The newest Martin Scorsese film gives life to one of the major theories behind controversial union leader James “Jimmy” Hoffa’s mysterious unsolved disappearance in the 1970s — and also shines a light on his allegedly once-corrupt group, the Teamsters.
"The Irishman," which hit limited theaters Friday, November 1, and Netflix on Nov. 27, depicts the 1975 vanishing of Hoffa (Al Pacino), the leader of the Teamsters union, from the point of view of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the mob hitman who has since taken credit for killing Hoffa. The movie is based upon the account Sheeran gave author Charles Brandt for his 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses.” While the legitimacy of this account has been questioned, particularly how accurate its claim that Hoffa was killed by Sheeran is, there are plenty of elements that are undeniably rooted in reality, including many aspects of Hoffa's involvement with the Teamsters.
While most people at least vaguely recognize the name Teamsters, and hearing the phrase while watching this film is unavoidable, what exactly is it?
Well, the Teamsters are the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a North American labor union, known best for representing blue collar workers. The Teamsters calls itself America’s largest and most diverse union for workers: It organizes workers who want to bargain collectively until a contract is negotiated and signed. Then what that happens, it aims to help enforce the contract and make sure that management does what they agreed upon.
“Wages and benefits under Teamster contracts are markedly better than those of non-union employees in similar jobs,” the group claims on its site. “Teamster contracts are the guarantors of decent wages, fair promotion, health coverage, job security, paid time-off and retirement income.”
The group started off as two team driver associations that merged together back in 1903.
“These drivers were the backbone of America’s robust economic growth, but they needed to organize to wrest their fair share from greedy corporations,” the Teamsters claims on its site. “Today, the Union’s task is exactly the same.”
While it's most famous for representing both freight drivers and warehouse workers, its website states they “have organized workers in virtually every occupation imaginable, both professional and non-professional, private sector and public sector.”
Over 1.4 million members, which vary in occupation from newspaper workers to zookeepers to airline pilots, belong to the Teamsters, according to the group. And there are close to 1,900 Teamster affiliates throughout North America. “Name the occupation and chances are we represent those workers somewhere,” the website states.
But the group does have a somewhat sordid history. Just look at Hoffa: When he ran the group, he was accused of having mob connections; Hoffa was then convicted in 1964 of both fraud for funneling Teamsters union pension money to mafia-backed projects and of trying to bribe a grand juror.
And while the group denies accusations of corruption, allegations against the union didn't dry up when Hoffa vanished. For example, commission member and mob boss of the Genovese family, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, rigged the Teamsters presidential election in Roy Williams' favor in the 1980s, according to "I Heard You Paint Houses." More recently, Chicago’s top Teamsters leader John Coli Sr. was indicted in 2017 on extortion charges for using threats to get $325,000 worth of payoffs from a Chicago film studio over the course of two years, according to a 2017 Chicago Tribune story. Coli stepped down from his position, where he oversaw over 100,000 union members, after pleading guilty earlier this year, the Chicago Sun Times reported.
His dad, Eco James Coli, was a treasurer for the Teamsters, and was also believed to be a mob associate and possibly even a hitman, according to the Sun Times.
Then there's Rome Aloise, former leader of a California Teamsters division who was banned from the organization last year after a judge found him guilty of accepting gifts from employers, according to the Washington Free Beacon.
But the group's often-tainted reputation has apparently actually served as an asset for the Teamsters, according to a New York Times article from 1996.
"They [prospective members] get frustrated when they see employers breaking the law, and ask what we can do,'' Vicki Saporta, then-Teamsters organizing director, told the outlet in 1996. ''Some people actually get upset when we don't live up to that image, when we don't break the law.''
And the organization still has ties to Hoffa. Hoffa’s son James P. Hoffa has been the current president of the Teamsters Union since 1999. His bio says he “up grew up on picket lines and in union meetings.”
(He is also referred to as his dad's only son, but the senior Hoffa did have a foster son named Chuckie O'Brien... who was named as one of the top suspects in his disappearance.)
Last year, the Teamsters celebrated the elder Hoffa, calling him a “leader who changed the course of history for working men and women in America” through his tough bargaining skills.
“He worked hard to expand the number of working men and women who were protected by union contracts and, under his leadership, the union’s membership rose to include more than 2 million workers,” the Teamsters stated, adding that in 1964, the same year he was convicted of fraud, he united more close to half a million drivers under one contract, entitled the National Master Freight Agreement.
“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,” the Teamsters claim.
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