tradition, making them wary of political struggles and manipulable by state agencies seeking to depoliticize union activity. Helping to shape Hoffa’s approach were the surrounding social forces, from the rough terrain of an unregulated, amoral economy of Depression-era Detroit to the crusade against the Teamster boss led by Bobby Kennedy, as Christian moralist, and Walter Reuther, as corporatist ideologue. Russell understands that Hoffa was distrustful of all forces outside the Brotherhood—from the State to other unions—not out of paranoia, but by realizing they were as self-serving as he was in looking out for his rank and file; as such, he knew they could likely be bought or compelled to do business, usually at the end of a blackjack or from a conveniently placed stick of dynamite: “punish your enemies, buy your friends.” His accessibility to members and his ability to deliver on contracts made him a workingman’s hero; when it came to wages, hours, and working conditions, the Teamsters far outstripped their union competition. But the arrangements Hoffa entered into—organized-crime contacts, crooked pols, financial shenanigans—were a far cry from the political aspirations that fired the notion of One Big Union.
Perhaps more than anything, Russell’s history of the Teamsters under Hoffa illustrates the vibrancy of the labor movement—for better or worse—during the middle 50 years of the 20th century. (8 pages of photographs, not seen)