From International Socialist Review, Vol.27 No.3, Summer 1966, 121-126.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
HOFFA AND THE TEAMSTERS: A Study of Union Power
by Ralph and Estelle James
D. Van Nostrand. 430pp. $6.95
“If one strolls through Greenwich Village in downtown New York one will eventually come upon the narrow, dingy building which houses the headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party ... Up two flights of rickety stairs at 116 University Place one finds the ramshackle office of Farrell Dobbs, leader of the Party and little-known candidate for President of the United States in 1960.
“This now-obscure man and his tiny organization provide the key to understanding the emergence of Jimmy Hoffa and the origin of many of his methods and beliefs. Although Hoffa has not spoken to Dobbs for over twenty years, his public speeches and private conversations still give Dobbs credit for the institutional framework and imaginative ideas which have grown famous as Hoffa’s collective bargaining trademarks.
“Dobbs served as the guiding genius behind the formation of the Central States Drivers Council (CSDC). Then, at the very brink of success, he stepped aside for a full-time career as a Marxist politician, creating a vacuum which was soon filled by Jimmy Hoffa. The CSDC became the vehicle which propelled Hoffa into national prominence.” – from Hoffa and the Teamsters, by Ralph and Estelle James.
Since the government first began its “investigation” of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters leadership some ten years ago, there have been a spate of books, innumerable magazine and newspaper articles, consisting in the main of tendentious and biased accounts of the issues in dispute. At long last there appears a book on Hoffa and the Teamsters whose claim of undertaking an objective appraisal is well merited.
This important book is doubly unique. Its authors delved into their subject with praiseworthy objectivity and the Teamster president gave them extraordinary access to union affairs. The result is a refreshing effort to present an unbiased study of the nation’s largest trade union.
Both authors teach economics, Ralph James as associate professor at the University of California and Estelle James as assistant professor at Stanford University. When they first met James Hoffa about five years ago, they seem to have approached him with somewhat prejudiced minds. Their initial attitude was perhaps due to brainwashing by the capitalist news media as well as to ignorance of the Teamsters’ side of things. Hoffa responded by challenging them to make their own investigation of the union and he offered to open the doors for them to get a picture they could never find in books. They accepted the challenge and he made good on the offer.
Across an extended period the Jameses found themselves in the thick of Teamster activity, either or both being involved according to the given situation. They went to the union’s 1961 convention where they also attended caucuses. Later they sat in at a meeting of the International Executive Board. Introduced as “assistants” to Hoffa, they observed contract negotiations and grievance sessions with employers, trustee meetings about pension fund matters and union strategy conferences related to these affairs. They talked with various Teamster officials and staff members through opportunities afforded by their free access to the union headquarters. Files were opened to them dating back through the Hoffa, Beck and Tobin regimes. All in all, they got a rather extensive picture of the Teamsters, at least at the leadership level.
Seeming puzzled by Hoffa’s frankness with them when “no assurances were ever given about the conclusions we would reach,” the authors state:
“Whatever his motivation, deep appreciation and approbation is hereby expressed to James R. Hoffa ... who had the courage to offer such novel exposure and who kept it up, no matter where we wanted to dig. Hoffa wanted us to get a feeling for being on the inside. And we most assuredly did.”
All was not beer and skittles for the Jameses, as an excerpt from their description of the experience will explain:
“The Teamsters’ criminal lawyers and several vice-presidents were virtually persuaded at one point that we were agents for the FBI, and a trusted staff member was instructed to ascertain whether I [Ralph James] actually had a university affiliation. On the other hand, many members of the Teamsters’ inner circle believed we had been bought off by Hoffa. The Justice Department seemed to agree with this consensus and refused to answer our questions on even the most innocuous topics, presumably for fear that they would be leaking information to the enemy. We were frequently asked ‘who was paying’ for our transportation and other expenses, the implication being that Hoffa must be picking up the bills. As a matter of fact, we covered all costs ourselves; had it not been for our shoestring budget we would have accompanied Hoffa on additional trips.”
After noting that a few of Hoffa’s associates became convinced they were trying to do an honest, objective job, the authors add:
“The purpose of this book is neither to praise nor to damn Jimmy Hoffa. Rather we wish to contribute to a greater understanding of one of our most powerful and least comprehended public figures – the president of the country’s largest union, a man who was made notorious by the McClellan Committee eight years ago and whose name is now a household word.”
Looking into the Teamsters from the outside and with little background experience in unionism, they have done remarkably well in digging out the facts and presenting them in an unbiased manner. If more writers from academic circles tended to emulate their objectivity when dealing with the labor movement, it would represent a gain for historic and social truth.
