Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor is not your average labor book. Kim Kelly manages to transcend the dry chronology typical of the genre by drawing the reader into each unique story of struggle before tying them all together with the common thread of solidarity unionism. In a surprising mix of rigorous history, labor journalism, and an organizer’s optimism, Kelly lays out the myriad obstacles workers have faced throughout America’s past. She shows how, time and again, they have joined together to thrust labor forward into a new paradigm. At every turn, the reader is invited to share in Kelly’s passion for the labor movement, and every new story she unearths becomes another signpost for the struggles ahead.
Industrial Worker recently spoke with Kelly, who is a labor journalist and fellow Wobbly, about the book, her work chronicling the labor movement, the past and present of the IWW, and how we can come together in solidarity to elevate workers everywhere.
Industrial Worker: Obviously, there have been histories of American labor written before. Your book focuses especially on the contributions of marginalized communities to the labor successes of past and present. Can you tell me how the book took shape?
Kim Kelly: I see it as a continuation of what I’ve been trying to do with my Teen Vogue column and with the other work I’ve been doing in the labor journalism space, basically trying to uplift and center the voices of marginalized workers and workers whose labor is criminalized, workers who don’t necessarily get past the microphone as much as they should. And when I had the opportunity to write a whole book, I was really excited to find as many of these folks as I could and pack them all into one place to make it accessible and hopefully fun to read so that people could page through it and hopefully find themselves reflected in the pages,”
IW: There are a ton of characters in [the book]. The labor leaders you write about range from the well-known, like Mother Jones and César Chávez, to the lesser-known, like Maria Moreno and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. What were some challenges or surprises you found while investigating the more obscure figures?
KK: A lot of the folks in the book, they were kind of lost or obscured or tucked away because they were too radical, or too Black, or too Asian, or too brown, or too female, according to their contemporaries. It seems like it’s always been easier for people to elevate, you know, straight white guys who were also involved, but maybe were building on the labor of a lot of other types of people who didn’t get the attention they deserved. [It] makes it a lot harder for people like me, decades or centuries later, to dig through and find out their stories and what really happened. Because so much less value is given…to the voices of marginalized workers, and so much less effort is put into preserving our stories. So it was kind of like a treasure hunt, striving to find as much as I could. And I feel like I could have written a thousand more pages if only I’d had the time.
IW: One of the most compelling aspects of the book is how each story shows the fundamental importance of intersectionality and inclusion to the cause of solidarity. This is a crucial concept in today’s labor struggle, but your book shows that these principles have always contributed to American workers’ victories. How can these stories help inform current organizing efforts?
KK: Sometimes the most important lessons are the simplest and I guess the hardest for some people to put into practice. The biggest thing I wanted to come through in this book—well, there’s a couple of major themes— but one of the biggest ones was how diversity and differences can be our strength instead of a weakness. That a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-generational, multi-everything organizing is how we’re going to win, it’s how we’ve won before. And that’s what’s driving this current new wave of enthusiasm and energy we’re seeing in the labor movement.
This is how we win. It’s how we’ve always won. Giving into the politics of exclusion or bigotry…giving in to that kind of division, that’s just doing the boss’s work for him. That’s something I really hope comes through in the book; just how much stronger we are when we really care about one another, when we work together, and we don’t let ourselves be distracted by false divisions.
IW: It comes through really well. I think if people take nothing else away from the book, it’s that concept. Our readers will be thrilled to learn you spent a good deal of time talking about the IWW. You wrote, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World, more than any other union in U.S. history, has sought to exercise the power of a union not merely to serve its own members, but to shatter the exploitative systems on which this country was constructed,’ Would you share just a quick rundown of the obstacles the IWW has overcome since its formation?
KK: So many…It really is incredible that the IWW is still here and is still so active and is still winning, because the U.S. government has put so much effort into crushing it over the years!
