On January 31, 1957, the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, better known as the Rackets Committee, was born. Its driving force was chief counsel Robert Kennedy, who led the investigation and a series of public hearings into corruption in the trade union movement. While the Rackets investigations generated more heat than light, they did open the eyes of many Americans to the disturbing relationship between some labor bosses and the Mafia.
Champion of the "Little Guy"
By far the most memorable part of the hearings was the epic clash between Kennedy and James R. Hoffa, leader of the powerful Teamsters union. "Hoffa was the ideal foil for Kennedy," says historian Ronald Steel, "because they were so much alike, these scrappy little guys, who came from families where they had to prove themselves constantly, who viewed themselves as champions of the little guy." By the time the hearings ended, both men had become well known, celebrated in some circles and despised in others.
Rise of a Union Boss
Jimmy Hoffa was one of the most controversial characters in the history of organized labor. He served as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1957 to 1971. Known throughout the trucking industry for being well-informed and a tough bargainer, he played a major role in the first national freight-hauling agreement. Under his leadership, the Teamsters became the largest labor union in the United States, boasting a membership of some 1.3 million workers.
Hoffa had been born in Indiana in 1913. His father, a coal miner, died when he was just seven, and a few years later the family moved to Detroit. Leaving school at age 14, Jimmy found work as a stockboy and in warehouses, becoming active in union organizing in the 1930s. By 1942 he had risen to president of the Michigan Conference of Teamsters. In 1952 he was elected international vice president, then succeeded Dave Beck as international president in 1957. Under his leadership, the Teamsters centralized administration and bargaining in the international office, raising the profile of the president.
Target: Crooked Labor
Hoffa's long-rumored association with organized crime figures put him on a collision course with Robert Kennedy. In 1955, when the Democrats regained control of the Senate, Kennedy was appointed chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. With Communist hunting out of favor in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy's flameout, the committee needed a new target. Kennedy soon found it in crooked labor bosses doing business with criminal organizations.
Political vs. Moral Considerations
Kennedy wasted no time, going right after the nation's largest and richest union, one that dominated the trucking industry. "The union had been 'mobbed up,' quietly infiltrated by gangsters who saw the Teamsters' $250 million pension fund as a honey pot," writes Evan Thomas. Joseph Kennedy, worried that his son Bobby might alienate labor leaders whose support his son John would need when he ran for president in 1960, tried to stop him. But Bobby was appalled by the corruption his investigation had uncovered, and would not back down. He even convinced his brother to take a seat on the committee.
After taking down Teamster president Dave Beck for larceny and tax evasion, Bobby set his sights on Hoffa, who had recently been acquitted on a bribery charge. The two men hated each other from the moment they first met. Kennedy saw Hoffa as "absolute evilness," convinced that he had beaten -- and likely killed -- union dissidents, stolen millions from union accounts, and shaken down helpless employers. Hoffa was equally sure of his cause, viewing himself as a friend of the little man, being unfairly persecuted by a spoiled, showboating rich kid.
The tension was palpable when Kennedy questioned Hoffa before large crowds and television cameras in the Senate Caucus Room. The two men would lock eyes and glare at each other for ages, until Hoffa would wink mischeviously. Kennedy's obsession extended beyond the hearing room. One night he was driving home after midnight with assistant Pierre Salinger when they spied the lights on in Hoffa's office at Teamster headquarters. Kennedy muttered, "If he's still at work, we ought to be," turning the car around and returning for another two hours of work. Of course, when Hoffa heard this story he took great pleasure in leaving his lights on when he left the office thereafter. "I used to love to bug the little bastard," Hoffa recalled.
Out of Reach
Though Kennedy knew Hoffa was crooked, proof was hard to come by, and the hearings dragged on for months. In order to justify his crusade, Kennedy denounced the Teamsters and their control of the nation's transportation network. But his "scattershot methods produced many more headlines than indictments," Thomas concludes.
Joe Kennedy's fears of political suicide proved unfounded, however. "Attacking Hoffa was good politics," concluded an official with the United Auto Workers who befriended the Kennedys. "The AFL-CIO was going after corrupt unions anyway and expelled Hoffa." And while the Rackets investigations produced few criminal prosecutions, the mostly flattering press coverage did raise the Kennedy profile. Glossy magazines like Life ("Young Man with Tough Questions"), Look ("Rise of the Brothers Kennedy") and the Satuday Evening Post ("The Amazing Kennedys") began to discover the Kennedy magic.
Jury Tampering, Fraud and Conspiracy
Hoffa survived a series of governmental prosecutions until 1967, when he entered the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on a thirteen-year sentence for jury tampering, fraud, and conspiracy. Remarkably, he refused to resign from the Teamsters and kept his position until 1971. President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa's sentence in December 1971, stipulating that he could not engage in union activity until 1980. Still not satisfied, Hoffa fought his exclusion in court while staying involved in Teamster business behind the scenes.
On July 30, 1975, Hoffa was supposed to meet with a pair of mobsters, one of whom had become a New Jersey Teamster official, at a restaurant in suburban Detroit. Both denied ever seeing Hoffa, who was never seen again. He was legally "presumed dead" in 1982 after a lengthy investigation. His son, James P. Hoffa, has served as Teamsters president since 1999.