Return to The Works

The Hoffa Wars:
The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa

By Dan E. Moldea

Chapter One

In Search of Jimmy Hoffa

Copyright © 1978 by Dan E. Moldea

     Jimmy Hoffa's most valuable contribution to the American labor movement came at the moment he stopped breathing on July 30, 1975.  The involuntary act occurred in the midst of his dramatic bid to recapture the general presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which he had lost during nearly five years in prison.  Still popular among reporters with short memories who insisted upon portraying him as a working-class hero, and among rank-and-file admirers who had forgiven him for stealing from them, Hoffa nevertheless had slim chances for a comeback.

     Convicted in two separate trials of jury tampering and defrauding the union's pension fund, Hoffa had become an outsider to the Teamsters' high command when he entered Lewisburg Penitentiary in March 1967.  His union problems began in less than a month, when he and his successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, disagreed over a political appointment.  The increasingly bitter war between the two old friends lasted until Hoffa died, and it was to be carried on by Hoffa's supporters even after he was gone.

     In 1967, Fitzsimmons suddenly inherited the uncontrollable monster Hoffa had created over the past twenty-five years:  an alliance between the union and organized crime.  Introduced to the underworld by a lover in the 1930s, by the 1940s Hoffa was asking for and getting muscle from the mob in a war with a rival union.  He began using the Teamsters to provide his new allies with a facade of legitimacy, even for the international narcotics traffic, of which Detroit was a major center.  In return Hoffa became rich and powerful, and so did the IBT.  Wealth and power led to a second alliance, this one with corrupt politicians.  The general public and the rank-and-file Teamsters, especially those who drove their own trucks, suffered from the two alliances.

     Unable and unwilling to battle the underworld, Fitzsimmons promptly decentralized the autocracy Hoffa had used to build his empire, hoping to insulate himself from direct contact with organized crime.  Among the immediate benefactors of Fitzsimmons' policies were local and regional Teamster leaders around the country, who acquired a considerable amount of new power in the two-million-member union.  Instead of clamoring for the attention of one man, Hoffa, mobsters merely had to call their area Teamster representatives for a favor.  Teamster bosses who cooperated became wealthy.

     Without the daily burden of defending his professional friendships with organized crime figures to the press and to the rank and file--as Hoffa had spent much of his career doing--Fitzsimmons used his free time backing up his union subordinates and making new friends in politics and big labor.

     Things were going well for the IBT under Fitzsimmons.  Its first-and-second level officials were happy, and so was the National Crime Syndicate.  Then, in November 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States.  Because the Teamsters had gone with the rest of organized labor and supported Hubert Humphrey that year, Nixon's election was bad news.

     Nixon had formed a quid pro quo alliance with Hoffa during his 1960 presidential campaign against John Kennedy, brother of Hoffa's archenemy.  Until he resigned to manage his brother's campaign, Robert Kennedy was chief counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee, which investigated the Teamsters in general and Hoffa in particular.  The extraordinary pressure Kennedy placed on Hoffa personally during the committee's hearings, combined with rumors that Bobby Kennedy would become attorney general if his brother was elected, led Hoffa to put his union at Nixon's disposal.  According to Ed Partin, a former Hoffa aide turned government informant, in September 1960 the crime boss of Louisiana, Carlos Marcello, contributed $500,000 to the Nixon campaign through Hoffa and his associates.  Within a few weeks after the alleged payoff, Nixon, then the vice president, managed to stop a Florida land fraud indictment against Hoffa.

     So when Nixon finally won the presidency in 1968, it was no surprise to Fitzsimmons and the Teamster leadership that he was considering an early release for Hoffa.  Unlike Fitzsimmons, Hoffa had supported Nixon in 1968 through his influence with remaining friends in the union.

     For Hoffa, however, problems remained and they would be his undoing.

