Skip to main content

See also:

Hoffa

Movies are meant to entertain. Occasionally they can also educate. In order for a movie to educate authentically it must be factual. If it is not factual it distorts the truth of the events and creates a false history. Movies are universal to public opinion. A historical event that is dramatized in a movie has the potential to influence public opinion whether accurate or not. Nicholson portrays Hoffa in the movie Hoffa (Mamet, 1992) . The events of the movie are representations of actual events and the characters are illustrations of the genuine people who worked with and around Jimmy Hoffa (Tunzelmann, 2010). The movie Hoffa does not accurately portray the man who organized the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters and thus distorts history.

What is this all about?-slide0
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: celebration for leading women in Washington
Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for ELLE

In 1913, James R. Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana, a coal mining town. The times and the town were filled with vicious and illegal acts (Russell, 2001). Hoffa’s father died, according to Russell (2001), when Hoffa was seven years old. His mother, Viola, became the sole support for the family but working wages for a woman were very low and they barely survived. In 1924 she moved the family to Detroit, where Hoffa, after completing the ninth grade dropped out of school in order to work and support his family (Russell, 2001). This early and rough beginning to his life is not represented in the movie.

Mamet’s (1992) Hoffa, distorts the timeline of the factual events of the work of Hoffa. The strawberry strike was the first incident in his young life. At just 19 he was working the docks for Kroeger. The men did not get paid unless they were unloading boxes. The rest of the time they had to sit at the dock without pay for 12 to 16 hours a day. Frustrated by the treatment and the low pay Hoffa unofficially organized a strike. Russell (2001), documents the events stating, the men looked to Hoffa for direction, Hoffa laid down his crate and the men followed his lead. Hostilities skyrocketed until the night supervisor agreed to meet with Hoffa who presented the laborers grievances. Hoffa’s first foray into collective bargaining and negotiation was with Kroegers (Russell, 2001). The strawberry strike came first in Hoffa’s work; organizing over the road trucker drivers was next.

Hoffa’s ability to organize was valued by the Teamsters. In 1933 he joined the union and by 1937, at the age of 24 he was elected President (Teamsters, n.d.). From the beginning and throughout his career, Hoffa’s leadership style may be defined as a trait that he was born with. He exemplifies the five bases of social power including referent, expert, legitimate, reward and coercive (as cited by Northouse, 2013). This was evident in the movie, as he uses unorthodox persuasion with over the road truck driver, Bobby Ciaro portrayed by Danny Devito (Tunzelmann, 2010). Forcefully putting himself in the truck cab with Ciaro, Hoffa states, “All that I'm saying, there's a lot more there for us. It's right, it's just, it's due us, it's possible. The downtime pay, pay for deadhead and medical” (Mamet, 1992). These are important negotiation points for effective contracts (Fossum, 2012).

The violence that erupts throughout the movie is indicative of the man, Hoffa and the turbulent times. In the movie, Flynn, Hoffa and Ciaro, go to the Detroit Wheel Works to use a fire as a form of coercive persuasion in negotiating with the union. Flynn dies as a result of burns he suffers from the fire. This is based on an actual event in Pontiac when Frank Kerdorf, Hoffa and someone called Doc, went to the laundry “to show things were happening against the cleaning industry (Franco & Hammer, 1987, p.188). Kerdorf goes to the extreme that results in him being blown through the skylight. He later dies from his burns.

Before the Detroit Wheel Works incident, Mamet (1992) creates a dialogue between Flynn, Ciaro and Hoffa. In the scene the three men are sitting in the cab of a truck, Flynn states:

Jimmy's out there. Organizing. So the strength of collective bargaining protects the workingman. Some cocksucker won't organize, won't join, won't come along, lets his brother pay the price, but won't he take the benefits his brothers have accrued? You fuckin' know he will.

Collective bargaining is the representation of the members by the union in negotiating with management (Fossum 2012). The union negotiates the labor disputes with management in order to come to a fair and representative agreement. Laborers within the union benefit from bargaining but are also willing to go on strike to achieve the end result. Replacement workers often take the jobs of striking union members while they are on strike. Non-union laborers often receive the same pay and benefits as a result of the efforts of collective bargaining (Fossum 2012).

