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"My dude, who do you think the working class is?"
Kim Kelly on the past and present labor movement
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Earlier this week, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz declared: “…I’m not anti-union, but the history of unions is based on the fact that companies in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s abused their people. We’re not in a coal mining business; we’re not abusing our people.”
It’s a wildly inaccurate understanding of the history of unions — and of why they matter. But it’s also a pretty widely held belief: that unions are only for men, or for people who work in coal mines, and that the only workers who need them are people who work for companies that are transparently evil. Apart from the fact that any repetitive task is, in fact, physical labor — what is being an Amazon warehouse worker or a home health aide if not physical labor! — there are sorts of reasons why workers have and continued to need unions. I’ve written a lot about unions before, and been a part of a union, and participated in union drives, and read a lot about the past and present of the union movement, but no book has re-textured my understanding of the labor movement quite like Kim Kelly’s Fight Like Hell. It’s an unwavering corrective to mindset’s like Schultz’s. Quite frankly, it fucking rules.
I don’t want to say too much more, because I think Kim’s words below really speak for themselves. But this book is so expansive, so deeply intersectional, so compelling and readable — if you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you know that I’m often oscillating between hope and despair, and the book, like this interview below, gives me a palpable and lasting sense of hope in the power of solidarity. And that, in this moment — it really matters. I hope you’ll allow yourself to feel it, too.
I’d love to hear more about how you became a person who spends time thinking and generally advocating for labor rights, because your route is fascinating, and I think it’s important to highlight that people come to this work from all avenues.
The short answer is, I got involved with organizing my workplace, and went from there. The longer answer is a bit more unexpected — or at least that's how it seems when I tell people about it. I don’t know that there even is a “typical” path for anyone who wants to become a labor reporter, but if there is one, I sure didn’t take it!
The vast majority of my career (and my life) has revolved around heavy metal — writing about it, analyzing it, selling it, advocating for it, criticizing it, and above all, loving it. My first foray into published writing came when I was 15, and was writing about sports and politics for a local newspaper’s teen section; one day, someone tossed me a metalcore CD and asked me to write up a review. That moment changed everything, and as the years went on and I began contributing to metal publications, booking metal shows, running a metal PR company, and touring the country with metal bands, the thought never crossed my mind that my life would ever look any different. Sure, maybe I’d write a book about metal someday, or end up as the editor-in-chief at some magazine, or grow my Black Flags antifascist metal festival series, but metal would always be the nexus.
By 2014, I’d ended up at Noisey, VICE’s now-shuttered music vertical. As I settled into my first (and, as it turns out, last) NYC media job, though, it quickly became apparent that there was something rotten festering in the bones of that slick Williamsburg office. We were overworked and underpaid, plied with pizza days and cocaine nights to mask the lack of transparency, stability, or protection from predatory bosses; it was a cool job, but that didn’t make the bad parts feel any better. Eight months into my tenure there, a couple of coworkers pulled me aside and asked how I felt about unionizing, and that moment changed everything, again.
Though I was raised in a blue-collar union family and had always known that unions were a good thing to have, my idea of who qualified was pretty simplistic: I assumed only men like my father, a construction worker, or women like my grandma, an elementary school teacher, got to be involved. I didn’t think they even made unions for people like me, a tattooed twentysomething who sat in an office all day and scraped out a meager living writing about the latest heavy metal controversies while fielding endless waves of harassment from reactionary trolls.
My hands looked nothing like my grandfather’s, a towering, barrel-chested man who was born into the Depression, joined the Marines, then spent forty years as a Steelworker. But during the process of organizing, contract bargaining, building our union, and learning from our union reps and union lawyers, it quickly became apparent to me that unions truly are for everyone — and bosses are banking on some of us to ignore that fact.
My output at work started reflecting that shift in consciousness, especially in my freelance writing; I started contributing to Teen Vogue in 2017, and when I started doing a regular labor column for them in 2018, my editors there gave me the opportunity to figure out what kind of labor writer I wanted to be. My library soon filled up with labor history books, and as I built confidence in my ability to tell these stories and deepened my knowledge of the labor movement and its history, I started pitching other publications, too, like the Baffler and the New Republic, and writing as much as I could about labor and workers’ rights. By the time I got laid off in 2019, I’d decided to go full-time freelance as a labor reporter, and see if I could swing it. About a year later, I signed the contract for this book!
I’m still me, though, Satanic goat tattoos and all. When a bout of Covid forced us to reschedule my May book tour events in Baltimore and D.C, I made sure the new dates fell on the last weekend of the month—so I could pop back and forth to Maryland Deathfest to see Obituary, Cloud Rat, and Blood Incantation in between!
This might feel like a very broad question, but why write a history, and why *this* history? Why does it feel particularly important to look back in order to look forward — and what’s particularly powerful about looking back in the particularly intersectional way that you look back, particularly while including organizing done by those historically excluded labor protections, or even from the overarching conception of “laborer”?