     In Lewisburg he had made a prison alliance with dope trafficker Carmine Galante, the underboss of the Joseph Bonanno crime family of New York, which was in internal conflict over the line of succession.  Although other mob families had at first been neutral in the "Banana Wars," which lasted from 1963 to 1969, their attitude quickly changed when they uncovered a plot to murder two other New York crime bosses, Carlo Gambino and Thomas Lucchese.  Because Bonanno's son was implicated in the plot, the National Crime Syndicate's ruling council ordered the elder Bonanno to respond to the charge.  When Bonanno refused to cooperate and began to raid other underworld jurisdictions, he was expelled from the ruling council, which quietly began supporting the rebels in the Bonanno clan.  Fearful of mob reprisals and government prosecution, Bonanno arranged for his own disappearance, which lasted from 1964 to 1966.  While underground he made a coalition with two other powerful organized crime figures, Santo Trafficante of Florida and Carlos Marcello of Louisiana.  Moving his New York operations to Arizona--where he already had considerable influence--Bonanno, with his new friends, formed a triumvirate that rivaled the New York underworld forces.

    By making his prison pact with Galante, Jimmy Hoffa became a key figure in this North-South power struggle.  As president of the Teamsters he had had a close working relationship with the New York crime families as well as Marcello and Trafficante, but his ties to the latter two mobsters were exceptionally close and personal.

     After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro began throwing the American mob off the island, Marcello and Trafficante were among those exiled.  Both lost their best heroin and gambling connection.  Trying to recapture their lost territory, Trafficante and other gangsters--including Sam Giancana of Chicago and Russell Bufalino of Pennsylvania--agreed to work with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in a direct action against Castro.  Strong evidence points to the fact that the original middleman between the CIA and the American underworld was Jimmy Hoffa, who used the union's financial machinery for arms sales to both sides in the Cuban Revolution.

     There is solid evidence as well that Hoffa, Marcello, and Trafficante--three of the most important targets for criminal prosecution by the Kennedy Administration--had discussions with their subordinates about murdering President Kennedy.  Associates of Hoffa, Trafficante, and Marcello were in direct contact with Jack Ruby, the Dallas night-club owner who killed the "lone assassin" of the President.  Although members of the Warren Commission, which investigated President Kennedy's assassination, had knowledge of much of this infomation at the time of its their inquiry, they chose not to follow it up.  Marcello and Trafficante continued to support Hoffa after his convictions, offering bribes to a key witness to recant his testimony against Hoffa.

     But while the southern underworld remained loyal to Hoffa, the New York mobs were shifting their alliances to Frank Fitzsimmons.

     While Hoffa made friends with Galante and Bonanno did the same with Marcello and Trafficante, New York mob leaders began to realize that Hoffa's return to power in the union could wreck their business interests in the IBT.  If Hoffa began favoring the Bonanno-Marcello-Trafficante alliance in the South--and there was every reason why he should, since he knew he was being betrayed elsewhere--there was a very real danger of a breakup of the National Crime Syndicate, with its traditional allotted spheres of interest.  One indication of trouble to come was that in prison both Hoffa and Galante had brief fistfights with Anthony Provenzano, a captain in the Vito Genovese crime family, which had aligned itself with the New York families opposing Bonanno.  A New Jersey Teamster leader, IBT vice president, and former ally of Hoffa, Provenzano had been an active participant in the battle up to the time he was jailed.  He had ordered the locals under his control not to pay the Bonanno men who were on Teamster payrolls.

     Knowing that if Hoffa was released from jail he and his allies would retaliate financially, the northern underworld and pro-Fitzsimmons union leaders turned their attention to President Nixon.  Fitzsimmons' influence with the new President was minimal but the Teamster president did know Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, with whom he had numerous conversations in 1969.  It is reasonable to assume that the two men reviewed the situation between organized crime and the Teamsters Union, along with the underworld's growing internal problems; and that both men believed armed warfare could explode if Hoffa was permitted to return to power in the union.  The prospect must have been deeply alarming to an attorney general serving under a President who had promised the American public law and order.  At any rate, during 1969 the Nixon Administration balked at releasing Hoffa and kept him in prison.

