The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), commonly shortened to Teamsters, is one of the nation’s largest private-sector labor unions. Principally representing employees in the trucking, railway, and airline industries, the Teamsters union has over 1.2 million members.
The Teamsters union is notorious for its history of corruption and involvement with organized crime, dubbed the “Devil’s Pact” by labor historians. In 1986, the President’s Commission on Organized Crime reported that Teamsters leadership “have been firmly under the influence of organized crime since the 1950’s” and accused then-Teamsters General President Jackie Presser of using violence to control opponents to mob-aligned union officials. By the end of the decade, federal investigations led to a consent decree under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act between the union and the government, represented by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. The consent decree, which remains partially in force as of 2017 and is being phased out, expelled mafia-affiliated members and officers, placed federal overseers in charge of Teamsters internal elections, and established an Independent Review Board to adjudicate internal corruption charges.
The IBT is led by James P. Hoffa, son of mob-tied former Teamsters General President James R. “Jimmy” Hoffa, who famously disappeared without a trace under suspicious circumstances—many suspect he was killed by organized crime—in 1975. Hoffa has served since 1998, when he was elected General President in a special election after his predecessor Ron Carey was expelled from the union for campaign finance infractions in his 1996 re-election campaign.
Politically, the IBT has shifted with the winds of federal investigations and consent decrees into its internal activities. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy made a name for himself attacking the Teamsters (first as a U.S. Senate staffer and later as U.S. Attorney General) for its mob ties; in retaliation, the union remained neutral in the 1960 election between Kennedy’s brother John and Richard Nixon. After Richard Nixon pardoned the elder Hoffa in 1971, the union backed Republicans in the 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988 Presidential elections, only returning to the Democratic fold in 1992 after the George H.W. Bush Administration pursued the consent decree.
Under Hoffa the younger, the union has moved in a much more left-wing direction. The Teamsters joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in quitting the AFL-CIO to form the new Change to Win labor union federation, which Hoffa now chairs. Since the Center for Responsive Politics database of federal political contributions records began in the early 1990s, the Teamsters Union’s political arms have contributed 95 percent of their spending to liberals and Democrats.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters was organized in 1903 at a convention of unions representing drivers of horses, whose profession gave the new union its name. By the 1920s, the union represented drivers in the growing motor transport industry and the IBT was admitted to the American Federation of Labor (a predecessor of the AFL-CIO) in 1928.
By the 1940s, the Teamsters locals in the Detroit area—through which Jimmy Hoffa was rising to prominence—first came under investigation for ties to organized crime. The investigations continued into the 1950s, culminating in Teamsters General President Dave Beck invoking his Fifth Amendment privileges 117 times in response to a series of questions before the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (also known as the McClellan Committee). Beck would ultimately be convicted of income tax evasion and embezzling $1,900 from the union and serve 30 months in prison; he was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford.
The McClellan Committee’s investigations would begin a blood feud between the Teamsters and the Kennedy family that lasted throughout Jimmy Hoffa’s tenure as Teamsters president, as Robert F. Kennedy served as chief counsel to the committee and then-Sen. John Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) was a member of the committee. The Teamsters’ feud with the Kennedys was so intense that after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jimmy Hoffa resisted lowering the flags at Teamsters headquarters in mourning.
James R. “Jimmy” Hoffa had risen through the union in the 1940s and 1950s, ultimately ending up as Teamsters Vice President and helping create the Central States Pension Fund, which would become notorious as the “mob’s bank.”
After Beck pleaded the Fifth before the McClellan Committee, the Teamsters elevated Hoffa to the post of General President of the union. Hoffa was already widely suspected of improper behavior, having been charged (and acquitted) of crimes prior to his election as union president.
After Hoffa was named General President, the AFL-CIO suspended and ultimately expelled the Teamsters from the labor federation, citing “corrupt influences.” The AFL-CIO demanded that Teamsters officers Beck, Hoffa, Sidney L. Brennan, and Frank Brewster be removed from office and that the union appoint a special committee to correct the corrupt influences. The Teamsters refused.
