In this episode of Movement Memos, host Kelly Hayes talks with Kim Kelly, labor reporter and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, about labor history and how understanding union struggles, past and present, can help us get free.
Music: Son Monarcas, Sven Karlsson, Wellmess, Under Earth, Def Lev, Three-Armed Scissor & Sightless in Shadow
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about labor struggles in the United States, and how the battles being waged in the present fit within a larger lineage of struggle. We will be hearing from labor reporter Kim Kelly, author of the award-winning book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.
Recent decades have not been kind to labor unions in the U.S. The percentage of U.S. workers in unions peaked in 1954 at 35% — during a decade when three out of four Americans had a favorable opinion of unions. Union membership would plummet in subsequent decades, as the ruling class waged a neoliberal offensive, weakening the bargaining power of many workers, in a changing economy. Meanwhile, employer and bipartisan efforts to demonize labor unions caused public support for organized labor to decline. But while the pandemic has brought record profits for corporations, it has also fueled a resurgence in labor organizing. Between October 2021 and March of 2022, union representation petitions filed at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57% from the same period in 2020 and 2021. Public support for unions hit a 57-year high in 2022, with 71% of Americans expressing a favorable opinion of labor unions.
It is no wonder that workers who were suddenly expected to risk their lives on the job, to endure the loss of coworkers, and loved ones, to get sick, and in some cases, to see their own health deteriorate, and to keep working, or work even harder, have had enough. With the energy we are seeing around labor organizing, it’s not surprising that anti-union forces are upping the ante as well, from large-scale union busting to attacks on teachers unions by corporate media.
So we know that labor is an incredibly important front of struggle, but as I mentioned before, everything old is new again. History doesn’t repeat itself, but as Mark Twain noted, it often rhymes. So to understand what we are up against as workers, and to figure out how we can build collective power and support one another in struggle, we need to understand the past. Today, we are going to talk about some of that history and how it relates to the present. That’s not my area of expertise, so I am thrilled that you all will be hearing from Kim Kelly. Kim is a labor columnist at Teen Vogue and Fast Company, and a freelance contributor to many publications, including Truthout. She was previously the heavy metal editor at VICE, and was also a founding member of the VICE Union. Her book, Fight Like Hell, is a great read and an excellent tool for popular education. From the Mohawk iron workers who built New York City’s skyscrapers to the organizing of sex workers and queer flight attendants, Kim has brought together histories that can help us broaden our understanding of what labor struggles in the U.S. have looked like, why they’ve mattered, and how they connect with the struggles of workers today. As the ruling class continues to roll back already meager labor standards and protections, we need to educate ourselves about those struggles, and how they were both won and lost.
Kim Kelly: My name’s Kim Kelly. I am a reporter, specifically a labor reporter. I’m the author of the book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, that came out on One Signal/Simon & Schuster in 2022, which seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only like a year ago. I grew up in a union family, which is a massive privilege not that many people get in this country anymore. I’m third-generation union. I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America East, where I’ve been a council member for the past five or six years now. Member of the IWW, of course. And my dad is a construction worker, my uncles are all construction workers, my grandparents, well my granddad was a steelworker, my grandma was a teacher. We were about as … I say that instead of being blue collar, we just had no collars at all. I’ve never seen anyone in my family dress up for any kind of professional sort of instance.
So I come from a really rural, working-class background. I grew up in a nature preserve, and I just always knew growing up that the union was a good thing. It was something that had our backs. It was something that made my dad go to boring meetings sometimes, but it was also the reason that we had health insurance when my mom got really sick in high school. I really think a lot of the reason I’m so devoted and interested in worker’s stories in the labor movement is because I got that early introduction to just how much it matters to have someone having your back and defending your rights and standing up for you when it feels like no one else in the world cares.
When I was a little kid, probably like seven, I went on strike for a day because my mom was a smoker. She smoked those Marlboro Reds, like real eighties mom, big hair vibe. And I hated it, so I made myself a little picket sign and I taped it to a piece of wood I found, because we lived in the woods, that wasn’t hard, and I marched around the living room, and I hid her cigarettes, and I told her she couldn’t have them back. And she didn’t like that, and my strike was broken. But I’ve kind of always been like this, I guess.
Before I became fully freelance, I worked at VICE, where I was the heavy metal editor, which was a job you could have at one point in time, and I was part of the VICE union, which meant I helped organize my workplace basically, and got super involved in the bargaining and all the meetings, all the committees, everything that comes with forming a baby union.
And at that point, after that sort of started taking over my life in a good way, I saw that reflected in my work. And so I started pitching and writing more stories about labor and workers’ rights, outside of my usual death metal scribbling. And by the time I got laid off in 2019, I decided, “You know what? I’m going to give this a go. I think I’m going to try and be a labor reporter.” I had this column at Teen Vogue, I’ve got a couple other places I’m writing for. Let’s give it the old college try.
