Robert Holmes – 1913-2006

Photo c. 2006 – The Detroit News

Teamsters founder ‘a real man of steel’

Bobby Holmes fought with former union chief Hoffa for ‘justice on the job’ since the 1930s.

Eric Lacy / The Detroit News

Robert W. “Bobby” Holmes, one of the Teamsters union’s founding fathers and confidant of former union President James R. Hoffa for more than 40 years, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at Harper Hospital in Detroit.

He was 94.

Holmes, of Farmington Hills, was a pioneer in the national labor movement who fought for workers’ rights, said current International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.

“He was a great leader who helped found the modern Teamsters as we know it,” Hoffa said. “On behalf of the Hoffa family, we extend our condolences. Both he and my dad were young men fighting for justice on the job.”

Holmes and James R. Hoffa worked together in the 1930s for the Kroger Co. unloading strawberries from boxcars. They inspired a strike at the company one summer day due to poor working conditions.

The strike would later become the start of the Teamsters union, James P. Hoffa said.

“My dad and Bobby saw the opportunity, that on a hot day the strawberries would rot (if not unloaded),” Hoffa said. “So they decided that summer was a good time to call a strike and call for better conditions.”

Holmes’ history in the Teamsters union runs deep. Holmes carried the third Teamsters card issued, said his friend Edward Robinson.

He also was the first secretary-treasurer of the union’s Local 337 in the 1930s.

Then, in 1961 he became president of Local 337, which was the largest local in Michigan.

And he was a member of the Teamsters executive board from 1966 until he retired as vice president of the Teamsters in 1989. Mr. Holmes also held positions as president of joint council No. 43 and director of the Central Conference of Teamsters.

He was born in Yorkshire, England, and when he was 14, he went to work in the coal mines for the equivalent of 32 cents an hour.

Holmes was sent by his parents to Detroit at the age of 16 to reunite with an uncle and start a better life.

But the uncle was never found.

So Holmes lived on the streets of Windsor until he was offered a job and room and board at a tobacco farm on Pelee Island.

He later returned to Detroit to work for Kroger, where he met James R. Hoffa and taught Hoffa how to unload boxcars, said Holmes’ wife, Violet.

Holmes’ struggles earlier in life helped him build a strong work ethic and desire to help others, his wife said.

“He was self-educated and accomplished everything on his own,” she said. “Nobody gave him anything.”

She said he held appointed posts on the Cobo Civic Center Commission, Port Authority and the Detroit House of Corrections and was appointed by Gov. William Milliken to the state Department of Natural Resources board.

He was also a devout Detroit Red Wings fan and attended the New Year’s Eve game. Six days later, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, his wife said.

Robinson, 72, Holmes’ friend for more than 42 years, describes the man as outgoing with a witty sense of humor.

Through his attitude and actions, Holmes was the kind of person who commanded respect.

Even through controversy, Robinson said Holmes stood by his longtime pal James R. Hoffa.

“He handled everything very well and was probably one of the most respected Teamsters by the media,” Robinson said.

“He was a man of truth, rigid in his principles and was a real man of steel. He was known by all to be an extremely honest man.”

Survivors of Mr. Holmes include his wife of 35 years and son, Robert Theodore Holmes.

Visitation is 2-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Heeney-Sundquist Funeral Home, 23720 Farmington Road in Farmington.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Clement Orthodox Church, 19600 Ford Road in Dearborn.

You can reach Eric Lacy at (313) 222-5374 or

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