Kim Kelly, a Philadelphia-based journalist, started out covering American heavy metal and has been a tireless organizer and independent journalist. Over the past decade, Kelly has developed a distinctive and radical voice reporting on labor politics, culture, and politics.
Kelly’s revelatory new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor,Expands on her reporting as a labor columnist Teen Vogue — where she covers everything from strike explainersTo the need for class solidarityTo Appalachia’s history of labor militancy. The book tells the story of the heroes of the working class who were marginalized or excluded from American labor history. Kelly shows how many labor protections that we take for granted today were created from the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands Black workers, immigrant and queer workers, as well as working women who fought, sometimes in ways that were not allowed by labor organizing, for their right and the rights of future generations.
“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 VogueThey announced that they would form a union for the entire company. Kelly talks about 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 HellThis book is about women, Black workers and undocumented immigrants. It also includes sex workers, as well as those who are marginalized from society, but have been left out of the history of labor. How have their stories been omitted from the public history of labor?
Kim Kelly There are many labor books available, and some are great and were really helpful in my research for this book. Because those who have been in power are the ones most commonly featured in these books, the main characters and main figures are mostly white. The victors get the stories and the people who generally have the ability to record them are the ones who are considered to be the authorities on this history. They may not have paid as much attention to the activities of Black southern women, Indigenous miners, or what was going on in the coal mines. 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. You need to ask yourself: What was the newspaper saying? Who was the person who appeared in this journal? Who managed to track down this person’s life story? It was hard because many of the people I got to write about were just footnotes in larger 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 on Rosa as the subject of your book?
These are the stories I love 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.
What can your personal history and experience 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 admit that I was a girl at first, then a young lady, in heavy metal. This helped me to quickly understand the inequalities of the world and the types of violence and threats facing certain people within my community. 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. That’s where I started my writing journey. I had a slightly more feminine eye when I first started. I also wanted to write about bands with female members. But then I went out into the world to learn more and became more politically educated. I was aware of the interconnected oppression that affects people of different ethnicities in this country, and began to address 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. I was stubborn and I loved metal so much that I wanted it to be accessible to everyone. 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.
Because I worked at a labor agency, I was interested in labor writing. VICEI was the heavy-metal editor at a long time. They didn’t pay me well so I freelanced a lot. Around 2015, I found that I was drawn towards writing more politically-focused stuff. We finally merged. VICEI was super involved and attended every meeting and bargaining session. 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 VogueOr The BafflerPretty much anyone who would allow me. I found myself becoming less of a music journalist who wrote about politics and more of a writer who had a great passion 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. I guess it was a decent gamble.
The best thing about labor stories, however, is their universality. Every story can be considered a labor story since everyone has had a job, has a job, will have a work, or has the potential to get one. These things are easy to relate to. 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 to include and which ones to leave out? Are there any stories that didn’t make the cut that you wished you included?
I was actually very lucky to be able to contribute to a guest column. The NationI finished the manuscript almost immediately after it was done. I was able then to take the short shrifted people and write entire 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 important to me that I represented as many people as possible. There are many queer workers all over the world, as well as many disabled people. The book focuses primarily on the voices of women, nonbinary people, people of color and 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 is the other thing going on? Is there anyone else who has something to add? 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 “outsiders” find ways to make their own paths and still have their voices heard?
Researching this book revealed many interesting things. One was the ability to operate outside the confines of traditional labor. While organized labor has been an amazing resource for millions of people, it has not been available for everyone, as you mentioned. It has actively sought to exclude people throughout history. Even now, there are still people who aren’t covered by some of our major labor laws like the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. This law is still inapplicable to agricultural workers and domestic workers. That’s because 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 people like Dorothy Lee BoldenThe National Domestic Workers Union was founded by the rank-and-file domestic worker who had been working since the age of nine. She knew she had to do something about being underpaid, mistreated, and devalued. She realized that her work was the only thing that kept everything moving. However, everyone saw her as invisible and disposable. She organized her life by talking to people. She took every bus line, and spoke to workers on the way home. She also created an organization for domestic workers to support them, educate them, and help them access government programs to help register to vote. She did not have any resources to create it. She was able harness thousands of the most marginalized workers in this area, and even in the country. 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. It’s amazing that you linked her work with Stacy Abrams’s work today.
It’s all connected! People like Cat Hollis, and their comrades at 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.
Which hands do you hope to find it in? What message do they have?
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 believe that this generation is more politically involved and aware than I was when I was twenty.
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 edited lightly for clarity and length.