And then about a year later, I signed the contract for my book. So I guess it worked out okay, and this is what I do. And I still write about music too, a little bit here and there, but my focus is on labor and workers’ rights, and I suppose that’s what I’m best known for at this point in time, which is really funny, because sometimes I show up at screenings or I talk to politicians or the Labor Department and I’m like covered in tattoos. I’ve got, I’m not … Whatever a typical labor reporter is, I don’t think I fit the profile.
And I think that’s a good thing, and I’ve been having a good time doing what I do and helping to hand the mic to workers, vulnerable workers, marginalized workers, and do my best to shine a light on the past, and present, and hopefully the future of the labor movement.
KH: As I read Kim’s book, I learned the backstory of a number of struggles that I had only a cursory awareness of, and I also learned about a number of labor actions, strikes and organizations that I had never heard of. Oftentimes, when people discuss labor history, we hear a lot about people who did important things, but were also racist, or xenophobic, or otherwise terrible; and while we do hear about some of those people in Kim’s book, because they are part of labor history, I appreciated how much time Kim spent discussing the organizing of marginalized groups, whose contributions to the labor movement often go unrecognized.
KK: I was so excited to have the opportunity with this book to really dig into lesser-known stories, or forgotten stories, or intentionally obscured stories that … And I have to say, of course, for a lot of people, especially those in academia, researchers, historians, they’ve known about these stories. They’re the people that found them, or preserved them, or researched them. So shout out to academia in general for doing that difficult work and that scholarship and making it possible for a journalist like me to come across their books or read something in one of their footnotes and think, “Oh, but who is that person? There’s a lot of information about this guy doing something, but they mentioned a woman real quick, or they mentioned someone who wasn’t a white guy, but who was there? What were they up to?”
And following those little breadcrumbs around was just the most fun and satisfying part of putting this all together. I felt like, yeah, just piecing together a big puzzle. And some of the people I was most excited to write about, some of them I already knew about, but just hadn’t seen them kind of written about in the specific labor context, like in the context of, “This is part of labor history. This isn’t just some radical thing, this isn’t just some women’s history thing. This person was there and was involved and was part of this very specific point in time in an important way.”
So someone like Lucy Parsons, I love Lucy Parsons, I love Lucy. She’s been one of my favorite historical figures, inspirations for a very long time. But her work in the labor world and just her connection to the labor movement, the eight-hour day movement, the first May Day, all these intersections aren’t necessarily something you come across in your standard labor history you can pick up on Barnes & Noble, right? Like, oh, this Black anarchist woman was also a huge part of these big moments in history. Seems like more people should know about that. And so I put her in my book.
Or Ben Fletcher, who, shout out to Professor Peter Cole, he’s been like the guy in preserving Ben Fletcher’s legacy. But Ben Fletcher was a Black dock worker here in Philly who in the early 1900s helped organize an interracial anti-capitalist, militant dock workers union that controlled the South Philly waterfront for like a decade. And he grew up not too far from where I live now. And things like that where it’s just so real and so visceral like, “Oh, I could go down to the water and see where this person worked and fought and organized.”
That really speaks to me as someone who’s not only a big nerd who loves reading about history, and as still a big nerd who covers labor stories now. I’m a little bit of a romantic. I love history, I love the past, I love knowing that I’m connected to something bigger. And to see those connections played out in a positive way, in an inspiring way really meant a lot as I was going through this.
And I took special care to pack in as many reds and anarchists and lefties in general as I could in this book, just because, again, that’s something that is not necessarily spotlighted or sometimes papered over or left out entirely in the more mainstream popular labor history books you see out there, because that’s kind of uncomfortable for some folks that don’t want to get into the thorny fact that a huge part that the labor movement in this country formed and was successful and won anything, it’s because it was full of radicals, radical lefties, anarchist, socialist, communists. The history of labor in this country is very red and very Black.
And the current incarnation of the movement, in terms of the leadership and the narratives that were offered, does not necessarily like to embrace that, because they’re so aligned with just the Democrats and the sort of milquetoast sort-of progressivism, sort of, maybe, sometimes, that thinking about the fact that so many of the people that got us where we are, that sacrificed everything to get us where we are, they wanted a revolution, and they saw labor as a huge part of that. And that is just one of the kind of inconvenient truths that I had really a great time putting on display in this book.
KH: As I told Kim, one of the only bits of labor history I encountered growing up, in public school, was the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. While we didn’t spend much time on that history in my junior high history class, the description of young women jumping from a burning building, one after another, and plummeting to their deaths, to escape an inferno, never left me. But upon reading Kim’s book, I learned that fire had a context no one ever mentioned in my history classes. It was the story of a labor struggle that could have saved those workers, if the greed of their bosses hadn’t prevailed.
