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Labor History Belongs to Us All: New Book Explores Forgotten Heroes of Movement

“People have always been fighting to make things better, and that fight has never been easy,” says author Kim Kelly.

"Many of the labor protections we take for granted now were born from the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of Black workers, immigrant workers, queer workers, disabled and incarcerated workers."

First as a reporter covering the American heavy metal scene, and now as a dogged independent journalist and organizer, Philadelphia-based author Kim Kelly has cultivated a distinct and unabashedly radical voice reporting on labor, politics and culture over the past decade.

Kelly’s revelatory new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, expands on her reporting as a labor columnist for Teen Vogue — where she covers everything from strike explainers to the need for class solidarity to Appalachia’s history of labor militancy. The book chronicles the working-class heroes who were pushed to the margins or simply left out of American labor history. Kelly shows how many of the labor protections we take for granted now were born from the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of Black workers, immigrant workers, queer workers, disabled and incarcerated workers, and working women who fought, sometimes outside of the traditional bounds of labor organizing, for their right to make a living for themselves and generations to come.

“We were not ‘given’ our rights. It is not even ‘we took our rights.’ Instead, we created our rights,” said Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and Coalition of Immokalee Workers member-organizer who is quoted in Fight Like Hell.

Truthout spoke with Kelly right before she and other staffers at Condé Nast, which includes Teen Vogue, announced they were forming a company-wide union. In this interview, Kelly discusses how her organizing with the VICE union in 2015 sparked her interest in labor; writing her book and navigating history that isn’t clear-cut; and the universality of labor stories and struggles.

Amy Qin: Fight Like Hell is about women, Black workers, undocumented immigrants, sex workers and those on the margins of society who have been omitted from the history of labor or relegated to footnotes despite their immense contributions. In what ways have their stories been forgotten in our public history of the labor movement?

Kim Kelly: There are a number of labor books out there, and some of them are great, and really instrumental in my research for this book. But most of the characters and main figures in those books are white, because those are the people who have been in power. The victors get to tell the stories and the people that generally are in a position to record these stories, and who are seen as the sort of authorities on this history, were maybe not paying as much attention to what Black southern women were up to, or what Indigenous miners were up to, or what was happening in the coal fields. There’s this selective history at work — you’re never going to find the full story in any book. I’ve worked really hard to get a lot of those stories into this book, but there’s still tons of stuff that I had to leave out.

One of the hardest things in writing this book was really just digging up enough information about the people I wanted to write about because so many of these leaders and revolutionaries, everyday workers, and people who are out of the picket lines weren’t necessarily being quoted in the newspapers or being asked to share their experiences during these struggles. So you have to try to find things like: What did the newspapers say? Who showed up in this journal? Who managed to track down this person’s life story? It was pretty hard because a lot of the people that I got to write about, I found them as literal footnotes in bigger stories. For garment worker Rosa Flores, I found out all this really interesting stuff about her and her life and her role in the 1972–74 Farah factory strike, but I found her literally because I saw her name in a paragraph about something bigger.

Why did you decide to write a book about people like Rosa?

Those are the stories I want to read. Those are the stories I seek to tell in my work, and honestly, some of the sections in this book grew out of articles I’d already written for Teen Vogue that I just didn’t have enough time or space to really dig deep. That’s what I used to do in my life as a music journalist — look for the margins, look for the silenced voices for who’s not being spotlighted, and I’ve carried the same approach over into labor history.

On that note, how do your personal history and experiences inform your current approach to labor writing?

I’ve spent most of life being involved with writing and music, especially at this point. I will say being first a girl, then a young woman, in the heavy metal scene, you very quickly realize some things about inequalities in the world, and types of violence in the world and types of threats and dangers that face certain kinds of people within communities. And growing up, I was a white girl kind of sheltered from the woods; I didn’t know that much about the world around me. So, when I first started writing, with a little bit more of an eye toward writing about women or bands that have female members, things like that, that was where I started. But then I left the woods and learned more about the world and more people, and educated myself politically. I became very aware of intersecting kinds of oppression that impact people of different identities in this country and started to try to cover that in my work. That was controversial in the metal world, which is a beautifully diverse global movement, but it’s still, especially in the U.S., very heavily cis white dude centric, and all the baggage that comes with that. But I was stubborn, and I love metal so much that I wanted to make it accessible to everybody. And maybe sonically, because I love some impenetrable-ass noise, but I wanted people to feel welcome at a metal show, no matter who they were, how they identify, where they came from, as long as they weren’t a Nazi. And it’s kind of having that firm background and like, OK, this is where I’m at, this is what I believe.

I got involved in labor writing because when I worked at VICE, where I was the heavy metal editor for a long time, they were not paying me very well, so I freelanced a lot on the side. I found myself drawn to writing more politically focused stuff around 2015. When we finally unionized VICE, I got super involved and went through every meeting and every bargaining session, every committee like I was in it. And through that process, and that experience, I learned so much about how labor works in this country, and about what it’s like to bargain a contract and learned more about that nitty gritty, even legal and historical detail, that I then translated into my work, freelancing for Teen Vogue or The Baffler, pretty much anybody that would have me. I eventually found myself being less of a music writer who wrote about politics to being like a politics writer who had a big thing for music. And by the time I got laid off in 2019, I was like, I’m just gonna try and do this, I’m going to try and be a freelance labor reporter and see how that works, and a year later, we signed the papers for this book. So, I guess it was a pretty good gamble.