The political climate in which the Jameses carried out the project is reflected in their presumption that the Justice Department looked upon the Teamsters as “the enemy.” There are ample grounds for the presumption. Beginning in 1957 the McClellan Committee of the US Senate conducted a two-year smear attack on the Teamsters, using Hoffa as the central target. The Justice Department followed through with six felony indictments against Hoffa and other Teamster officials. First came trials on bribery and wire-tapping charges, both resulting in acquittals.
The next attack took the form of an indictment for mail fraud which was dismissed by the court. Prosecution for allegedly taking a payoff from an employer resulted in a mistrial. Convictions were finally obtained against Hoffa and other defendants, in one case on jury-tampering charges and, in a separate one, for alleged fraud in administering the Teamsters’ pension fund. In both instances the convictions have been appealed and the cases are now pending before higher courts.
Parallel events have demonstrated that the government’s vendetta against Hoffa and the Teamsters is actually aimed at the whole labor movement. A case in point is enactment of the anti-labor Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin law. The whole attack – smear campaign, felony prosecutions, anti-labor laws and all – seems designed to make every union official fearful of governmental persecution if he gets out of line. It hasn’t worked with the Teamsters who have fought back as best they seem to know how. But it got swift results with Meany, Reuther and the rest of the craven heads of the AFL-CIO. They violated the most elementary principles of labor solidarity by rushing to expel the Teamsters from the AFL-CIO as soon as the capitalist government opened its assault on that union.
In refreshing contrast, the Jameses brushed aside the propaganda smear and sought to dig out the facts for themselves, especially in the case of the Teamsters’ pension fund.
“We have not been trained as detectives,” they write, “nor do we possess the vast supply of men and money with which the Justice Department and its 29 grand juries have investigated every action of the Pension Fund in recent years. We are not seeking to uncover crime, but rather to evaluate the economic merits of a large, rapidly growing and unique investment program. Despite the various shortcomings in our knowledge, we believe we have pieced together the over-all pattern of this complex puzzle.”
They devote over 100 pages to the subject, buttressing their findings with detailed statistical tables.
Their conclusions about the government’s charges are worth quoting:
“In the context we have developed, the fraud indictment seems deceptive, and the resultant conviction both inadequate and unwarranted, for one cannot be legally defrauded unless one accepts the misrepresentation and acts in direct consequence thereof. A more pertinent description of the CSPF [Central States Pension Fund] investment problem emerges from a study of the loans granted: the entire program appears ill-conceived by any standard of financial soundness, and the trustees from both sides of the table [employers and union] are responsible.
“In fact, Hoffa long believed that this would shield him from prosecution on the Pension Fund issue; to indict him, he thought, the government would have to indict others on the board, and Kennedy would not dare to cast his political net so wide. Had Hoffa more clearly revealed the CSPF investment policies at the trial, the judge would probably have thrown up his hands and directed a verdict of acquital. Instead, Hoffa portrayed the Fund’s investments in glowing terms, and the jury found him guilty.”
These conclusions, which in effect render a verdict of not guilty, show both honesty and moral courage on the authors’ part.
Fair-minded though the Jameses strive to be, conceptions stemming from an academic background in capitalist economics creep into their evaluations of union policy. They appear to credit the capitalist thesis that unions must rely heavily on “forcing” workers to join up. Remarks about the Teamsters’ grievance procedure imply acceptance of the capitalist myth that arbitration of worker-employer disputes can be “impartial,” when in truth the class struggle knows no neutrals. In similar vein, they seem to think it valid for the government of the employers to impose legal bounds on the use of union strength.
Despite such misconceptions about the realities of class struggle, however, their study makes important factual contributions to the recording of Teamster history. I feel qualified to make that statement from personal knowledge since, as the book explains, I participated in Teamster struggles of the Thirties in the Mississippi Valley.
For years there has been argument within the Teamsters over who was “first” to establish an area-wide council. Behind the argument lies a desire by various individuals to claim credit for initiating this type of collective bargaining mechanism which laid the basis for the union’s present scope and power. The Jameses cut through superficial evidence related to formation of just any kind of loose area setup. They get to the heart of the matter when they say of the Central States Drivers Council, “This was the first, and for many years the only, example of area-wide bargaining in the Teamsters.” (Emphasis added)
They sketch out the development of centralized bargaining with employers through the CSDC and the use of leverage techniques in extending the union power from terminal to terminal. While Hoffa gets due credit for his role in bringing the CSDC to its present strength, account is also taken of the contributions made by the founding leaders of the CSDC. Hoffa’s efforts, as Teamster president, to extend CSDC policies throughout the trucking industry are described, especially concerning the 1964 national contract for intercity and local cartage workers.
Primarily the book is a study of Teamster leadership with sparse mention of the rank and file. This is not necessarily, or fully, explained by an assumption that the authors deliberately chose Hoffa as their central theme. “It is always an intriguing intellectual game,” they write, “to speculate on the importance of personalities in history.” Although valid enough up to a certain point, such intellectual preoccupation risks something else: a deformed view of the interrelationship between subjective and objective factors, also between leaders and ranks.