Hoffa gained notoriety for negotiating the first national truckers’ contract, the Master Freight Contract, in 1964. However, later that year Hoffa was convicted in two separate trials, one for jury tampering and another for misusing union pension funds. Hoffa’s involvement with the mob was substantial: Steven Brill, author of a 1978 history of the Teamsters Union, called Hoffa “an owned-and-operated subsidiary of organized crime.”
By 1967, Hoffa was sent to prison to begin serving a 13-year sentence. He would remain jailed until 1971, when President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence on the condition that Hoffa would be barred from union office until after 1980. While imprisoned, Hoffa continued in office as Teamsters President with Frank Fitzsimmons acting on his behalf; Hoffa was widely believed to be running the union from prison despite a sentence condition preventing him from “engaging in his occupation” while jailed.
Post-prison, Hoffa attempted to retake union office before the agreed-upon 1980 date. In 1975, while waging legal efforts to regain his position, Hoffa went missing near Detroit around the time he was to meet with two alleged mobsters. His disappearance remains unsolved, but a mob assassination is widely believed to be the cause of the disappearance.
Continued Mob Influence After Hoffa
In 1971, Hoffa formally left the Teamsters presidency, ceding it to Acting General President Frank Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons had already pursued an ambitious labor program, aligning with Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers to form the Alliance for Labor Action, a short-lived left-wing union federation intended to rival the AFL-CIO. The Alliance organized a handful of workers before folding amid an inability to recruit new unions and Reuther’s death in a plane crash.
However, while he would ultimately avoid prison, Fitzsimmons was also linked to organized crime. It is suspected that Fitzsimmons’s willingness to go along with mob bosses led to the alleged hit on Hoffa, who was attempting to return to office despite the mob refusing to support him. Fitzsimmons was said to have received kickbacks and protection from the mafia in exchange for allowing the mob free rein to run Teamsters local unions and skim from the union’s pension funds.
During Fitzsimmons’s tenure, the Teamsters Central States pension fund was investigated by the Labor Department and Justice Department for corruption and Fitzsimmons himself was ousted as a trustee of the fund. In 1981, Fitzsimmons died of a heart attack.
Fitzsimmons was succeeded by Roy Williams, another mafia-connected union leader under indictment at the time of his election. Williams served as Teamsters president for two years, vacating office in 1983 after he was convicted of conspiracy to bribe U.S. Senator Howard Cannon (D-Nevada) over trucking industry regulation. Williams would later turn state’s evidence in exchange for being paroled shortly before his death in 1989. Before his death, Williams would tell the Philadelphia Inquirer that “I was controlled by Nick [Civella, a Kansas City mobster], and I think everybody knew it.”
Jackie Presser succeeded Williams, being elected in 1983 after Williams resigned after being convicted. Presser had served as an informer on corrupt Teamsters activities for the Internal Revenue Service from as early as 1972, an arrangement allegedly created to help get federal charges against Presser’s father William, himself an Ohio Teamsters official and member of the Teamsters International Executive Board, dropped. Presser, who was allegedly an agent of the Cleveland division of international organized crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra, would also become an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
As Teamsters leader, Presser secured readmission to the AFL-CIO but faced considerable scandal related to his involvement with the mob and federal investigations of it. In 1985, the Department of Justice controversially elected not to charge Presser with embezzling funds from the Cleveland-area Teamsters local. By Presser’s death in office in 1988, he was facing federal charges for siphoning union funds to mob figures for no-show jobs.
During Presser’s tenure, Teamsters members in Puerto Rico were implicated in one of the worst incidents of labor-related violence in American history. Three members of Teamsters Local 901 pleaded guilty to crimes related to setting a fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan that killed 97 people amid a labor dispute. The vice president of the local was also charged with murder, but the charges were later dismissed for lack of evidence.
The Federal Racketeering Suit and Consent Decree
Fewer than two weeks before Presser died, the federal government filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act lawsuit against 18 senior Teamsters officials, including Presser and his acting successor, Weldon L. Mathis, to “end La Cosa Nostra’s corruption of this [Teamsters] union.” The suit was filed by then-United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Rudolph Giuliani, who announced in a statement that mob infiltration of the Teamsters “has deprived union members of their rights through a pattern of racketeering that includes 20 murders, a number of shootings, bombings, beatings, a campaign of fear, extortion and theft and misuses of union funds.”
