Born in Detroit on May 19, 1941, James P. Hoffa is the son of the late James R. Hoffa, the infamously corrupt International Brotherhood of Teamsters general president who, during his 1958-71 tenure in that post, worked closely with figures from the crime underworld. In July 1975 the elder Hoffa disappeared mysteriously outside a suburban Detroit restaurant at which he was planning to meet with two mobsters. His body has never been found.
James P. Hoffa holds a degree in economics from Michigan State University (1963) and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School (1966). From 1968-1993 he served as an attorney for the Teamsters. In 1995 he exhorted his powerful truckers’ and blue-collar workers’ union, which had endorsed Ronald Reagan for U.S. President in 1980 and 1984 as well as his successor George H.W. Bush in 1988, to shift its allegiance to the Democratic Party.
In an effort to push the Teamsters leftward politically, Hoffa himself campaigned for the presidency of the million-plus member union in 1996. His opponent, incumbent president Ron Carey, ultimately won the election that November by a 52%-to-48% margin. But five months later, in April 1997, a federal grand jury announced that it was investigating allegations that Carey had received illegal campaign kickbacks and employer contributions during the previous year’s election. In August 1997, federal monitors overturned Carey’s victory, ordered a rerun election, and later expelled Carey from the Teamsters after finding that a number of his aides had illegally diverted to his campaign more than $700,000 in union money. Hoffa won the rerun election in December 1998 and took office in March 1999. He was subsequently re-elected to five-year terms in 2001, 2006 and 2011.
In 2005, Hoffa led the Teamsters out of the AFL-CIO and into the more radical breakaway labor federation, the SEIU-endorsed Change to Win coalition. During the years leading up to that split, the AFL-CIO had become increasingly radical. Then-president John Sweeney, a member of the neo-communist group Democratic Socialists of America, had rescinded a longstanding rule preventing Communist Party members from holding leadership positions within the federation and the unions belonging to it. Sweeney had also instituted the “Union Summer” training program which required its young participants to regurgitate Marxist boilerplate “that we produce the world’s wealth, that we belong to the only class with a future, that our class will end all oppression.” But none of this was radical enough for Hoffa, who also criticized the AFL-CIO for being insufficiently aggressive in recruiting new members. “In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers’ rights in this country,” said Hoffa. “The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach.”
By Hoffa’s reckoning, “Wall Street’s greed, stupidity and fraud” was chiefly responsible for creating America’s economic crisis of 2008. In the fall of 2011 Hoffa strongly supported the Occupy Wall Street movement, which excoriated the financial sector as irredeemably corrupt, and he boasted that Teamsters members “all over the country are participating in Occupy Wall Street events.”
When introducing President Barack Obama at a Labor Day rally in 2011, Hoffa shouted, “We got to keep an eye on the battle that we face: The war on workers. And you see it everywhere, it is the Tea Party.” “Let’s take these son[s] of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong,” he added. After the event, Hoffa told ABC News that conservatives and Tea Party activists “want to roll the clock back to about 1900.”
When Wisconsin voters in 2011 gave their Republican governor Scott Walker a clear mandate to cut public spending, Hoffa lashed out. In February 2011 he characterized Walker’s modest proposal that state workers shoulder a small percentage of the costs for their healthcare plans and pensions as “a vindictive attack” that was part of a “union-busting” campaign and a “one-sided class war.”
This profile is adapted, in part, from “Union Gangsters: Jimmy Hoffa Jr.,” by Matthew Vadum (November 2, 2011).