Kim Kelly: All Workers Deserve the World

The adage goes, “work is work is work.” Each subsection of the workforce comes with its own unique frustrations, but the consistent, overarching broad strokes are usually similar, with a wealth of history behind our age-old labor gripes. Kim Kelly, in her book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, works to piece these stories together by bringing forth lesser-heard foundational and modern figures, stories, and histories of the American labor movement. Kelly grew up in a union-friendly family, but spent years in the heavy metal world as a roadie, merch person, booker, and writer. After getting the opportunity to be in a union at VICE, she began to slowly build a name for herself as a labor reporter as well. In advance of her talk at this year’s New Orleans Bookfair, I spoke with Kelly about the process of constructing her book, writing about workers in less sympathetic industries, and how rock’n’roll serves labor reporting.

One thing I really appreciated was that these stories were not told chronologically. Can you discuss the thought process behind the final organization of these stories?

Yeah, I knew going into it that it would be almost impossible to do a fully chronological history of all the things I wanted to talk about. It would have just been too hard to follow because so many things were happening simultaneously, and in conflict with one another, and it just seemed like a very big project to undertake when I had a deadline, and I wanted to make sure it was accessible, and I had all these concerns swirling around my head.

I decided instead of just going chronological the way a lot of history books do, I would try to do something a bit different and structure it by profession. Or these archetypes—like the archetype of the miner, the metal-worker, the cleaner—these big, broad categories that gave me a lot of wiggle room to bring in as many different types of folks as I wanted to and didn’t make me have to stick to any specific program, I guess? I don’t want to say I was making it all up as I was going along, but a lot of it was, “Well, I’m left to my own devices for a whole year, what do I think would be cool?”

I know you talk about all these jobs being crucial and incomparably valuable to organized labor as a whole, but I’d like to hear you talk about some personal favorite people you’ve talked to and stories you’ve researched.

I always say that I love all my children equally—I love all my chapters and my characters. But there are a few that stood out to me for various reasons that I like to bring up when I talk about this book. Because some of them are just normal people, just regular workers, that did extraordinary things or were part of extraordinary moments in time. I always like to talk about this woman named Ida Mae Stull who was a coal miner in Ohio in the 1930s. She was described in all the newspaper reports as this strapping, Amazon-type woman with broad shoulders and this refined jaw, and I’m like, “Man, she looks like me when I had time to go to the gym.”

Her story was so compelling to me because she was just a regular person who wanted to go to work. But she also happened to be a woman at a time when the laws of her state forbade women from engaging in heavy, manual labor, including coal mining. And she was like, “Well fuck that, I’m a coal miner, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid when I followed my dad into the mines, you’re gonna tell me I need to leave? I’m gonna take y’all to court.” And she won the right to continue working the job she loved despite what anyone else had to say about who belonged where or what gender was capable of doing what. I think she was such a fun example of what labor history really looks like: Just a normal person who gets fed up and is like, “I’m gonna do something about this.”

Or Ben Fletcher—he actually grew up not too far from where I live now in South Philly. He was this monumental figure during his time; he’s probably one of the best known—if not the best known—Black socialist labor organizers in his time. But he’s forgotten. And thankfully there’s a guy, professor Peter Cole, who’s done a ton of work excavating Ben’s life, and he wrote a great book collecting all of his papers together. Ben was basically a working-class dude; he grew up in South Philly in a time when there were very few employment opportunities for Black men and Black women in the city. He ended up working on the docks and he became a socialist, and he became part of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, and he became really involved in labor organizing, specifically anti-capitalist, multiracial, antiracist organizing. He helped organize this really strong, really militant integrated union called Local 8 that ran the Philly waterfront for like 10 years, in like 1910, which was definitely a little bit before the times. The IWW was the only union at the time that was actually accepting of all genders and all races and nationalities of workers. He actually ended up being thrown in jail as part of this 1917, 1918 sweep of leftists and trade unionists and other anti-war types during World War I. He got sent to Leavenworth, purely because he was a radical trade unionist and the government decided he was too dangerous.

People like that are the stories I’m sharing. You know when people say, “Oh, well, they were of their time. Everyone was racist, everything was this.” Not everyone was acting like that. It’s never been a blanket statement. Some people knew what was up back in 1910. What’s your excuse?

You talk about your family providing a strong appreciation for organized labor, but still finding your entrance into writing about it yourself to be unorthodox. Was there a kind of merging of past and present self when that began to happen?

Yeah, I was really lucky that the first—well, I worked a bunch of different jobs—but my first big girl media job—first and only—[wound] up being VICE Media. I got hired there in 2015 full-time, and about two weeks after I was on-boarded a couple coworkers pulled me aside and said, “Hey, we’re looking to unionize, what do you think about that?” I said “Oh, thank god.” Even at that point I knew that things were not as they should be.

