Nearly thirty-six years after disappearing from a Detroit parking lot, the body of Jimmy Hoffa has yet to be found. While no one, including FBI investigators, has been able to discern what happened to the labor union leader in the last days of his life, what happened in the years leading up to his disappearance is well documented.
After a fairly normal childhood, Hoffa began his first union organizational efforts at the grocery store where he worked as a teenager. Though this campaign lead to his firing from the grocery chain, it sparked a passion for workers’ rights that resulted in his joining the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Slowly working his way to the local post’s top leadership position, Hoffa eventually became president of the entire union, comprised of more than a million truck drivers and warehousemen, in the 1950s. Over the next decade, infiltration of organized crime members into the labor union drew close scrutiny from Congressional members. One committee in particular, led by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was tasked with investigating IBT.
Following the 1957 inquiries, Kennedy spent the next several years attempting to arrest Hoffa on a variety of charges from bribery to wire-tapping, each time falling just short. Resorting to less-traditional tactics, Kennedy shifted his focus from charging Hoffa to cutting off his flow of money.
In response to the wide-spread union corruption, Congress passed an Act regulating internal union affairs, including the regulation and control of union funds. One provision of the bill required that any employee tasked with managing or handling more than $5,000 in union finances obtain a surety bond. The Teamsters’ steady bankroll at the time meant they’d have no problem obtaining bonds for their officers under normal circumstances.
However, in February of 1963, all 150 surety companies authorized to issue union bonds announced that sureties granted to the Teamsters Union were being revoked. Hoffa fought back against the government, claiming the Kennedy administration pressured surety companies to deny his bonds. The inquiry taken on by Congress into the matter and the ensuing legal battles quickly escalated to an all-out war between Kennedy and Hoffa that only ended in 1967 when Hoffa lost his last appeal on a separate bribery charge and was taken to prison.
Fortunately for today’s union workers, tight regulations and bonding requirements guarantee the legal and responsible use of member dues. The Hoffa case also shows quite plainly the importance of independent privatized surety companies. If government officials could cut off a company’s bonding on a whim, it would be nearly impossible to guarantee fair competition in the business marketplace.