Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer, and the labor columnist for Teen Vogue. She has covered labor organizing and strikes across the country. Her first book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, hits the shelves today. She met with Forge contributor Dave Kamper to talk about the book, labor journalism today, and what is giving her hope right now.


You tell an enormous number of fascinating stories in this book. A lot of them do not have a happy ending. How do you stay optimistic after writing so many tragic stories?

Well, you look for the good ones, right? It's always worth it to try, even if you don't win. You take a minute to mourn and then you keep organizing. It's never the end because the struggle continues. I saw some of my favorite characters meet unfortunate ends, [but] there were still others that made it out and kept going. You kind of have to just take the good with the bad because, otherwise, how are you going to make it out of any of this with your sanity intact?


What was the story in the book that hit you the hardest with its tragic ending?

One story that always just makes me so sad and so angry is the story of Nagi Daifullah, a young Yemeni immigrant. He got involved with the United Farm Workers Union, translating and organizing during the Salad Bowl strike. One day he was hanging out with a group of workers, minding their own business; a group of cops started hassling them. Nagi stood up for them and the cops responded by cracking him in the skull and dragging him across the gravel and leaving him for dead. He was 24 years old and all he did was stand up for some workers who didn't feel they could do it for themselves. Not a lot of people know about him. But he was there and he mattered and he was important.


There is state violence all throughout this book. Is there a bigger lesson that organizers today should learn about how we interact with the authorities?

In terms of organizing and strategy, I think being very clear and intentional in the way that you address these issues with workers and let them know some people are in more danger than others. Certain people who have more privilege, they're the people that we're going to send out be that buffer if things get to a certain point. It's like, at a protest — you send the pretty white girl to go talk to the cops so that all the other folks who don't have that kind of invisible armor are under less threat. 


Talk a little bit about the process of writing this book. How did you find all these stories?

Obviously writing a book is a lot of work, especially when you're stuck inside and can't go interview in person or go to archives or visit important sites. Bought a lot of books, read a lot of books, spent a lot of time at the library, spent a lot of time digging through academic journals online. I have a bunch of friends who work in academia and hooked me up with journal articles and papers I was pay-walled out of, which was nice. Shout out to them.

I would read through these massive tomes, like Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! or Philip Foner's Women and the American Labor Movement, and just kind of see who had only gotten a couple sentences or was kind of in a footnote and then just disappeared. I always wanted to know, where did they go? There must be something more there. I have so many dog-eared books lying around my office. I'm sure there was a better way to go about it. But I had a good time.


You must have read works by nearly every major labor historian out there. Who are some of the ones that stood out to you? 

 I definitely read a lot of them! There's a reason my bibliography is 48 pages long. A few crucial standouts were A Needle, a Bobbin, a Strike: Women Needleworkers in America by Joan M. Jensen and Sue Davidson; To ‘joy my freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter; Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class, and Community Conflict 1780 – 1980 by Ronald L. Lewis; Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 by Ronald Takaki; Melinda Chateauvert's Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk and Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters... I could go on and on. 

Some of my favorite sources were books that weren't necessarily marketed as labor history at all but fit the bill by virtue of who and what they covered — for example, Kim E. Nielsen's A Disability History of the United States, Judy Yung's Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, and Justin Akers Chacón's Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class. I relied a lot on trade books in addition to what I could find from academic presses and my own original research and reporting. I'm kind of a magpie when it comes to sources and am really grateful that so many brilliant scholars have done the hard work of unearthing and preserving so much of this material in their own work. I really hope that people who enjoy Fight Like Hell will go through the endnotes and bibliography afterwards, find some new favorite authors, and keep digging deeper into the pieces of labor history that speak to them.


Who's someone who we've never heard of today who's the sort of person who 50 years from now gets written about in a book like this? 

There's a person that I really hope that we're reading about decades from now because he is just such a spark plug. There's this young man named Isaiah Thomas who works at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse who was involved with the union drive. He's currently a student at the University of Birmingham. He took two semesters off just to focus on the Amazon organizing campaign and to make some money because college costs money.

The way that his own perspectives have shifted and what he's learned from being involved in organizing, seeing the way it's impacted him. His original focus [in college] was criminal justice but he decided after this experience to shift his focus, and now he wants to be a labor lawyer and help people that way. Seeing that, knowing how many people that kid is going to help and how much of an impact that kid is going to have. He's only 20 years old and that's the next generation. When I'm 50 years old and do another edition of this book, that's where it's going to start, with people like Isaiah.


A lot of the people in your book got into organizing at a young age, and then you have this other set who lived a full life before they got engaged. What turns people on early? What turns them on late?

I think if someone pops up and is like, "Hey, here's something that might help. Here's a way we can change this. Here's a way we can make it better for you and for people coming after you," then I think that's a really important moment. That's what we heard with the folks at Amazon. Some of the organizers are really young. Some of them are a little older and have that experience. I think working together is the only way that we're going to really, truly harness all of that energy and get some shit done, but they're both equally valid and equally important.


I want to shift gears and talk about labor journalism in the present. What's your take on the state of labor journalism today and what are some things that organizers can do to enhance the role of labor journalism, to make it more successful?

I think we're at a really exciting moment for the beat, if you will, because now there are tons of people covering labor. There are tons of labor reporters and there's tons of other reporters that are showing an interest in labor, doing labor stories. It wasn't that five years ago for sure. We've had this huge wave of unionization at digital media outlets and more traditional news outlets, too, led by my union, the Writer's Guild of America East and the News Guild. If you take all of these underpaid, overworked, miserable media workers, organize them, get them a good contract, show them the power of a union — all of those people are now going to have a much different view of unions. All of those people are going to bring that to their work. And when we get laid off — because we're always getting laid off – we're going to pop up in other places. It’s like dandelion seeds. We end up everywhere.

The biggest thing for me is being able to talk to workers that are comfortable being interviewed, who feel like they have a story to tell. I think organizers can really help their cause by identifying folks who are happy to talk to reporters, who have stories to tell. Worker voices are the most important thing in any piece of labor journalism. The rest is just window dressing.


Do you have another project in sight?

I feel I've been champing at the bit this whole time to get back to freelancing, but now I worry that I forgot how to do it. I know that the book is going to take up a bunch more time. I think I can mention that there's probably going to be a younger reader's version of the book, which I'm really excited about.


Let's talk about the Warrior Met strike in Alabama. You were there from pretty close to the beginning.

So it's April 12th. As of today, it's been a year and a day since I first showed up at the picket line with a box of Krispy Kremes and started asking people what's going on.

It's the longest strike in Alabama state history. I felt so honored to be able to cover it and develop great relationships with so many people. Whenever I go down there now, it feels like coming home. 

Over 1,000 coal miners are still on strike in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. They still need support, I think about 80 percent of them are parents. I just love them so much. I wish everyone else was paying as much attention as I was. But even if they're not, I'm still going to be here.



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