I come from a union family, very blue collar, working class, rural, grew up in the middle of nowhere kind of place. My dad and my uncles and one of my grandads all work construction. My other grandad, who’s like my favorite person in the world, was a steel worker. My grandma’s a teacher. It was very union friendly. But my family wasn’t political about it. They were a part of the union because that’s what you do; that’s part of the job. They’re actually pretty conservative, which has been a wild ride over the years. But I grew up knowing, “OK, unions are a good thing. They’re why Daddy has health insurance. They’re why he has to go to meetings sometimes. They’re why he’s on strike sometimes and can’t go to Walmart and get the toy I want. But we’re able to survive.” So then it really hammered home the importance of having that protection.

By the time I got to that point at VICE, where the idea of a union was actually accessible to me, I was excited. I had been hustling for years. I worked in the music business, I was a roadie, I’ve been writing, I’ve booked shows, and promo—there’s no real stability there. There wasn’t exactly, or at least I didn’t think there was a metalheads Local 666 that I could join. So when I did get the opportunity to get involved in organizing… I was stoked. I got super, super involved. My day job was still writing about heavy metal, but I started finding ways to write more labor stuff and sneak in my agenda [through] articles about Guitar Center. But at the time I was freelancing, so I started pitching more of those types of articles, started writing for Teen Vogue, and started building up a reputation as someone who wrote about this stuff. By the time I got laid off in 2019, I was like, “You know what? Let’s just do it. I’m gonna try to be a labor reporter.”

I write about music sometimes, I write about politics sometimes, but it’s a weird thing when you don’t have a lane. How has music writing shaped the political reporting that you do?

Honestly, it has been so instrumental. If I hadn’t spent basically my whole life in the heavy metal world… I would not be as good at what I’m doing right now. I learned pretty early on, “OK, the thing that I’m interested in, that consumes my entire world, the most interesting thing imaginable, is something that not a lot of people know about or care about. So it’s my job to show them why it matters, why it’s worth respecting, and why it’s really cool.” I’ve written about heavy metal—specifically, I’m into the ugly stuff. Black metal, death metal, and grindcore; the most extreme presentations of the genre. I have been writing about Satanic black metal and all these challenging genres for places like Brooklyn Media and NPR and all these mainstream places. You have to present your knowledge and enthusiasm for a subject in a way that will pull in the average reader and won’t make them feel like they’re not in on it or that they’re stupid for not knowing… I found that that is exactly the same when it comes to writing about labor and workers’ stories.

And one last thing—I spent a really long time touring with heavy metal bands, too—as a roadie, as a merch person—and I am very good at selling t-shirts to drunk guys. You wouldn’t think that is a transferable skill, but it is. I can strike up a conversation with anybody. And that is very helpful when you’re trying to be a nosy reporter and pry into people’s lives. So yeah, if you want to be a labor reporter, go on tour with a rock’n’roll band.

In Louisiana, there’s a lot of oil and gas jobs; that is the infrastructure of the labor force in a lot of places. As the economy is, in theory, trying to shift away from oil and gas, there is this panic of “Well what about the people who work these jobs?” And it’s that weird dichotomy of it not being a sympathetic job to have, but people need jobs. Reading you talk about these coal miners not being as sympathetic, but still deserving their rights as workers, I was wondering what your approach has been in terms of writing these stories in a way that makes them more sympathetic.

You’re so right. There are some jobs that just aren’t sympathetic. And there are obviously reasons behind that, especially during this age of climate crisis. Some people are just never going to care how a coal miner or a refinery worker feels because the industries they’re a part of—not these people individually—are destroying the planet. And that’s a difficult tension to navigate. But like you said, at the end of the day, all workers deserve respect, good wages, and time with their families. If we are, as members of any type of movement, going to say an injury to one is an injury to all we have to mean it. Whether they’re a coal miner or a sex worker or an incarcerated worker or a janitor. All workers deserve the world.

So when it comes to putting a human face on these stories, I’ve lucked out, in a way, in following the Warrior Met strike, because I’ve become really close with a lot of the women who are involved in the auxiliary and are retired miners who are very, very involved in keeping the strike going. And I’ve met families, I’ve met their kids, and their parents, and I’ve met so many people. And the miners themselves, too… I feel so much of an affinity for them as I’ve gotten to know them and I’ve seen how hard it’s been. I think in order to really have that depth and empathy you have to spend some time with your subjects, right? Getting to know them as people and seeing how they move through the world and see how this job is impacting them and their families. Yeah, I don’t think coal is a great thing. And I don’t think we need to be preserving it into the next century. But also, I want my friends to be OK. And I think we need to think about the human costs of these shifts. You can’t go up to one of these boys in Brooklyn [West Virginia] and say, “OK, you’ve spent 30 years in this underground coal mine, you’ve seen more darkness than light in your life, and you feel comfortable underground… We’re gonna teach you how to code.”

Your tone when writing is so fiery and hopeful. How do you maintain that energy in the face of really demoralizing losses?

