James P. Hoffa is stepping down as the head of the Teamsters. This truly ends a generation when the name “Hoffa” means “Teamsters,” for better or for worse. I was contacted by the Wall Street Journal to provide some comments on this transition.
Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and labor historian, said the legacy of the name Hoffa is synonymous with the Teamsters.
“A long era’s coming to an end,” he said.
Mr. Hoffa is the union’s second-longest-serving general president since the Teamsters began in the early 1900s. He oversaw ther evitalizing of the union’s finances and pushed for the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act that passed this year, which gives financial aid to pension funds. But the Hoffa name is still often associated with his father, who ran the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971.
Jimmy Hoffa’s tenure at the union—which has captured the imagination of Hollywood over the years, most recently in “The Irishman”—was marked by the senior Mr. Hoffa going to jail for jury tampering, among other charges. President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence. The late Mr. Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and was never found, despite a decades long search by law enforcement.
That’s not much of my interview that went into it, but I’ll explore this a bit more here. The Teamsters have a changed a lot in recent decades. Hoffa Jr. deserves some credit for that. Corruption is mostly out of the union, admittedly after 30 years of oversight. He helped keep the Teamsters a strong union with over 1 million members. The Teamsters still have a solidarity culture that is second to none in contemporary organized labor, especially in terms of supporting other strikes by sort of not delivering products to places being struck. There is legitimate critiques of Hoffa. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union dominated locals, including the one in Providence, are certainly quite critical of Hoffa’s leadership and demanding more militancy and organizing. But that also gets into the one of the unique thing about the Teamsters today–it is a genuinely democratic union. Very few unions have direct elections for union leadership. The Teamsters do. Hoffa deserves some credit for that.
So it’s a complex legacy, even outside the deeply problematic father, which is also a big reason why Hoffa Jr. had support in the union. Rank and file members wanting to tell the government to fuck off and leave them alone absolutely led to some of why Hoffa, a name that meant power to them, had appeal.