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The role of the state is traditionally considered to have been critical in assisting rapid trade union membership growth in Australia in the early 1900s and in the USA from 1935 to 1945, through the introduction of the compulsoiy state arbitration system in Australia and the enforcement provisions of the US ‘Wagner’ Act respectively. However, a closer examination of the evidence indicates that neither was the decisive factor in trade union growth, although other forms of state intervention sometimes were. We conclude that the role of the state is far more complex and problematical than is often assumed in industrial relations literature, and that it warrants a greater focus in our research agenda.