Labor Movement / Trade Unions

Working-class Political Consciousness Today

A reader has asked World-Outlook for our view on “the state of consciousness” of the U.S. working class today. Below is his letter, in response to the December 15, 2022, article What Do U.S. Midterm Elections Reveal?, and our reply.


Letter to the editor

December 16, 2022

Another excellent article! You point out that the “Stop the Steal” campaign two years ago still has “ongoing support among millions.” The article also states, “Trump’s support comes not primarily from the ruling elites but from the Republican Party base among small business owners — especially those in rural areas — and other sections of the middle class, as well as parts of the working class.”

Millions of workers voted for Trump in 2016 because they were fed up with the lies of bourgeois politicians and their neoliberal policies and believed Trump’s promise to “clean up the swamp.” Trump promoted himself as a successful businessman who was an outsider to Washington politics.

That was six years ago. There’s now been adequate time to shed any illusions of who he really is and what he really stands for. Seventy-four million people voted for Trump in 2020. Millions of those were workers.

Where does this fit into your analysis of the state of consciousness of the American working class? How do you explain this continuing phenomenon?

Mark Satinoff


Editor’s reply

December 29, 2022

Dear Mark,

We appreciate your feedback. It prompts us to revisit, and give more thought to, the emergence of Trumpism and what this phenomenon represents in U.S. politics, as well as what Trump’s ongoing support among millions may and may not reveal about working-class consciousness in the United States today.


World-Outlook’s inaugural article, Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Aftermath of the 2020 US Elections, outlined the political and economic conditions surrounding Trump’s campaign to overturn the U.S. presidential election two years ago — including the January 6, 2021, rightist attack on the U.S. Capitol:

All this is unfolding in the middle of the global capitalist economic and social crisis we are now living through, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The history of the last century shows that such steep economic downturns start breeding radical attitudes ahead of triggering significant class battles. Before large numbers of workers become receptive to class-struggle proposals and open to political action independent of the capitalist class and its parties — the Democrats and Republicans — radical attitudes get a hearing in the middle class and among layers of workers.

The working class in the United States does not yet think and act like a class. Much of the political initiative today comes from right-wing currents. Ultra-rightist groups take advantage of their foothold within the two-party system and other ruling-class institutions. They tap into the loss of confidence in the government and suspicions of the most prominent, established politicians. Conditions are ripe for rightist demagogy and conspiracy theories to gain a wide reach.

From Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Aftermath of the 2020 US Elections

While many workers see class differences in their everyday lives, there is no significant class consciousness in the U.S. working class today. The two-party system is in crisis, but working people remain trapped within it; there is yet no motion in a working-class direction out of this trap.

For this reason, tens of millions — including millions of workers, farmers, and other exploited producers — continue to identify with either the Republicans or Democrats, the parties that represent the employers. Although many decry the lack of choice between the two ruling parties, they see no path toward working-class political action independent of the two parties of big business.

Trump was popular in 2016, because he appeared independent of the “swamp” in Washington, D.C. Billionaire Ross Perot won almost 20 million votes in the 1992 presidential election making the same claim.[1]

By the time of Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020, his identity as a right-wing demagogue was more apparent to many. It is clearer still today in light of his “Stop the Steal” campaign and demand to “terminate the constitution.”

But many workers are taken in by that demagogy because no force with significant influence within the working class answers it effectively. One sign of this is that Trump won more votes from African Americans and Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016.

Moreover, as long as most working people see no alternative way to change our situation outside the electoral choices offered by the capitalist two-party system, illusions remain hard to overcome. Liberal Democrats have failed working people for decades, yet many workers continue to vote for them. Increasingly working people see “lesser evils” among both parties.

As we explained in the article cited above, U.S. workers don’t yet think or act as a class. Nor is there a clear understanding that the root of our problem with Democrats and Republicans is that both faithfully represent the interests of a different class.

However, the recent rank-and-file resistance among railroad workers[2] is one more sign that there is still a desire and willingness among many working people to fight to improve our working and living conditions. This includes workers who have been taken in by Trump and other rightist demagogues as well as workers who still maintain an unfounded faith in Democrats.

Railroad worker on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight train. Recent rank-and-file resistance among railroad workers shows there is a desire and willingness to fight for better job and living conditions among many working people in the United States today. (Photo: Associated Press)

Both the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party and a number of prominent right-wing populists are aware of this growing sentiment. They seek to corral it and go out of their way today to politically mislead working people who want to fight to improve their lives.

A November 18 Washington Post column by U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, titled The GOP is dead. A new GOP must listen to working people, is a case in point.

