Every couple of years, somebody claims to have figured out what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. The legendary labor leader, who mysteriously disappeared nearly half a century ago, was supposedly buried under the old New York Giants stadium in the Meadowlands. Or else under some farmland near Detroit. Or in a lake near Las Vegas. Or in a landfill in New Jersey.
Nobody so far has come close to the truth—the whereabouts of his remains will likely never be known—but at least a smidge of Hoffa, a bit of his tough-guy quintessence, is easy to find. It’s sitting right across the table on this chilly afternoon in late December at a hotel bar near LAX.
Even if she doesn’t look anything like him.
“The core value of the Teamsters, that’s what I grew up with,” says Lindsay Dougherty, the new head of the union in Hollywood, a self-described “tough motherfucker” who has so much “respect” and “admiration” for Hoffa that she actually has the image of his face tattooed on her left bicep. “Hoffa was larger than life. He was willing to take a beating for his members. We lost sight of that. We lost sight of our mission. But I’m stepping on dicks every day fighting for my members.”
Dougherty, just 39, has already stepped on quite a few, making history as the first female to ascend to such a high position at the union. Appointed in May 2022 as the new leader of Teamsters Local 399, she is now one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, representing more than 6,500 below-the-line industry workers in Los Angeles—drivers, location managers, scouts, dispatchers, mechanics, food handlers, and animal wranglers, among others—without whom not a single minute of film or TV could be produced in this town. And she’s assumed all that power at a particularly fraught moment in labor relations in L.A., as a slew of other above-the-line guilds, like the WGA, the DGA and SAG-AFTRA, are all poised for possible strikes this spring and summer. How she positions her Teamsters in relation to those potential work stoppages could have a mighty impact on how negotiations with producers and studios proceed.
“All of the unions should be working collaboratively,” she says. “All of our issues are the same.”
Tall, lean, with a precision-cut mane of raven hair and a tableau of tattoos covering her arms—not just Hoffa’s face but also representations of union trucks and horses as well as the fabled “Strawberry Boys,” the roughnecks Hoffa once traveled with to battle the goons sent to break up union demonstrations—she’s definitely a radically new face of labor. And yet, in a lot of ways, she’s also a throwback to the more rough-and-tumble days when union bosses came up through the ranks, not law schools or MBA programs, and spoke as bluntly and plainly as the tradesmen they represented.
“A lot of people say I’m too aggressive, too rough,” she notes. “In reality, I’m just direct, and there’s a lot of people who can’t stand that kind of honesty and truth from women in our business”
Dougherty grew up in a union family in one of the most unionized cities on earth—Detroit. Her father, Pat Dougherty, was a Teamster, but her mother, Penny, was every bit as tough as her dad, maybe even more so. “Everybody knew she was the real badass of the family,” she says. It was the sort of hardscrabble, Irish working-class neighborhood where Hoffa’s picture hung on the wall next to photographs of the pope and JFK.
She started following her dad around work at 12, when he brought her to the Detroit set of Polish Wedding, a 1998 drama starring Lena Olin, Gabriel Byrne and Claire Danes, on which her father had a gig as transportation captain. During high school, she dabbled for a while as a movie extra in films shooting around Detroit, like 8 Mile and worked as a transportation dispatcher on Michael Bay’s The Island. It was her first movie as a Teamster in Detroit Local 337. “A shit show,” is how she describes that troubled production, “and I loved it.”
My dad was a tough negotiator. We argued for sport.
In 2006, at 23, she moved to L.A., staying on friends’ sofas in Mar Vista and Venice Beach, which is when she first joined local 399. Before long, she started landing transportation dispatcher jobs on movies like Django Unchained, Water for Elephants and Transformers while also getting involved in union politics.
She began her rather meteoric climb up the union ladder in 2014, becoming a “business agent,” a catchall job involving hearing member complaints, collecting dues, keeping records, running the office, and organizing the executive board’s schedule. Within a year, she was an organizer, representing members who filed grievances. By 2021, she was the Teamsters’ point person for contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, successfully lobbying for a 3 percent annual wage bump and increasing funds into the union’s health and pension plan.
“My dad was a tough negotiator,” she says, explaining her natural talent for corporate confrontation. “We argued for sport.”
Around that same time, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., Hoffa’s son, announced the end of his 23-year reign as president of the national Teamsters, and Dougherty saw an opening. She was much less of a fan of Junior, a lawyer by profession than she was of his working-class dad. “Hoffa Jr. started to run the union with consultants and operatives,” she says. “He didn’t want to be challenged, he never came out of the rank and file, didn’t work from the bottom up.”
Before retiring, Hoffa Jr. had hand-selected his own candidate for a successor as union boss, a Colorado Teamster named Steve Vairma, who picked as his running mate an old guard L.A. Teamster, Ron Herrera, then head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. But Dougherty chose to support their opposition, headed by a Boston Teamster named Sean O’Brien, and she went on the campaign hustings to help drum up support for O’Brien with younger, more diverse union members.
With 1.2 million voting members worldwide, it was no small undertaking, and at times, it got ugly on the campaign trail, with Herrera accusing O’Brien of being a “Boston racist” and Vairma slurring Dougherty as a “token” woman being trotted out at campaign stops to appeal to female union members. Dougherty responded in character, posting on social media that she resented being criticized by a “misogynist for simply having a vagina.”
Surprising just about everyone, O’Brien ended up winning the election. And to the victor go the spoils. The following year, O’Brien appointed Dougherty made her director of the Teamsters’ Motion Picture and Theatrical Trade Division, which puts her in charge of union negotiations with the entertainment industry not just in L.A. but all of North America, representing a total of about 15,000 workers.
“She’s a woman with old-school values and new ideas,” O’Brien says of his new lieutenant. “She is the face of the Teamsters’ future.”
Not long after she assumed office, Dougherty discovered that revenge was indeed a dish best served up cold, or even lukewarm. When old campaign opponent Herrera found himself in hot water in October 2022—he was among those attending the infamous L.A. City Council meeting held at Herrera’s L.A. County labor federation headquarters in which Nury Martinez, Kevin De León and Gil Cedillo were secretly taped making racist comments about other council members—Dougherty demanded (and got) the immediate resignation of the guy who’d only a year earlier accused O’Brien of being a Boston racist. (Rumors that it was Dougherty herself who leaked the recording of that meeting have never been proved, and she fervently denies any such involvement).
Throughout her term so far, Dougherty—who lives with her husband, a Teamster captain, in southern California, along with their three French Bulldogs, Guinness, Finn, and Cillian—has continued to push a Hoffa-style working-class agenda, although with decidedly modern twists, some of which might not have entirely pleased Jimmy Senior. In June, she inaugurated the Teamsters’ first-ever participation in L.A.’s Pride Parade. She’s also added more women and African Americans to her executive board, pressing for a more diversified union. And in January, she organized a massive contingent of Teamsters to join ceremonies around Los Angeles honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
None of the above, she says, contradicts her plan to return the Teamsters to their original mission, the one Jimmy Hoffa and his Strawberry Boys battled for back in the 1950s and ’60s.
“That’s who I am,” she says. “The old-school Teamster, the fighter. It’s really about representing and fighting for the working class. This country is not the same as when our parents were coming up. The middle class is watered down, and the only way we are going to elevate the working class is by organizing. If we lift our members up, we lift up the middle class. That’s why we have to keep fighting.”
As if to accentuate the point, she holds up her hands, where her mission as a union leader is literally tattooed into her palms. “Help Me,” the tat says inside her right hand. “Help You,” it says inside her left.
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