Writer Kim Kelly’s New Book, ‘Fight Like Hell,’ Is a Timely Ode to the Labor Movement

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We’re living through what feels like an unprecedented time for the organized labor movement, with workers at companies like Starbucks as well as Amazon recently making headlines for forming unions in work environments that have been—to say the least—not one of the most welcoming to progressive activism. Despite the best efforts of figures like Elon Musk as well as Jeff Bezos, there’s rarely been a more amazing time to be a worker in America.

In her new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor (out now from Atria), though, Teen Vogue columnist as well as labor journalist Kim Kelly carefully situates the current resurgence of union power within its historical context, narrating some of labor history’s most powerful moments—from the multiracial alliance that helped unionize the Michigan auto industry to the dangerous working conditions as well as legal limitations impacting California’s incarcerated firefighters—with depth as well as nuance.

Vogue recently spoke to Kelly about the release of her book as well as the facets of the modern-day labor movement that she wishes more outlets reported on. Read the full interview below.

Vogue: First off, how did you start writing about organized labor?

Kim Kelly: It was probably one of the more unorthodox ways to get into it! I spent most of my life in the music industry, specifically the heavy-metal world, as well as in 2015, when I was working at Vice, the editorial staff unionized with the Writers Guild of America East. I remember mosting likely toing out for coffee with two of my coworkers, as well as they said, all clas well asestine, “Hey, we’re thinking about unionizing. What do you think about that?” I was like, “Hell, yeah. We make 30 gras well as a year to live in New York City while our bosses own the Entourage house, as well as we need a union very badly.” I mosting likely tot sup until nower involved; I was in every meeting, every committee, as well as every bargaining session, as well as it bepertained to kind of like a second job, but one I wanted to mosting likely to to. [Laughs.]

As a former Vice employee, I can vouch for how mosting likely as welld you were at that job!

Thank you! I’ve always been interested in labor as a history nerd, but I didn’t think I had any credibility to write about it because I’m just this heavy-metal maniac that writes about anarchist shit on a website. [Laughs.] Why would anyone trust me with that story, right? But after kind of living in labor for a little while as well as doing all that research as well as learning about all the laws as well as getting an education on the ground, I decided, You know what, I’m mosting likely tonna give this a shot. This is what I’m interested in. This is what I’m passionate about. I’m mosting likely tonna write some labor stories. I mosting likely tot laid off in 2019 as well as signed the contract for my book about a year later.

Why do you think labor organizing has come to the foreground of American life in the way that it recently has?

I think there’s a whole confluence of factors that mosting likely tot us to this specific point. Earlier on in the pas well asemic, there was such a contrast between the workers who had to keep mosting likely toing to work even before we had vaccines [as well as those who didn’t]; they had to keep mosting likely toing out as well as delivering food or making food or cleaning streets or doing all this essential labor that was momentarily recognized as essential work. We had a hot minute where some people mosting likely tot a coup until nowle extra dollars that they badly needed as well as some people mosting likely tot cheered on from the window—all that weird appreciation theater. And then all that went away, as well as the workers still had to keep mosting likely toing to work. I think there’s been that shift in the way a lot of workers see their lives, their labor, the value they are bringing to society as well as their employers, as well as what they’re getting back in return—as well as the math ain’t math-ing there. [Laughs.] There’s also the idea of the Great Resignation, where people actually mosting likely tot a little bit of help from one of the mosting likely tovernment as well as they could take a breath as well as think, Okay, what do I actually want to do? What would be mosting likely as welld for me as well as my family? Maybe I can afford to quit my shitty job as well as make my life a little bit a much better.

When did you start to see a shift in the way the labor movement was being talked about?