KK: It’s pretty rare for folks, especially kids, younger people in school, to get much labor history at all in their curriculum, to come across very many of these stories in general. But one of the few that I think does come up a lot, as it should, is the store of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. And that’s the sort of thing that maybe you hear, “Oh, there was a fire, and some people, they jumped out of the windows, it was awful. That was where labor laws came from,” something very, very basic. But there’s so much more that went into it, right? This was a moment, this was, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, that happened in 1911, right? But so much had happened before that that had gotten to that point, that without that context, you really lose just the full understanding of how important labor and workers’ rights and women’s rights were entwined in this moment.
Because back in 1909, we had the Uprising of the 20,000, which, what a dope name, first of all. But that was a moment when 20,000 of the garment workers in New York City, predominantly women, predominantly immigrant women, Jewish and Italian women, they went on strike, and they were trying to force the companies they worked for to implement some sort of safety standard, to implement some sort of decent wage, some sort of decent weekly number of hours worked.
There was no regulation at that time. Factory owners could do whatever the hell they wanted, and they did, because they didn’t care about these women, they didn’t care about these workers. They cared about profits. Some things change, some things never change. And there’s a big uprising. Clara Lemlich, who was a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant woman, she was one of the strike leaders, she was, I mean, she was amazing. I wrote about her in the book, and there’s a lot more you can read about her. She was just a badass.
I mean, that’s kind of a reductive term, right? Like ugh, any woman doing something cool is a badass. But she was the type of badass that got her ribs broken by the cops on the picket line, who stood up in front of a huge hall of union members and called for a general strike. She was about it. And the work that she and so many other women and so many other workers put in during that strike, during that moment, I think they got, I think it was like 31 of the 32 or 33, 34. Something very close. They got most of the companies they targeted to agree to their demands, to agree to implement some kind of standards, except the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. And that comes into play two years later when, lo and behold, some of the cotton fabric that was everywhere during this unventilated, locked, drafty building caught fire.
The doors that should have been open, that were supposed to be open, were locked, because God forbid one of these women happened to walk out with a tiny scrap of fabric, a tiny piece of profit in her pocket. That was the mentality the factory runners had. So the doors were locked, fire breaks out.  people, mostly young immigrant women, died because of that. They burned to death inside the factory and the elevator shafts, they leapt to their deaths in the concrete. They were slaughtered, essentially, by negligence and by greed. And yes, that was, people paid attention to that, because this was happening in the middle of Greenwich Village. Imagine walking through the streets in your city, walking by a factory in an apartment building, and just seeing it on fire and seeing people leaping from the windows and crushing their skulls on the concrete. Imagine seeing women’s dresses and hair caught by the wind as they leap to their deaths because a couple of rich guys wanted to stay rich.
This … it resonated with people. It was a moment where we had newspapers, reporters who could run to the scene and document it. There were photographers at this point in time who could document it. It was a huge scandal and a huge deal. And it did lead to some of the important reforms that we had, I mean, that happened right after that. It did start something, but it’s the kind of thing that sounds very much in the past like, “Oh, well, that’s not something that could happen now.” There are women I interviewed in my book, garment workers in LA who work among rats, and dust, in unventilated workspaces. Sometimes the owners still lock the doors. We are two minutes away from another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at any given moment in this country, because even though the reforms that were implemented afterwards were important, were helpful, did help form a bedrock for labor laws to come, they weren’t enough. They’re never enough. And I think that’s just some of the context around that tragedy that I think would be useful to be discussed when it comes up in school or comes up in conversation. Like this is an awful, awful tragedy, but really it was a murder scene.
KH: Another labor struggle I really enjoyed learning about was the organizing of flight attendants, across the course of decades, as a profession that became a haven for queer workers, during highly discriminatory times, also became a force for queer rights.
KK: So all of my chapters in the book follow these sort of themes and archetypes, and they all have their own kind of unique character that came together as I was writing them, as I was piecing them together. And The Movers, chapter seven, it ended up being probably my queerest chapter, just because of the workers and movements that I was interested in spotlighting, and the things that I learned, and the people that I was able to draw attention to. And I love writing about flight attendants because of course, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, she’s a labor leader I really admire and I wanted to learn more about her industry, right? And something that really stood out when I was doing research for this chapter was the history of queer flight attendants and how large that history has loomed in the history of that profession.
Because for a very long time, it has been a profession that queer folks of every gender have been attracted to, because of, and especially earlier on in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, because there was so much mobility, there was so much more freedom. There’s a little bit of freedom from the expectations, societal, cultural, political, et cetera, that were placed on folks who worked on the ground. Because these workers were able to pick up and go to a different city every night, every day. They weren’t stuck in the way that a lot of other workers were. And they took advantage of that. There was a really vibrant queer community among flight attendants for a very long time, even now. And it’s predominantly women workers make up the workforce now, but there are, there’s still men. There have been men the whole time.