     In February 1969, less than a month after Nixon took office, the Banana Wars ended, and the Teamsters and the mob began to neutralize Hoffa by winning over his allies in both groups.  Respected among all parties and put in control of the union's pension and welfare funds by Hoffa, Chicago underworld associate Allen Dorfman became Fitzsimmons' peacemaker.  His job was to be sure that every section of organized crime got its fair share of the union's billion-dollar pension and welfare funds.

     Hoffa's support within the underworld and among Teamster leaders whom the mob controlled dwindled steadily.  By mid-1971 the White House had forced Hoffa to resign all his union offices in return for an early release.  This set the stage for Fitzsimmons' election as IBT general president the following month, and for Hoffa's restricted commutation of sentence in December, which barred him from union office until 1980.

     The Hoffa issue had drawn the White House, the Teamsters, and organized crime closer together.  Although the Justice Department successfully prosecuted Allen Dorfman and associates of Marcello and Trafficante--all for misuse of Teamster funds--John Mitchell was personally responsible for numerous aborted prosecutions of underworld figures during his four-year tenure.  Several investigations of Teamster officials, including one against Fitzsimmons' son, Richard, were dropped without explanation.

     As a result, Fitzsimmons, the IBT's general executive board, and the mob gave Nixon their full support during his 1972 reelection campaign.  The only IBT board member who refused to back Nixon was named a White House "enemy" and had his income tax returns audited the following year.  Fitzsimmons became personally involved in a dirty tricks campaign against Senator Edward Kennedy, a potential challenger to Nixon.  Allen Dorfman chipped in a $100,000 contribution which he gave illegally to John Mitchell.  And after the Watergate burglars began blackmailing the White House, the mob came through in January 1973 with a million dollars in hush money--delivery arranged by Fitzsimmons, Provenzano (out of prison since 1970), and Dorfman.

     The press, which was concentrating on Watergate, did not notice for a while that Hoffa was patiently putting together the machinery for a comeback, which included a suit against the restrictions on his commutation.  Although the battle between him and Fitzsimmons was for control of the international union, the battleground would be their hometown local, Detroit's Local 299.  And in Local 299, as in the union at large, loss of support from both the underworld and top Teamster leaders left Hoffa surrounded by powerless allies, most of them rank-and-file loyalists who clung to the myth of Hoffa as their defender.

     Although grandfatherly Frank Fitzsimmons was more amiable and easier to talk to than Jimmy Hoffa ever was or could be, that image never seemed to filter down to the rank and file.  To them, Fitzsimmons was Hoffa's shoeshine boy, who was handed and did not earn the number-one spot in the union.  By 1974, caught up in the drama of Hoffa's possible return to power, the press had picked up the theme and forever labeled Fitzsimmons as he was perceived by the membership.  It was a bad rap to lay on Fitzsimmons, and it simply wasn't true.  Defensive about being compared so unfavorably to Hoffa, Fitzsimmons drew further away from the rank and file.

     In the years before he took over, Fitzsimmons had merely exhibited the loyalty that any subordinate should give his boss.  A tough street fighter in the old days, a man who had held his own in all the brawls with rival unions, Fitzsimmons was a streetwise former trucker whom Hoffa had trusted and depended upon since the thirties.  Perhaps that was reason enough for Hoffa to make Fitzsimmons his successor, but according to a Teamster official who was close to both men, Fitzsimmons was the Detroit underworld's choice.  Certainly he was no stranger to the mob.  The succession was allegedly arranged after Hoffa appealed to Detroit's top don to get rid of a local gangster who was having an affair with his wife.  Soon after Josephine Hoffa's lover was sent to jail for stock fraud, Hoffa named Fitzsimmons his heir apparent.

