This week, for the fourth time since 1975, FBI agents have dug up a site to look for the remains of famed union leader Jimmy Hoffa. And for the fourth time since 1975, they have come away with nothing. Why invest the time and money on what has increasingly become a wild goose chase, looking for the body of one man? Because that’s what you do for an American legend.
Hoffa made a name for himself over the course of his 40-year career as a union boss, eventually becoming the well-known leader of the Teamsters Union in 1957. But Jimmy Hoffa's legendary status has as much to do with the way he died as with the way he lived. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa made plans to meet several acquaintances at a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The meeting never happened, and Hoffa was never heard from again. He has since been assumed dead, but his disappearance remains enshrouded in a mystery that has plagued authorities for decades. But to even begin to speculate as to why Jimmy Hoffa was killed, it’s important to understand the significance of his life.
From the very start, Jimmy Hoffa was the quintessential image of a union man. Born in 1913 in humble circumstances, Hoffa dropped out of school before the ninth grade to find a job to support his single mother. It was in this first job on a loading dock for a Detroit grocery store chain that Hoffa organized his first labor strike. As a teenager, he convinced his co-workers to refuse to unload a shipment of strawberries until they got a better contract. They won.
And so began a lifelong dedication to fighting for the rights of the working class. In the 1930s Hoffa joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union organizing truck drivers and warehousemen. After becoming president of the Detroit chapter, and later the entire Michigan chapter, Hoffa caught the attention of the Teamsters’ national leaders. He became vice president of the Teamsters in 1952, and the president five years later. Hoffa found such success because he was ambitious and determined, and most importantly, he got results. He organized union workers to hold strikes and boycotts impactful enough to demand better contracts with the companies they worked for. He made companies realize that the unions were a force to be reckoned with.
And yet, for all of his virtues, Hoffa had his vices as well. He had long held ties to the Italian mob in Detroit, and participated in organized crime, and for this he was closely monitored by the federal government. In 1964, Hoffa was convicted of misuse of union pension funds and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He began serving his time in 1967, but got out just four years later in 1971 after President Nixon commuted his sentence to time served. Part of the deal was that Hoffa was banned from Union activity until 1980, a provision that he promptly ignored. Hoffa did all he could to regain his power in the Teamsters union from behind the scenes, but didn’t make much progress before that fateful day in 1975.
While we may never know exactly who killed Jimmy Hoffa or what happened to his body, a few things are clear. Over the course of his relationship with the mafia, Hoffa made several enemies and it was likely one of these who had him killed. But the fiercely secretive and protective nature of the mafia has made it difficult for authorities to find any real suspects. A number of people have come forward claiming to know where Hoffa is buried, leading the FBI to dig up various locations around Metro Detroit, but all the searches have been fruitless. Most recently, former mob boss Tony Zerilli came forward saying that Hoffa was buried in a field formerly owned by another Detroit mobster. But just this past Wednesday, FBI agents wrapped up a dig at that site, coming away with no evidence of Hoffa ever being there.
So with yet another failed search, why can’t we just let the whole thing go? Why do we continue to search for Jimmy Hoffa? Part of it may be the sheer mystery of the whole thing; people don’t usually just disappear without a trace. But I believe the fascination is due in larger part to the man that was Jimmy Hoffa and all that he represented. Hoffa lived and worked during the latter half of the 20th century, at the height of the so-called “American Dream.”
In fact, he helped to create that dream for hundreds of thousands of people. By strengthening the unions, Hoffa ensured that working-class people received livable wages and were able to provide for families. He and his unions continued in the American belief that occupation and social class should not determine a person’s worth; that everyone deserves a decent living regardless of class. And while he certainly wasn’t without his faults, a man as influential, as legendary, as Jimmy Hoffa deserves at least to be found and remembered. So the case remains open, and we continue to search for him.