By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News
On July 30, 1975, James Riddle Hoffa left his Lake Orion home for a meeting. Paroled from federal prison three years earlier, the former Teamster president had recently announced plans to try to wrestle back control of the union he had built with his bare knuckles from his protege -- now adversary -- Frank Fitzsimmons. Anthony Giacalone, a reputed captain of organized crime in Detroit, was supposed to meet Hoffa that day. James R. Hoffa as a Teamsters organizer in 1939.
Jimmy told his wife Josephine he would be home around 4 p.m. to grill streaks for dinner. After 39 years of marriage, she knew Jimmy would not be late. Witnesses saw him waiting in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in upscale Bloomfield Township. He never made it home. Hoffa. The name alone stirs strong emotions and opinions. Was he a visionary union hero or brutal despot? Was he a labor crusader or a criminal? Jimmy Hoffa began his union career as a teenager in the 1930s. A grade school dropout, he almost single handedly built the Teamsters union into an awesome national power. His hammer-handed negotiating techniques, his alleged links to organized crime, and his bitter feuds with John and Robert Kennedy made Hoffa the prototypical labor leader of his day. Born in Brazil, Ind., on Feb. 14, 1913, Jimmy grew up fast when his coal miner father died from lung disease in 1920. His mother took in laundry to keep the family together and the children also helped with after school jobs. Hoffa later described his mother lovingly as a frontier type woman "who believed that Duty and Discipline were spelled with capital D's." In 1922, the Hoffas moved to Clinton, Ind., for a two year stay, then to Detroit to an apartment on Merritt Street on the city's brawling, working-class west side. Tagged by the neighbor kids as hillbillies, Hoffa won respect and acceptance with his fists. After school Jimmy worked as a delivery boy and finally dropped out of school in the 9th grade just as the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought massive layoffs and business failures. A friend, Walter Murphy, told him to get into the food business. "No matter what happens, people have to eat," he said. Jimmy got a job at the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, whose warehouses were located just a few blocks from his home. Lying to the foreman about his age, Hoffa began his job of unloading produce from railroad cars for 32 cents an hour. The pay, two-thirds of it scrip redeemable for food at Kroger's, was good considering the growing unemployment and food lines. The downside to the new job was that warehouse workers were required to report at 4:30 p.m. for a 12-hour shift, but they only got paid for the time that they actually unloaded produce. The rest of the shift, they would sit around idle and unpaid, waiting to be called but unable to leave the premises. Striking truck drivers battle police in Minneapolis in 1934. Violence initiated by both sides was common during labor organizing in the 1930s.
The men also endured a foreman from hell, "the kind of guy," Hoffa later said who causes unions. Called the "Little Bastard" by all the workers, he abused his powers, threatening and firing workers for no reason. Hoffa and his coworkers, including Bobby Holmes, who would also rise in the Teamstrer hierarchy with Hoffa, bided their time. The harsh reality that one third of American workers remained jobless made them cautious in their organizing efforts. Finally one night in the spring of 1931, after two workers were fired for going to a food cart for their midnight dinner, the men acted. Hoffa called for a work stoppage just as trucks loaded with sweet juicy Florida strawberries pulled into the warehouse. Faced with the need to get the perishable cargo into refrigerators quickly, Kroger management agreed to meet with the new leaders the following morning as long as...