Hoffa, Racism, and the Teamsters: The 1945 Detroit Mayor’s Race

As many people know by now, I’ve been looking into the historical relationship between the Teamsters and the State of Israel for a few months. Several online outlets including Counterpunch and the Stansbury Forum posted my original article The Teamster Connection: Apartheid Israel and the IBT. My interest in the subject was sparked by growing calls by many U.S. based unions for a ceasefire in Gaza. So far, neither the leadership of the Teamsters or any of its local affiliates or the longstanding reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) have called for a cease fire, and have, in fact, opposed such resolutions.

One important stage in the evolution of the Teamsters relationship with Israel was a testimonial dinner thrown for Jimmy Hoffa in April 1956. It was a major attempt to clean up Hoffa’s odious public image. The proceeds of the dinner were donated to the building of a children’s home in Israel. He was not yet the nationally known and notorious figure that he became following his appearance before the Senate Rackets Committee hearing in 1957. But, his thuggery and relationship with gangsters, however, were well-known in the labor movement, and, especially, in Detroit, his home base.

Curious, I decided to dive deeper into Hoffa’s lesser known but important resume building activities: his role in defeating UAW-CIO leader Richard Frankensteen’s run for mayor of Detroit in 1945. The 1945 Detroit mayor’s race is a real education in the deglamorization of Jimmy Hoffa, especially on the question of fighting racism. While Detroit witnessed much rank and file opposition to the UAW’s no-strike pledge, it also saw hate strikes against black workers and racist rioting over housing. With the war over, Detroit’s 1945 municipal elections saw any parameters of “wartime unity” erased.

According to an article in The Public Opinion Quarterly, written soon after the election, captured the brawl in its introduction:

Faced with the threat of a liberal candidacy of the UAW-CI’s Frankensteen, conservative forces in Detroit resorted to anti-Negro, anti-Semitic, and anti-“Communist” propaganda to elected their candidate, Jeffries, in one of the “most vicious, nasty campaign” in recent municipal history.

The Teamsters supported the incumbent Mayor Edward Jeffries, who ran a race-baiting campaign to defeat Frankensteen. The UAW and the Teamsters were bitter and contentious rivals in Detroit as well throughout Michigan and the Midwest. The Teamsters were prepared to use the most unsavory methods and make alliances with the most reactionary forces to defeat the UAW-CIO But, it’s not just a story of Teamster sabotage but also Frankensteen’s self-defeating strategy, especially, his failure to squarely fight racism in Detroit.

The Teamsters in Detroit Politics

According to Teamster historian Thaddeus Russell, the Detroit Teamsters in 1945,

“maintained their policy of opposing any candidate backed by the CIO. In the 1945 mayoral election, the CIO put its full weight behind an effort to elect UAW vice president Richard Frankensteen. As the national [CIO] PAC (Political Action Committee) and state and local CIO bodies pumped more than $200,000 into the Frankensteen campaign, the Teamsters did not hesitate to endorse the incumbent Jeffries.”

A publicly circulated letter by the Detroit Teamsters signed by Hoffa, Bert Brennan, and Joint Council President Sam Hurst endorsed Jeffries.

The Teamsters and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were thrown into a panic after Frankensteen won the largest share of votes in an eight person non-partisan primary in August 1945. Frankensteen was projected by the UAW-CIO as a “labor candidate” since the non-partisan nature didn’t require a party affiliation, even though he had a long history of involvement in Democratic Party politics. For example, as recently as 1944, he was a delegate to the Democratic Party convention.

Again, according to Russell,

“When Frankensteen scored an impressive victory in the primary, the concerted effort of the CIO behind his candidacy caused the Wayne County Federation of Labor [WCFL] to abandon its longtime opposition to Jefferies and finally agree with the Teamsters on the threat of the CIO’s entry into politics.”

