Portrait of teamsters Union pres. Jimmy Hoffa. (Photo by Hank Walker/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Writer, author, and investigator Dan Moldea is a known quantity in Washington. Deep-voiced, broad-shouldered, opinionated, and physically imposing—born in 1950, he’s six-foot-four and about 250 pounds—Moldea commands any room he enters, as he did in June of 1979, when I first met him.
Back then, Moldea was using his considerable political skills as an advisor to Bill Hill, the firebrand leader of FASH, the Pittsburgh-based Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers. Hill was in Washington representing independent truckers, who’d shut down the nation’s highways to protest low fuel supplies, falling freight rates, soaring diesel prices, and suffocating restrictions on the sizes of trucks. Independent truckers were going bankrupt.
The 1979 independent truckers shutdown, the second in five years, had started when truckers blocked fuel depots in Ohio and North Carolina, closed down the Port of New Orleans, blocked 36 truck stops in New England, closed down the interstate outside of Topeka, and left watermelons and peaches rotting in fields and orchards from Georgia to California. A trucker was shot and killed for defying the shutdown in North Carolina, the Pennsylvania turnpike was blockaded by trucks at both ends, the stench of rotting meat was seeping from refrigerated trucks idled in Iowa, and nothing was moving in New Jersey. Hill was one of the “big three” in Washington negotiating relief for the truckers, along with Mike Parkhurst, head of the California-based Independent Truckers Association, and Jim Johnston, head of the Missouri-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
I was working with Johnston at the time, but I was out of my league. I had learned my organizing skills in South Chicago from the apostles of Saul Alinsky. Moldea had learned his by taking a deep dive into Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters (he was already a published author, of the 1978 bestselling The Hoffa Wars) and by pounding the pavement of the working class war zones of Akron, Ohio, his hometown.
Legend has it that it was in nearby Youngstown that FASH and Bill Hill had sealed their reputation as the tough guys of independent trucking when they engaged in a street fight with Teamster thugs who were reinforced by a machine gun mounted on a tripod. The Teamsters hated the independents, and especially the steel haulers, who they viewed as anti-union renegades. But they ended up on the short end of the Youngstown brawl, leaving the goon operating the machine gun dead on the street.
That’s the long way around the barn: the shutdown was ended when a group of weasels from the Carter administration promised they’d work on meeting the truckers’ demands, and slowly the country’s highways trickled back to life. Not surprisingly, the negotiators for the truckers were accused of selling out (after a lifetime of organizing and activism, Parkhurst, Hill, and Johnston have all passed from the scene, with Johnston, probably the most politically savvy of the group, the last to go), but the truth is that the truckers got most of what they were promised. Carter (and then Reagan) went on to deregulate the trucking industry in the hopes of snuffing out future troubles (it didn’t work, as there was another shutdown in 1983), while I decided that standing on cafeteria counters organizing the independents (“the first guy to call you an asshole is the guy you want as the leader,” an Alinsky acolyte told me, “if he doesn’t beat the crap out of you first”) was not a prescription for either financial stability or a long life. Not so for Dan Moldea, who went on to become one of the country’s leading authorities on organized labor, organized crime, the Teamsters—and Jimmy Hoffa.
For Moldea, the life and times of Jimmy Hoffa is a personal obsession, as the Hoffa saga is a kind of undercarriage of American history—ugly, oily, and strange, but essential. For Hoffa led a union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, that was, at its worst, the most corrupt and criminally compromised (or “mobbed up,” as it was said) labor organization in the country. But it was also a lifeline that delivered the American dream to tens of thousands of truckers.
All of those houses in Akron, Toledo, Youngstown, and Detroit, the homes of the rank-and-file, also housed men (and the Teamsters, then mostly men) who, because of their union, could put food on the table. And more: by the 1970s, the homes of unionized steelworkers, tire workers, autoworkers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and truckers in Akron, Toledo, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit, and Gary had new cars parked out front, vacation cottages in Michigan or Wisconsin, health insurance that worked, promises of pensions, and a good shot at sending their sons or daughters to the state university.