Hawley’s plea for the Republican Party to “place working Americans at its heart” belies his anti-labor track record of supporting “right-to-work” legislation in his home state, campaigning against an increase in the Missouri minimum wage, and attacking immigrant workers, among other reactionary positions.

Hawley — an Ivy League-educated banker’s son — is one of the most politically conscious rightists seeking to replace Trump at the helm of “Make America Great Again” (or some other right-wing crusade). He was also one of a handful of right-wing politicians — including U.S. Senators Macro Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — who joined a few “progressive” Democrats in voting “no” and speaking out against the Biden-crafted anti-labor national contract imposed on freight rail workers.

These politicians — of both parties — feign sympathy with the struggles of working people. Hawley and other rightists attempt to distinguish themselves from the bourgeois liberals who, in their vast majority, showed once again their loyalty to big business by siding with Biden’s support for the rail barons and opposing rail workers’ right to strike.

On December 6, Hawley penned a column about the national rail contract, titled Which Side Are You On, DC?

President Biden and “the rest of the political-industrial complex,” Hawley wrote, “united to stifle a potential strike by railway workers, the first one in years. It’s too costly for the economy, the DC types moaned, the workers are being unreasonable. Hardly. The rail workers were merely asking for a handful of sick days, something the professional class regards as a matter of divine right.”

It is not hard to see why many workers today might welcome these words. But that’s all they are. Words that don’t match up with the antilabor record of their pronouncers.

There is evidence many working people today are trying to find meaningful solutions to the problems we face. Radical rhetoric by the right wing — which includes racist, anti-immigrant, and sexist demagogy, but is not limited to that — resonates with some. Many others, however, are looking for a way forward through working-class organization and action.

This includes:

  • The 43,000 workers who have won more than 640 union representation elections this year — twice as many as 2021 — at Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, General Motors, REI, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and many other companies.
  • The 78,000 who went on strike in the first half of this year — three times the number during the same period in 2021 — seeking better wages, benefits, and job conditions.
  • The tens of thousands of rail workers whose determined resistance shed a national spotlight on the lack of paid sick leave and the rest of the draconian and inhumane attendance policies the rail barons have imposed.
  • The members of Railroad Workers United who advocate rank-and-file leadership of our unions and have begun discussion of the need for labor to establish our own political party.

However, there is not yet a mass working-class radicalization like the one that socialist leader Farrell Dobbs described in Teamster Rebellion, his firsthand account of the 1934 strikes that launched the industrial union movement in Minneapolis and helped pave the way for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) nationwide.

Such a radicalization would open the door to more militant trade union action as it did in the 1930s. It could place rank-and-file workers front and center in a revitalized labor movement. It would also help millions of workers cut through rightist demagogy as well as the unceasing efforts by Democratic Party “progressives” to keep them locked in the deadly embrace of bourgeois liberalism.

Working people in large numbers can only learn through independent action for our own interests to shed the illusion that political action can only mean going to the ballot box and that the only electoral choices are the parties of big business. Patient explanation and discussion with fellow workers is necessary but mass consciousness will not change without the experience of mass working-class action.

This is one more reason Democrats and Republicans in Washington — who rarely seem to agree on much these days — largely united to ensure rail workers did not go on strike. They are aware that in such collective activity workers can begin to sense our own power and find ways to use it more effectively. Independent action to defend and advance our class interests is the necessary starting point for independent working-class political action.

We believe the unrelenting attacks on labor by the rail barons and fellow billionaires who own Amazon, Starbucks, and other wealthy corporations — supported by the government, no matter which capitalist party controls it — will lead to a mass working-class radicalization. But we cannot predict its pace and timing.

In solidarity,

Argiris Malapanis & Geoff Mirelowitz
for the editors of World-Outlook

For further reading…

Teamster Rebellion is a book on the 1934 strikes that built the industrial union movement in Minneapolis and helped pave the way for the CIO, recounted by a central leader of that battle.

This is the first in a four-volume series on the class-struggle leadership of the strikes and organizing drives that transformed the Teamsters union in much of the Midwest into a fighting social movement and pointed the road toward independent labor political action.


[1] See The Aftermath of the 2020 US Elections

[2] See Biden Stabs Rail Labor in the Back and Rail Contract Shows Unions Need New Leadership; Workers Need Our Own Party.

If you appreciate this post, subscribe to World-Outlook (for free) by using the link below.

Type your email in the box below and click on “SUBSCRIBE.” You will receive a notification in your in-box on which you will have to click to confirm your subscription.

