From an early age, Hoffa was a union activist and became an important regional figure with the IBT by his mid-20s. By 1952 he was national vice-president of the IBT, and was its general president between 1957 and 1971. He secured the first national agreement for teamsters' rates in 1964 with the National Master Freight Agreement. He played a major role in the growth and development of the union, which eventually became the largest (by membership) in the United States with over 2.3 million members at its peak, during his terms as its leader.
Hoffa became involved with organized crime from the early years of his Teamsters work, and this connection continued until his disappearance in 1975. He was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery and fraud in 1964, in two separate trials. He was imprisoned in 1967 and sentenced to 13 years. In mid-1971, he resigned as president of the union as part of a pardon agreement with PresidentRichard Nixon; he was released later that year, though barred from union activities until 1980. Hoffa, hoping to regain support and to return to IBT leadership, unsuccessfully attempted to overturn this order.
Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana on February 14, 1913, to Indiana natives John and Viola (née Riddle) Hoffa. His father, who was of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, died in 1920 when Hoffa was seven years old. The family moved to Detroit in 1924, where Hoffa was raised and lived the rest of his life. Hoffa left school at age 14 and began working full-time manual labor jobs to help support his family.