The Past, Present, and Future of the Labor Movement

The Past, Present, and Future of the Labor Movement

The Past, Present, and Future of the Labor Movement

Kim Kelly’s survey of labor organizing in America—telling the stories of workers on the margins, from miners to sex workers—offers hope and inspiration for working-class victories to come.


Like a lot of folks, I first encountered Kim Kelly’s writing in Teen Vogue, where her “No Class” column provided a lively introduction to the US labor movement: not just reporting and interviews, but also explainers on strikes, unions, and the PRO Act, as well as short histories of the struggle for the eight-hour day, labor’s fight for free speech, and the roots of Labor Day itself. Watching these pieces whip around social media was a delight, as was sharing them with undergraduate students in labor studies classes, where they were an immediate hit. As more and more Americans have come to view unions favorably over the past five years, Kelly has been there to show them just how important working-class struggle has been to this country’s history.

When Kelly announced back in 2020 that she was writing a history of the labor movement, I assumed that she would essentially compile these columns into a primer of sorts. Fight Like Hell is indeed an engaging introduction to US labor history, but it is also much more. Well-known figures make cameos, but Fight Like Hell’s leading actors are Black, Indigenous, immigrant, disabled, and imprisoned workers: people organizing at the deadliest intersections of capitalist exploitation, state violence, and social exclusion. These are workers whose labor was essential long before the pandemic, but whom, Kelly notes, “this country has often failed to recognize.”

What makes Fight Like Hell feel so fresh are not, primarily, archival finds or new interpretations of events—though Kelly narrates them in a lively fashion—but the structure of the chapters. They are organized thematically, exploring “industries with very long histories…jobs that were and still are physically demanding, whose workers have been stigmatized in some way, reduced to harmful stereotypes, or ignored altogether.” In each, Kelly “jumps around between different eras and areas,” a freewheeling method that illuminates connections between people, ideas, and struggles in ways that a strict adherence to chronology would not. The result is an imaginative book of radical genealogies, assembled from vivid human stories linked across time and space.

Kelly’s own reporting brings these histories right into the present. Her chapter “The Miners” closes with the ongoing United Mine Workers of America strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama, of which Kelly has been one of the most active chroniclers. Sara Nelson, who penned the book’s foreword, appears at the end of “The Movers,” calling for a general strike to end the government shutdown in 2019. The Marriott workers who went on strike with UNITE-HERE one year earlier—winning a landmark contract with protections against sexual harassment and assault—get the last word in “The Cleaners.” Combining history and journalism in this way keeps Fight Like Hell’s overall focus on constant, ongoing struggle. The book shows how generations of radicals have inspired and influenced one another, and how they might continue to do so.

Kelly opens Fight Like Hell by describing her first interview with Jennifer Bates, a Black worker and organizer at Amazon in Bessemer, Ala. Kelly and Bates meet in Birmingham, where, in the shadow of a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bates reflects on the civil rights movement, her hometown of Marion, Ala., and working at Amazon. Bates’s own radical genealogy, as Kelly shows, informs her organizing work in Bessemer and stiffens her resolve in the face of her union’s defeat in its first election. (A second election this past March yielded a much closer vote, the results of which remain contested.)

Bates’s story guides Kelly’s approach in Fight Like Hell at two levels. Throughout the book, Kelly trains her focus on workers like Bates: women, people of color, and other marginalized workers who dared to organize “unorganizable” workplaces and who drew their resilience from deep wells of personal and community history. Kelly then writes this history in the way she has listened to these workers tell it: not in straight lines, but by leaping back and forth from immediate forebears to inspiring ancestors, linking well-known labor leaders to local legends, and drawing lessons from past workers’ lives and labor for the present-day struggles.

The aforementioned chapter on “The Miners” best exemplifies Kelly’s style. She opens with Ohio’s Ida Mae Stull driving off the federal inspectors who sought to pull her out of the pits she owned for digging coal as a woman in the 1930s. Kelly then leaps ahead to Diana Baldwin and Anita Cherry “kicking open a door that had been wedged shut for centuries” by applying for jobs in Kentucky mines at the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s. At this juncture, Kelly adds an important caveat: Baldwin and Cherry may have been the first women formally hired as miners, but they were not the first women to work in American mines. That credit belongs to the enslaved Black women who toiled in Southern coal mines centuries earlier.

Following this thread, Kelly steps back in time to explore the long history of enslaved miners’ labor and how Southern mine owners quickly remade their workforce with convict labor after the passage of the 13th Amendment. This discussion of convict labor brings her to Tennessee’s Coal Creek War of 1891—92, in which mostly white striking miners raided the prison camps housing their mostly Black convict-laborer replacements and set them free. Hundreds of prisoners were recaptured afterward, and hundreds of miners were arrested, but “their point had been made, and a serious blow had been struck against convict leasing in Tennessee.”