Hoffa writer Mamet (1992) includes in the storyline events that are very similar to the 1934 Minnesota Strike. The Teamsters (n.d.) describes the events of the strike, the workers wanted wage increases, shorter working hours and the right to be represented by the teamsters including support laborers who were not drivers. Women organized to support the strike with medical, food and picketing. The first episode of violence happened when strikers wanted to stop replacement workers. The employers wanting the strike to end agreed to the terms but in a few short weeks the terms of the contracts were not being met and the strike continued. On July 17, known as “Bloody Friday,” over 100 police officers shot into the crown of laborers. Two men were killed and 65 were injured. The governor of Minnesota declared martial law and order the National Guard to surround the union headquarters and arrest union leaders. This angered the laborers who marched in protest. Finally on August 21 union demands were met and a successful end to negotiations and the strike were reached (Teamsters, n.d.).

Although there is no documentation of Hoffa at the strike, Mamet (1992) puts him there. In the movie Hoffa’s anger at replacement workers is evident. As the trucker’s strike begins, Hoffa is doing everything in his power to get the replacement workers out of the trucks and onto the picket line. Mamet (1992) writes the sentiment in Hoffa’s words,

Why don't you team up with some people gonna stand by you? To the Kreger Company, you're just part of the truck.The minute they find a way to replace you... You fuckin' scabs! That's my job you're taking away from me! You think they're gonna be loyal to you, huh? Crossing over this line?

In their book, Franco and Hammer (1987), document many of Hoffa’s aggressive events and violent behaviors. He was a man use to getting his way and using whatever means he needed to achieve what he believed was right for the working man. Brandt (2004), records Hoffa stating, “My scalp was laid open sufficiently wide to require stitches no less than six times during the first year I was business agent for Local 299. I was beaten up by cops or strikebreakers at least two dozen times that year” (p.88).

Red Bennett, the character Mamet (1992) created to represent the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, gives an impassioned speech to the “friends of the laborers” during the truckers strike. The Bennett speech provides a contrast to the angry words of Hoffa. Mamet (1992) writes,

But if he is that friend of labor... But if he is a friend to labor, he's the only friend you've got! If he's got the scars on his knuckles, if he's got the muscles in his arms, if he's been out on that road, like you and me, then he's the only friend you've got!

The 1934 Minnesota Strike was an important event for the Teamsters and the inclusion by Mamet (1992) of a woman and her child are just a small representation of the women involved in union. Hoffa has a strong connection to working women. Both his mother and his wife were working women in laundrys. The laundry and cleaning businesses were not exempt from the organizing powers of the union. Women were the majority of laborers in these industries and were subject to even harsher working conditions and wage discrepancies than men (Teamsters, n.d.).

His fervor for the working class made Hoffa a tireless organizer for the Teamsters. He In 1947 he was elected Trustee on the General Executive Board. The Vice Presidency followed in 1952 and the General President in 1957. He remained President until 1974, even during part of his prison term. In the movie, Mamet (1992) creates a conversation between Hoffa and Ciaro walking down the street. Hoffa sees a truck driver with a flat tire and stops to help. The conversation goes like this:

“I'll listen to any man ain't afraid to get his hands dirty.” “First man I ever seen go out of his way to help a trucker change a tire. Someday this man will be President of the United States.” “Fuck that. Someday I'm gonna be president of the Teamsters.”

The National Master Freight Agreement is one of Hoffa’s most notable achievements. The agreement provided benefits to 450,000 over-the-road drivers and is considered by Teamsters Local 786 (n.d.) to be one of the greatest events in labor history. Thought to be an impossible task, Hoffa’s energy and ability made the impossible possible and raised the standard of living for Teamsters throughout the country (Teamster, n.d.).

Mamet (1992) fails to include the philosophy Hoffa and the Teamsters have toward civil rights. “Women’s rights, civil rights, the rights of migrant workers, as well as protections for minor, senior and disabled workers are just a few of the causes the Teamsters have taken up in the name of fairness (Teamster, n.d. para 2). During Hoffa’s time as President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters the organization gave financial support the civil rights movement. Hoffa refused to agree to segregation in the south’s unions. The movie fails to address the relationship between Hoffa and Martin Luther King Jr. The two sat together at the funeral of the wife of a teamster who was murder for her alliance with marchers in Alabama in 1965 (Teamsters, n.d.). This is a huge oversight on Mamet (1992) part in relating the character of Hoffa.