In the 1980s, conservative Reaganites nosed it around that the unions were ruining the country and were violent to boot. But those unions had successfully delivered what politicians couldn’t: a decent living wage and hope for the future. Violence? “Truckers didn’t get what they have by just asking for it,” Bill Hill once explained to me. Sadly, the thing that eventually brought down FASH, and put Bill Hill out of business, was not the collapse of the trucking industry, but the collapse of America’s industrial heartland.
That’s what makes Martin Scorsese’s film, The Irishman, so important. For while the film shines a light on the seamy underside of the IBT, the fulfillment of what Hoffa promised peeks through. And while the movie is more of a standard account of the Teamsters and the mob, the great sweep of its history gives us a glimpse of America’s past that we don’t normally see (it’s a “time machine,” as James Pinkerton wrote in these pages last week).
(Warning: the following contains spoilers.) Even Dan Moldea, perhaps the film’s most prominent critic, agrees, calling Scorsese’s treatment “a stunning work of filmmaking.” Sadly, it’s the details that the film gets wrong, and history is nothing if not for its details. One in particular stands out and it’s a doozy: Scorsese’s claim that Frank Sheeran, the “Irishman” of the film’s title, is Hoffa’s murderer, an act he carried out on the orders of Russell Bufalino, the head of the notorious Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pennsylvania crime family.
It was Sheeran who first made the claim to having murdered Hoffa in the book I Heard You Paint Houses— a title denoting the spattering of blood on woodwork. As Moldea points out, the claim is whole cloth. Sheeran, Moldea says, was a “pathological liar” with a “proclivity of confessing to crimes he didn’t commit,” which is what the author told Robert DeNiro, who played Sheeran in the film, when the two met for dinner in Washington, D.C., back in 2014. “You’ve been conned,” Moldea told DeNiro. The film went forward in any event, and is leading the Hollywood stretch run for the Oscars.
But if Sheeran didn’t murder Hoffa, then who did? While the answer to that question will hardly cause a hiccup in Trump-obsessed America, it’s not without interest. Then, too, you never know. Journalist Seth Hettena speculates that a mid-1980s FBI investigation into a concrete bid-rigging scheme that involved S&A Concrete, which was owned by the heads of two of New York’s most notorious families—and which supplied the concrete for Trump Towers—could be behind Rudy Giuliani’s warning that Trump can’t lay a glove on him because, as he says, he has “insurance.” That might well be, Hettena speculates. After all, S&A’s hands-on owner was Genovese crime family head Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (depicted by Dominick Lombardozzi in the Scorsese film), who was indicted in the bid-rigging scheme by—you guessed it—then-U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani, it seems, knows where a lot of the bodies are buried. So. To. Speak.
But no one, it seems, knows where Jimmy Hoffa is buried—except for Dan Moldea and his sources. That’s the result of Moldea’s dogged, 40-plus-year investigation into Hoffa’s disappearance, murder, and burial.
The details of the Hoffa murder, and its aftermath, are detailed in his authoritative 2015 article “The Disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa: Forty Years Later.” Therein, Moldea says that Salvatore Briguglio of New Jersey’s Provenzano crime family murdered Hoffa on July 30, 1975 on the orders of “Tony Pro” after picking him up from a suburban Detroit restaurant. Hoffa’s body was then placed in a 55 gallon drum and shipped via a Gateway Transportation truck to the PJP landfill (“Brother Muscato’s dump”) in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The burial of the drum was complicated, as it now likely rests under (as Moldea tells me) “15 to 30 other 55 gallon drums at the bottom of an 18 foot hole.” That is where Jimmy Hoffa, or what’s left of him, remains to this day. And Moldea says he’s willing to prove it. “We’re working with law enforcement officials on this,” he says, “and I’ll let you know what happens. It’s been a long journey.”