Fateful intersection

| July 08, 2008

When former Minneapolis-based trucking company executive Jim Harper passed away in December 2001, he left behind a box of keepsakes that held a mystery for his son, Steven. Among the various items was a large sheaf of documents and newspaper clippings from Jim’s days as an over-the-road Teamster driver in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Steven describes the lot as a “pretty good roadmap” through what he would later realize was Jim Harper’s fight to clean up corruption at Minneapolis-St. Paul Local 544.

That fight would eventually put him in direct confrontation with one of the most powerful men in America, International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President Jimmy Hoffa.

In the subsequent years Steven Harper set off on a journey to get to the bottom of a story whose events unfolded in the backdrop of his childhood. The resulting book, Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster’s Story, documents the lives of both his father and the long-disappeared Teamsters president and their fateful intersection in Minneapolis in 1961. Out last year in hardcover (Borealis Books) and now in audio format (Spoken Books), the history is an effective exploration of many things, not least among them a son’s intense need to dig out the reality of his family’s history.

Jim Harper found a calling behind the wheel of a 1950s-era Autocar, as his son tells it, when he became a union driver for now-defunct Werner Transportation in Minneapolis. “He was part of something bigger than himself,” Steven writes, namely the labor movement, “and his life seemed to be turning in an unambiguously positive direction.”

Under the tutelage of fellow driver Marvin Masteller, he learned the basics of downshifting to brake the engine while negotiating the windy two-lane Mississippi River Road, part of what would become his regular run from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Mauston, Wis. Masteller’s prime directive: “Master the truck, or it’ll kill you.” Jim brought to this newfound purpose a dedication to doing what was right – an apparent about face for a minor con man who’d come from a year in one of the most infamous prisons in American history at the age of 23. “There was more than one time when my jaw really dropped as I connected the dots in his story,” Steven says. “I had never known that my dad was in [Louisiana state penitentiary] Angola. I knew he’d been in prison, but no idea he’d been in that place. I just could not believe how he survived it.”

In later years, Steven says, “it haunted him. Even though he didn’t talk about it a lot, I know he worried that his indiscretions as a young man would come back to bite him and his kids throughout their lives. And he was wrong about that, but it was a source of consternation to him all the way through his life.”

At Angola, Steven writes, Jim was under the protection of an older inmate, who made sure prison justice was not served on the young man. When Harper became an over-the-road Teamster in 1954 at the age of 26, his new mentor, Marvin Masteller, similarly kept him from the minor hazing that all new drivers could expect. He was particularly vulnerable, too, having jumped ranks in his quick ascent from initial employment as a night clerk/typist.

Meanwhile, Hoffa proceeded on his way to donning the heroic mantle of an organized labor savior. Among the rank-and-file, including the young Jim Harper, Hoffa was looked to with a great amount of respect. “At the time, the alleged mob ties weren’t in the foreground for the average man,” says Steven. “This was long before he became the butt of the ‘Where’s Jimmy Hoffa?’ jokes. All the attempts to put Hoffa in jail had failed – he’d beaten all the raps, and the government had thrown the kitchen sink at him.” His tenacity astounded, and his commitment to union members put him a notch above all. “In terms of wages and quality of life,” Steven says, “he really changed a lot of people’s lives for the better.”

More at issue for Jim Harper in Minneapolis Local 544 became Fritz Snyder, Hoffa’s handpicked successor to corrupt former president Sid Brennan, who’d been connected to a group of extortionists busted after a car bombing. Jim Harper was becoming “increasingly concerned about the bad press his local was generating,” Steven writes. He had a rapidly growing family on his hands, and his association with crooks was not doing anything to help him “develop a respectable career.”

Inspired by Hoffa’s public anti-corruption and -crime rhetoric and growing evidence of Snyder’s misuse of Local 544 dues, Jim Harper and Marvin Masteller launched an insurgency, calling themselves and their supporters, who were many, the Rank and File Group. They offered a slate of candidates in the December 1958 leadership elections, and thus the stage was set for the confrontation in the book’s title.

In setting off on his principled quest in the name of what he believed was right, Jim Harper was launching into battles he had no way of being aware of. In perhaps the most dramatic succession of scenes in the book, he meets personally with Hoffa before a vote on the confidence of Snyder and others’ leadership is presided over by the general president himself, and Harper watches as nearly every supporter he’d had apart from Masteller falls away in the face of the power of the international organization and Hoffa himself.

“We’ve all been in that situation,” says Steven, “where people who you think are your friends start turning on you in funny ways.” Among all that he now knows about his father’s life, it’s this question that continues to trouble him: “What was he thinking? What was going through his mind as they all fell away?”

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