Of Hoffa and Hollywood

It’s a new year, and one thing I have resolved to do in 2020 is to post more regular updates here.

In that vein, I recently published a piece in Jacobin offering a sober assessment of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa’s legacy. He was a household name in his prime when he was heading up the Teamsters Union, and even today remains one of the best-known labor leaders in the U.S. He’s been on people’s minds more recently thanks to Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman. It focuses on the life of Frank Sheeran, a Mafia foot soldier and Teamster official who was close to Hoffa, and claims to have been the one who killed him in 1975.

Whatever the film’s merits, it does little to understand Hoffa’s role in the labor movement. There is virtually none of the organizing and negotiating that made Hoffa the leader of one of the most powerful unions in the world. Like most material on Hoffa created for popular consumption, it focuses on his connections to organized crime. While this aspect of Hoffa is real, it is only one facet of a complex, multi-dimensional, and frankly fascinating individual.

Hoffa’s mystique as a “tough guy” labor leader has led some to look back on his legacy more favorably. Obviously, he was Teamsters president at the height of the union’s power, and in that capacity did a lot to improve the lives of millions of workers. That should be recognized. But at the same time, as I argue in the piece, his corruption and personalization of leadership resulted in structural changes in the union that set the stage for its decline. That’s why we should not, as the piece’s title states, be nostalgic for Hoffa.

So by all means, go see The Irishman. Just remember to look elsewhere to learn about the complexities and dramatic tension of labor struggles.

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