I learned to read really young thanks to my grandma, who gave me a way to see what was outside of our very rural, isolated, homogenous woodland community and try to make sense of it. History has always been my favorite, even when I was a little kid, because it opened up those windows into other places, and times, and types of people; reading about ancient Egyptians, British suffragists, and Jewish immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York City was equally thrilling, and I kept that curiosity as I got older and got to see more of the world.
My education was pretty lacking, so I mostly taught myself. If I hadn’t swiped my dad’s copy of James McCloy’s The Jersey Devil in grade school, I wouldn’t have found out how the rest of the world saw rural people like us; if I hadn’t been gobbling up revolutionary literature during my Russian history phase, I wouldn’t have developed my own radical political compass so early; if I hadn’t idly picked up a book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in college, I wouldn’t have become interested in early 20th century worker organizing and political unrest. It’s all connected, sometimes in ways we don’t even realize until much later.
In terms of why it’s so important to look back on this history in particular right now, I wanted to write a labor history book that felt approachable and accessible to everyone, and to ensure that anyone, no matter their identity or background or job title, could find a little of themselves in these pages. I think that different social and political movements often get siloed off from one another and discussed as individual entities, whereas in reality, those struggles have often interlocked and unfolded simultaneously alongside other fights for justice, whether it’s been the women’s rights movement, the Civil Rights movement, the disability rights movement, or so many others. It was very important to me to show those intersections in this book, and to make clear that none of these people were operating in a vacuum, because they weren’t — there are worker-organizers in this book who also fought for birth control, or against apartheid, or for voting rights, or for disability accommodations, and those issues are all part of the greater working class struggle.
One of my primary objectives with the book too was to bring in and center the experiences of workers who often get left out of broader discussions around labor and working class history: sex workers, incarcerated workers, and disabled workers. That siloing happens there, too, but the history of prisons and prisoners in this country is absolutely labor history; so is the long legacy of sex workers organizing to protect and defend their communities, and of disabled folks, who have had to fight on two fronts: first, for the same workplace benefits and protects as any other worker, but also, for a very long time, we couldn’t even hired—or get in the door. I wanted to make it very clear that this is our history, too. We built this. We have always been here, even when we weren’t welcome.
As a follow-up, is there a trope of labor reporting that makes you want to throw things? How did you….not do that (or attempt to offer an antidote to that) with your own reporting?
You know, I try to stay posi when it comes to fellow journalists’ work, but sometimes folks who really do not understand labor or unions feel compelled to write about them anyway, or decide to get their little tweets off without actually exhibiting any empathy or understanding for the conditions workers face. There’s this pervasive fallacy that we see trotted out constantly by reactionary dum-dums (especially when workers of color or workers in so-called white collar or creative industries try to organize) that to be a union member or to be working class, one must be a burly cishet white dude who wears a hard hat and has no interest in non-economic issues. It feels like every other week, some Substack toad or conservative ghoul is tweeting about why grad students or sex workers or workers who support Black Lives Matter and abortion rights don’t belong in the labor movement, or don’t represent the working class in this country, and it’s like, my dude, who do you think the working class is? If you want to talk about data and demographics, the most common type of union member in this country is a Black woman who works in healthcare!
Reactionaries and various other strains of capitalist bootlicker prefer to hold fast to this outdated stereotype because it allows them to ignore the multiracial, multigender, multilingual, multigenerational reality of the U.S. working class (and the fact that it’s always been that way), and pretend that workers’ issues are somehow separate from all those so-called “progressive” or “woke” issues that impact actual workers on the job, from racism to police violence to transphobia to ableism to the continuing impacts of the climate crisis and so many others.
That’s why it’s so important that I and others doing this work make those intersections clear, to show the ways that political and social and economic issues impact their day-to-day experience, to encourage unions and labor organizations to protect the most vulnerable, and to ensure that workers’ voices are centered and elevated above all. We can’t sit back and let a bunch of rich jagoffs tell us who we are.
You acknowledge that there’s no way that you could’ve even come close to telling every story in every corner of every movement. And with that said, I would love to know more about your research process — how did you start conceptualizing the thirteen sections? Who did you know you had to write about, whose story did you uncover (at least for yourself) in the writing process? Show us your mental organization scheme (or physical one); we’re all research nerds here.
It was definitely a little bit chaotic, but it was a lot of fun, too. Since I don’t have much of an academic background to speak of and am more or less self-taught when it comes to writing and journalism, I approached in the way that made sense to me (which was probably not the most organized or logical method, but it worked out okay).
Going in, I had a rough outline of people and events I knew I wanted to cover (people like Lucy Parsons, Maria Moreno, and Dr. Marie Equi were on the very first list!), and also knew that I wanted to structure each chapter semi-chronologically, beginning further back in history, skipping forward a few decades (or centuries!) in the middle, and then ending on a more recent moment to emphasize those connections to the past. It was important to me to make sure that this book would look and feel different from other wide-ranging labor books I’d read, and I took care to focus on underrepresented and marginalized groups within established industries like manufacturing, mining, and transportation.
