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History and independent politics in the U.S.

A review of “Tramps and Trade Union Travelers”

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

by Kim Moody

Haymarket Books, 2019

Why is there no labor-based party in the United States? This is a question asked often on the Left, and it has been the subject of plenty of debate in the new socialist movement.

Kim Moody, a co-founder of Labor Notes, aims to provide an answer to this question with his 2019 book, Tramps and Trade Union Travelers: Internal Migration and Organized Labor in Gilded Age America, 1870-1900.

Tramps and Trade Union Travelers is densely packed with illuminating history, and it draws on the authority and factual evidence of a broad array of research. It is a strong follow-up to Moody’s 2017 book, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, which examined the conditions facing the contemporary U.S. workers’ movement. Tramps offers us a look into the past to deepen our understanding of the party problem in the U.S.—something all labor radicals would benefit from.

There were three major efforts at independent working-class political action between 1870 and 1900. Each attempt failed. Moody argues that these efforts were undermined more by objective conditions specific to U.S. capitalism at that time than the form of electoral institutions or the failings of any person, group, or organizational method.

The book offers a compelling explanation why labor-based parties were unable to survive. By recounting the history, Moody pushes back against the rationales of many radicals today who argue that it is near-impossible to build labor-based political organization and therefore the way forward is through the Democratic Party.

U.S. workers on the move

Economic instability undermined labor-based parties in the U.S.; at the end of the 19th century, when workers in capitalist democracies were forming labor and socialist parties, a corresponding party never established itself here.

Moody prefaces the book with his general thesis: “High levels of internal migration in Gilded-Age America undermined the stability and growth of trade unions and labor-based parties.” The social forces that could compose a working-class political party in the U.S. were in a constant state of flux, thus every effort fell apart. In fact:

nearly six million people crossed state borders into just twelve states between 1870 and 1900, while perhaps twice as many migrated within those states.

These numbers are impressive considering that in 1870 there were only 38 million people in the U.S., very different from 330 million today.

Moody writes that this working-class transience is the “missing piece” of the puzzle when considering class formation in the U.S.; migration was both “a cause and consequence” of class disruption. This explains, among other things, the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor, an organization that factored in greatly in the labor party efforts of the 1880s.

The Knights were the first mass working-class organization in the U.S., and they operated more like a social movement than a union federation or political party. They welcomed workers of all skill levels into their ranks, crossing race and gender lines. However, the Knights did exclude Chinese people—a blemish on the U.S. workers’ movement at the time.

The Knights gained prominence in the early 1880s, and then ballooned to 750,000 members during the mass strikes of 1886. They would play the key role in labor party efforts in that decade, and then quickly decline after 1887. The constantly transforming composition of the working class made the Knights a difficult organization to maintain.

The comparison with the British labor movement is instructive. British unions saw their membership double between 1885 and 1895. This increased organizational capacity provided the material base for the formation of the British Labour Party in 1906.

British conditions had the advantage of compactness, fewer sites of industrial production to push and pull workers, and a more stable economy. By 1900, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers had organized 50 percent of its particular British industry, while in the U.S., the International Association of Machinists had organized 11 percent. This helps explain why a British Labour Party was able to begin to operate successfully.

Three phenomena contributed “to the high degree of geographic mobility” in the U.S. between 1870 and 1900: volatility, class formation, and space. The chaotic nature of capital accumulation in the U.S. led to employment fluctuation and turnover, and the hardening of class lines rendered upward mobility out of wage-work more difficult. These conditions drove workers to migrate in massive numbers across the vast territory and extensive network of industrial production of the U.S., disrupting the organization of unions and labor-based political parties.

Moody gives weight to other factors as well. One is the disproportionate power of the U.S. capitalist class “in relationship to the state and civil society, as well as to labor.” Another is “the competition and conflict of the racial, ethnic, and gender groups” within the working class. These factors and that of state repression each help to explain the continuously shifting ground that the U.S. workers’ movement stood on.

As Moody describes in Tramps, the high turnover and ever-fluctuating levels of employment, constantly made, unmade, and remade labor organization. Union efforts to mitigate the effects of tramping with union traveling cards and keep-away notices were ineffective, in some ways they inflicted further damage.

Perhaps nothing signifies this market chaos better than the incredible fluidity of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the locals averaged about 49 percent turnover annually:

At the founding convention in 1893 there were forty-three delegates. Of those only four appeared at the third convention in 1895, which had twenty-six delegates. No delegates from the 1893 convention were present at the 1900 convention, which was attended by eighty delegates, and only two people from 1895 were present in 1900–and they were the president and secretary treasurer.


The Strike by Robert Koehler


Party-building efforts

There were three efforts at independent, working-class political organization between 1870 and 1900: after the 1877 national railroad strike, during the 1886-1887 mass strikes, and around the 1894 convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). All three temporarily subverted the existing state of affairs in mainstream politics, realigning class lines in party life in several major industrial cities. While class struggle was the catalyst for these efforts, and workers initially flooded into unions, instability in the economy and rapid turnover ultimately played a major role in their unraveling. It only makes sense that “relatively stable worker organization” is “essential” for the success of “labor-party movements.”