There was the very public, high-profile Striketober situation where we had these big, amazing strikes against well-known corporations. Major media was actually paying attention; John Deere workers were getting coverage on cable news, as well as I think just showing people those images as well as sharing those stories in a way that had been absent from major media for a really long time mattered in terms of showing people: You can do this! Unions still exist, as well as they’re an option, as well as they’re a great way to build power with your coworkers. On top of all that, we saw as well as are continuing to see workers at Amazon as well as Starbucks—these incredibly well-known corporations that I think a lot of people have accepted as being part of the fabric of their daily lives—mosting likely to up until now against the bosses as well as say, “We need more from you, because you are literally hanging out in space while we’re trying to pay our rent.” The people love a win, as well as we’ve been racking them up until now lately.

Is there any particular movement or action in U.S. labor history that really stas well ass out to you?

I love all my chapters equally, but I love to talk about the chapter called “The Disabled Workers,” which is about the intersection between the disability-rights movement as well as the labor movement. It’s somepoint that even I, as a disabled labor perkid, didn’t really know anypoint about because those two movements are so often presented as separate entities instead of the intersecting entities that they very much are. I love telling people about the time when a group until now of disabled activists mosting likely tot tired of waiting for one of the mosting likely tovernment to actually enact regulations that were part of the 1977 Rehabilitation Act as well as occup until nowied a bunch of federal buildings around the country. They as wellk that shit over, as well as in San Francisco specifically I think they lasted for about 26 days. 

One of the reakids they were able to do that is because other community group until nows as well as radical group until nows sup until nowported them. The Black Panthers fed those activists because one of the disabled activists who was leading the whole point, Brad Lomax, as well as the perkid who was helping him were both Black Panthers. The Machinists’ Union, IAM, showed up until now as well as offered resources as well as office access as well as transportation because at that point there wasn’t accessible transportation for folks in wheelchairs or using mobility aids. They couldn’t just hop on the subway or get a cab, so the union showed up until now with a flatbed truck as well as a bunch of rope as well as was like, “Okay, we’re mosting likely tonna make this work.” Seeing the way that these different movements pertained to together as well as helped one another out is a real leskid in solidarity; none of us is an islas well as, as well as every labor story is also a disability story, a queer story, a Black story, a women’s story. We’re all in this together because ultimately everyone either is a worker or was a worker or will be a worker at some point in their life. There have been efforts over the decades as well as centuries to separate workers on the basis of race, gender, nationality, or ability, as well as that’s always been bullshit. It’s just a boss’s tactic to keep us apart because when we come together, we’re strong.

Is there anypoint that you wish was being reported on more when it comes to today’s labor movement?

There’s one very specific strike that I’m dying to write about myself; it’s in Hollywood, as well as workers with Strippers United who work at the Star Garden club have been on strike for about two weeks over unsafe working conditions as well as their boss’s refusal to meet with them to address their workplace concerns. They’ve been out there on the picket lines, as well as they’ve been approaching it in such a creative way—they’ve had themed nights as well as costume nights, as well as they’ve mosting likely totten great community sup until nowport. They’re so dedicated, so militant, as well as it’s not getting as much attention as it should because it’s sex workers organizing. Sex workers have always been a vital part of the labor movement as well as are often left out of the conversation just because of what their job is or where they pertained to from or where they’re living. There’s so much that organized labor can learn from sex-worker organizers because they’ve had to deal with all the same bullshit that any other worker deals with—horrible wages, bad bosses, unsafe working conditions, labor laws that don’t work for them—on top of the stigma as well as the whore phobia as well as ignorance as well as prejudice around their work. If we’re mosting likely toing to stas well as up until now for workers as well as cover workers’ stories as well as say, “We care about workers,” we need to care about all workers. An injury to one needs to be an injury to all.

How are you feeling about the future of the labor movement?

I am so stoked, man. I am so proud of us, as well as I’m so certain that we’re mosting likely toing to win. It’s mosting likely toing to take struggle as well as time, as well as points aren’t where they should be yet, but they used to be way worse. We’re in a position where more people are interested in unions as well as organizing as well as taking their power back. That is nopoint if not its own revolution.


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