At one point they were predominantly men, until there’s a switch around World War I. And the fact that there are so many queer workers who are part of this workforce has dictated how their unions have conducted themselves and the issues they pushed for. Back in the late nineties, the Association of Flight Attendants, they were one of the first, if not the first, to really go all in on securing domestic partnership benefits for its members, because their members needed them. And they went super, super hard. They tried to get people to boycott United, they had all these big public demonstrations. They showed up at San Francisco Pride to shame the airlines that were pushing back against this. They were very loud, very public, like, “We support our members. This is important to them. You’re fucking up by denying them this human right.” And they won that battle. And the benefits they won during that campaign against United, I think , that became the industry standard.
And that really was a landmark moment, just in the longer history of enshrining queer workers’ specific protections in contracts and labor law. It was a really important, very public campaign to show like, “We need to take care of our members. They’re queer, they have specific needs, we’re going to address those. We’re not going to shove them into a closet, we’re not going to act like this is just a social justice issue. This is a worker’s rights issue and that’s how we’re going to treat it.” And it was really fun to learn about that.
KH: Unionized flights attendants made historic gains for queer people in the workplace. But one of the frightening realities we are faced with, in this historic moment, is that rights are not set in stone — as people who have lost the right to end their pregnancies legally can attest. Republicans are working to roll back child labor laws and they have been campaigning for years to pass laws that limit the ability of workers to organize and collectively bargain.
We are also reminded, on a regular basis, that the law provides no real protection to people who do not have any social power to leverage in their own defense. When Kim and I discussed recent revelations about children working in slaughterhouses, she pointed out that, for many workers, rights are not simply being rolled back, but rather, never really applied.
KK: I’m really glad that there’s been a lot of coverage of the child labor crisis in this country, and also a little angry that so many folks are so surprised about it. Because yeah, if you haven’t paid … Not a lot of people have time to read through labor laws or sit and read big old labor history books. I get it. Who has the time? You got bills to pay, you got shit to do.
But child labor has kind of always been legal in this country, it’s not a new thing. It’s not a new Amazonification of dystopia that we’re seeing. There’s, even the major labor laws we have that still govern much of our existence. There are always carve outs and exceptions. Like I mentioned before, vulnerable people tend to be tossed aside or forgotten or shoved to the side. And in some of these major labor legislation, it was domestic workers or agricultural workers that were shut out. And the way that was intended back when they were passed in the ‘30s was basically to fuck over Black workers. Because at that point in time, domestic workers, agricultural workers were predominantly professions that were held by Black workers.
But the agricultural workers thing also has a loophole in it. At that point in time, before agribusiness destroyed everything, people had farms, they were family farms, kids worked on their family’s farms, kids worked in their family’s businesses. And allowing that loophole in there is kind of a butterfly effect. Allowing that loophole there in the ‘30s means that now in 2023, there are little babies, like immigrant children working in Hyundai factories and being encouraged to find jobs in Arkansas thanks to, oh, what’s her face? Huckabee, Sarah Huckabee, who just legalized child labor even further in that poor state. Kids have always been treated as expendable little products if they were the wrong color, or came from the wrong place, or spoke the wrong language, or looked the wrong way. I live in Philadelphia and every time I go to city hall, I walk by a plaque memorializing her [Mary Harris “Mother” Jones] 1903 March of the Mill Children, where she took hundreds of mill workers who were children on a march from Philly up to Long Island, where President Theodore Roosevelt had his summer home.
And at that point, their goal with that march, that long march of those little kids was to publicize the harsh conditions of child labor and to demand a 55-hour work week for the kids who worked in those factories in 1903. 55-hour work week, that was the pie in the sky goal. So this is not anything new, and it’s not good. It’s horrible. It’s a wild indictment of our vicious, cruel, hyper-capitalist society that like, “Oh, of course kids have been working in factories forever.” Going back to the industrial revolution, people like factory owners would hire women because they had kids, and they’d bring their kids to work with them, and they’d pay them a couple pennies to go scamp around in the machinery or sort some thread. Like, it’s disgusting, but it’s not new. And I’m glad that there’s more coverage. I’m glad there’s these big investigations being done.
I’m really hoping that we see some actual movement from the government, from the people that get to rule over us to change this condition. But I am unfortunately not as hopeful as perhaps other people could be. Because if you look back through the history of this country, kids have only mattered when they’re certain kids. I mean, going back to slavery. It’s kind of a grim response, I suppose, a grim way to look at it like, “Oh yeah, this isn’t anything new.” But it just makes me so mad, because I appreciate that folks who are shocked and horrified, but it just makes me a little bit bitter, because these poor children who are being forced into this horrible position, they’re not the first and they won’t be the last because of how things are structured in this country. And it just breaks your heart to think about. But at the very least, I hope that we see some good movement, and that these poor kids can quit their jobs and go to school and be kids. And hopefully the next generation won’t end up in a pork processing plant. They’ll end up in social studies and in history, where they can read about the kids that came before, and instead of identifying with them, they’ll just be able to sympathize instead.
KH: With the recent passing of disability rights activist Judy Heumann, who some called the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,” and who some of you may remember from the Netflix documentary Crip Camp, I was especially grateful for Kim’s chapter on the contributions of disabled workers to the labor rights movement.