     Hoffa never operated in the heroic vacuum that was glamorized throughout his career.  His successes and failures were in large part determined by who his friends and enemies were at each point in his life.  Beside Fitzsimmons, two other men were of special importance in his rise to power:  Dave Johnson and Rolland McMaster.  Dissident truckers who, along with Fitzsimmons, joined and cleaned up Local 299 in 1935, Johnson and McMaster were major reasons for Hoffa's early victories.  As his two top organizers, they were probably more responsible than anyone else, even Hoffa, for pulling the entire midwestern trucking industry into the Teamsters during the 1940s and 1950s.  They were partners who battled strikebreakers and rival unions on the front lines while Hoffa was by then sitting behind a desk calling the shots.  Rewarded with top positions in the local--Johnson as recording secretary and McMaster as secretary-treasurer--they kept Local 299 functioning after Hoffa and Fitzsimmons went to Washington to run the IBT from its new headquarters.  And when Hoffa and Fitzsimmons began their power struggle, no two people were more vital to it than Johnson and McMaster.

     McMaster was the reason for the split between Hoffa and Fitzsimmons.  It was his appointment as chief executive officer of Local 299 after his release from an extortion sentence that Hoffa protested from jail.  Hoffa, who had decided that McMaster was probably a government informant, wanted Johnson, now secretary-treasurer, to hold major power in the local as his most trusted lieutenant.

     One of the most serious problems Hoffa faced during his tenure as general president was the isolated pockets of rank-and-file resistance that challenged his leadership.  Handfuls of bold rebels kept organizing in cities on both coasts, throughout the Midwest, and even in Detroit, forcing Hoffa to buy them off or physically intimidate them.  But when new groups of reformers kept coming over the hill--some trying to overthrow their local union officials and others campaigning for decertification from the union--Hoffa had the IBT constitution revised to grant himself absolute control.  Later, it was the Hoffa constitution that Fitzsimmons used to keep Hoffa out of power.

     No match for the Teamsters' money and muscle, rebel movements struck hard but faded fast in the Hoffa years.  Without a national organization the reform groups were crashing their heads into brick walls.  Then, in 1964, Hoffa gave the rebels the organizing tool they needed by negotiating the union's first national contract--a master collective bargaining agreement for Teamster members all over the country.  From here on, all Teamsters would have the same conditions and the same timetable for protest.

     The first rebels to realize that Hoffa had handed them the common ground they needed were the steel haulers in Gary, Indiana, most of whom drove their own trucks and, as owner-operators, had long been exploited by the union.  Too late to affect negotiations for the 1964 agreement, the steel haulers prepared for a full-scale revolt in 1967, when the next contract would be negotiated.  That year, the dissidents staged the first national wildcat strike in Teamster history.  Giving Fitzsimmons his first major headache as acting president of the union, the rebels paralyzed the steel industry in eight states and affected the manufacturing of steel products all over the country.  The protest failed to win them any real concessions from either union or management, but they had proved their unity and shown Fitzsimmons that he was just as threatened by the rank and file as Hoffa had been.

     Formed during the 1967 strike, the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers, centered in Pennsylvania and Ohio, split from the union and became an independent bargaining agent--but only after a bloody shoot-out with the Teamsters in October 1969 and a second national strike the following year.

     An old hand at suppressing dissident uprisings, Rolland McMaster was appointed to handle the IBT's problems with FASH, but the owner-operators of FASH made a degree of common cause with the Detroit rebels and McMaster became increasingly unpopular with the rank and file.  Knowing that Hoffa was plotting against him from Lewisburg, McMaster sent him a threatening letter warning him to stay out of Local 299's internal affairs.  Outraged, Hoffa retaliated through Dave Johnson, who was ordered to get McMaster out of Local 299.  Johnson's opportunity came in December 1970, when he and one of McMaster's organizers had a fight in the union hall.  Johnson used the incident to have McMaster purged, and, to avoid mutiny in Detroit, Fitzsimmons went along.  Johnson became president of Local 299, and McMaster vowed to get even.

