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Celebrating The Life of James R. Hoffa

Celebrating The Life of James R. Hoffa

On February 14, Teamsters around the country will remember and honor one of the most dedicated and visionary leaders in the labor movement—James R. Hoffa, who served as Teamsters General President from 1957-1971.

Hoffa was born on February 14, 1913, in Brazil, Indiana. Following the death of his coal miner father when he was seven, Hoffa began taking on odd jobs to help support his family. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1924, hoping to find better economic opportunities.

He left school in his teens and went to work as a warehouseman for Kroger grocery stores. It was there that he was initiated into the labor movement. In 1932, angry over poor working conditions and unfair treatment of workers, Hoffa, then 19 years old, led fellow workers in a strike against the company.

Hoffa joined the Teamsters in 1933, and quickly rose in the ranks of the union. He became a business agent for Local 299 in Detroit in 1933, and then was elected president of the local in 1937. He further developed his leadership abilities by forming the Michigan Conference of Teamsters in the early 1940s. He was a tireless organizer for the union, and champion of labor concerns. He even met his wife, Josephine, when she was on strike against the company where she worked.

His natural skills and easy rapport with rank-and-file workers did not go unnoticed. In 1952, he was named a Vice President to the General Executive Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and in 1957 he was elected General President at the national convention.

Hoffa was very popular with union members, and was again elected General President in 1961. He developed a well-earned reputation among his peers as a tough and effective bargainer, and worked hard to expand the number of working men and women who were protected by union contracts. Under his leadership, the union's membership rose to include more than two million workers.

His crowning achievement was the 1964 National Master Freight Agreement, which united more than 400,000 over-the-road drivers under one contract. This contract, a feat that had been declared virtually impossible by many, lifted more workers out of poverty and into the middle class than any other single event in labor history.

Hoffa’s devotion to the Teamsters and their families is legendary. His whole life was dedicated to bettering the lives of all working families. He was ahead of his time in many ways in this fight, understanding the importance of a strong political voice for the union and the creation an active, educated working class. In 1959 Hoffa, with the help of his wife Jo and the women’s auxiliary arm of the union, developed the Democratic, Republican, Independent Voter Education project (DRIVE) to promote political activism in the union. He also championed the role of education, believing it was the birthright of every American, not just the privileged few. In 1966, he ardently supported the union’s first scholarship fund.

In recognition of his tireless service to the union and its members, he was named General President Emeritus for life. In 1999, he was inducted into Labor’s International Hall of Fame. The Teamsters also celebrate his memory and achievement through the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Fund, which awards hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in scholarship grants to Teamster children attending college.

Hoffa’s ceaseless work on behalf of laborers here and abroad elicited unabashed feelings of respect, admiration and loyalty from workers everywhere that is still alive today.


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