“Underlying Hoffa’s collective bargaining policy has been a vision of power aggrandizement for himself and the union,” they assert, “the building of an industry-wide contractual structure under a single unified command – his own.”
Here the appraisal of a subjective factor, Hoffa’s personal ambitions, gets mixed up with the objective role of the union itself. Implicitly, an organizational form developed historically for working class defense against capitalist exploitation, in this case the Teamsters union, becomes categorized as a mere instrument of “power aggrandizement.” Through erroneous lumping together of Hoffa and the union, the authors miss the real point. Evidence revealed by their study indicates that Hoffa tends to identify the union with himself more than himself with the union. And a tendency of that nature violates correct principles in leadership-membership relations.
Healthy, constructive relations between leaders and members must be based upon mutual understanding, confidence and trust, along with reciprocal cooperation in carrying forward the aims of the organization. These needs, in turn, require democratic patterns throughout the whole organizational structure. Leaders should be democratically selected and subject to replacement at every level in the leadership apparatus. There should be union democracy in deciding policies and union discipline in carrying them out, with the exercise of leadership authority remaining subject to critical review before the rank and file. These conceptions are different from Hoffa’s methods which the Jameses describe and characterize as a tendency toward “one-man operation.” Comparison of 1938-39 methods in the CSDC with those employed today should help to throw further light on the subject. Take, for instance, contract negotiations and grievance procedures.
Not much goes on in industry that the workers don’t know about, including what the employers may think are their private trade secrets. As a body, therefore, workers have rich practical knowledge of their industry. They know what material gains they can realistically demand in a given situation and experience has taught them how the employers will try to wriggle out of meeting their demands. It follows that involvement of the union ranks must be an integral part of fully meaningful contract negotiations. Leaders are not elite thinkers who divine what is necessary and possible and, like Moses, miraculously guide the ranks into the promised land. Their task is to help the workers classify and generalize their demands and to take the initiative in fighting to establish, maintain and strengthen union control on the job.
That’s the way we went about it in the 1938-39 Teamster campaign to establish centralized bargaining and uniform contract terms for over-the-road drivers in the Central States area. Moreover, all employers looked alike to the union area committee. None were subjected to special demands, nor did any receive special favor. As against all employers, the union forces stood in full solidarity, maintaining fair and equitable internal union relations in an open and aboveboard manner.
A much different concept emerges from the Jameses’ description of Hoffa’s methods. To quote them in part:
“Hoffa’s bargaining strategy is a sequence of power maneuvers and propaganda steps designed to steer the rank and file, local union officials, and management toward his predetermined end ... He reminds the employers that he is an eminently reasonable man, but the passionate rank-and-file feeling must be deferred to ... He establishes an aura of complicity by revealing inconsequential tidbits about his problems with local union leaders ... Simultaneously, a very different picture is conveyed to the local Teamster leaders and membership ...
“He portrays the employers as harsh, uncompromising, and struggling over many detailed points. He stresses the likelihood of a prolonged strike ... As the showdown nears, Hoffa impresses upon the employers that they must think ‘realistically’ and meet his demands ... Hoffa splits the employer group by playing off one interest against another ... In the face of these diverse pressures, threats, and promises, the employers capitulate ... Another victory is chalked up, and Hoffa’s reputation for invincibility is reinforced.”
The contrast between the two methods speaks for itself.
Hoffa still maintains what is known as an “open end” grievance procedure. The concept it involves, which had been developed earlier by Teamsters Local 544 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was incorporated into the first Central States over-the-road contract of 1938. The “open end” meant that the union maintained unconditionally its right to strike at any time to make the employers abide by the contract terms. Grievances were never submitted to a so-called “impartial” arbitrator.
They were never allowed to pile up without decisive union action, as is so widely the case among trade unions today. With instinctive working class solidarity, born from bitter experiences with chiseling employers, the Teamsters area committee of 1938-39 started from the assumption that the worker was in the right and the employer in the wrong. Nothing more than full compliance with the union contract was demanded of employers and nothing less was tolerated. As in everything else, all employers looked alike. They either complied with the contract terms, or else.
As the Jameses describe things, Hoffa has drastically modified union handling of the “open end” grievance procedure.
“Here particularly,” they say, “he has built the stage on which to demonstrate his flair for the dramatic, his love of intrigue, and his grasp of the intricacies of motor freight. Every three months Hoffa assembles management and union representatives at a Chicago hotel for a grievance-settling ritual ... When the routine cases are out of the way, Hoffa bursts into the room, demands to know the remaining problems, and quickly solves them.