The federal lawsuit sought the removal of mob-tied Teamsters leadership and the appointment of a trustee to oversee future internal union elections. In 1989, an agreement, known as a “consent decree,” was reached, with the Teamsters agreeing to court-appointed supervision of union expenditures and officer elections in exchange for the government stopping efforts to remove sitting union leadership, then under new union president William J. McCarthy.
In 1992, as part of the consent decree process, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York directed that an Independent Review Board of three members—one appointed by the federal government, one by the union, and one by both parties—be created to investigate corruption and disqualify corrupt members from union office.
Ron Carey and the Move Left
The consent decree changed how the Teamsters would elect officers: Where previously, officers were elected by delegates chosen by local unions, enabling mob figures to engage in racketeering in exchange for delegate votes, from 1991 the officers would be chosen by a vote of the membership at large. The last delegate-chosen General President, William McCarthy, did not seek re-election. McCarthy had been charged by a federal overseer established by the consent decree with continuing to associate with organized crime figures.
That opened the door for Ron Carey, who was backed by the union’s leftist-reformist caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Carey had served as president of Local 804 on Long Island, which had been implicated in schemes allegedly involving the DeCalvante organized crime family around its pension funds and dental plan.
Despite the smell of corruption following Carey, he was elected by the membership in 1991 in a three-way race as an “outsider” candidate. Trade unionists hoped that Carey’s election would invigorate the Teamsters with a progressive vision, and they felt vindication after he brought the Teamsters back into the Democratic fold to support the election of President Bill Clinton in 1992. The Carey regime was also instrumental in replacing centrist AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland with radical Service Employees International Union leader John Sweeney in 1995.
Trouble developed in Carey’s first term when he gave a close ally, Eddie Burke, responsibility for appointing a trustee to oversee Teamsters Local 295 in New York, which had ties to the mob. Burke appointed William Genoese: The federal judge overseeing the consent decree vetoed the appointment, as Genoese as trustee “would directly and indirectly further and contribute to the association of the [local] with the La Cosa Nostra or elements thereof.”
After Carey was reelected in 1996 by defeating James P. Hoffa—son of the mob-tied Jimmy—he led a major strike in 1997 against UPS. With the tacit assistance of the Clinton Administration, which broke precedent and refused to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act’s provisions, Carey proclaimed a major victory in the strike. The claim was contested by both pro-union and anti-union observers, who noted that workers’ gains were at best modest.
While Carey was basking in the glow of his claimed victory of UPS, the federal trustees overseeing the Teamsters dropped a bomb on him. Federal overseers moved to void his 1996 re-election over Hoffa the younger on the grounds that he had allegedly used liberal groups as shell organizations to launder Teamster treasury money into his re-election campaign. Shortly after the new election was ordered, Carey was barred from running and the Independent Review Board recommended discipline against Carey, prompting the Teamsters president to take a leave of absence.
The scheme was massive and allegedly implicated numerous Democratic Party and liberal organizations including the Clinton-Gore 1996 re-election campaign, the Democratic National Committee, the AFL-CIO, and community organizing group Citizen Action, a predecessor organization of the modern People’s Action. In 1995, the Clinton Administration had become concerned by the Teamsters’ cash flow problems, which were hurting party coffers. The Clinton White House put Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes in charge of a “Get Cash from Carey” project, seeking to arrange labor decisions in the Teamsters’ favor in the hope of getting support from the union.
However, the union wasn’t giving because its political action committee, called “DRIVE”—was broke. (Federal law requires that union campaign contributions to federal candidates be sourced from “separate segregated funds” that are opt-in, not from member dues.) That prompted campaign consultant Martin Davis to try to arrange a mutual assistance pact between the DNC and Carey’s union re-election campaign, by which DNC donors would support Carey in exchange for the Teamsters supporting the DNC. Allegedly with the support of future Virginia Governor and then-DNC official Terry McAuliffe, Davis sought to draw contributions to Carey’s re-election slate “Teamsters for a Corruption-Free Union” from DNC donors, with support promised to the DNC in return.