The 1877 railroad strike began in West Virginia then became national in scope, spreading like summer lightning. Due to the “network quality” of the railroad, it quickly spread around the country and led to the growth of the Workingmen’s Party of the United States.

The rail strike drew in masses of sympathetic workers all over the country, taking on “near insurrectionary proportions.” The ensuing use of force to suppress the strike revealed to workers the class makeup of the U.S. state, and led them to independent political action. Many of the strike leaders were later elected to local office. Workingmen’s and Greenback Labor Party candidates won office in several cities in the wake of the strike. However, the unions were not strong enough to support something like a national labor party and middle-class reformers ultimately became dominant.

The labor press played a crucial role in the spread of the mass strikes in 1886-1887, and in connecting the economic base to the political side of the struggle. This helped to cohere a network of labor radicals across workplaces, industries, and localities. Labor historian Norman Ware wrote that “the political campaign of 1886,” which followed in the wake of high-profile strike victories, “was the most successful ever conducted by labor in the United States.” The Knights were key to this movement, and even the AFL, at its founding convention in December 1886, resolved to support the movement for independent labor politics.

These developments posed a threat to the two-party arrangement. Moody explains how the ruling class responded:

In city after city, the old two-party system disappeared as Republican and Democratic elites rushed into fusion “citizens’ slates,” or united behind a single candidate to oppose the new labor parties in Chicago; Milwaukee; Denver; Cincinnati; Rochester, New Hampshire; and Rutland, Vermont, among others.

The problem was, labor politics depended in large part on the Knights and the mass of industrial workers flowing into that organization. But as quickly as they mushroomed in size, the Knights began to collapse, and the labor party movement and labor press collapsed with them.

A third attempt

The third attempt at forming a labor-based party showcases perhaps best of all the level of class, even socialistic consciousness, that existed among the organized sections of the U.S. working class in this period.

Unlike previous attempts, the 1893-1894 effort was initiated by labor officials, organizers, and activists, and it was initiated during an economic downturn. It also took place as the agrarian People’s Party, or Populists, were appearing on the scene. An alliance between labor unions and farmers seemed to many radicals like a good way to break with the two-party system. The concept of a Labor-Populist alliance drew support all over the country, not just within the AFL, but also Eugene Debs’ 150,000-member American Railway Union (ARU). At least 300 AFL members ran for office in 1894, mostly for state legislature.

A resolution to adopt the “political program” of the British Independent Labor Party (ILP) was introduced to the 1894 AFL convention. The ILP had a reform socialist platform, including the famous “Plank 10,” which called for “collective ownership” of production and distribution. The resolution garnered incredible support among the AFL rank and file, as well as the militant WFM, and Debs’ ARU.

Prior to the convention, a referendum on the “political program,”and “plank 10,” was held among member unions and affiliates. Delegates were then sent to convention with instructions to carry out the will of their members and vote accordingly. Even Samuel Gompers, AFL leader and architect of “pure and simple unionism,” was “sure it would pass:

The results of the referendum taken by the affiliates as well as by state federations and local central labor councils were astounding, with a large majority of the members voting in favor. The political program was passed in full by the memberships of the Cigar Makers [home of “pure and simple” unionism], United Mine Workers, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, Lasters, Flint Glass Makers, Tailors, Brewery Workers, Painters, Electrical Workers, Furniture Workers, Street Railway Employees, and many others.

The “political program” was supported by votes in the state federations of Ohio, Montana, Michigan, New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, as well as in the city councils of Baltimore, Cleveland, Toledo, Milwaukee, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and New Haven.

This level of support was certainly a byproduct of the militant Homestead and Pullman strikes that had taken place recently. The resolution would have passed at the AFL convention had it not been for the intrigues of Gompers, Cigar Makers official Adolph Strasser, and other conservative craft union leaders.

As Moody writes, Gompers-Strasser-style “pure and simple” unionism would come to dominate, “despite the existence of a significant socialist minority in organized labor”—socialists held a third of the vote at the 1894 AFL convention.

What independent labor politics the AFL would have been able to produce is uncertain, even if the resolution had passed.

The U.S. labor movement, while weak, showed that at least in the realm of class consciousness, U.S workers “weren’t so different from their British colleagues.” Yet, without a stable social base and organizational capacity, what are we to make of labor politics?

The new American exceptionalism

Tramps and Trade Union Travelers subtly challenges many of the arguments made today that independent working-class politics are impractical or impossible.

The idea that current electoral rules make class independence impossible could be characterized as a modern iteration of American exceptionalism—the theory that the U.S. is inherently different than other nations. Moody shows how labor party efforts between 1870 and 1900 were not knocked down primarily by electoral rules or institutions, but by economic volatility which could be just as damaging to business as to labor.

