Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana and was the son of a poor coal miner. His father died when he was young and Hoffa could not stay in school. Hoffa moved to Detroit to work in a warehouse. He was a natural leader who was annoyed at the mistreatment of workers, and in 1933, at just the age of twenty, he helped organize his first strike of "swampers," the workers who unloaded strawberries and other produce.
Hoffa rapidly advanced through the ranks of the Teamsters union, which organized truckers throughout the midwest and then nationwide through skillful use of quickie strikes, secondary boycotts and other means of leveraging union strength at one company to organize workers and win contract demands at others. The union also used less lawful means to bring some employers into line, creating the image of Teamsters as thugs that remains today.
Hoffa took over the Presidency of the Teamsters in the 1950's, when his predecessor, Dave Beck, was sent to jail. Hoffa worked to build the union and in 1964 succeeded in bringing virtually all American over-the-road truck drivers under a single national master freight agreement. Hoffa then pushed to try to bring the airlines and other transport employees into the union, greatly worrying the American government and business which saw how devastating a strike of all transportation systems could be for the national economy. For all the benefits that Hoffa and other Teamsters delivered for over-the-road drivers, other Teamsters locals did little more than sign sweetheart deals that made union officers rich and left workers poor. In industries such as garment delivery organized crime took over locals, then used their power to strike to bring an entire industry either under the mafia's control or at least vulnerable to blackmail.
Hoffa had a working relation with these racketeers, some of whom had played an important part in getting him elected General President of the Teamsters. Several Teamster chapter presidents were convicted for mob related crimes, and often would continue serving as Union leaders, including Antonio 'Tony Pro' Provenzano, in New Jersey. Moe Dalitz and Allen Dorfman funded many mob casinos, hotels, and other construction from the Teamsters pension fund.
Another group he allegedly had close ties to was the Republican party. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both put pressure on Hoffa, attempting to investigate his activities and disrupt his ever-growing union. The Kennedys especially were sure that Hoffa had pocketed a great deal of union money. The AFL-CIO also disliked Hoffa, having expelled the Teamsters in the 1950s, and aided the Democrats against him.
In 1967 he was convicted of attempted bribery of a grand juror and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In 1971, however, President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence on the condition that he not participate in union activities. Hoffa was planning to sue to invalidate that restriction in order to reassert his power over the Teamsters when he disappeared on July 31, 1975.
His fate is a mystery that continues to this day and there are many theories as to what happened to him. Among these are that Hoffa is buried under the New Jersey Turnpike,under the end zone at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, or at the PJP Landfill in Jersey City underneath the Pulaski Skyway. Another theory is that Hoffa was actually put in a cement-making machine and turned into cement. No theory has been proved and his body has not been found, but in 1983 he was pronounced dead and a death certificate was issued.
In the end, Hoffa was not nearly as beholden to the mob as his successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, who avoided prison by dying of cancer. While Hoffa was a brilliant tactician who knew how to play one employer off against another and who used the union's power to rationalize the industry by driving out weaker employers, Fitz was content to play golf [he always won when playing other Teamster officials] and taking in the other benefits of high office. The deregulation of the trucking industry pushed by Edward Kennedy and others in the late 1970s during Fitzsimmons tenure eventually destroyed much of what Hoffa had won for his members under the National Master Freight Agreement by making it much harder to maintain the high standards that Hoffa had achieved.
The book The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa by Walter Sheridan is a noted guide to the trials in Tennessee of Hoffa, although biased as Mr. Sheridan was one of RFK's lawyers. The book Contract Killer by William Hoffman and Lake Headley goes into great detail about Hoffa's murder.
Hoffa's son, James P. Hoffa currently leads the Teamsters.