Crossing Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa disappeared near Detroit 32 years ago today, and his name still is associated with that city. But Steve Harper, author of the new book "Crossing Hoffa," says the controversial Teamster leader's connection to Minneapolis is equally "strong and deep."

In "Crossing Hoffa," Harper tells of how his father, Jim, led an insurrection at Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544 from 1959 to 1961 that brought the senior Harper face to face with Hoffa. "My dad got a tip from someone he trusted that the leader of (Local) 544, Fritz Snyder, was misusing union dues," Harper said in an interview from his home in Wilmette, north of Chicago, where he is a partner in a law firm.

Jim Harper, who believed Jimmy Hoffa wanted clean locals, put together a slate of candidates to run against Snyder's picks in an election. "To my father's astonishment, all three of his guys won," Harper said. "He became the center of a gigantic cause that made front-page news in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He didn't realize this was not what Hoffa wanted. Hoffa came to town and told him to stop the insurrection. My father refused. For 18 months, he and my mother were on the receiving end of death and murder threats."

These were not false threats. Jim Harper's truck was tampered with twice, and only his driving skills saved him from being killed. Later, Harper and his wife, Mary, were confronted at a Minneapolis restaurant by a mysterious guy with a gun who warned Jim to back off.

Steve Harper was 7 years old when his dad was fighting this union battle, and he remembers Jim buying a guard dog and building a firing range in the basement of the family home. But it wasn't until Jim Harper's death in 2001, at the age of 73, that Steve began looking into this extraordinary period in his father's life.

"My search for answers to two questions drove this book," Harper said.

"On my father's side, I wanted to know why a man who had a wife, four kids and a dog would persist in a crusade like this after the most dominant figure in labor at the time told him to stop. On Hoffa's side, why would this gigantic figure in the labor movement, with millions of things on his mind - including federal prosecutors wanting to send him to jail - care about some inconsequential insurgency in Minneapolis? I wanted to trace each of their lives to the moment of their collision."

Harper thinks his father's refusal to back down can be traced to struggles early in his life.

Jim Harper grew up in Minneapolis, son of a strong-willed mother and a depressed alcoholic father who was a fine musician.

After serving as a paratrooper in the Army, Jim ended up in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison for passing $50 in bad checks. He spent 13 months surrounded by vicious offenders in what then was America's worst prison. When he got out, he had learned not to show any fear.

By 1954, Harper was working his way up as a driver at Werner Transportation and had joined the Minneapolis Teamsters local.

"I think my dad saw this union insurgency as his opportunity to atone for what he regarded as a life of failure to that point," Harper says.

But Jim Harper also was truly offended by misuse of union money collected from hard-working members, and he mistakenly thought this would offend Hoffa, too.

Jimmy Hoffa first walked the streets of Minneapolis in 1937, when he was 24 years old. He'd been sent to Minnesota to recruit over-the-road drivers after the labor strikes of 1934, which were organized by Socialist Workers Party member Farrell Dobbs.

"Hoffa was extremely successful in helping organize the locals," Harper said. "Several years later, he was sent back by the Teamsters' leadership, who were afraid Dobbs and his people were getting too big for their britches. This propelled Hoffa into the national Teamsters spotlight."

By the time Jim Harper became a Teamster in the early 1950s, Hoffa was on his way to becoming the most powerful man in American labor. He was elected Teamsters president in 1957, promising to clean up the union.

"People look back now and say Hoffa was a crook and into organized crime, but while he was Teamsters president the organization was growing at the rate of a thousand members a week," Steve Harper said.

"He was one of those people, based on my father's description, who had personal charisma. He was fearless and had gone through tough times in his early years. The working man could look at this guy and say, 'He's got guts. We need somebody like this.' Even when he was being investigated, as far as working-class guys were concerned, the government was making the guy a martyr, throwing unprecedented resources at him to put him in jail."

By the time Jim Harper spearheaded the Local 544 insurrection, Hoffa was in trouble. The Teamsters were being watched by a government-mandated Board of Monitors, and Hoffa was worried about fallout from complicated financial deals involving a Teamsters retirement village he wanted to build in Florida. The deals involved Minneapolis retailer Ben Dranow, some banks and Teamsters pension money. The last thing Hoffa needed was media coverage of Jim Harper's challenge to the leadership in Minneapolis.

Hoffa ultimately succeeded in suppressing the Local 544 audit Jim Harper had pressed for, which showed misuse of funds. Then, the union's General Executive Board ruled, "The evidence presented did not support the charges" Harper had brought against Fritz Snyder.

With the battle over, Jim Harper was frozen out as a union driver at Werner and eventually went into management as a supervisor at the Minneapolis terminal of an Iowa-based trucking company. Meanwhile, Hoffa went to prison in 1967 for misuse of the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund.

Although Jim Harper lost his union fight, he never blamed Hoffa.

"To the end of my dad's life, I'm not sure he thought the bad things that happened to him were Hoffa's fault," Steve Harper said. "He always had great respect for the man. My father was big on people who had flaws and made something of themselves anyway."

Jim also had mixed feelings, later in life, about the value of unions.

"He thought they had positive aspects in terms of working men, but he was always worried the leadership wasn't going to do what was in the best interests of the members," Harper said.

Jim Harper outlived Jimmy Hoffa by 26 years. Jim was watching television in 1975 when news broke that Hoffa was missing.

"They'll never find him," the old Teamster said.

He was right.


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