KK: One of my favorite chapters in the book… I love them all. They’re all my children. But one of the ones that meant the most to me personally was chapter 10, the Disabled Workers, because I’m a disabled labor journalist and yet had not, in my sort of cursory research and just general reporting, hadn’t come across that much writing about the specific intersections between the disability rights movement and the labor movement. And obviously they’re connected. Disabled people work, we have jobs, or we don’t have jobs, or there are barriers to us getting jobs. And some of the people that we work with, caregivers, home health aids, they have labor concerns too. It’s a very big and complex and interesting dynamic, I think. And I was excited to dig into it when I was writing the book. And of course, you cannot talk about disability rights history in general, let alone in terms of labor history, without talking about Judy Heumann. And I was really sad to see that we had lost her. I’d actually reached out to interview her for the book, but she was just too busy. But she was really sweet and really kind, and the work that she did, and so many other people did too, but she deserves a special shout out for the work she did. It’s just truly incredible.
We talk about people changing the world, but the work that Judy Heumann and the other disabled activists that she organized with, that opened up the world for so many people who’d been shut out of it. She’s been making history since she was young. Like back in 1970, she sued the New York Department of Education to keep her job. They were trying to force her out because she used a wheelchair and they said that “This is a fire hazard. You can’t be a person who uses a wheelchair and teach children.” And she was like, “Well, the fuck I can’t.” And she took him to court and she won. And that was where she started. After that, she got into more direct action organizing, and a group she was involved with shut down 8th Avenue trying to demand better access for people that use wheelchairs and mobility aids.
She was about it. She was just this absolute revolutionary. And there’s a moment I talk about a lot when I talk about just the specific intersection, disability rights, labor rights. There’s this example I really love to pull up. And of course Judy is at the center of it. Back in the ‘70s, the section 504 protest and occupations. At that point, there had been… essentially activists were trying to get the government to actually enforce section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is essentially the first piece of civil rights legislation for disabled workers. It was the first, sort of … It was the first acknowledgement by the government that disabled workers should be able to work and be able to access their places of work. It was a small step, but it was a really, really crucial one at that point in time. And of course, the government was dragging its feet.
They didn’t want to implement these changes. They didn’t want to actually put their money where their mouth is because it would’ve cost them a couple bucks. And so Judy and a group of other disabled activists pushed back for years. They wrote letters and called their congressmen and did all of those nice sort of accepted types of protests, and it didn’t work. So after a while, they’re like, “Okay, well, I guess we got to ramp this up.” And they ended up occupying a bunch of federal buildings, specifically the Health and Human Services buildings, most notably in San Francisco, where they kept the occupation going for a month. And it was actually the longest non-violent federal occupation in U.S. history, because these disabled folks and their allies were trying to force the government to do its job and to recognize them as workers, as people. And Judy was an important leader in that.
She was part of the delegation that went to Congress to talk to Congresspeople about it. She helped organize the whole thing. And that occupation was so significant because it pulled together people from seemingly different groups, seemingly different movements, and just showed how deeply they intersected. The reason that the San Francisco occupiers were able to last so long was because one of their number, Brad Lomax, he was a Black Panther, and so was the care worker that stayed with him. And through that connection, the local Black Panthers chapters, they helped feed people. They brought food, so did local churches. When they sent that delegation to Washington … This was pre-ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], this was at a moment when folks who use mobility aids… they did not have any kind of access to anything. So when all these activists get out there, the Machinist Union, they offer them office space, offer them resources, and they also show up with a truck and some rope, and were like, “Okay, we’re going to get you where you need to go. It might not be comfortable, but we’ll get you there.”
And just that kind of very material, visceral, just support and aid and solidarity, that’s what led them to the win. That is the reason they’re able to last so long. That kind of community, that intersection between the Black power struggle, and the labor struggle, and the disability rights struggle. It’s all the same struggle. We’re all trying to get free, to be treated as humans, to take care of our people, to live a decent life. There’s moments like that just really show how simple it can all be. And Judy Heumann was at the heart of that movement, and so many of those moments. And losing her is such a blow, especially because disabled people, disabled workers are still facing so many challenges and just ableist bullshit in general.
I’ve written about this before, and I think there’s still a lack of, really, understanding and just public knowledge about the fact that we have a sub-minimum wage in this country, and disabled workers are one of the major groups that are subject to this unfair and ridiculous and just archaic state of affairs. People who are paid less because of who they are. You’d think that more folks would hear about this and be up in arms. It doesn’t seem quite fair. And yet there are corporations like Goodwill that are able to pay people hardly nothing just because of who they are. And that’s something that I would encourage folks to look into the sub-minimum wage, just its history and what’s happening now. Because there is a movement to try and abolish it. There are some local laws and pieces of legislation that are moving that direction.