In Appalachia, Kelly picks up the trail of United Mine Workers organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who “breathed class war like a dragon and doted on her members as if they were her own children.” Kelly follows Jones out West, where she chronicles the Indigenous, immigrant, and Latinx workers who organized with the militant Western Federation of Miners. Kelly then jumps ahead to the grandchildren of these miners, drawing from Barbara Kingsolver’s Holding the Line to discuss the Great Copper Strike of 1983—a strike that the union lost but that radicalized a generation of women who continued to organize their community.

Closing with the Warrior Met strike, Kelly brings everything together. Alabama’s mining history goes back to slavery and features many hardscrabble strikes and interracial alliances. Today, the ongoing Warrior Met campaign has been sustained, in large part, by women’s auxiliaries, whose stories Kelly has elevated as they hold the line for miners and their families in their second year on strike.

This whirlwind tour works both because Kelly is a compelling storyteller and because she uses each episode to illustrate a broader theme: the innumerable ways in which the bosses and the state have divided and devalued miners and their labor, and the irrepressible ways in which many miners have built solidarity nonetheless. This is not a traditional history of mining—in her conclusion, Kelly laments having to omit many classic stories—but rather one assembled to understand and inform the particular challenges her reporting has documented in the present.

Many of Fight Like Hell’s chapters have a similarly peripatetic style, but Kelly does make time to linger on particular individuals and moments. In “The Revolutionaries,” she considers the life of Lucy Parsons, drawing from Jacqueline Jones’s Bancroft Prize–winning biography, Goddess of Anarchy, as well as Parsons’s own speeches and writings. Parsons, Kelly writes, “assume[d] many roles and identities to best survive whatever circumstances she encountered.” Born into slavery, the light-skinned Parsons could pass as white, and did, disguising her personal history even as “her enthralling demeanor, sophisticated oratory skills, and blistering anti-capitalist rhetoric” brought her to prominence in Chicago.

After seeing her husband, Albert Parsons, martyred by the State of Illinois after the Haymarket bombing, Parsons lived for another half-century. She worked to popularize May Day as an international workers’ holiday and to found and build the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She also clashed with Emma Goldman over the latter’s support of “free love” and continued to downplay her Black ancestry. For Kelly, Parsons is “a study in contradictions, many of them of her own devising.”

Kelly also slows her pace, at times, to put her journalist’s powers of description to work, as she does in detailing the police murder and funeral procession of Yemeni farmworker and organizer Nagi Daifullah. Daifullah’s story is part of “The Harvesters,” a chapter that opens with a century’s worth of multiracial organizing on sugarcane plantations in Hawaii before sailing back across the Pacific to California. There, Kelly discusses well-known leaders like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, but she trains her lens on Maria Moreno and Larry Itliong, whose stories link the United Farm Workers’ explosive growth in the 1960s to long histories of imperialism and exploitation, and to decades of organizing by workers from Mexico and the Philippines. When Kelly gets to Daifullah’s death in 1973, these themes of state-sponsored exploitation and resistance come together in the killing of an immigrant worker, an act of brutality that itself sparks another round of interracial organizing in the fields. Kelly narrates it all with the white-hot, beat-by-beat fury this history demands.

Fight Like Hell does examine several well-known individuals and events. Frances Perkins and Bayard Rustin get their due, along with a careful consideration of their influence and personal shortcomings. But Kelly mostly keeps her focus on workers pushed to the margins by their industries and sometimes by their unions: indigenous ironworkers, queer truckers, and women workers confronting sexual harassment in auto plants, to name a few of many.

In telling these stories, Kelly draws from a wide range of writing and research, much of it the work of authors with deep connections to the stories they are telling. This includes recent scholarship by Peter Cole, Allyson P. Brantley, and Justin Akers Chacón; contemporary labor reporting (including Kelly’s own and that of numerous peers); and the efforts of progressive and radical organizers to bring these histories to light in their own unions, as well through constituency groups like Pride at Work. The extensive endnotes and citations are invaluable for a curious reader hoping to learn more about this history.

Kelly’s title does generate a broader question about writing history, one that goes straight to the heart of her project in Fight Like Hell: What does it mean to call a book assembled primarily from other authors’ work an “untold” history? This is a term as beloved by publishers as it is fraught for historians. No history—save, perhaps, the most intimate memoir—is truly “untold” in a literal sense. Why, then, call it one? The crude economic logic is that the promise of newness attracts readers. But in the labor tradition in which Kelly is writing, the term has a longer history as a shorthand for power relations, both within the labor movement and in US society at large.

This tradition begins with Labor’s Untold Story by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais. This book—which also synthesizes other published histories—first appeared in 1955, at the height of Cold War hysteria, but it unflinchingly laid out a Popular Front narrative of workers’ organizing from the Civil War to the present. Boyer and Morais didn’t believe that the stories they recounted were “untold” in the literal sense; they were untold because anticommunist Cold Warriors had driven radical unions out of the CIO and radical historians out of the academy. Boyer and Morais aimed to bring this history back to workers as a spur to action, and for exactly this reason, the proudly left United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America—one of the unions expelled by the CIO—has published Labor’s Untold Story since 1970.