For Russell, “The WCFL’s opposition to Frankensteen along with the vigorous Teamster campaigning and Jeffries’ race-baiting proved to be a winning combination among Detroit’s white working class, who reelected the incumbent by a margin of 56,000 votes.” Vigorous campaigning, indeed. Dan Tobin, the Teamsters national president at the time, wrote in the December 1945 issue of The International Teamster magazine in December 1945, “Frankensteen was defeated by only 56,000 votes. The Teamsters supported his opponent, Mr. Jeffries, not because they were in love with Mr. Jeffries but because we could not afford to support Frankensteen.”

Apparently, the Teamsters had enough affection for Jeffries and his sordid campaign by rewarding him with a major mobilization of Teamster members, family, and friends to the polls. Tobin boasted:

“The membership of the all of the local unions of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Detroit is close to 25,000. Each man was expected and almost commanded to bring one other vote to the polls besides his own. That would be his wife, his sister, his brother or some friend. That would make a total of 50,000 votes, which undoubtedly were delivered against Frankensteen. Some of the other American Federation of Labor not as large in membership as the Teamsters did the same.”

A Knight in Dull Armor

Even if Tobin’s vote count is off by a few thousand votes, the Teamsters role in the re-election of such a racist demagogue as Edward Jeffries is horrendous. But, there is more to the story, including Frankensteen’s hapless campaign. Dubbed “A Knight in Dull Armor” by Time magazine, Frankensteen proved continually unable to defend himself from a hailstorm of attacks and stupidly distancing himself from his trade union background, despite a much larger turn out of voter than the last time the UAW-CIO put forward a labor slate in 1937. Over 500,000 voters turned out in 1945, significantly larger than the 400,000 in 1937.

Writing as Martin Harvey in Labor Action newspaper, Martin Glaberman focused on several critical failings of the Frankensteen campaign. First, according to Glaberman was:

“During the whole campaign the initiative was in the hands of the reactionary Jeffries. It was he who determined the issues and set the tone of the campaign. Outstanding in the issues presented by Jeffries was the race question. Jeffries organized a widespread undercover anti-Negro campaign which surpassed his vicious use of the question in the last municipal election. The central idea was white supremacy in the City Hall and the maintenance of the “purity” of the all-white neighborhoods.”

Jeffries campaigners and supporters among white homeowner associations also, according to Harvey/Glaberman:

“distributed leaflets in Negro neighborhoods charging Frankensteen and the UAW with being anti-Negro. In the same way they initiated a whispering campaign charging that Frankensteen was Jewish, yet distributed newspapers in the Jewish neighborhoods charging Frankensteen with being a friend of Father Coughlin and an anti-Semite. Even the regular daily press gave support to this campaign by featuring prominently news items on the extent of Frankensteen’s Negro support and charging repeatedly that Frankensteen represented only a minority of the population.

“The second major issue,” according to Glaberman , “in Jeffries’ campaign which was constantly combined with the first was the “red scare” and the charge that the CIO wanted to take over the city. On both of these issues Frankensteen devoted his time to denying the charges. He did not represent the Negroes, he said, but all the people. He was not a red and the CIO did not want to take over the city. He offered no program for the Negroes to put an end to the discrimination and segregation to which they are subjected and he offered no program to labor or the people as a whole on the many vital problems which exist, foremost among them being jobs and security.

Frankensteen was reduced to “only positive statements were devoted to presenting himself as more efficient, as more concerned with improved bus service and cleaner alleys.” Glaberman summarized Frankensteen defeat:

“Without an aggressive program, for labor and the people, without calling on the middle class to support labor in this program, it was impossible for Frankensteen to answer the viciously reactionary charges of Jeffries. If his denials are valid, that is, if he does not represent labor but “all the people,” then why should anyone support him rather than Jeffries, who claims the same thing? If his denials are not true, that is, if he does represent labor, then why should the middle class, the storekeepers, the professionals, etc., support Frankensteen when they see no difference between “labor’s” program and Jeffries’ program?”

The 1945 Detroit municipal elections have fallen down the memory hole for the U.S. Left. It deserves a more extensive research and writing.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.