     Fitzsimmons had no intention of losing his top enforcer; McMaster remained the overall head of the union's battle against FASH.  He established a thirty-man organizing team which had a dual role:  to organize truckers and to watch Jimmy Hoffa after he got out of jail.  During the two-year history of the campaign, bombings, shootings, and sabotage were commonplace against both antiunion companies and Hoffa supporters.

     In February 1974, McMaster's national task force was disbanded after spending more than a million dollars of union money while organizing only 750 new members.  It had served primarily as a smokescreen to get employers to pay for labor peace.

     That same month, the owner-operators shut down nationwide for the third time in as many months, protesting fuel prices.  The massive demonstration also became a protest against Fitzsimmons, especially in Detroit.  Some of the leaders of the shutdown had aligned themselves with Hoffa, who was now promising them better conditions if he returned as IBT president.

     By now, Hoffa's open attacks on Fitzsimmons and his appeal against the district court that had sustained Nixon's commutation restrictions had alarmed both the Teamster high command and the mob.  In mid-1974, according to a former McMaster task force organizer, Fitzsimmons gave McMaster a "blank check" to make sure Hoffa did not return to power in Local 299, the necessary stepping stone to the IBT presidency.  Johnson had indicated that if Hoffa's court battles were successful he was willing to give Local 299 to Hoffa.  Thus Fitzsimmons' major target was Dave Johnson, Hoffa's only hope of regaining control.

     Soon after the blank check was issued, Johnson's cabin cruiser was bombed at its mooring behind his home on Grosse Ile, near Detroit.  The leading suspect in the government's investigation was a former member of McMaster's organizing task force.

     With pressure mounting on Johnson to resign and forsake Hoffa, Richard Fitzsimmons announced that he was planning to run against Johnson for Local 299 president; he had earlier replaced his father as the local's vice president, a position the elder Fitzsimmons had held since 1946.  McMaster was running as Richard Fitzsimmons' vice presidential candidate.  With violence spreading as the election approached, the Detroit joint council proposed and Local 299's executive board agreed to bring the Hoffa and Fitzsimmons forces together in a coalition slate:  Johnson would remain president and your Fitzsimmons would settle for the vice presidency again.  McMaster was left off the ticket at Johnson's insistence.  But after one of his organizers had stalled the election for a month by filing suit against the local, McMaster came back and announced as a candidate for president against Johnson.  Furious, Johnson threatened to torpedo the coalition if McMaster remained in the race, and Fitzsimmons ordered McMaster to withdraw.

     McMaster's strongarm men shuttled in and out of Detroit--two of them living rent free in a hotel owned by McMaster's closest business associates--and violence against Hoffa supporters increased.  Then, on July 10, 1975--twenty days before Hoffa disappeared--Richard Fitzsimmons' union car was bombed.  The government's two major suspects in that bombing were the two men from the hotel.

     Possibly they were trying to stir up enough violence to give Frank Fitzsimmons justification for putting Local 299 into trusteeship--where it had been long ago, before the reformers, now rulers, cleaned it up.  Fitzsimmons could then bring in his own batch of new officers and close Hoffa out forever.  Or possibly the bombing was a theatrical device to set the stage--and confuse the audience--for Hoffa's disappearance.  A few weeks before the bombing, an interesting meeting was noticed at an airport near Detroit.  According to an eyewitness, two men climbed out of a private plane and were greeted by McMaster, who drove them away and brought them back several hours later.  One of the two men was identified as New Jersey Teamster leader Anthony Provenzano.  The significance of this meeting could be somewhat better understood a few weeks later.

     In mid-June, before the McMaster-Provenzano meeting, and a few days prior to his scheduled appearance before a Senate Select Committee investigating CIA-underworld plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, the Chicago mobster Sam Giancana was murdered at his home.  A trusted underworld informant who was close to him told a House committee investigating the CIA that Sam Giancana was executed by underworld associates who had also been involved in the assassination plots.