It’s very much a current issue that folks can get involved with. And actually, I also want to shout out a piece that Alice Wong wrote recently, because I thought it was really interesting and really just illustrated another part of this conversation. She’s writing about the home health care aid that works with her, that helps care for her, and about some issues she had and about how she knows that there is this fucked up power dynamic and she would never punish the worker for the way the system has made it impossible for them both to function. And she mentioned a piece of legislation from Bob Casey from Pennsylvania and Debbie Dingell, Dingell? From Michigan, called the Better Care Better Jobs Act, that’s aimed at increasing pay and benefits for home healthcare workers. Because they’re part of the conversation too, right? The people that you organize with and you keep each other alive and you kind of can’t live without. We’re all in it together.
And just stories like Judy’s and stories like Alice Wong’s and so many of the other people that are out there doing this work, it’s something that I’m really glad that we’re talking about, and there’s more visibility because everyone is going to end up disabled at some point. Some of us are born that way, some of us are made that way because of work or environmental conditions or whatever other reason. But no one is leaving this life fully abled. And the sooner that we show some real solidarity between folks that are, folks that aren’t, I think we’ll be a little bit closer to the kind of liberation we all want.
KH: Another section of Kim’s book that I really appreciated was about the labor struggles of sex workers in the U.S. A number of great organizers in my life are or have been sex workers, and as Shira Hassan has pointed out, innovations and tools that sex workers have devised, in order to protect one another and create safer working conditions, have had widespread impact. By failing to assess the role of criminalized workers in our movements, we miss out on a lot of knowledge, and a lot of history.
KK: It was really important for me to take the opportunity I had with this book to show just how important and intrinsic sex workers have been to the labor movement in this country, because that is a group of workers that have always been here, have always been organizing, have always been building their own communities and their own types of resistance.
And yet again, aren’t necessarily going to get top billing in the mainstream labor history that you pick up on the shelf, or in school, or just whatever the AFL-CIO puts out. It’s a group of workers that are unfairly marginalized, and stigmatized, and criminalized, and they’ve been here the whole time. And a lot of incredibly important labor leaders and workers’ rights leaders and just human rights leaders have also been sex workers. I mean, Marsha P. Johnson, she led a labor organization, because she led organizations that cared for and advocated for sex workers. It’s like, the same as leading a group of retail workers or iron workers. It’s all labor. It’s in the name, sex work. And I was glad that I had the opportunity to dig into some of that history, because we saw one of the, I think the first public protest where sex workers’ rights came in 1917, over a century ago when, talk about how history repeats itself, San Francisco was in this moment of moral panic about sex workers and the area of town that they worked in and the people that bought their services.
And they decided, “Okay, we’re going to clear this out. We’re going to evict all of these workers because we don’t like their jobs.” And there was this one specific reverend, this classic, this church guy who was really, really upset about the vice and sin of it all, and was a huge crusader against these workers’ right to just fucking exist and do their jobs. And he held these big public meetings about it. And at one point he invited a couple of workers, well, actually madams who ran some of the establishments with some of the workers were employed. And they showed up. They thought that they’re just going to have a chat with this reverend about what was going on.
And they brought 300 other sex workers with them, who took over the meeting and spoke about their experiences and spoke about why it was bullshit to try and punish them for the work that they were doing and the economic and social and political circumstances that had led to the employment that they were engaged in. And moments that have happened for a very, very long time. It’s labor history, it’s workers’ rights history. There’s been a little bit more recognition of that I think in the past couple years, because we’ve seen, especially, yeah, the past year and a half or so, especially because we’ve seen workers at the Star Garden topless bar in North Hollywood very publicly striking and then organizing with a mainstream union, Actors Equity. There’ve been a lot of interesting articles about that and a lot of coverage of that. And I think this kind of growing realization that, okay, at least among the more progressive corners of the labor movement, like, “Okay, we’ve been saying for a long time, we care about workers. We care about vulnerable workers, marginalized workers. Here’s a huge workforce that we’ve neglected, that we haven’t stood up for, that we’ve stood by as they’ve been criminalized and incarcerated and abused. Maybe we should shift our thinking there.”
And I was on a panel recently with some folks here in Philly who are involved in the sex work world and the harm reduction world. And they pointed out very justly that even when we’re talking about this from a labor context, and the way that I approached it in my book, I stuck with sex workers that were able to organize in the traditional union framework, go on strike, go do union drives, do all that. But there’s so many sex workers who aren’t, don’t even have access to that system because I mean, they’re independent contractors who are cut out of labor laws in general, and they’re criminalized.
They’re not able to go public about what their job is because they might get arrested for it or incarcerated for it. And that’s a piece of the whole puzzle too. We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of talking about adult performers, guilds and the stripper strike and things like this, but it’s a much bigger, broader history and present. And I’m just glad that I had the chance to show a little bit of it and to help keep that conversation going where I can. Because the labor movement has a really, really long and shameful history of excluding certain types of workers because of who they are or where they came from or the jobs they do. And I’ve always thought that’s bullshit. So I took advantage of the fact that I had a whole book to go wild in, and made sure that I dedicated a chapter to these brave workers. And I hired a friend of mine who’s a sex worker to give it a sensitivity read, just to make sure I didn’t fuck anything up. Because the last thing I want is to be yet another journalist or media person who fucks up these kinds of stories. So yeah, I’m glad I got to write about it. I’m glad more people are learning about it, because sex work is work, and work is labor, and this is labor history. It’s easy.