I tried to keep the reader on their toes too by making connections that felt unexpected or surprising (the sideshow section, for example), and I especially loved learning more about worker histories in Hawai’i and Alaska, and wish I could’ve kept one particular section (on Hawaiian paniolos, or cowboys) that got cut for space .
I wrote each chapter in order, and filed each completed draft to my editor as I finished, just as though I was writing a magazine piece; that helped me stay on track, and made it easier to compartmentalize the sections, though sometimes I had to skip around a bit depending on when my library holds came in. Speaking of the library, the Free Library of Philadelphia was one of my biggest resources; I spent countless hours there poring through their collection, taking notes on big yellow legal pads then scurrying home to type up my findings, and also must’ve checked out nearly a hundred books besides.
I bought a ton of books, too, and spent ages digging around in labor history journals and other articles on JSTOR and whatever other academic archives I could weasel my way into (or that sympathetic friends in academic would send me PDFs and screenshots from); old newspapers and magazine articles were a real treasure trove, especially for finding direct quotes from some of my favorite characters and getting a sense for how the public viewed various labor conflicts as they were popping off.
On top of that, I interviewed workers, organizers, activists, union staffers, journalists, historians, lawyers, professors, and friends, weaving their insights and perspectives into the text. The chapter that took the most time to finish was the prisoners’ chapter, because it took awhile to track down some of the specific books I needed; also, some of my interview subjects were still inside, so I couldn’t exactly send over a Zoom link (though I did get to interview one of my buddies as he was in the midst of leading a hunger strike at Rikers).
You note in passing how your dad would sometimes complain about how someone at his local was super annoying, or how the meetings periodically got long and boring. I love this aside, because it speaks to the fact that real community and solidarity isn’t always invigorating, and you don’t always love every single person involved, and sometimes you really have things you’d maybe rather be doing, but you show up, because it matters. Have you figured out a way to frame the actual “labor” of labor solidarity in a way that acknowledges as much?
Now that I’ve been part of an effort to organize hundreds of workers at my former workplace, helped bargain two contracts, and served as an elected union councilperson for the past five (!) years, I can see just how right he was about the meetings!
While I was writing this book and going through fact-checking and revisions, you know, all the fiddly, time-consuming bits at the end, my own union was going through something of an existential crisis. We had a very contentious election (during which my progressive slate won!), and then the ensuing restructuring efforts meant that I was involved in many, many meetings—sometimes multiple times a week—to figure out what was best for our membership, what course they wanted to see us take, and how to achieve it together. It was 100% no fun at all, but it was necessary, and so we made it work.
That’s one of the hardest parts of organizing, or being involved in a union—the recognition that even if you and the other people involved share a common goal, there are an endless number of potential opinions and personalities to consider, and sometimes it can get ugly. The key to getting through the hard parts is remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing, and thinking about how it’s going to benefit other people; that’s why you started this work, and that’s why you've got to goddamn finish it, no matter how much it sucks sometimes. It’s always bigger than one individual (no matter how often some individuals seem to forget that).
I find myself oscillating wildly between real hope in gains of the current labor movement — particularly watching what’s happening at Amazon and Starbucks — and real pessimism that the labor laws themselves are not going to be updated to meaningfully address the way the entire nature of employment is shifting, or to rectify the weakening of labor protections during Reaganism and its aftermath. That union support is at its highest (66%, as you point out in the Intro) feels amazing and like a real shift from even ten years ago….but the laws haven’t changed to reflect that support. I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you’re hopeful, what’s fueling it?
The laws have never been on our side, is the thing; even the most significant and long-standing labor laws in this country, like the National Labor Relations Act, have left people out, and did so intentionally from the jump. Every scrap of progress this infernal country has ever been forced to make has come thanks to the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice of workers and poor folks, and that’s not going to change no matter who is stinking up the halls of Congress during any given year.
This upswing in public support and interest in unions that we’re seeing is important, but what matters even more is that there are now scores of workers who are actually organizing their workplaces and pushing back against union-busting employers in a very public way. Those two things are connected, and I don’t think that this current wave of enthusiasm and energy we’re seeing now is going to die down anytime soon; if anything, as corporate demons continue cracking down on those efforts, I think we’re going to see people push back in even bigger ways. This new Gilded Age has given us a whole new set of craven robber barons to rail against, and the direct line between Jay Gould and Jeff Bezos is shorter than an Amazon worker’s lunch break. One thing I always like to mention when we’re chatting about class war is that, you know, there are way more of us than there are of them—and they’re fucking terrified.
Ultimately, what keeps me going is this: I believe in the power of the working class. And I believe that we will win.
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