The movie provides very little introduction into Hoffa’s family life. The movie shows his wife daughter and son only once at a funeral, his wife Josephine at his inauguration as President of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters and packing for him to go to prison. Hoffa does not demonstrate the love he has for his wife or children. In the biography of his life, Hoffa’s daughter Barbara and son, James, give a portrait of their father as a loving and committed family man. Although he worked long hours for the Teamsters when he was at home with his family there was no doubt of his devotion (The Biography. 2014). This aspect to Hoffa’s character plays a valuable part in understanding his desire to help the laborers get the fair treatment they deserve.

The dialogue between Kennedy and Hoffa can be authenticated through youtube videos. The distaste for each other is well documented through Brandt (2004). Brandt (2004), writes that Kennedy was directing the most significant investigations, indictments and convictions into organized crime the nation had ever witnessed. Hoffa was at the top of Kennedy’s list. Months of hearings followed with over 1,000 witnesses being called. Most of the witnesses close to Hoffa were given the instruction to plead the Fifth Amendment. Mamet’s (1992) script is almost word for word the same as the youtube video (2014). Franco and Hammer (1987) put forth a multitude of evidence into the crimes that Hoffa was accused and convicted. There is sufficient evidence and documentation to support the accusations. In this, the movie Hoffa, portrays the side of the character of Hoffa that looked to almost any source for support in his cause to prosper the working man and the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters.

Quotes

“While working men and women have long known the value of a dollar - it is a lesson well taught to one who labors for a living - it has taken a long. long time to teach employers the value of a human being, and in many cases has not yet been successfully taught,” he said in 1964. “Few give thought to what happens to displaced workers, but they can analyze to the penny what the profits will be” (Teamsters, n.d. para 9).

“Organize. Organize some more. It is the way we can show the powers that be that they are not going to take away our wages, hours and benefits. Our voice will be too loud and strong to ignore,” he said in 1965. (Teamsters, n.d. para 11).

Hoffa was a powerful leader. He had a strong conviction to elevate the laborer into a quality standard of living. He was able to increase the membership of the Teamsters to 2.25 million. With this momentous support he could call a nationwide strike and stop interstate commerce. Hoffa worked to establish higher wages, benefits, pension and welfare funds (Franco & Hammer, 1987). The circumstances of his youth, the culture of violence during his coming of age, his desire for power and his ability to influence others led to his downfall. He may have made enemies with the Kennedy’s but if he had maintained an ethical standard that set him apart he would not have done anything illegal. His legacy to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was tarnished by his unethical behavior. This fact, Mamet (1992) provides some insight into, however, the movie does not do justice to the factual history of unions and specifically the reasons behind the behaviors of the union to establish fair and equatable treatment of human beings in the labor force.

References

Brandt, C. (2004). “I heard you paint houses” Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the inside story of the mafia, the teamsters,and the last ride of Jimmy Hoffa. Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press L.C.

Fossum, J. (2012). Labor relations: Development, structure, process (11th ed.). New York, NY. McGraw-Hill.

Franco, J. & Hammer, R. (1987). Hoffa’s man: The rise and fall of Jimmy Hoffa as witnessed by his strongest arm. New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press

Mamet, D. (1992) Hoffa

Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice. (6th Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN-13: 9781452203409

Russell, T. (2001). Out of the jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the remaking of the American working class. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Teamsters. (n.d.) 1934 Minnesota strike. Retrieved from: http://teamster.org/about/teamster-history/1934

Teamsters. (n.d.) A worker’s hero: The life and legacy of James R. Hoffa. Retrieved from: http://teamster.org/content/worker%E2%80%99s-hero-life-and-legacy-james-...

Teamsters. (n.d.) Civil Rights. Retrieved from: http://teamster.org/about/teamster-history/civil-rights

Teamsters. (n.d.) Teamster history visual timeline. Retrieved from: http://teamster.org/content/teamster-history-visual-timeline

Teamsters Local 786. (n.d.) Teamster history. Retrieved from: http://www.teamsterslocal786.org/?zone=/unionactive/teamster_content/tea...

The Biography. (2014). James Riddle Hoffa. Retrieved from http://biography.com/people/jimmy-hoffa-9341063

Tunzlemann, A. (2010) Hoffa: Devito shouldn’t have hassled the Hoff. The Guardian. Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/mar/11/jimmy-hoffa-jack-nicholson

Youtube. (2014). Bobby v. Hoffa. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsWVzTK0__s