In the following conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, labor journalist Kim Kelly discusses her recently published book Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor.
Kim Kelly, thank you so much for being willing to chat with the LPE Blog about your new book Fight Like Hell. For many years, you have been writing cutting-edge journalism about the labor movement. You’ve contributed to several national news outlets and publications. And you have a regular op-ed column at Teen Vogue, which is a must-read. Can you tell us how you first got into labor journalism and how writing Fight Like Hell fits into the broader trajectory of your journalism career?
Sure. One of the great truths of this country is that the American Dream has not been available to everyone. I witnessed that growing up in a poor, rural, working-class area; I witnessed that moving to New York City; and I even witnessed that working at Vice, which was a cool, hip, digital media workplace, but we got paid terribly, treated terribly, and usually the most vulnerable workers were the ones having the hardest time. That was what led us to unionize in 2015.
Prior to that, I had been interested in labor history and working class history, just as a nerd and because of my own political location, but I hadn’t really delved into it because I thought I was just a heavy metal guy; [I worked] in the music industry for a really long time. And that only really switched up around 2015/2016. I think a lot of people were paying more attention to politics in this country for various reasons, and I was getting more active in the New York City activist scene, and then we unionized at Vice. All of a sudden, I was going to a lot more union meetings and demos than heavy metal shows.
Throughout the course of my time at Vice, I was always freelancing because I didn’t get paid much and wanted to branch out. I started writing a couple pieces here and there about labor, labor history, what was going on, what I was learning, and it worked. It was a little bit of a gamble. But I felt like being so involved with the organizing process at Vice, I learned a lot. And I gained a little bit of “cred” to talk about things that I might not have had before when I was just the “heavy metal guy.” And by the time I got laid off in 2019, I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to try to do this labor reporting thing full time.”
What led you to write a largely historical book about the labor movement?
History is what led me to becoming involved in politics and learning about the labor movement. I’ve always been interested in the past, because I’m from such a small, isolated place, and I was always curious about the world “outside.” And when it comes to working class history and labor history, it has always been so invigorating to read about people that were like me—like young women, disabled people, people with marginalized identities—who were doing this stuff. And I was always hungry to read more. But those voices were not necessarily given as much airtime as other whiter, cis-male voices. And I always wanted to know more about them.
I spent my whole career covering politics and identity, even when I was in the heavy metal world, and that was a little more controversial [there]. And basically, I feel like I found my niche. I had so much fun learning about these stories and researching people for this book. And hopefully, people have fun reading about it.
Fight Like Hell is encyclopedic: it covers such a wide swathe of industries and so many kinds of workers—from garment workers to miners to agricultural workers to sex workers to incarcerated workers—and addresses so many struggles—around race, class, gender, sexuality—that are intertwined with labor struggles. In the epilogue of the book, you write, “Journalists are given the power to decide whose stories are told and whose are forgotten, and that responsibility carries heavy consequences.” How did you decide what material to cover in your book?
It was a little intuitive. I thought about who I was interested in hearing more about, who I was curious about, and who I wasn’t seeing in a lot of the mainstream labor history books. There are so many people relegated to a footnote, or you might see a little mention of her name somewhere, and then she disappears.
When it came to who I included, I came into [the project] with a list of people and specific historical moments, but as I was researching and seeing how I was going to structure the book and seeing how I was going to fit everyone in, I was trying to be very mindful about who I was writing about because some industries are heavier in one demographic than another for whatever reasons. So I’d say, “Okay, this type of person or experience is covered in this section, but who else isn’t showing up? Who should I bring in? How do I balance this and make sure it’s as inclusive as I wanted to be?”
What do you think are the most salient, cross-cutting themes that emerge from putting all these stories together?
There are three big takeaways that I’m hoping people get from this book. And they’re pretty basic. First, everyone deserves to be treated equally and fairly and with dignity, and that shouldn’t be controversial, but in this country, it is. [Second,] there are a lot of people who have been left out of the history books and out of the promises of this country. And ultimately, that solidarity is our greatest weapon. Every cause that people have pushed for, and every step people have taken towards justice or something resembling it in America, it has come down to solidarity and collective power, and people deciding to work together for the common good.
You can see that throughout the book. For example, looking back to 1946 when we had the great sugar strike in Hawaii. All of these different groups of immigrant and first- and second-generation workers from multiple Asian countries, from Puerto Rico[, and other regions] who were working on these massive sugar plantations owned by white European men. It was miserable work, people were brutalized in the field, and they were underpaid. It’s the same story that so many agricultural workers still deal with today. These workers were held in segregated camps based on language or country of origin because the bosses didn’t want them to organize them or find common cause. And so when the union decided it was time for a strike, the way they approached it was bringing everybody in, making sure that everyone’s language was being spoken at meetings, coming together in cultural spaces and kitchens, and really just fostering the idea that we’re in this together—brothers and sisters and siblings—and it worked. They won. It sounds almost a little hokey. But working together and thinking about someone besides yourself is how you move mountains.
