The Hoffa Thing

Let’s review.

I am on a quest to validate at least two of the things my mother told me when I was a young boy. One of these is not about having a guardian angel, which is another story she told me. It was meant to help assuage my fear of the dark. It didn’t work.

The two things she told me of current concern are 1) that my father appeared before a Senate investigating committee on which then Senator John F. Kennedy was a member, and 2) he survived a direct confrontation with the infamous former president of the Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa.

My renewed fascination in these tales of family history was sparked by the publicity surrounding the release of last year’s Martin Scorsese movie, The Irishman, which purported to tell the story about how Hoffa was murdered, and the far less publicized – but far more factually accurate – release of Jack Goldsmith’s book In Hoffa’s Shadow.

From Goldsmith I learned that there was a Senate investigating committee formed in 1957. Chaired by Arkansas Senator, John L. McClellan, the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management included John F. Kennedy as a committee member and his brother, Bobby, as legal counsel. It is possible that this is the committee mom meant in her tale of dad’s testifying at a Senate hearing since the McClellan people did investigate the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union of which dad was an officer in Union Local 37 in Los Angeles.

Goldsmith also mentioned Hoffa’s attempts to expand the influence of the Teamsters Union by organizing the shops his truck drivers served by either delivering or picking up product from those shops. Bakery and confectionery workers were prime targets as their own union was contending with an internal conflict that weakened their power and bargaining position. Hoffa, the true focus of the McClellan committee and Bobby Kennedy’s vindictive inquest, was offering a solution to their troubles. Dad, as part of a reform movement within the baker’s union, stood in opposition to those efforts.

Goldsmith’s book lent credibility to my mother’s veiled comments about dad’s career. This prompted me to do an on-line search about the existence of the McClellan committee’s records. The search results directed me to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website and my solicitation of help of the NARA staff. Their initial response was favorable but then the shutdown came as a result of the Covid-19 virus and my quest was put on indefinite hold for the duration.

Last week I wrote about finding three vintage newspaper clippings among my mother’s keepsakes. This occurred as part of my attempt to put my self-quarantine hours to good use by sorting through family photos and documents. Two of the articles reported on dad’s participation in a Federal court case, which involved the successful ouster of James G. Cross from the presidency of the Bakery and Confectionery Worker’s Union. This affirmed mom’s claim that dad did go to Washington, D. C. to testify, but not about his possible appearance before a Senate investigating committee.

Hopefully the NARA records will eventually provide some further clarification on this point. If dad did meet with the members of the Select Committee, then his testimony should be a matter of record and kept safe in the NARA files. Time alone will tell.

The third article was about Hoffa’s attempt to bring the divided factions within the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union into the Teamsters Union. The article contained a surprisingly pleasing account of how Hoffa was contacted at the San Francisco airport and told that his proposed meeting with baker’s union officials scheduled to take place in LA had been cancelled. Consequently the merger never took place.

Here’s the thing. In mom’s account dad is the one who placed the phone call to Hoffa at the airport and told him that “There’s nothing for you here in LA.” This statement is not in the newspaper article, so I cannot push it as labor history with any certitude. But mom was right about the basics: Hoffa did try to bring the various locals of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union into the Teamsters Union; he was getting ready to fly to Los Angeles for a meeting with union officials to broker a deal; and he was contacted at the airport with the message that there would be no meeting.

Dad’s personal involvement with this venture is affirmed, however, in this newspaper article written by Harry Bernstein, the labor reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Bernstein did not acknowledge our family legend of dad telling Hoffa there was nothing for him in LA. But he did quote dad about his opposition to the baker’s union being absorbed by the much larger and more powerful Teamsters Union and why. The quote for the record states, “I certainly am not interested in spending months and months trying to get our union out from under a dictatorship, and then having it go into what amounts to perpetual trusteeship.”

Growing up we had our own vow of silence about dad’s work in the union. And he by nature was not one to boast about anything he did. Mom, on the other hand, was proud of his honest endeavors on behalf of the union membership and thankfully did yield to her gift for gossip by letting us know of his leadership in a reform movement as a stalwart defender of the union’s independence.

I wish dad were here now. Maybe my senior adult status would allow him to open up to me man to man about these two episodes, which occurred some sixty years ago. And who knows, maybe there were other stories of equal magnitude concerning his impact on labor relations. It would be nice to know about his many achievements.

Ultimately I am left with two realizations. First, mom’s version of events involving dad and the likes of Kennedy and Hoffa has been partially vindicated by the newspaper clippings she saved. And second that dad died peacefully at home in his own bed, unlike the tragic demise of two of the most powerful men he encountered during a long and satisfying career benefitting others.

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