With the Union’s Inspiration: Peter Cole Interviews Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly has been a regular labor columnist for Teen Vogue since 2018, and her writing on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in the New Republic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Baffler, the Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Esquire, among others. A third-generation unionist, she is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World’s Freelance Journalists Union as well as a member and elected councilperson for the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). Labor historian and DSA member Peter Cole interviews her about her new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.

Cole: In your book, you describe a great many historic labor actions and union campaigns, but some believe that the best tool in the workers’ toolbox is the strike. That’s why Big Bill Haywood said, “A strike is an incipient revolution. Many large revolutions have grown out of a small strike.” What’s your view? Why have the number of strikes diminished, and what can be done to change that?

Kelly: Strikes are one of the most effective weapons available to the working class. I think that the series of high-profile strikes that have captured the media’s attention and labor’s support over the past two years has had a direct impact on the surge in public interest and support for unions, which has in turn has influenced the ongoing organizing wave we’re seeing at the likes of Starbucks and Amazon. Sure, we’re not hitting the kind of numbers we saw in the mass strikes of the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s (and I’m sure those who study labor statistics would certainly have more to say about this than I do!), but I think we’re in a much better place than we were even a few years ago.

Cole: Some of the most dynamic parts of your book highlight the pervasive sexism and homophobia that many workers have suffered. I’m thinking of the years of sexual harassment suffered by autoworker Suzette Wright from her coworkers, managers, and even her own union. I presume that you—as a strong woman in a patriarchal society—also have suffered. Why do you think unions and other supposedly progressive institutions continue to struggle over what seems like a simple issue?

Kelly: Here’s the thing: Unions are made up of people, and a union card is not a magical ticket out of ignorance and into enlightenment. There are a lot of racist, sexist, homophobic assholes who also happen to be union members (look at every cop “union,” for example), and of course these structural social problems and interlocking systems of oppression are present within the labor movement (and in any other social justice or progressive movement you could name, including radical spaces). That will remain true until our collective will to eradicate that violence surpasses the desire of the powerful and privileged to maintain a status quo that works just fine for some people while leaving others high and dry.

Cole: You clearly love history. It comes through on every page! Why do you think many Americans don’t appreciate history or just give it lip service?

Kelly: I think that very few of us are given a real opportunity to engage with our history—that is, the people’s history—during our earlier school years. If that interest isn’t sparked early, then it’s far less likely that someone will go on to pursue further academic study in history or cultivate a deep personal interest in it. If you’ve only ever been taught the most boring, bloodless, capitalist version of a select grouping of historical events, or if your entire experience with history has been sitting in class and reading about dusty white men committing atrocities against people of color, why on earth would you care enough about it to spend what precious free time you have digging through an archive or buying up history books? That’s one of the reasons I tried to make my writing in this book feel lively, approachable, and inclusive. I wanted to make it easy for someone with only a few minutes to spare to thumb through FIGHT LIKE HELL and find something that jumps out at them, whether it’s a strike or a gunfight or just a great quote from someone they can see themselves in. History can be the most interesting thing in the world if you actually tell people the truth.

Cole: Our interview is being published by the Democratic Socialists of America. What do you want someone to take from your book who, presumably, already identifies as a socialist and supports unions?

Kelly: I wrote this book for the working class, and I would hope anyone who identifies as any kind of leftist or progressive will see something of themselves in this book. Labor history is positively bursting with the stories of devoted socialists, anarchists, and communists who have fought, organized, and won important victories (and suffered brutal losses) in the ongoing quest for working class liberation, and one of my favorite parts about writing this book was that I was able to lift up a bunch of past organizers whose legacies have been red-scared out of the mainstream labor narrative, from Lucy Parsons to Emma Tenayuca. We have always been here, and—unfortunately for the bosses and reactionaries—we ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Cole: You clearly did a lot of research for this book, but it’s intended for a general audience. Could you describe your research and writing methods?

Kelly: As a journalist, it’s my job to find out who did what, where, when—to dig into every scrap of available information I can get my hands on, do my own original reporting, synthesize all those findings, and put together a story that will inform, educate, and hopefully inspire my audience (which, in this case and always, is workers and general readers who have an interest in labor but may not be well-versed in every aspect of its history). I’m not an academic, an historian, or an archivist, and I am so grateful to those who are, because their passion and meticulous scholarship has resulted in some of the many books, articles, and archives I have combed through to learn more about the people and events that make up FIGHT LIKE HELL.