One of my first goals for this book was to write something that somebody could stick in their back pocket on the way to a protest. But now that I wrote, like, a billion pages, it won’t exactly fit in your back pocket. I wrote this for the people. I’m not an academic or classically trained historian, I just care a lot about the working class. I know what it’s like to struggle, and I want people to know that they’re not alone—no matter who they are, where they come from, what they look like, someone like them has fought for them. Sometimes, they win. And sometimes, they lose, but that still builds on centuries of struggle and gets us a little closer to what we deserve.
One of the really powerful aspects of your book is how you weave together historical narratives with the present-day realities faced by workers. For instance, you describe the exploitation that Black domestic workers faced in New York City immediately after the Great Depression, and detail the eventual formation of the Domestic Workers Union of New York in the mid-1930s. And then you bring us up to date and describe the legislative advocacy of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the insurgent organizing by workers driving the Ya Basta campaign in California, which aims to halt sexual harassment within the janitorial industry. Or in another chapter, you describe the militancy of the flight attendants’ union dating back to the post-WWII era, and then end the chapter with Sara Nelson’s powerful invocation of the general strike during the brutal 2019 government shut-down. (Just to give a few teasers to folks!) Why is it important to put contemporary fights for justice in historical context, and why is it important to put labor history in conversation with our present?
History is being made right now. Yesterday, I stopped at a Starbucks on my way home from the gym and got a cup of tea from a union worker, and that is incredible to me. That didn’t come from nowhere, that didn’t manifest out of pure wishes and unicorn tears. That builds on decades and centuries of struggle. Those workers have been written off for so long as “unorganizable.” Before them it was women, it was immigrants, especially those who don’t speak English as a first language. They were disabled people, queer people, Black workers, a lot of people who have been left out. But there are even more people who have stood up and said that’s not fair. And I really think that drawing these kind of parallels and tying these threads together between past, present, and future, that’s the way that we figure out where we’ve got to go. Look at these lessons that our elders have taught us: how can we use that to push forward towards what they were hoping for?
As you allude to throughout the book, and describe heavily in your reporting, we are living in a moment of reinvigorated strike activity and bold flexes of worker power. Yet employers continue to commit flagrant violations of labor law, and scores of workers remain unprotected under state and federal labor regimes. How has reporting on the front lines in places like Bessemer and Brookwood, Alabama, and working on this book simultaneously, shaped your outlook for the future of labor organizing?
It’s given me a lot more hope. And I do tend towards the Pollyanna side of things, especially when it comes to labor. Because after spending all this time researching what people have already accomplished, what they’ve dared to try throughout the past 300 years, I believe in us. I believe in working class power. And there have always been useless politicians that don’t care about workers; there have always been evil politicians who actively want to disenfranchise or exploit workers. But we’ve made progress anyway. I don’t know if we’re ever going to reach the utopia that I dream of in my lifetime. I’m 34, so probably not. But maybe the next generation will get closer, the next generation will get closer after that.
Because many of our readers are attorneys, law students, and legal scholars, I wanted to conclude by asking about the ways in which law does—and, importantly, does not—manifest itself in Fight Like Hell. Many of the stories of worker solidarity and resistance that you tell don’t have much to do with law; in these instances, workers build and exercise their power in spite of legal regimes that either fail to protect them or actively target them. At the same time, legal reforms serve as key rallying points for the protagonists you describe (for example, the 504 Sit-In) or they give workers leverage in challenging imbalances of power in the workplace (for instance, the California Supreme Court’s Dynamex decision and the impact you describe on sex workers who were reclassified from independent contractors to employees essentially overnight). How have you seen labor law play – or not play, as the case may be – a role in building worker power, either today or in the histories you retell?
I think really the law needs to be regarded as just one piece of the puzzle, one tool in the toolkit. There have been so many instances where the law has been helpful, and helped to right some historical wrongs and bestow rights and benefits on workers. But especially in this country, there are a lot of instances in which it either got in the way, explicitly left people out, or cracked down on people just because of who they were or what their job was.
What I think about is the 1977 Supreme Court decision that made it illegal for incarcerated workers to join or form a labor union (the Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union decision). That halted what had been decades of vibrant, important organizing inside and outside the walls. The law came in and said, “Sure you have First Amendment rights, but not like that. It’s too dangerous for these folks to be able to organize, so we’re going to make it impossible.” That didn’t kill the movement; there are just different ways that people organize and different unions that are involved, but if the law had been less biased or had done its job, things would probably look very different for a lot of people.
There are a lot of ways the law can be useful and helpful, and a lot of ways it can be used to harm and crack down on workers. It comes down to who’s making that decision. It is very much possible for the law to do good and come down on the side of the working class, if only there’s a will for that to happen.