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Open Access Publications from the University of California

State Coercion and the Rise of U.S. Business Unionism: The Counterfactual Case of Minneapolis Teamsters, 1934-1941

  • Author(s): Eidlin, Barry
  • et al.

This paper examines a key shift within the U.S. labor movement in the 20th century, whereby the worker upsurge of the 1930s led to the emergence of the conservative “business union” model as the dominant organizational form in the postwar period.

Against deterministic arguments that view this transformation as an unavoidable result of organizational development or of deeply ingrained American ideological beliefs, I show that it was in fact the outcome of a political battle between competing models of working-class organization. I also argue that accounts that emphasize internal anticommunist faction fights or long-term legal processes overlook an important factor: state coercion. I contend that at certain critical junctures, coercive state intervention shaped the labor movement by cutting off other potentially viable trajectories.

I develop this argument through a deviant case analysis of a key local of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Minneapolis Local 574/544. While the IBT as a whole was an archetypal business union in most respects, the Trotskyist-led Local 574 embodied a potential alternate path, based on a competing social unionist vision.

Using counterfactual analysis, I seek to ascertain whether the Minneapolis model truly did constitute a viable alternate path for the Teamsters, and if so, why that path was not taken. My findings corroborate the hypothesis that Local 574/544 did in fact present a viable alternate path which enjoyed strong support, and that it was business union advocates mobilizing coercive state power that ultimately removed the Minneapolis model as an option.

In posing the questions of “what if Minneapolis had won?” and “why didn’t it?” this case study offers important insights into this critical juncture of U.S. labor history, enriches our theoretical analysis of how this fundamental shift occurred, and enhances our understanding of the ways in which the state enables and constrains processes of social change more broadly.

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