I think most people reading this are probably familiar with that period around World War I and leading up to it —when we saw the U.S. government launch what’s known as the Palmer raids— where they swept up hundreds of Wobblies, as well as other labor organizers and leftists, and anybody who was seen or perceived to be any kind of threat to the established order. Any kind of anti-war voice, anti-authoritarian voice, anybody who wasn’t just blindly following this mandate of ‘we’re going to go to war, and it’s going to be great,’ Hundreds were swept up and imprisoned and repressed within an inch of their lives.
During that period, so much of the union’s resources and archives were destroyed. We had agents raiding IWW offices and burning their papers and shutting them down. It was an active, targeted campaign against the IWW, specifically because we were such an anti-capitalist, anti-racist force, and because so many of its members were so vociferous in their opposition to the war and to war in general and to capitalist exploitation; things that the government wants its loyal subjects to support.
Having the full force of the U.S. government come crashing down on top of your union is going to have an impact. And having tons of your most effective and popular organizers…surveilled and jailed is going to have an impact. That period really did a number on the union’s strength. It really shook the union. But it didn’t kill it. It didn’t destroy it. The government didn’t win. It just took a long time to build things back up. And I suppose we’re still kind of trying to build things back up to the union’s peak.
Learning more about that history is always a thrill. Learning about the people that were part of it: Bill Fletcher, Marie Equi, Frank Little, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons, all of these big, revolutionary, fiery personalities. It’s sad that they aren’t better known within the mainstream labor movement because we need as many real heroes as we can get. And a whole lot of them have been in the IWW. It’s just perhaps not politically convenient for folks to recognize that.
IW: So many of those figures are really engaging,it makes for a very entertaining and inspirational read. The IWW is at the forefront of the recent labor revival, helping workers organize across countless industries. What do you think is the biggest challenge for the IWW as the labor movement continues forward?
KK: “Honestly —and this is just an opinion that I’ve actually held for a long time;I still don’t fully understand why the IWW is treated as this sort of outlier or afterthought by a great number of people in the mainstream labor movement— outside of the AFL-CIO because we’ve been here for just as long, if not a lot longer than many other active unions, been an incredibly important part of labor history as well as labor’s present.
As you mentioned, there are really effective and interesting organizing campaigns being led by Wobblies. There are a lot of dual-carders out there too,I’m surely not the only one. We’re part of the fabric of this movement and always have been. I don’t know if it’s a PR problem, or people just not knowing their history, or people just spending too much time with mainstream Democrats and not realizing that there are still radicals in American labor. But I think it really is to the detriment of the greater labor movement that IWW isn’t given as much due and as much attention and as much respect as it deserves.
And I’m not sure how we get past that. I’m not sure that many Wobblies are really that interested in getting respect and playing footsie [with] the mainstream labor movement. If they were, they’d probably be part of that instead, right? But I think especially as we’re seeing this movement kind of change and expand, as work and labor itself change and expand, and as younger and more diverse workers come to the forefront…There’s a reason that the IWW is the union of choice for some of the people leading this charge. There’s a reason that people are turning to its principles of true worker solidarity, and direct democracy, and solidarity unionism, and you know, causing a little bit of a ruckus.
There is a whole lot that today’s labor activists can learn from the IWW, and there’s a lot…that Wobblies can learn from this new emerging, other type of independent union that we’re seeing blossom. I’m sure there are a lot of intersections between our different perspectives and philosophies that we can explore in a way that really helps workers. I just think it would be better for everybody if we found ways to kind of bridge these divisions without abandoning our principles, and find ways to work together with the bigger movement.
Even if the bigger movement doesn’t recognize our importance, that doesn’t mean that it can’t benefit from our wisdom and militancy. And there’s got to be a way to bring people together that doesn’t, you know, compromise or sacrifice the most important things. I’m not sure how we do it, but I’m hoping that I’m not the only person who’s thinking like that.
Kim Kelly’s “Fight Like Hell: the Untold History of American Labor” can be purchased at the IWW Store. Kelly writes about labor for Teen Vogue, The Baffler, More Perfect Union, The Nation, The Real News Network, Rolling Stone, and many more outlets. You can follow her on Twitter @GrimKim.