[laughs] It’s an effort. I always say about myself that I keep a Pollyanna viewpoint on these things because the alternative is incredibly depressing. When you’re writing about workers’ stories and workers’ history, and labor specifically, you kind of have two options: You can lean into all the losses and all the setbacks and the falling union density and the harsh realities of it; or you can appreciate all the victories and successes and moves forward that we’ve made, which are also real. It comes down to your viewpoint. And I’m still so excited about all of it. I really love history, I really love people’s history, and I really love learning about this stuff because it gives me hope and it gets me fired up to learn about what working class and poor people have accomplished in spite of having all of the odds stacked against us for centuries… Especially if you’re talking about the 1700s when you had Benjamin Lay pissing off all of his Quaker brothers by talking about how abolition was necessary. Or the washerwomen in Jackson who organized Mississippi’s first labor union a year after Emancipation… Like, that rules. That’s really cool.

Maybe it’s because I’m not jaded yet… But really it’s because I get to talk to people all the time. I get to talk to workers all the time about what they’re doing, what they’re fighting against… The story never ends. And I’m always excited to see what happens next.

What strides have you seen in organized labor since finishing the book?

When I was finishing it up, I was sitting in my little room in South Philly as Striketober kicked off and all these really exciting strikes—Kellogg’s, John Deere—and people running out to the picket lines, I was like, “Oh man, I want to go too!” And I couldn’t because I had to finish my homework. I was writing this book before Derrick Palmer, Christian Smalls, Angelika Maldonado and the Amazon labor union, before they won that major victory at the Staten Island warehouse. I was writing this really before the Starbucks drive kicked off. And before so many of these really important union drives and organizing campaigns have kicked off. I’m working on the paperback now, and I have a whole lot to cram into the intro now. It’s funny writing a work like this because I think I have a bit of a buffer because it is about history, but it’s about recent history, too. I wrote about the Warrior Met Coal strike in the book. Even in the outro, I said this is month 10 of this strike when I’m turning this in, and it’s still going! Today, that we’re talking right now, is the 600th day of that strike. So I couldn’t close that loop either. I think it goes to show that this is such a living, breathing movement. The story’s never gonna be over. And we’re just gonna be playing catch-up.

I know you mentioned that you’re working on a new book. Are you able to talk about that at all? 

It hasn’t been announced yet, we’re still working on the whole thing. Basically it’s going to be a young readers’ edition of Fight Like Hell. Like [ages] 10-14, middle school kids. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m holed up in an undisclosed location in Pennsylvania working on it, trying to figure out how to write for a younger audience. I figured out how to write for a more general audience, but now I have to take it down another notch, and take a little bit more time explaining things and breaking things down—man, I love a run-on sentence. So I gotta learn to control myself a little bit.

You talked on Twitter about how detrimental the fall of it could be to freelance writers, but also I think to any worker trying to get media coverage for their own workers’ struggle. Do you have any thoughts about what comes next?

Man, I am trying to figure that out. There’s all these new networks kind of popping up saying, “Oh, we’ll fill that hole.” But Twitter is Twitter. It’s been around for a decade. It’s become kind of like a public square, kind of like a public utility. People depend on it.

All the people who have power within this [media] ecosystem will be fine. They have people to promote them. It’s people like us, regular people who write, and try to cover our communities and try to get these messages out—it’s going to be a lot tougher for us because there’s so much more precarity [and] less stability that comes from being independent or freelance or just not a powerful white dude who went to a fancy journalism school. It’s a deeply unequal playing field, and Twitter has democratized it in a way that has given more marginalized people more space—well, those people have taken and created that space, actually. And created the value of “the bird app.” Seeing it kinda crumble and seeing there be no real viable alternative, it makes me anxious, man.

I don’t know what’s coming next. I have friends who are more tech-savvy who are like, “There’s always another platform.” …But especially the fact that Twitter is so text-based? I think that’s important because not everyone is trying to pivot to video… The written word is still powerful. It still matters… It’s not just about the memes and the posts. Some people have built their entire careers off of Twitter.

What do you see as the most important steps people can take to strengthen organized labor in America, in their community, etc.?

It’s pretty simple, but it can be more difficult than it sounds on the surface. The most important thing you can do as a person, as a worker, as someone trying to get through every day, is to talk to your coworkers. Get a sense of what they’re dealing with and what their issues are and kind of see where the common ground is and where your interests meet. Build solidarity on the shop floor. It would be great if that leads to you guys unionizing. I would always recommend unionizing if you can! But that’s not an option that’s available to everybody because of our rickety ass labor laws, because of stigma, because of all sorts of bullshit reasons. But even if you’re not able to unionize, you’re able to get to know your coworkers… You need to know your neighbors and your block and the people around you in your community… Even if you don’t get a raise, you have a new person that’ll have your back. You made a connection with someone who then you can build something with. They can’t take away person-to-person solidarity. That is one thing that will always be achievable.

Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor is out now with Simon & Schuster. Kim Kelly will be reading from and discussing her book at this year’s New Orleans Bookfair on Saturday, December 10 at the Main Branch Library.

Photo by Liz Kross

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