“In regular grievance cases, neither union nor management representatives dare to question his interpretations; in complex change-of-operation sessions, all rely on him to reconcile the conflicting interests of employers, local chieftains, and workers. Meetings are often halted until Hoffa is available for consultation. Then, head cocked, deliberating only a moment, he launches upon a series of unchallenged explanations. The onlooker becomes aware that here lies the center of power for the entire show.”
The change in concepts, as described, is not for the better.
Hoffa’s political limitations as a trade union leader are reflected in what the authors term his “bread and butter” philosophy. He has been unable to rise above peanut politics with Democratic and Republican office holders. The limitation has been very costly to the Teamsters. Restrictive laws passed by the capitalist politicians have weakened the Teamsters’ inherent power to defend their class interests. A nine-year vendetta has been waged against them by the capitalist government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. To a politically class-conscious worker the answer to these attacks is self-evident. The Teamsters should take the lead in breaking with capitalist politics and launching an independent labor party. Their perspective should be to build a class political movement oriented toward the workers taking governmental power away from the capitalists.
Such a shift in policy would take more than a change of mind on Hoffa’s part. The whole official machine in the Teamsters is entangled in horse-trading ties with capitalist politicians at all levels of government, where-ever they can swing a “sweetheart contract,” to use a union term. To cut the union loose from this crippling entanglement, it will take a major upheaval in the ranks. Such an upheaval is in the making under the worsening objective conditions of the times, and those who lead it will have to be tied closely to the union ranks in a thoroughly democratic way.
The book concludes with comment on current speculation as to who will take Hoffa’s place if he goes to jail. Like everyone else, probably including Hoffa himself, the authors don’t know for sure. Only one thing does seem certain on this point. Whoever heads the Teamsters, he had better have the courage of a Hoffa and, in addition, possess sufficient political class consciousness to meet the needs of changing times. Otherwise he may not have a very prolonged term in office.
In 1941 a fight developed between Daniel J. Tobin, then president of the Teamsters, and Local 544 in Minneapolis, led by members of the Socialist Workers Party. Tobin demanded that the local surrender its autonomous rights and submit to arbitrary rule by a trustee of his designation. The local rejected his demand and fought back, but in the end Tobin succeeded in taking dictatorial charge of its affairs.
The conflict had its roots in policy differences about the impending entry of the United States into World War II. Tobin supported such entry, the Local 544 leaders opposed it. No purely trade union issues were involved, except as they came up tactically in the struggle stemming from the basic question of war.
Tobin flooded Minneapolis with his henchmen and, in the battle that followed, he got support from the mayor of Minneapolis, the governor of Minnesota and the president of the United States. At the height of the conflict, leaders of Local 544 and of the Socialist Workers Party were indicted under the Smith Act, a thought-control law. Eighteen were convicted and, after losing an appeal to the higher courts, were compelled to serve terms in federal prison.
Clearly this episode in Teamster history had political implications reaching beyond purely trade union questions. It is, therefore, surprising that the Jameses treat it rather superficially and even quite one-sidedly in their book. One gets the impression that they fail to perceive the true political dimensions of the subject, and that they tend to view it as more or less a side issue in essential Teamster history. A reading of a further article on the 1941 struggle by the same authors  fails to change that impression.
Important facts are missing from their presentation. Some of the facts reported are misinterpreted, not in my opinion deliberately, but most likely because they are examined out of context from the full factual story. Here is an example:
“At first (1935-1936), Tobin tried unsuccessfully to suppress them [the leaders of the Minneapolis local]. Then he bided his time until 1941, when, in the most dramatic exception to his non-interventionist policy, he expelled them from the Teamsters ...”
The first part of the quotation is accurate. In 1935 Tobin revoked the local union’s charter with the International, but in 1936 he was compelled to reinstate it. The next passage in the quotation, however, can only be interpreted as an arbitrary deduction by the authors, or as their acceptance of an unverified assertion by some apologist for Tobin. A series of ascertainable facts challenge the flat statement that “he [Tobin] bided his time until 1941.” Lacking these facts, the Jameses give the impression that, ever since 1936, Tobin had just been looking for a chance to crack down on Local 544. They slur over the whole question of subsequent working relations between Tobin and the Minneapolis local, for example, during the over-the-road campaign. The fallacious notion is implied that the war question was little more than a pretext used by Tobin to help carry out long-held intentions, that it was not the basic issue behind the dispute.
Mistaken appraisals of this kind generally result, even though unintentionally, from hasty and oversimplified conclusions about complex questions. It would seem better to go a bit slower in undertaking objective analysis of such an important question, at least until there has been more thoroughgoing research of the kind the Jameses demonstrate elsewhere in their valuable study of Hoffa and the Teamsters.
1. The Purge of the Trotskyites from the Teamsters, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol.XIX No.1, March 1966, pp.5-15.
Last updated: 21.1.2006