8 replies »

  1. Thanks for a good response to Mark S’s question. It is well aimed at those thinking about the way forward, which are many.

  2. I’m sure you do not believe this, but the article takes pains to argue about the working class not thinking as a class, as if the only way that can happen is by way of union organizing and the supposed militancy of more privileged layers of workers such as the rail workers. It is myopic to believe that working people will not gain such wider militancy through their identification as women and black and brown workers and their combined struggles as oppressed people in capitalist society.
    I find your article in some ways as a step backward, aiming at speaking to the concerns and limited outlook of often conservative White workers. This latter in my view includes the sectarian leftists in and around such moribund groups as the Socialist Workers Party and bourgeois liberal stalinist groups such as the Communist party and the maoist groups. All of these today represent a “radical” voice in the largely privileged White working class and in the Black and Brown communities. In all cases, their radical credentials have given left veneer to lesser evil politics as well as the narrow notions of nationalism that many sectarians dismiss as “identity politics”. If that sounds a bit contradictory, it’s because it is. The essence of the formerly radical left have become not a vanguard in waiting but an ossified section of labor aristocracy and conservative layers of oppressed nationalities.
    Your responses to “readers” of World Outlook of your recent articles in Trumpism and January 6th seem to be to the questions from members or former members of the SWP.
    I do understand that it gives you a chance to elaborate on your views, but I’m sure you understand that such questions represent, at best, sectarian concerns to the doctrine of “workerism”and more likely just baiting from people with little interest in having a dialogue. The result of your response appears, at least to me, as a descent into sectarian infighting with little relevance to the concerns of younger portions of women, the working class, and oppressed communities.
    It may be true that, for example, the politics of the rail contract and the organizing elections at places like Amazon provide an avenue for educating young workers. But focusing such efforts on the “questions” from older leftists seems misguided. Much like the tendency demarcate your discussion about “women’s” issues and other issues relevant to Black and Brown communities from a class perspective. The effect is to create a division among the collective concerns of the variegated sections of the working class, nodding even if not intended to the nonsensical notion of “intersectionality”.
    One example that I believe has the potential to illustrate the direct connections among working class politics, anti-impérialist, women’s struggle and the struggle of oppressed nationalities is struggle for the national liberation of Ukraine. Here is a people that are clearly White but suffering much of the bloody existence that oppressed people around the world experience.
    The bloody Putin regime is engaging in a systemic effort to eradicate a nation that the other imperialist nations are frankly allowing with aid the relative size of an eyedropper.
    This war is a historical opportunity to connect the wide issues of class, sex, and race oppression with a people that in many other Western countries might appear as suburbanites of privileged societies but experience daily the repression and threat of annihilation of American Indians, the occupation of oppressed communities and the misogyny experienced ubiquitously by women. There are obvious parallels from political Islam to to the imperialist hegemony of the West on the developing world not to mention the issues around climate change and the need for working class independence and militancy.

    Please also understand that I was, and continue to be, heartened by the existence of WO. It has been a needed oasis of revolutionary thought.
    I hope you will take this critique with the solidarity in which it is intended.
    I’m glad you exist and will always appreciate your analysis. At least until some more fresh revolutionary political organ and organization comes into being; something I believe you both are hoping to see as well.
    Siempre en solidaridad

  3. I am interested to know if the editors and readers of World Outlook would include recent organizing efforts by the National Nurses Union (NNU) in the list of positive developments. I understand the list in the article couldn’t include every example. I think the nurse’s effort are important.

    Two examples. Recently 7,000 NNU nurses struck two hospitals in New York. One of their main demands was to improve staffing levels to maintain quality care of patients. In September, 2022 15,000 Minnesota Nurses Association (NNU state affiliate) walked out for three days against 16 hospitals.

    NNU has had many other organizing drives across the country in the last couple of years. They have an aggressive outreach policy to reach out to community organizations to explain the nurses and communities have common interests against the profit driven health care industry.

    NNU now has over 225,000 members.

    NNU is also the main organizing force behind the fight for a single payer healthcare system. They put lot’s of resources into this and a major part of that effort is building grassroots, activists organizations that don’t just do campaign work for democrats. Of course, single payer is only a reform, but one that has the potential to mobilize millions of people and give them a taste for organizing and mobilizing in their own interests.

    • Jim, we agree with you that the organizing efforts by the National Nurses Union, as well as the recent nurses’ strike in New York and other such struggles by nurses across the United States, are positive developments in the labor movement.
      In solidarity,
      World-Outlook editors

Leave a Reply