Monday, January 6, 2020

A New Culprit in the Decline of American Labor? Robert F. Kennedy and the Long Cast of Hoffa's Shadow

I just finished reading Jack Goldsmith’s In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) which I highly recommend. Who needs fiction when real-life history produces stories like these? The author is a Harvard law professor whose mother married Chuckie O’Brien on June 16, 1975 when the author was 12 years old. In the author’s own words, Chuckie was “a great father” who “smothered me in love” (p. 5). But on July 30, 1975, former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa disappeared and Chuckie—Hoffa’s longtime friend and aide in the Teamsters—quickly became a leading suspect in this extremely high-profile case.

In Hoffa’s Shadow chronicles Hoffa’s rise and fall—often with Chuckie at his side—and his disappearance—where the FBI long thought Chuckie was also at his side, unwittingly delivering him to mob hitmen (a fiction often repeated in popular culture, including most recently in Netflix’s The Irishman). The focus is uniquely on Chuckie—his life, his ties to the Teamsters and the mafia, his personal values, his decades-long public mistreatment at the hands of the FBI, and the sheer improbability of any culpability in Hoffa’s disappearance. All of this is quite interesting, but what really makes this book such a compelling read is how deeply personal it is. Goldsmith is exceptionally candid in describing how he idolized Chuckie in high school but at age 21, renounced him and changed his name from Jack O’Brien to Jack Goldsmith out of fear that “the association with Chuckie might jeopardize my legal career” (p. 26). After 20 years, Goldsmith reconciled with Chuckie, who accepted Goldsmith “back into his life without qualification, rancor, or drama” (p. 41). The author eventually convinced Chuckie to let him tell his story, in the author’s hope that it would solve the 45 year-old mystery of Hoffa’s disappearance. Alas, the author ultimately fails on this last account, but in the end that seems like a minor footnote given the depth of insight we get into Hoffa’s leadership of the Teamsters, the relationship between the mafia and the Teamsters, the likely reasons for his disappearance, the troubling extent of the federal government’s use of its own power, and at a personal level, the complex character of Chuckie.

From a labor relations perspective, one thing that jumped out to me is the provocative claim that the field has overlooked “the most fundamental” reason for the decades-long decline in labor union membership. It is well-recognized that the fraction of workers represented by a union (“union density”) peaked in the private sector in the mid-1950s, and since that time has fallen from around 35 percent to 6 percent. Many explanations have been proposed, including structural change (e.g., the decline of manufacturing, demographic shifts, globalization), decreased demand for union representation (e.g., laws and paternalistic human resource management provide some of the protections that unions provide, or unions have failed to keep up with what workers want), and legal and illegal employer opposition facilitated by hostile legal rulings. But Goldsmith argues that “the most fundamental reason [that membership fell] was the identification of the entire labor movement with corruption, violence, and bossism—an identification that crystallized with Bobby Kennedy’s singular crusade” (p. 108). Wow!

What was this singular crusade? Senator Estes Kefauver led a special Senate investigation into organized crime in the early 1950s, and the resulting public attention on the sensational hearings helped propel Kefauver to national prominence (including being selected as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1956). According to Goldsmith, Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy saw this as a model for elevating the profile of the Kennedys (which included his older brother John F. Kennedy), and perhaps, too, for Bobby Kennedy to prove his worth within the Kennedy clan. So in 1957, the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management (“the McClellan Committee”) was created to investigate labor racketeering (the corruption of labor unions by organized crime), with Bobby Kennedy as its chief counsel. Enter Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. Goldsmith quotes historian Arthur Schlesinger as saying that before the hearings even started, Kennedy had already concluded that Hoffa was corrupt and ran the Teamsters solely for his own benefit. As such, Hoffa was “the enemy [Bobby Kennedy] had been seeking” (p. 99).

The reality of Hoffa is seemingly much more complex. Hoffa seemed to genuinely care for the economic well-being of truck drivers and other workers, and fought hard on their behalf—albeit often too hard in terms of taking an extreme ends-justifies-the-means approach, even if this meant hiring mob goons to literally fight employers and giving kickbacks to the mafia to maintain his own power. So of course Hoffa was no angel, but In Hoffa’s Shadow shows the extent to which Kennedy became obsessed with publicly vilifying Hoffa. And each time this failed, “Kennedy got angrier, become more vindictive, and invariably cut more corners” (p. 102). This included sending the IRS on a fishing expedition looking for evidence of criminality in over 3,500 tax returns, and then illegally entering confidential IRS information into the public record.

Students of labor relations know that these hearings resulted in the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 which sought to make unions more democratic while also placing a few additional restrictions on union activities (especially banning secondary boycotts). But Goldsmith interestingly argues that the larger effect was that the hearings led by Bobby Kennedy “embedded in the public mind, including the minds of many workers, the idea that unions were flawed institutions exercising illegitimate power” (p. 106). And thus we have Goldsmith’s provocative claim that “the most fundamental reason [for declining union power] was the identification of the entire labor movement with corruption, violence, and bossism—an identification that crystallized with Bobby Kennedy’s singular crusade.” Whether we can trace 65 years of union decline to this one moment is debatable and would represent an influence with remarkable staying power, but it is certainly stimulating to consider its role among other factors.

Goldsmith doesn’t let Hoffa off the hook: “his defiant embrace of criminal tactics and associations [even if done in with the sincere belief that this was to help the rank and file] allowed Kennedy [and others] to paint him as a subversive force…and his performance tarnished the entire labor movement” (p. 107). But Kennedy was anything but balanced, and ignored, for example, the role of employers in fighting workers. Kennedy’s campaign against Hoffa continued in the 1960s with Kennedy’s appointment (by his then-president brother) as U.S. attorney general. In the end, according to Goldsmith, Kennedy “neglected, elided, or interpreted away ethical and legal restrictions that are supposed to channel and constrain the federal government’s colossal power to destroy one’s reputation and liberty” (p. 121). This included a sharp rise in the government surveillance of individuals, including breaking into homes and businesses to plant listening devices, typically without any warrants or legal oversight.

The extent to which this rise in illegal government surveillance connects to Goldsmith’s own work in government is another unique aspect of In Hoffa’s Shadow making for a compelling read. But a larger take-away, in my eyes, is that these revelations implicitly highlight the need for democracy, transparency, and institutional balance. When the government holds all the cards, where are the checks on its power? Or to what end is government power being exercised? These questions are as important as ever when legislation and judicial rulings are seemingly weakening organized labor for political gain, and we seem to have forgotten the importance of the labor movement and other groups for a vibrant democracy. Hidden in In Hoffa’s Shadow, then, is a strong conservative case for labor unions, even if the focal union in this book has historically struggled with democracy and corruption.

So in the end, this book is about much more than Hoffa’s disappearance. Indeed, I assume that “in Hoffa’s shadow” refers to the personal experiences of Chuckie O’Brien. But as we continue to confront questions of power, democracy, and surveillance, it seems that we’re all living in the shadows of Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, with their lasting implications for labor unions and democracy.


  1. Respected Sir,
    I am Pawan Kumar from India.Sir I went through some of your educational videos and blogs and I find your teaching such a enlightening.
    After reading you I consider you as my "Guru" who is leading me to a knowledge path.
    Thanks and Regards,
    From India,
    A disciple.

    1. Thanks for your very nice compliment and comment.

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