The new synthesis Kelly aims for, like that of Boyer and Morais—or of Jeremy Brecher a generation later, who wrote in 1972’s Strike! that “we have been told anything but the whole truth about American history”—is as unapologetically radical as those books were in their time. Fight Like Hell does not strive, in the main, to show how labor’s influence has been projected in the halls of power. Nor does it function, as many labor histories do, as a ledger of gains and losses for the movement. Kelly’s method is not well-suited for detailing the intricate evolution of labor law or for tracing rates of union membership, industrial employment, or strike activity. Instead, Kelly uses this history to make a case for keeping our eyes trained on those workers deemed marginal or unorganizable, whose organizing takes shape in novel ways by necessity when mainstream methods are either closed to them or irrelevant to their struggles.

There is a common tendency in labor history, and in histories of social movements more broadly, to follow people and ideas as they move from the margins of the body politic to its center. Goals once seen as impossible—abolition, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour day—are won through organized political struggle, sometimes over many generations. These histories are important. They demonstrate the power of political and social organizing to improve the world for all. They also ensure that radical thinkers and organizers get their due for victories that, in the final instance, are often codified and instituted by mainstream politicians.

But this edge-to-center framework has its limits. For starters, the labor movement has not seen most of its campaigns move in this direction over the past half-century. By nearly any measure—unionization rates, strikes, legislation, labor’s share of productivity—the US labor movement has been pushed back toward the margins of our political and social life. As inequality, exploitation, and outright attacks on working-class movements reach levels unseen since the early 20th century, there is much to be learned from the radicals who faced down steep odds in the past.

Moreover, even when labor and working-class movements have pushed their way into the political mainstream, focusing primarily on that trajectory misses how some radicals stayed radical. Organizers in successful campaigns do not all become respectable union leaders or politicians; some move on to new struggles. These are the folks Fight Like Hell follows.

The ways in which radical struggles of many kinds intersect and inspire new organizing efforts is particularly clear in Kelly’s last three chapters, on disabled workers, sex workers, and prisoners. The inclusion of these three—on equal footing with chapters about garment workers, miners, and metalworkers—is a statement in and of itself that these workers’ struggles should be central in our understanding of labor history. Each, as Kelly shows, has a long history of its own; in her chapter on disabled workers, she begins in 1738 with the Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, “a working class, disabled immigrant” who delighted in disrupting polite society to remind them that “sugar was made with blood” and slavery in any form was a grievous sin.

Lay’s overlapping radicalism and disability made him a pariah to many in his own time, but Kelly refashions him as a worthy ancestor for today’s disability rights movement. This movement, in its modern form, emerged itself at the intersection of other radical organizing efforts. To illustrate this, Kelly retells the story of the disabled Black Panther Brad Lomax, who “connected the Bay Area’s Center for Independent Living with the Black Panthers in an effort to better serve the city’s Black disabled community” in 1975 and joined the “504 Sit-in” for disability rights at San Francisco’s Federal Building two years later. The sit-in lasted 26 days, during which time the Black Panther Party provided meals to those inside.

In “The Sex Workers,” Kelly interviews exotic dancers who organized to fight racism in their putatively progressive club, the Lusty Lady, ultimately unionizing with SEIU 790 in San Francisco in the 1990s. Kelly shows how their combined efforts and advocacy, supported by radical feminists at Bay Area universities and nonprofits, were essential for the success of the organizing drive. This struggle feels particularly relevant as workers at Star Garden in Los Angeles organize with Strippers United. In “The Prisoners,” Kelly introduces readers to the Incarcerated Worker’s Organizing Committee, founded in 2014 with assistance from the IWW, still carrying the torch for industrial unionism and willing to organize workers even where the law forbids it, as they did in Lucy Parsons’s day. The sum of these stories is an exhortation to follow exploited workers and radical organizers wherever the fight is now, be it in prisons, strip clubs, or anywhere else.

It is impossible to finish Fight Like Hell and not think immediately of the most important and hopeful labor movement victories of the past year, at Starbucks in Buffalo (and now over 200 stores nationwide) and at Amazon in Staten Island. Much ink has been spilled, rightly, on the origins and innovations of these campaigns. While the organizers of both are primarily younger workers, they have publicly constructed radical genealogies of their own: Starbucks Workers United’s Jaz Brisack quoted Eugene Debs and shared her bookshelf in her interview with The Washington Post, while the Amazon Labor Union’s Angelika Maldonado spoke movingly to Eric Blanc about the importance of her mother’s membership in 1199SEIU.

The stories Maldonado and Brisack tell reflect Kelly’s argument that “every worker today stands on the shoulders of giants”—some household names, some less celebrated but no less significant. This idea runs through each chapter, as we repeatedly meet workers and organizers who note the influence of grandparents who taught them the power of a union, or cite the inspiration of Debs or Dr. King. As Kelly writes of Jennifer Bates, the first of many indelible characters in Fight Like Hell, she “may be one of a kind, but she is also part of a long lineage of working-class heroes who, when faced with injustice and oppression, stood up, looked their bosses dead in the eye, and said enough.

Ad Policy