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Tramps and Trade Union Travelers
Internal Migration and Organized Labor in Gilded Age America, 1870–1900

A thought-provoking analysis of how internal migration in Gilded Age America undermined collective organizing and workers’ political power.

Why has there been no viable, independent labor party in the United States? Many people assert “American exceptionalist” arguments, which state a lack of class-consciousness and union tradition among American workers is to blame. While the racial, ethnic, and gender divisions within the American working class have created organizational challenges for the working class, Moody uses archival research to argue that despite their divisions, workers of all ethnic and racial groups in the Gilded Age often displayed high levels of class consciousness and political radicalism. In place of “American exceptionalism,” Moody contends that high levels of internal migration during the late 1800’s created instability in the union and political organizations of workers. Because of the tumultuous conditions brought on by the uneven industrialization of early American capitalism, millions of workers became migrants, moving from state to state and city to city. The organizational weakness that resulted undermined efforts by American workers to build independent labor-based parties in the 1880s and 1890s. Using detailed research and primary sources; Moody traces how it was that ‘pure-and-simple’ unionism would triumph by the end of the century despite the existence of a significant socialist minority in organized labor at that time.

Kim Moody was a founder of Labor Notes and is the author of On New Terrain .

Reviews
  • "This terrific book by Kim Moody offers an entirely original take on the primordial question of why American labor was virtually unique in failing to build its own political party. But there's much more: in investigating labor migration and the 'tramp' phenomenon in the Gilded Age, he discovers fascinating parallels with today's struggles of immigrant workers."
    —Mike Davis, author, Prisoners of the American Dream

    "In this richly-detailed analysis, Kim Moody highlights how American workers in the Gilded Age were perpetually on the move -- by necessity, not by choice -- a reality that destabilized early trade unions and undermined political initiatives. So, Moody stresses, it was not some exceptional lack of working class consciousness that explains why no labor party arose in the United States in that earlier era, but rather a set of organizational challenges posed by the specifics of nineteenth century capitalist development on the vast American landscape. Moody's meticulous study, therefore, should be of vital interest not only to historians but to activists seeking to promote independent political activity generated by and for the working class today." 
    —Toni Gilpin, author, The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland

    "Kim Moody takes apart 'American exceptionalism' to show that the 19th century U.S. working class produced no labor party not because of a deficit of class consciousness. There was plenty of that, as shown in the plethora of strikes. Nor was it because American workers had it too good, or could homestead out West, or could rise into the middle class. Rather, it's because their constant movement from job to job and state to state, generated by the instabilities of capitalism, made it difficult to build unions that lasted long enough and were strong enough to also construct working class political institutions. It's sobering reading in this time of mass worldwide migration and precarious work."
    —Jane SlaughterLabor Notes

    "Kim Moody’ s Tramps and Trade Union Travelers: Internal Migration and Organized Labor in Gilded Age America, 1870-1900 is a seminal contribution to the ongoing discussion of the absence of independent working class politics in the US. Moody’s analysis goes beyond the factors that are usually cited to explain US working class formation-- racial, ethnic and gender divisions—that existed in most capitalist societies. Instead, Moody roots the specific trajectory of labor politics in the US in the specific form of capitalist development in the US—the continental expansion of a thoroughly capitalist agro-industrial frontier in the antebellum period. The constant geographic mobility of both capital and labor in gilded age America becomes the key to explaining 'why the US working class is different.'" 
    —Charles Post, author, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, c. 1620-1877

Other books by Kim Moody

  • On New Terrain

    An insightful and timely analysis of how global economic restructuring will impact workers' struggles in the US.
  • In Solidarity

    A thorough collection of inspiring and informed essays on applied Marxist theory and the future of labor unions.