The effort through the DNC failed. So Davis embarked on a money laundering scheme through the AFL-CIO and the liberal organizing group Citizen Action. Davis directed Teamsters officials to take $150,000 in union treasury money, and send it to the AFL-CIO through then-Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka who would then pass an equivalent sum on to Citizen Action. Citizen Action then spent $100,000 through Davis’s firm that went toward a direct mail campaign in support of Carey’s re-election. Davis, Carey’s campaign manager Jere Nash, and telemarketer Michael Ansara would plead guilty to offenses related to the scheme and turned state’s evidence. Trumka, who would later lead the AFL-CIO, exercised his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination under questioning by the federal judge investigating the matter, prompting the labor federation to reverse its policy requiring officials who took the Fifth to resign.
The scandal was wider than just the $150,000 in the AFL-CIO/Citizen Action transactions. Former Teamsters political director William Hamilton, Jr. would be convicted and sentenced to prison for directing $885,000 in Teamsters treasury funds to liberal groups to be laundered back into Carey’s campaign. Carey, though expelled from the union and disqualified from re-running for the presidency, avoided conviction, being acquitted of perjury charges in 2001.
Modern Era Under James P. Hoffa
After a controversial campaign in which he also had to survive charges of campaign finance improprieties, James P. Hoffa—son of the mob-tied Jimmy—was elected Teamsters General President in 1998. Prior to his election, Hoffa had been a union-side labor attorney in Detroit.
Hoffa continued Carey’s march of the formerly centrist Teamsters toward the political left, joining the 1999 anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle, opposing the Clinton administration’s trade openings with China, and flirting with endorsing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader before settling on Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential election. Rebuffing efforts at outreach by the George W. Bush White House, the Teamsters endorsed U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) in 2004; a similar dynamic played out in 2016, when the union backed Hillary Clinton over populist Republican Donald Trump. The union suffered a setback in 2004, when the staff of Hoffa’s pet anti-corruption program, Project RISE, resigned en masse citing “resistance and outright interference” from Hoffa’s lieutenants.
In 2005, Hoffa followed the SEIU under Andy Stern out of the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win labor union federation. The decision has been highly controversial within the Teamsters Union: Hoffa’s 2011 and 2016 opponents both sought to return to the AFL-CIO and denounced the switch to Change to Win.
Hoffa and the Teamsters were close allies of President Barack Obama, endorsing the then-Illinois senator in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries. Controversially, Obama had told Teamsters officials that he favored ending the Independent Review Board. In 2011, Hoffa courted controversy with overheated rhetoric against the tea party movement, telling Labor Day rally-goers “Let’s take these sons of [b*****s] out” while warming up the crowd for President Obama.
In 2015, the Obama Administration Department of Justice, led by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, and the Teamsters Union moved in court to end the consent decree. The government and the union agreed to a five-year phase-out of the consent decree’s rules concerning election supervision and to retain an independent review panel.
Hoffa faced a stiff challenge to his presidency amid major controversy in 2016. Fred Zuckerman, the president of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville and backed by the dissident caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union, challenged Hoffa as insufficiently militant in contract negotiations. The election was thrown into controversy when the union’s Independent Investigations Officer recommended internal charges against Hoffa’s Secretary-Treasurer and running mate Ken Hall for obstructing a corruption investigation. Ultimately, Hoffa defeated Zuckerman’s challenge by a narrow margin of less than two percent of the vote, securing a five-year term (though Zuckerman’s allies are demanding a new election). Charges against Hall were later dropped.
While major Cosa Nostra mafia influence on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been substantially reduced from the heyday of Jimmy Hoffa Sr., the union continues to attract controversy. Numerous corruption cases, financially strained pension funds, and controversial organizing tactics continue to dog the Teamsters.
Prominent Teamsters continue to be implicated in corruption and fiscal malfeasance even after the consent decree. In July 2017, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 25, John Coli Sr., was charged by federal prosecutors with attempted extortion and taking prohibited payments for a scheme in which he threatened a business with work stoppages unless he was paid $25,000 every three months. In 2010, former president of Teamsters Local 812 Anthony Rumore pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements in relation to improper personal services done by union members.