The one thing about labor stories is that they are so universal. Every story is a labor story because everybody has either had a job, or has a job, or will have a job. You can relate to those things. Unfortunately, people can relate to the negatives more than the positives, but everyone has an opinion about it, and everyone kind of wants to know what’s going on in other people’s workplaces, especially if it’s better or worse than theirs.

How did you decide which labor stories you wanted to include in the book and which ones you left out? Are there any stories that didn’t make the cut that you wished you included?

I actually got really lucky in that I got to do a guest column at The Nation pretty much right after I finished the manuscript, so I was able to take some of the people who had gotten shorter shrift, and write whole articles about them. People like Maria Equi, Ah Quon McElrath, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were people that I did get to mention, but I didn’t get to dig in as much as I wanted to. There’s not that many people that got cut, because I am very stubborn. It was also really important to me that I tried to represent the experiences of as many kinds of people as I could. There are tons of queer workers throughout the world and lots of disabled folks. The book is predominantly the voices of women, nonbinary folks, people of color, Black workers, Indigenous workers. Just going back to the idea of all the folks who haven’t really gotten the chance to cash in on that so-called American dream, you know? Even in some chapters, I was like, “Okay, this seems like there’s a lot of this type of person here. What else is going on? Who else has a voice that should be included here? How can I mix this up a little bit?” I wanted to make it fair and engaging, and I also wanted it to be something that almost anyone could pick up and find something that speaks to them specifically or some aspects of their experience.

A lot of the agitators and organizers you write about were excluded from unions because of who they were, their political beliefs or their work wasn’t seen as legitimate work, like in the case of sex workers or incarcerated workers. How did these so-called outsiders find ways to carve their own paths and still make their voices heard?

One of the things that was so interesting in researching this book was seeing the ways that people were able to operate outside of the bounds of traditional labor. The organized labor movement has been incredible for millions of people, but like you said, it has not been there for everyone. And throughout history at various points, it has actively tried to exclude people. Even right now, there are people who are not included under some of our major labor laws, like the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Domestic workers and agricultural workers are still locked out of that one. And that happened because of racist southern lawmakers who decided, okay, well, these two professions are predominantly Black, we’re racist, so we don’t want these workers to have any protections. And that’s not the first or the last time something like that has happened within this country and even within labor.

But I think of people like Dorothy Lee Bolden who organized the National Domestic Workers Union, who came from the rank and file and had been a domestic worker since she was 9 years old. She decided she had to do something about being mistreated, underpaid and devalued. She realized her work kept everything else moving, but everyone saw her and her coworkers as invisible and disposable. The way she organized was she just went and talked to people, she took every bus line and she talked to workers on their way home. And she created an organization for the domestic workers, to uplift them, to educate them, to help them get access to government programs to help them register to vote, and really, really emphasize voting rights. She created that from nothing. She was able to harness thousands of the most marginalized workers in that area, in the country even. Through the power of collective organization, working together, and refusing to be told, “no, you don’t matter.” I mean, they made history and they helped set a blueprint for decades of activism within the domestic worker industry. You don’t have to play the game or sign a union card to be part of the labor movement, you just have to put in a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of different ways to organize.

I was actually thinking of Dorothy Lee Bolden when I asked that question — it’s amazing that she created something new, something that was both a worker organization but also trained and advocated for domestic workers in all aspects of their lives, including regarding voting rights. And I love that in the book, you connected her work to the work of Stacy Abrams today.

It’s all connected! Folks like Cat Hollis and their comrades in the Haymarket Pole Collective in Portland, Oregon, like what they have accomplished and the fact they’ve accomplished it while being, you know, employed in the sex work industry — they’re dancers, they’re part of the strip club industry — and they’ve been given, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid from the federal government. And they’ve distributed that Black and Indigenous trans sex workers throughout the area. And that’s not a labor union, but all you need is some workers coming together. It’s pretty cool.

Whose hands do you hope to find the book in and what message do you have for them?

I used to say that I wanted to make a book people could stick into their back pocket on the way to a protest or picket line, but I don’t know how I ended up turning in so many words! Basically, I want it to be accessible to every generation, but I do think it will probably resonate with younger folks, like people my age or younger, because I think the younger generation, which I guess for me means Gen Z and baby Millennials … we have dealt with so much uncertainty and seen so many of the ravages of capitalism first-hand throughout our entire lives. I think that that generation is so much more politically aware and involved than definitely I was when I was 20.

My dream is to have someone clock out of their shift and walk by a bookstore and maybe see in the window and think, “Oh what’s up with that?”, and pick it up and open pretty much any page and see something that jumps out at them, whether it’s a name, or a strike, or the cops doing something evil. There’s so many pieces that I put in there that I hope will resonate with people that need to feel seen, that need to feel included and accepted and important, and to know that people just like them had done these incredible things, three, 30, 300 years ago. Just to find that people have always been fighting to make things better, and that fight has never been easy, but has always been just, that it’s worth hanging in there and living to fight another day. And this all sounds like inspirational notecard stuff, but it’s how I see it.

If I had found a book like that when I was younger, I don’t even know if I would have gotten into the music business at all — I mean, probably, but I hope the new generation, who are very politically active and very eager to make change, will find inspiration in it. Maybe they’ll find some lessons and maybe some tactics and maybe, read some sections, like, “Oh, I would have done something different there,” and then go do it.

I’ve been calling it “a people’s history of American labor” and I just want people to pick it up and be like, “Oh cool, I can do this too, I belong here too.” That’s all I really want people to feel like, that this incredible history belongs to them too, it doesn’t just belong to a guy like my dad who wore a hard hat to work, there’s lots of those guys too, but it’s not just them, it’s all of us.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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