The John Morton Center hosts "Current Issues" lectures, seminars, conferences, and workshops on the histories, societies, politics and cultures of North American nations.

The JMC strives to engage in dialogue with multiple academic, cultural, political, and ideological viewpoints. We welcome speakers from a range of different backgrounds and persuasions. The views of our guests do not represent those of the Center.

Upcoming Events

April 20, 2023: "Organized Labor and the Teamster Union"

JMC Current Issues Guest Lecture:

“Organized Labor and the Teamster Union”

Date: Thursday, April 20, 2023
Time: 15:15–16:45
Place: University of Turku, Publicum, Lecture hall Pub3

Speaker: Dr. David Witwer, Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies, University of Helsinki, and Professor of History and American Studies, Penn State Harrisburg

Abstract: The lecture discusses the growth of organized labor in the 1930s through the lens of Jimmy Hoffa's career. Hoffa was 18 when he led his first strike and by the end of the decade, he had brought 20,000 members into his branch of the Teamsters Union in Detroit. In this same decade, the Teamsters Union was the fastest growing union in U.S. and it became the largest as well. Although we tend to assume organized labor's growth in the 1930s resulted solely from the CIO's breakthrough in the industrial sector, the AFL grew twice as fast, gaining 4 million members from 1937-1945, while the CIO gained 2 million in the same period.

The Teamsters were the largest interracial union in the US. Hoffa's early career in the 1930s and 1940s illustrates the complex interactions of class and race in organized labor in this period. African Americans made up about 30 percent of the Detroit Teamsters membership and held officer positions in some of the locals. The local that Hoffa had initially built up in the grocery warehouse sector, Local 337, was 50 percent African American. But other Detroit Teamster locals barred Blacks from joining or limited their access to certain jobs and these practices became the subject an investigation by the war-time Fair Employment Practices Commission. When challenged on these exclusionary practices Hoffa offered a forthright response that provides a window into the mix of class and racial identity on the part of American workers.

This lecture is a part of the course JMCT0004-3001, Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. History, Society, and Culture, but students not enrolled in that course may collect lecture pass entries.

David Witwer is the author (with Catherine Rios) of Murder in the Garment District (The New Press, 2020) as well as Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union and Shadow of the Racketeer (University of Illinois Press, 2008). Witwer also worked in the Labor Racketeering Bureau of the New York County District Attorney’s Office and served as a staff researcher at the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. He currently serves as the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair at the University of Helsinki.

Witwer lecture