KH: At the end of her book, Kim discussed the Warrior Met Coal strike, which was still underway at that time. She wrote, “It is an uncomfortable feeling to be closing out this book without recording the resolution of their strike—and, ideally, celebrating their victory. It feels unfinished, literally as well as metaphorically.” Now that the Warrior Met strikers have returned to work without claiming victory, I wondered how Kim might update her closing thoughts in the book.
KK: I’m still processing the Warrior Met Coal strike situation because, yeah, I’m a journalist and I’ve been reporting on it for a long time, but it also became so personal. I spent two years getting to know these workers and their families. I’ve met their kids, I’ve seen their kids grow up, I’ve met their parents. I’ve formed really deep relationships with some of the women, especially. And to see them hurting, and their confusion and disappointment at the way the strike has panned out, it’s painful. It gets to me, because these folks were on strike for so long and they had every possible roadblock thrown in their way. Nothing went right for them. Nothing. They didn’t have any powerful backing from anyone. The president didn’t make them cute little Twitter video, like the labor secretary didn’t show up on their picket line. New York Times showed up after about a year.
They felt abandoned, and they were largely abandoned. And I’m so angry about that, and I have so much I could say and write about the strike, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. Maybe I’ll even write a book someday. But I’m still so impressed by the tenacity of these workers, like 23 months on the picket line in a state whose leaders, elected officials hate you because you’re in a union, where you have very few rights as a worker, where the cops turn a blind eye when your wife gets run down on the picket line by someone’s Ford F-150. Like it’s incredible that they lasted as long as they did. And they’re careful to emphasize, especially the union’s careful to emphasize that it’s not over. They are continuing to negotiate. They are hoping, they’re still hoping to get that contract. I think the calculus that they have made is that, “Well, it’s doing us no good to be out here anymore, because coal prices are so high and the company has hired so many scabs that they’re not feeling the financial hit and they have no shame, and there’s no major coordinated public campaign to shame them like we see with Starbucks or Jeff Bezos. So it makes more sense for our workers to be at work making their paychecks under the flawed former union contract while we try and get something better. It’s not over.”
But I would say that this is kind of a perfect case study in just how complicated labor stories can be. Because it’s always so much easier for folks to rally around stories that are neat and tidy. Like here’s a group of workers and they’re going up against some bad guys and they win. That’s a great story. I love that story. But this story had so many different layers. The fact that this is a group of multiracial, multi-gender, blue collar, mostly conservative workers in blood red Alabama who love their union, and a lot of them voted for Trump, and a lot of them are also lovely people, and some of them are assholes, and they mine coal, but they mine metallurgical coal, which is used for steel production, so it’s not really part of the energy conversation, but it is part of the environmental conversation.
And there’s so many moving parts to it. That’s part of what kept me coming down there and finding different angles to analyze and approach it from. But also what made it difficult for them to get attention, right? Because it’s just a little bit too complicated. The Democrats didn’t show up because they assumed these folks were a lost cause, they weren’t going to vote for them, they mine coal, forget about it. Republicans didn’t show up because they’re a union and that’s verboten. And the only people that really showed up for them and cared about them were local socialists and other, and union members, labor folks from all over the south, all over the country. Some independent journalists and journalists went down there, but they were just kind of abandoned.
And I don’t know how much room I’m going to have in the book. I’m working on the paperback version now, actually I owe my editors some edits for some things. We’re updating some citations and adding a little bit about more current events in there. But yeah, I still feel like it’s not over. But like I said in the book too, that’s the thing about writing about history. Nothing’s ever over. We keep living. It’s ongoing. This whole struggle has been going on for many, many years before I was born. And it’ll, I’m sure it’ll keep going way after I’m dead. There’s not really any way to put a pin in anything when you’re writing about history, and especially about current events and history. You just kind of have to decide when it’s time to step away, or time to file the edits, or close the book, and just hope that there’s a happy ending eventually.
KH: Having recently completed the final proofs of my own book with Mariame Kaba, I am very familiar with the feeling Kim described, of wanting to continue telling a story that has not reached its conclusion, even though your book has. When we are writing about events in real time, we are creating snapshots. Everything we capture will give way to something else, and it can be hard to know when to take your hands off the keyboard. But it is important that we document these stories, and preserve them, so that people can learn from them in the present, and in the future. The struggles we wage now will carry lessons for those who come after us, just as the lessons of decades and centuries past hold crucial knowledge for us.
