Class consciousness does not flow automatically out of class identity. Being a worker does not necessarily mean you will come to identify as a worker. Instead, you can think of class consciousness as a process of discovery, of insights derived from events that put the relationships of class into stark relief.
Or as political theorist Cedric J. Robinson observed about the Civil War and emancipation:
Groups moved to the logic of immediate self-interest and to historical paradox. Consciousness, when it did develop, had come later in the process of the events. The revolution had caused the formation of revolutionary consciousness and had not been caused by it. The revolution was spontaneous.
We aren’t yet living through a revolution. But we are seeing how self-interest and paradox are shaping the consciousness of an entire class of people. The coronavirus pandemic has forced all but the most “essential” workers to either leave their jobs or work from home. And who are those essential workers? They work in hospitals and grocery stores, warehouses and meatpacking plants. They tend to patients and cash out customers, clean floors and stock shelves. They drive trucks, deliver packages and help sustain this country as it tries to fight off a deadly virus.
The close-quarters, public-facing nature of this work mean these workers are also more likely to be exposed to disease, and many of them are furious with their employers for not doing enough to protect them. To protect themselves, they’ve begun to speak out. Some have even decided to strike.
At the start of the crisis, in mid-March, bus drivers in Detroit refused to drive, citing safety concerns. “The drivers didn’t feel safe going on the bus, spreading their germs and getting germs from anybody,” Glenn Tolbert, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, said in an interview with The Detroit News. “We are on the front lines and picking up more sick people than doctors see. This was a last resort, but drivers didn’t feel safe.” Their actions prompted officials to increase cleaning, provide masks to passengers and drivers, and eliminate fares to keep person-to-person interactions to a minimum.
That same month, at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, New York, a group of workers walked out over safety concerns, chanting, “How many cases we got? Ten!” in reference to workers there who had tested positive for the coronavirus. Amazon fired Chris Smalls, the worker who led the demonstration, supposedly for violating the warehouse’s social-distancing policy, but this didn’t stop other workers at other warehouses from organizing walkouts to protest a lack of protective equipment. (Notably, Letitia James, attorney general of New York, has informed Amazon that her office is scrutinizing the firing of Smalls.)
Workers at Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, went on strike to demand paid leave and free coronavirus testing, as did workers for grocery-delivery service Instacart, who demanded protective supplies and hazard pay. Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh staged a similar strike over a lack of protective gear, and workers at America’s meatpacking plants are staying home rather than deal with unsafe conditions.
It’s true these actions have been limited in scope and scale. But if they continue, and if they increase, they may come to represent the first stirrings of something much larger. The consequential strike wave of 1934 — which paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act and created new political space for serious government action on behalf of labor — was presaged by a year of unrest in workplaces across the country, from factories and farms to newspaper offices and Hollywood sets.
These workers weren’t just discontented. They were also coming into their own as workers, beginning to see themselves as a class that when organized properly can work its will on the nation’s economy and political system.
American labor is at its lowest point since the New Deal era. Private-sector unionization is at a historic low, and entire segments of the economy are unorganized. Depression-era labor leaders could look to President Franklin Roosevelt as an ally — or at least someone open to negotiation and bargaining — but labor today must face off against the relentlessly anti-union Donald Trump. Organized capital, working through the Republican Party, has a powerful grip on the nation’s legal institutions, including the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority appears ready to make the entire United States an open shop.
The inequities and inequalities of capitalist society remain. American workers continue to face deprivation and exploitation, realities the coronavirus crisis has made abundantly clear.
The strikes and protests of the past month have been small, but they aren’t inconsequential. The militancy born of immediate self-protection and self-interest can grow into calls for deeper, broader transformation. And if the United States continues to stumble its way into yet another generation-defining economic catastrophe, we may find that even more of its working class comes to understand itself as an agent of change — and action.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.