Arguments along these lines are not new. Werner Sombart asserted in 1906 that the U.S. electoral system erected nearly insurmountable barriers to alternative parties through its two-party “monopoly.” Others have pointed out that first-past-the-post elections pose disadvantages to alternative parties compared to proportional representation. Moody responds to these claims about barriers to independent working-class politics by quoting sociologist Robin Archer:

Before 1900 no European country used proportional representation for national elections, and no large European country used it before the end of the First World War. Thus, these obstacles, far from being unique to the United States, were actually the norm.

Ironically, after spending so much time explaining how far-fetched U.S. socialism was, Sombart concluded that the U.S. system of elections was not so impregnable, writing:

If it were really possible to unite the broad sections of the working population…no election machine, however complicated, and no monopoly of major parties, however longstanding, would halt such a triumphant march.

Proportional representation and parliamentary governance did not exist in Europe prior 1900. It only arose as the result of social and political crises following in the wake of popular insurgency. Parliaments were often a concession to the workers’ movement, other times they were used as a method of absorbing militancy, or protecting the property-holding elite.

Many labor and socialist parties in capitalist democracies emerged prior to the establishment of proportional representation. Their actual existence brought about greater democracy, as the capitalist class was forced to respond to pressure leveraged against the system. Undemocratic election systems are not unique or exceptional to the U.S. experience, but the chaos of U.S. capitalism and the tremendous movement of workers were special conditions.

There is also a tendency—prevalent on the Left today—to envision the road to a workers’ party as being purely a legal one. Some conceive of political parties as candidate-producing machines that exist simply to contest elections, rather than as democratic, mass-membership organizations that can be the political expression of the masses in motion. The social interests of the most oppressed in our society, who often cannot vote , also seem to be left out in this party model.

A legalistic approach leads, in effect, to the idea that the Left should only contest Democratic Party ballot lines. The history in Tramps shows us that election systems that are meant to be exclusionary, need not necessarily be.

While the two-party monopoly of capitalist parties seems difficult to circumvent today, prior to the New Deal realignment of the 1930s, alternative parties were a regular feature of the U.S. political landscape. While they may have not been dominant forces, alternative parties did play a major role in shaping popular perceptions, and they also affected the outcomes of presidential elections, and the formulation of national policy.

Of course, Moody writes, “that is, when alternative parties aren’t dismissed outright.” This is something that is common today among those taken with the Democratic ballot line, who seem to believe that if it does not take place in a Democratic Party election, it is not politics.

Moody recalls Mark Voss-Hubbard’s observation:

during the “party period” from the 1830s to the 1896 election, there was a deep antiparty sentiment toward the mainstream capitalist parties in the U.S., and much policy formation in U.S. history came from the actions of socially rooted voluntary associations.

There is undoubtedly a similar “antiparty sentiment” in the U.S. today. Rather than cultivating this independent working-class consciousness, one worries that fixation on the Democrats by many socialists is leading to regeneration and legitimation of a party that was deeply unpopular just a few years ago.

Instead, it would make sense to introduce—and fight for—the necessity of an explicitly working-class party to potential supporters. It was the popularity, after all, of labor and socialist parties in capitalist democracies, that allowed them to break through any roadblocks put in their way.


Prior to political realignment in the 1930s, “the idea of independent political action by organized labor” was essential to the “culture of resistance” of the U.S. workers movement, particularly among its most advanced layer. Just because these efforts failed, does not mean we that should throw our hands in the air and declare that a labor-based party is impossible. If we cannot build such a party, then socialism, liberation from oppression, radical democracy, and so on, are all utopian crusades.

Tramps suggests that preconditions for a workers’ party in the U.S. include: a) an upsurge in working-class militancy and self-activity, and b) a period of stable union or labor organization, or a sturdy foundation. The next great battle for a U.S. workers’ party will require a high level of struggle, labor movement growth, and organizational cohesion—not simply a smart legal maneuver.

It is also hard to believe that an inclusive and radically democratic mass party could be built without it being a direct product of workers’ struggles, workers who feel ownership over party policies and administration. This seems entirely out of the question when thinking about a top-down operation in the Democratic Party.

The Left cannot accomplish any of these things on its own, but it should not remain a passive spectator either.

The Left has historically played a prominent role in leading the labor movement into new organizational forms as the capitalist work process has evolved. Revolutionary syndicalists, socialists, and communists, for example, played the leading role in the fight for industrial unionism. These radicals understood that only mass action and organizing as many workers as possible could provide the basis for a mass workers’ party.

Building such a party will require that we accept class independence as a principle, and not dismiss the real possibility of party building. Just as conditions can change that allow space for austerity to give way to some level of redistribution, so a political crisis can be created that creates rifts in the two party system. The historical examples above show that this is true.

The task of the Left today must be helping to rebuild a militant minority of advanced workers that puts independence in thought and action back on the agenda. This is a condition of success in preparing for an independent party.

Tramps and Trade Union Travelers is an illuminating corrective to liberal misconceptions of U.S. labor history. The book can help sharpen debates that we need to have on the Left right now. It is well worth the read.

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Tim Goulet View All

Tim Goulet is a member of the Tempest Collective and Teamsters Local 810 in NYC.