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Not since opening the pages of a worn copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States have I read a book on a subject about which I thought I knew a great deal, only to learn that I knew next to nothing. Journalist Kim Kelly’s Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor is a fantastic ride that delves into the characters that created the labor and union protections that we have today.
In a little more than 300 pages, Kelly expands the known universe of labor history—taking fascinating but little known figures like Ida Mae Stull (“The Amazon of the Coal Pits”) and breathing new life to their stories. Kelly spoke recently with The Progressive about her book, the research that went into it, and the current revival that labor and unionization is having today.
Fight Like Hell
Q: Please explain Fight Like Hell in your own words.
Kim Kelly: I see Fight Like Hell as a marginalized people’s history of labor in the United States. It focuses specifically on the stories and the struggles of people who’ve been left out of this idea of the American dream and pushed to the margins of labor history, and history in general. It predominantly focuses on women, people of color, queer and trans workers, disabled workers, immigrant workers, sex workers, incarcerated workers, and probably a couple other intersecting identities, too. I tried to write a book about all the people that I was curious about.
Q: Even though unions and labor are integral to our history, we learn next to nothing about them in school.
Kelly: Yeah, I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I never even went to middle school. I’m still not entirely sure what that is. I’ve just kind of heard about it by osmosis because I went to a little brick schoolhouse that was like a kindergarten through eighth grade, all in the same building. And we were not very well funded and certainly were not progressive. So everything I learned about unions before I joined one was basically just from my dad and my granddad.
Q: Do you have a union family?
Kelly: Oh, yeah, I’m third generation, which is a pretty big privilege to be able to say at this point. My granddad’s a steelworker, my grandma’s a teacher, my other granddad is a construction worker, and so were all of my uncles and my dad. I wouldn’t even say they’re blue collar. Like, I don’t think anyone in my family’s ever worn a collar.
Like, I don’t think anyone in my family’s ever worn a collar.
Q: The corporate media devotes so much less airtime to labor and union issues than they do to, say, politics. And when they do cover unions, as your book points out, it’s often dismissive. Why is that?
Kelly: Labor history is the most interesting history imaginable because it’s people’s history. Everyone has either had a job or will have a job, or is probably on the way to work right now. [Working] is one of the most universal experiences. So every kind of person is involved in it. It’s wild to me that that labor, for a very long time, has been consigned to the dusty pages of the business section. [They assume] there’s nothing sexy or cool or interesting about it. And labor is totally sexy. You have to go out and talk to people instead of analyzing them to death.
Q: Even the separation between private and public sector laborers, the mainstream press treat it like it’s a completely different entity. As if there are union workers and then other people.
Kelly: This is why I only read articles about labor written by people who are as broke as I am. That’s where you get the real story. I think a lot of people get [these stories] now a lot more than they did, but there’s still that sort of gilded “punditry” type of person who benefits from a union without thinking of themselves as a worker or a union member. And they get all the attention, but fuck those guys.
Q: The media treat Starbucks organizing as an oddity, essentially because they’re not, say, steelworkers.
Kelly: It’s not just white guys in hard hats. It’s that kind of exclusionary rhetoric that has popped up throughout the history of labor in this country. Right now, it’s this fictitious pitting of blue-collar versus white-collar, but it used to be women. It used to be black workers. It used to be—well, I shouldn’t say it used to be because this is America, but it transferred over to Latinx immigrants.
There’s always been someone, some group of workers who have been thought to be unorganizable, or not deserving, or somehow not in need of union protections because they don’t fit this specific avatar of what a quote-unquote union member should look like. And that’s always been bullshit because, look at my book, there are like 300 million pages of people that don’t fit that description but changed the world.
Q: As a progressive journalist who has covered labor and as a reader of history, I thought I had a decent idea about labor history. You have Haymarket and Matewan but outside of that it’s dry and boring, if it exists at all.
Kelly: You’ve got to put some blood and guts and heart into it because it ultimately comes down to people’s stories and experiences. At the end of the day, it’s people telling you about their lives, about what they’re doing to get by and to try to make things a little bit better. I mean, even just thinking back to the gutsiness of people like the washerwomen of Jackson who, in 1866, one year after emancipation, founded Mississippi’s first labor organization because they weren’t getting paid what they deserved. Or the women who went on strike in 1824 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island—textile workers who were like, “no, this isn’t going to fly.”