KK: While I have you all, I would encourage you if you have the time, I know it’s hard to find time. Life is hard, life is difficult. There’s a lot of shit going on, a lot to do. But if you have some time, try and read a little bit of labor history when you can. It’d be sick if it was in my book, which is out there, but even if it’s just something on Wikipedia or something you come across on Twitter, it’s so important for us to know this history and to know where we came from and to know what we’ve been up against for so long, because that’s how we learn.
Seeing the way the other folks have struggled and suffered and won and lost. That’s how we sharpen our own knowledge and understanding of what we can do now. That’s how we find new tactics. That’s how we keep hold of inspiration because this is hard. Organizing is hard. Unionizing your workplace is hard. Standing up to your boss is hard. Making it a living under capitalism in the United States of America is really hard. And I think it’s important for people to know that they’re not alone. You hate your boss. A lot of people have hated their bosses throughout history and some of them have done something about it, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but they still did something. And you can do something too. And if you’re in a position where you don’t feel safe doing something, you can ask a friend at work to do something. There are so many ways that we can push back against this horrible status quo. We can stand up for our coworkers. We can make things a little bit better. It just takes knowledge and understanding and dedication and time and privilege in a lot of ways to be able to organize, be able to unionize, be able to get involved in labor history and make your mark and try and win that race or go on that strike or tell your boss to fuck off.
There’s always a way to get involved for every person of every ability, every experience, there’s something you can do. You don’t have to live like this. You deserve more, you deserve better. And you are a link in a very, very long chain of exploited and oppressed, marginalized workers throughout history who have turned to one another and said, “You know what? This is enough.” You can be part of that history too. You can be part of that future. Just pick up a book here and there. Talk to your friend who’s in the union. Talk to your coworkers and don’t let anyone make you feel like your voice doesn’t matter, because it does. And all the people in my book were made to feel that same way. And now hundreds of years later, we’re still talking about what they did. And we didn’t even have the internet for most of that. So just imagine what you can do and don’t give up because we all deserve a lot better than we’re getting. And I think we’re going to get there eventually.
KH: “So just imagine what you can do.” Now, that’s a call I can get behind. We need hope and imagination in these intimidating times. We also need to be grounded in the histories of what others have faced.
We use words like apocalyptic and dystopian, and those words feel new to some of us, but capitalism has been one long apocalypse, ending worlds, breaking bodies, and collapsing ecosystems, for hundreds of years, and people have been beating back its oppression for just as long.
Oftentimes, acts of violence or oppression that we think of as dystopian are just fundamental characteristics of capitalism, experienced in a rawer form than we’re accustomed to. Rather than being specific to our current apocalyptic context, these crises are a revival of sorts, of violence that had been tempered, in some places, by the force of movements — like the labor movement. U.S. workers and movements have lost a lot of ground in recent decades, and we are living in a moment of great urgency. In catastrophic times, the successful mass sacrifice of workers for record profits has emboldened both the ruling class and workers. While the Federal Reserve aggressively raises interest rates, in a sloppy effort to address inflation by softening the labor market, corporations enjoy record profits. While The New York Times publishes exposes about children working in slaughterhouses, Republicans are gutting public education and rolling back child labor laws. Corporations are funding military bases for cops. And workers are organizing.
The stakes are high and they are going to keep getting higher. Late capitalism is an era of gig jobs, dangerous working conditions and escalating disposability for workers. With advancements in AI threatening to restructure the working world, we need organized worker power, now more than ever. This is a time to learn about labor history and about the basics of labor organizing. I recently took Organizing for Power’s six-week workshop series on structure-based organizing, and I found it really informative. This is also a time to organize our workplaces and leverage our collective power for social change. I am grateful for the people who organized Truthout, years before I joined the team, and I am determined to support workers who are fighting for their rights, and for us all, in this moment of widespread unionization. For those of you who want to take action, or just learn a bit more, we will be including some beginner’s resources about labor organizing in the show notes, which you can find at the end of the transcript, on our website at truthout.org.
I want to thank Kim Kelly for chatting with me about labor history, and about Fight Like Hell, which is an excellent resource for these times.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- Don’t forget to check out Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor by Kim Kelly.
- You can also follow Kim on Twitter.
- Emergency Workplace Organizing can connect you with a workplace organizer to learn more about how you and your coworkers can improve your working conditions.
- Resource Library on the Craft of Organizing Strategy is a beta version of a labor organizing resource library.
Books about labor organizing:
- Secrets of a Successful Organizer by Alexandra Bradbury, Jane Slaughter, and Mark D. Brenner
- How to Jump-start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers by Alexandra Bradbury, Jenny Brown, Samantha Winslow, Jane Slaughter, Mark D. Brenner
- No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane McAlevey
- What I’ve learned being reliant on a caregiver by Alice Wong
- Subminimum Wages Were Always Deplorable. Inflation Is Making Them Worse by Eleanor J. Bader
- Support for labor unions in the U.S. is at a 57-year high by Jaclyn Diaz
- Employees everywhere are organizing. Here’s why it’s happening now by Jennifer Elias & Amelia Lucas
- Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S. by Hannah Dreier