Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg or Bernie Sanders vanished without a trace. Then we might grasp, somewhat, the magnitude of the disappearance of the man Robert Kennedy called the “second-most powerful in America”: someone whose power and influence was only exceeded by the president himself.

Yet, it’s likely that a great many people under a certain age would more than vaguely recognise his name. That’s despite his character cropping up in everything from literature (such as James Ellroy’s American Tabloid) to cinema (most recently, Martin Scorcese’s 2019 film The Irishman). He’s been played by everyone from Sylvester Stallone (fictionalised as “Johnny Kovak”, in the 1978 movie, F.I.S.T.) to Al Pacino (The Irishman) and Jack Nicholson (Hoffa, 1992).

As you’ve guessed from the last title, that man was Jimmy Hoffa.

As fictionalised in F.I.S.T., James Riddle Hoffa was a union hardcase who rose from the factory floor to lead the most powerful and wealthy labour unions in America. Yet, in a classic cautionary tale, along the way Hoffa went from being a genuine fighter for workers’ rights to a corrupt Mafia associate. Which is why, in the end, he disappeared without trace.

Although the exact details are not, and probably never will be, known, no one is in any doubt about the generalities: Hoffa was rubbed out by his Mafia associates.

Jimmy Hoffa – born in Brazil, Indiana on February 14, 1913 – was a labor warrior from a young age. With his father gone by the time he was seven and his last day in school coming at just 14, the young Hoffa was a manual laborer supporting his family before most other kids were graduating high school. And the labor world into which he entered was an especially unforgiving one […]

So it was genuinely an act of bravery when in the early 1930s a 19-year-old Jimmy Hoffa joined with a small cohort of warehouse workers to protest conditions on the job.

Hoffa’s union career grew and grew from there. Hoffa moved from an ad-hoc strike to joining a well-established if then somewhat obscure union: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Although they took their name from the fast-vanishing world of members literally driving teams of horses, the teamsters adapted to the modern realities of the transport industry. They recognised the young firebrand’s potential and signed him on as an organiser.

Hoffa was a standout success in the bare-knuckle industry.

The truly brutal part of the job came on the picket lines. Strikers and strikebreakers traded blows with bare fists, bats, and pipes. Jimmy Hoffa was, from the start, opposed to carrying a gun out of principle. Mob goons hired by businesses to break up strikes (in the early days, union men and gangsters actually weren’t aligned in the ways that they’d come to be at all) weren’t known for scruples on that count, but company managers didn’t necessarily want to order an out-and-out slaughter either […]

Hoffa fought hard in the most visceral and physical sense of the word and the muscular, five-foot-five organizer suffered dozens of injuries during his days on the front lines.

Many bosses weren’t averse to enlisting Mob enforcers to do their strikebreaking, but, through mutual connections, Hoffa established a relationship with Detroit gangster Frank Coppola. Just as the union movement was expanding and organising nationwide, so was organised crime.

In a parallel to legitimate industry and labor in the Depression-era US, North American gangsters, including Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and other famous Mafia figures, had recently reached a consensus over regional jurisdictions, forming a National Crime Syndicate with its own governing body and “laws.”

With mob muscle behind them, the Detroit Teamsters Local 299 and their allies drove the CIO-backed drivers’ union out of town. Hoffa’s ability to forge a vast number of ties with stakeholders all over the political and legal spectrum would remain a key to his success – while it lasted.

By the 1950s Hoffa was a vice-president of the teamsters nationwide. When president Dave Beck fell afoul of an anti-corruption committee, Hoffa was a natural replacement.

But it was a young-gun lawyer on the McClellan Committee who came to be Hoffa’s lifelong nemesis – a young Bobby Kennedy. The two loathed each other. Hoffa particularly despised the Kennedys as not just spoiled elite children, but complete hypocrites: their family’s fortune was made by their father’s Prohibition-era bootlegging and collusion with the Mafia.

Kennedy spent the rest of his life trying to take down Hoffa. Kennedy’s obsession came, in the public eye, to be yet another Washington witch-hunt (recall that Kennedy was a minor counsel on the infamous McCarthy hearings). The teamsters were one of the few unions to not back the John F Kennedy White House run in 1960. For his part, now-Attorney General Bobby formed his “Get Hoffa Squad”.

Finally, in 1967, Kennedy got his wish and Hoffa was imprisoned for five years. Eventually, after the teamsters contributed as much as one million dollars to Nixon’s re-election, Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in December 1971. But the commutation came with one big string: Hoffa was barred from union leadership.

In the meantime, the teamster’s new president Frank Fitzsimmons was getting along well with Mafia bosses, who had no interest in seeing the domineering Hoffa back at the helm. Senior Mafia figures even feared that a resurgent Hoffa would tip the Mafia balance of power and spark a mob war. Some mob figures privately warned Hoffa to back off.

This only enraged him. Hoffa began threatening to expose the Mafia connections in the teamsters.

Which would put a lot of powerful people under an uncomfortable national spotlight.

It also would have undoubtedly incriminated Hoffa himself, if he was serious about the threats, but Hoffa apparently overplayed his hand. And so, by late 1974 – though the stories are widely disputed and the truth may never be known for sure –[Philadelphia Mafia Don Russell Bufalino] reportedly authorized a hit on Hoffa, with Anthony Provenzano in charge of carrying it out.

And so, 30th July 1975, Hoffa agreed to a sit-down meeting with Mafia bosses at the Machus Red Fox, a restaurant in Detroit. It’s believed the intention was to use the restaurant parking lot as rendezvous point before proceeding to some other, confidential, meeting site.

No one apparently showed at the scheduled time. Hoffa rang his wife at 2:15, went inside and ate lunch, came back out, kept waiting and eventually went back inside the Red Fox and made a phone call to associate Louis Linteau from a payphone in the basement.

After that, Jimmy Hoffa was never seen or heard from again.

All That’s Interesting

His final resting place is anyone’s guess. One persistent myth was that he was buried underneath the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, which was being built at the time. But when the stadium was torn down in 2010, no human remains were found. A landfill in New Jersey turned up nothing. One theory claims that his body was stashed inside a car which was compacted and sent to Japan as scrap metal.

Despite a lengthy FBI investigation, Hoffa’s body was never found. He was formally declared dead in 1982.

Later, his son, James P Hoffa, headed up the teamsters. He ran on an explicit promise to finally rid the teamsters of Mafia influence.

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In the last decade...