Q: I think most people have an idea of labor history that starts with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and then hops to Jimmy Hoffa and then just kind of peters out.
Kelly: There’s the big flashpoints. And I write about a couple of them in the book because, you know, there’s always different angles to explore and different people to spotlight. But I was really interested in finding out about the events and the people that I’d never heard of.
Q: How hard did you have to dig for these stories?
Kelly: I had all of these grand plans of going to visit archives and libraries and travel and sit down and do all these interviews. I did not get to do that, obviously, because the pandemic made that impossible. So I spent a lot of time just reading books, going to the library, digging around on J-STOR and all these weird academic sites that my friends would hook me up with.
Some chapters were easier than others because some professions and some stories are much more well-documented. I didn’t have any issue finding out new, interesting tidbits about Clara Lemlich or the Uprising of the 20,000, because we know about that. But [to cover] some of the women like Rosa Flores, who was deeply involved in the Farah factory strike, I found her in a footnote in someone else’s book and thought she was interesting and had to spend ages trying to dig her up. It took me six weeks to do one chapter [on] incarcerated workers and prison labor, because there’s so little documentation. I had to really dig around and get creative, but it was a lot of fun, it was like a treasure hunt.
Q: Labor has a bloody history, too, but not the kind that Americans usually like to read. It’s not battles with generals and maps, but it feels like you have made it interesting.
If such a huge, impactful labor uprising could effectively be erased, what else are we missing?
Kelly: Yeah, the fact that kids don’t know about the battle of Blair Mountain, there was a whole concerted effort to bury that history, keep that history away from younger people and erase the impact that those workers had and that the struggle had. And, if such a huge, impactful labor uprising could effectively be erased, what else are we missing? What else are they keeping from us? How is there not a Lucy Parsons biopic? Talk about a fascinating and nuanced person.
Q: Why write this book now?
Kelly: I sort of lucked out in that I started writing this book at the beginning of the pandemic, and I got to absorb the events that were happening and unfolding all around me. Right as the essential worker discourse kicked into gear, I was starting to research domestic work and janitorial work and agricultural work. I was researching these things as we’re seeing people deal with them, in increasingly contentious ways, in real time.
As this idea of the “Great Resignation” was popping off, I was writing about massive strikes. And I spent the entire year covering the Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama. So the whole time I was going back and forth to Alabama from Philly. I was going from doing my research and writing the book to going to the heart of an active labor struggle. I got to absorb that energy and that momentum and all those emotions as they were happening. And now the book is coming out at a moment when people seem more excited about labor than ever, especially on the back of the Amazon labor union, and the Starbucks organizing drive. And I hope that when my book comes out, people will pick it up and find some inspiration within its pages to keep fighting like hell.
Q: Who did you enjoy researching and writing about the most?
Kelly: Oh my gosh. There are so many. There’s a couple of people I couldn’t even fit properly into this book that I had to delve into later in a series of columns I did for The Nation—shout out to Mary Heaton Vorse, my favorite labor journalist ever.
In terms of people that I kind of just stumbled across, I was so fascinated by Ida Mae Stull. She was a woman who worked in the coal mines. She was a part owner of a little mine right outside her hometown. She loved her job. She and her husband worked side-by-side and things went well until the mine inspector showed up. They were like, “Oh, you’re a lady. You can’t do this. You need to get back to the kitchen. We have a literal law that says this, so you’re out of luck.”
And she was not having that. She went to court and she fought and she got her job back. She got the right to go back down into the mines, and do the job she loved. She was just such a tough broad, I would love to read an entire book about her, or see a biopic.
Q: You wrote that Ida threw eggs at the mine inspector?
Kelly: Yeah, She threw rotten eggs at the mine inspector to get him out of there. She just seems like she would have been an incredible person to have a drink with. And that’s what I look for in a story subject. Like, would it be fun to hang out with you and hear you talk shit? And I’m sure that Ida Mae still could talk a lot of shit.