In 2016, the union’s Independent Investigations Officer recommended charges against four prominent Teamster officials: Hoffa’s Executive Assistant William C. Smith, International Vice President Rome Aloise, former Political Director Nicole Brener-Schmitz, and Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall. As recently as April 2017, Aloise was crowdfunding a legal defense fund. Teamsters for a Democratic Union and other opponents of Hoffa’s leadership have criticized the four for making concessions to employers allegedly in return for improper gifts.
Depleted Pension Funds
Teamsters pension funds have long been controversial: Throughout the twentieth century, numerous Teamsters pension funds were implicated in ties to organized crime. The Central States fund was placed into trusteeship by the Labor and Justice Departments in the late 1970s and was later governed by a consent decree between the fund and the federal government.
Currently, many Teamsters pension funds are financially strained. The Local 707 fund in New York state has defaulted and been nationalized by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government agency that assumes failed pension plans. Former leadership of the local suggested that fund mismanagement was to blame, triggering a Labor Department investigation.
Other Teamsters pension funds are also in serious jeopardy of becoming insolvent. The Central States Pension Fund, the New York State Teamsters Pension Fund, and other New York/New Jersey local pension funds are in jeopardy from substantial funding shortfalls. Central States sought to curtail benefit payouts to 270,000 Teamster retirees under a 2014 pension reform law; the Treasury Department rejected the application.
The Teamsters have a “union thug” reputation from their days under mafia influence, and over-the-line organizing tactics have continued into the modern era. Chicago-area Teamsters were given an injunction in 2013 for allegedly harassing mourners during a labor dispute with funeral homes.
Boston-area Teamsters faced heavy criticism for an incident in 2014. The staff of television show Top Chef were reportedly subjected to racist, anti-gay, and sexist verbal abuse and allegedly had their vehicles’ tires slashed by picketers with Teamsters Local 25.
Historically, Teamsters political support has followed the interests of the often-corrupt Teamsters leadership. During Jimmy Hoffa Sr.’s leadership, the Teamsters waged a vendetta against the Kennedy family of John and Robert. John had co-sponsored the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (the Landrum-Griffin Act), which sought to combat union corruption like that in the Teamsters union by requiring extensive financial reporting. Hoffa personally attacked John Kennedy during the 1960 Presidential campaign, though the Teamsters Union did not endorse either Kennedy or his Republican opponent Richard Nixon.
The Teamsters also plotted against John’s brother (and Attorney General) Robert F. Kennedy, who had been involved in the McClellan Committee’s investigations of the union. When Bobby ran for U.S. Senate from New York in 1964, the Teamsters actively worked to attempt to defeat the Democrat.
The Teamsters aligned with the Republican camp from 1972 through 1988 with the exception of 1976, after Richard Nixon pardoned Hoffa in 1971. After the George H.W. Bush Justice Department negotiated the consent decree in 1989, the Teamsters have backed the Democratic Presidential candidate in every election except 1996, when the union made no endorsement.
While the union was historically relatively non-ideological, since Ron Carey’s term as general president the Teamsters have swung hard to the left. From the time that the Center for Responsive Politics database of campaign finance begins in the early 1990s, Teamsters political action committees have contributed approximately 95 percent of their federal political contributions to help Democratic candidates. The union has also made substantial contributions to Democratic politicians, parties, and caucuses in Illinois, Missouri, and Florida, among other states.
While a small number of Republicans have received the support of Teamsters unions, the national Republican Party has attempted to win back the union’s support to no avail. In 2004, President George W. Bush and his political team sought to woo the Teamsters under James P. Hoffa; the union ultimately backed Democrats Dick Gephardt and John Kerry. Donald Trump reportedly hoped to capitalize on the Teamsters’ tepid support of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The union ultimately backed Clinton, in line with the position of the Teamsters’ Change to Win partners SEIU.
James P. Hoffa has served as the General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters since 1998, when he was elected in a special election after the 1996 election of Ron Carey (over Hoffa) was voided because of a campaign finance scandal. He is the son of infamous mob-associated former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. Prior to his election, Hoffa was an attorney for the Teamsters Union and an official in Teamsters Joint Council 43.
Ken Hall serves as Hoffa’s top lieutenant as General Secretary-Treasurer. Hall was accused by the union’s internal independent watchdogs of interfering in a corruption probe by withholding documents, though charges were later dropped.