     According to a former Hoffa aide--later a government informant--who believes his boss was the CIA's initial go-between with the mob in the Castro murder plan, McMaster was Hoffa's liaison to Santo Trafficante during the planning of the assassination in the early 1960s.  Russell Bufalino had also been among the mob chieftains whom the CIA solicited for direct action against Castro, and Genovese crime captain Provenzano had in 1974 come under the jurisdiction of gangland leaders, including Russell Bufalino, who were now trustees of the Genovese family.

     On the final day of Hoffa's life, Bufalino was driven into Detroit early in the morning by Frank Sheeran, a Delaware Teamster boss who was a long-time friend of Hoffa.  Along with several union rebels, Sheeran was a co-plaintiff in Hoffa's suit against the commutation restrictions.  According to government investigators, later that day, Sheeran picked up three of Provenzano's men--Salvatore Briguglio, Gabriel Briguglio, and Thomas Andretta--at a nearby airport and took them to the temporary residence of Hoffa's "foster son," IBT general organizer Charles O'Brien.

     O'Brien had been working across the street from Local 299, where he shared an office and a secretary with attorney William Bufalino, Russell Bufalino's cousin, who was president of the Teamsters' "jukebox local."  By eleven-thirty that morning, both O'Brien and William Bufalino had left Teamster headquarters.  O'Brien was doing errands; Bufalino was making arrangements for his daughter's wedding.

    At one o'clock, Hoffa left his cottage at Lake Orion, Michigan.  He stopped to see a business associate, who had already gone to lunch.  Talking to an employee in the office, Hoffa mentioned that he was going to a meeting where Provenzano and Detroit mobster Anthony Giacalone would be present.  Arriving a half-hour early for his two-thirty meeting--which he apparently thought was to be at two--Hoffa had to wait and began to think he had been stood up.

     While the ex-Teamster boss fretted, O'Brien was with Giacalone at a nearby health spa, where O'Brien was picking up gifts for his children's birthdays.  Leaving the club at 2:25 P.M., O'Brien, federal agents say, then drove a car borrowed from Giacalone's son to pick up Hoffa.  He took Hoffa to the place he was staying, where Sheeran and the three Provenzano subordinates were waiting.

     Within a few minutes, Hoffa was dead.

     A government informant has said that Hoffa's body was then stuffed in a fifty-five- gallon oil drum and transported to an unknown destination on a Gateway Transportation Company truck.  Another underworld figure who cooperated with the government indicated that Hoffa had been killed by the same mobsters who had worked with the CIA during their plots to kill Castro.  He said very specifically that Hoffa's body had been crushed in a steel compactor for junk cars.

     On the day Hoffa vanished, Rolland McMaster was in Gary, Indiana, meeting with Gateway Transportation executives.  His brother-in-law, the head of Gateway's Detroit steel division, confirmed the alibi.

     On December 4, 1975, McMaster's brother-in-law and other Gateway officials appeared before the federal grand jury investigating the Hoffa murder.  They were followed by McMaster, Sheeran, and the three New Jersey men associated with Provenzano.  All five took the Fifth Amendment, as Giacalone and Provenzano had done earlier; all five were represented by William Bufalino.

     The Hoffa Wars is a history of power in the Teamsters Union; how Jimmy Hoffa got it, kept it, lost it, and was prevented from regaining it.  It examines the influences on his rise and fall by three of his earliest and closest union associates:  Frank Fitzsimmons, Dave Johnson, and Rolland McMaster.  And it shows how rank-and-file rebels, corrupt and honest politicians, and organized crime complicated the world of these four Teamster leaders.

     This is the story of the wars fought by and among the Teamster leadership; and how these wars led to the murder of Jimmy Hoffa--which perhaps resulted from his role in two political assassination plots, including one against an American President, as well as from his inability to give up the struggle for personal power.  Much of the story is told in the words of the participants themselves, through hundreds of hours of conversations and interviews in truck stops and union halls, in government offices and the storefront headquarters of rebel Teamsters.

     The narrative begins in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression.  It has national and international scenes and implications, but for the Teamster leaders themselves, it starts, as it ends, in Detroit.

Return to The Works