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“Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class” by Thaddeus Russell Alfred A. Knopf; 304 pages From the robber barons of the Gilded Age to the day before yesterday’s instantaneous dot-com billionaires, we don’t lack for stories of how the rich get richer. But the history of the working class has been all but ignored by the best-seller lists. Perhaps that’s due to a “to the victor go the spoils” version of history’s authorship. Or maybe the rich just make for better copy. “Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class” tries to break the breathless mogul monopoly. A meticulously researched book by Barnard College history professor Thaddeus Russell, it examines the rise and fall of the most famous labor leader in American history, not to mention the world’s most infamous missing person. Don’t look for a sensationalist read. Russell’s book is a pretty sober narrative, with abundant detail. With more characters than a Russian novel, a glossary to keep it all straight might have been a good idea. But be patient; the effort is worth it. James Hoffa’s personality was forged by early hardship and the dog-eat-dog world of Detroit’s labor battles during the Depression. Hoffa was born in the gritty coal-mining town of Brazil, Ind., in 1913. His father, a miner, died suddenly from unknown causes when Hoffa was just 7 years old, leaving the family in dire financial straits. Hoffa’s mother, Viola, provided for her four children by taking in washing and cleaning houses in the town’s wealthier neighborhoods. By 1924 the family moved to Detroit so that Hoffa’s mother could take a menial job in the fledgling auto industry. But her wages were so meager that the children were forced to go to work. Young Jimmy dropped out of school after the ninth grade to work at the Kroger’s supermarket warehouse loading dock. The hard labor gave him an unromantic view of the world. Unlike some of his brethren who embraced socialism, Hoffa was anti-intellectual. If anything, he had a Hobbesian view of the world (though he probably would never have admitted knowing who the British philosopher was). “Every day for the average individual is a matter of survival. Life is a jungle. Ethics is a matter of individualism,” Hoffa recalled later in life. That philosophy would carry Hoffa to the heights of the labor movement, a hero to some and a villain to others. In the darkest days of the Depression, one-third of Detroit’s workforce was unemployed — the highest rate of any major city in the U.S. At the loading dock, company foremen fired workers at whim. Hoffa recalled that he hated the long hours and low pay. But it was ultimately the “outrageous meanness” of the foremen that radicalized him. In 1931, the teen-age Hoffa helped lead a strike against Kroger’s. The strike was a qualified success, but Hoffa eventually lost his job for other reasons. Because of his organizing skills, the Teamsters asked Hoffa to be a business agent. He received no salary but rather a percentage of new members’ dues. Through sheer force of will and outright thuggery, the diminutive Hoffa swiftly rose through the union hierarchy. Russell devotes most of the book to unraveling the byzantine world of the 1930s labor struggle. It was a world where unions spent as much time fighting other unions over turf as they did battling management for better pay and improved working conditions. Along the way, Hoffa took the lowly Teamsters from a small union to the strongest in the country, with more than 2 million members by the late 1950s. And it was an organization that could put a stranglehold on the nation’s shipping and business. Russell shows how Hoffa opened the door to organized crime by putting the Teamsters’ pension fund in control of the Union Casualty Life Insurance Agency of Chicago, which had mob ties. Soon mobsters were skimming money from the fund. Despite this looting, the rank and file never wavered in its loyalty to Hoffa, because he always delivered when it came to getting better wages and working conditions. But his reign didn’t last. Hoffa became a victim of the country’s less union-friendly postwar mood. During the Eisenhower era, a more conciliatory form of trade unionism came into favor, and labor leaders like Hoffa faced tough times. As a Senate counsel and then U.S. attorney general, Robert Kennedy spearheaded the legal effort against the Teamster boss. The struggle between the two men is fascinating, and Russell takes the reader into this oddly macho clash between the street-tough Hoffa and the urbane, self-righteous Kennedy. On one occasion, Russell recalls, the two men actually arm-wrestled. Kennedy’s relentless pursuit of Hoffa was ultimately successful in 1964, when the labor leader was convicted of jury tampering and conspiracy and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 1971, Richard Nixon granted Hoffa clemency in return for the Teamsters’ support in his close 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy. Then, Hoffa simply vanished. What ever became of him? When last seen, in 1975, Hoffa was about to have lunch with a member of a New Jersey crime family. Like the shooter on the grassy knoll, or the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart, Hoffa’s disappearance is one of America’s great mysteries. So it’s altogether fitting that Jimmy Hoffa’s middle name was “Riddle.”

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