Grit Nation

Fight Like Hell - The Untold Story of American Labor - Kim Kelly

June 07, 2022 Kim Kelly Episode 33
Grit Nation
Fight Like Hell - The Untold Story of American Labor - Kim Kelly
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to Grit Nation, I’m Joe Cadwell the host of the show and today I have the pleasure of speaking with author Kim Kelly about her new book titled Fight Like Hell – The Untold History of American Labor.  

Kim’s book is a remarkable interweaving of past and present that brings America’s rich and bloody labor history to vivid life. 

Her book comes at a time of economic reckoning in America. From Amazon Warehouses to Starbucks coffee shops, interest in organized labor is at a peak not seen in more than half a century. 

We’ll open our conversation by learning why Kim transitioned from writing about heavy metal and country music for Vibe Magazine to covering worker rights issues. 

Next, we’ll discuss the significant role women have played in the labor movement as we dig into the stories of historical figures such as Lucy Parsons and Mother Jones. 

Later, we’ll look into the recent win for workers at an Amazon Warehouse in New York and what it means for the organized labor in the years to come. 

And we’ll wrap up our conversation by understanding the connection between the struggle for rights for people with disability and the labor movement.

The Show Notes

Kim Kelly
https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Fight-Like-Hell/Kim-Kelly/9781982171056

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Joe Cadwell:

Welcome to Grit Nation, I'm Joe Cadwell, the host of the show.and today I have the pleasure of speaking with author Kim Kelly about her new book titled Fight Like Hell -The Untold History of American labor. Kim's book is a remarkable interweaving of past and present brings America's rich and bloody labor history to vivid life. Her book comes at a time of economic reckoning in America. from Amazon warehouses to Starbucks coffee shops. Interest in organized labor is at a peak not seen more than half a century will open our conversation by learning why Kim transitioned from writing about heavy metal and country music provide magazine, the covering worker rights issues. Next, we'll discuss the significant role women have played in the labor movement as we dig into the stories of historical figures such as Lucy Parsons and Mother Jones. Later, we'll look into the recent win for workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York, and what it means for organized labor in the years to come. And we'll wrap up our conversation by understanding the connection between the struggle for rights for people with disabilities and the labor movement. To learn more about Kim and her work, be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, or visit the grit nation podcast website at gritnationpodcast.com. And now on to the show. Kim Kelly, welcome to Grit Nation.

Kim Kelly:

Thank you so much for having me.

Joe Cadwell:

Well thank you so much, Kim, for taking your time to be on the show today. I'm really excited to talk to you about your recent book Fight Like Hell, -The Untold History of American Labor. And before we do that, though, can you tell the listeners a little bit about who Kim Kelly is and how you got interested in writing a book about labor history?

Kim Kelly:

Sure, I suppose I got interested in writing about labor in general, the way the way that a lot of people get interested in labor, I helped organize my workplace. I was back in 2015. I was working at VICE whereas actually the heavy metal editor that's Vice magazine. But yeah, well, Vice media is a whole this whole sprawling company. I worked for the website noisy. Where Yeah, I wrote about heavy metal in country music. And I had never really thought about myself as someone who could join a union because as far as I was concerned, like I just read about music on the internet, like there's not a union for that. But turns out there is we organized, and I kind of shifted my focus away from music and more towards politics and labor. And to the point where by the time I got laid off in 2019, I decided, okay, I'm just going to try to do this and be a full time lead reporter. And it worked. And yeah, I will say I'm from, like a blue collar union family, like steel workers, operating engineers, construction workers all up and down. And my family were much more impressed when I told them I was writing about unions than when I was writing about death metal. So that was a when

Joe Cadwell:

you go, and you're from the East Coast.

Kim Kelly:

Yeah, I'mfrom rural South Jersey, and an area called the pine barrens. Okay, which is like a very, basically, it's a big ol nature preserve. That kind of looks and feels like if you've carved off a slice of Kentucky or Alabama and dropped it in the middle of New Jersey. So it was very, I'm gonna country girl. And if I live in South Philly now, all right.

Joe Cadwell:

And so you wrote a book Fight Like Hell, the Untold History of American labor, and you start all the way back to sort of the 1700s. And I'd like to begin our conversation if we could, that first factory strike of 1824 was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. And what brought these young immigrant women to go head to head with with upper management?

Kim Kelly:

Well, at that point in history, it was kind of before the mills in New England began hiring immigrant workers at that point, it was mostly like these New England farm girls like American born white women, who were Lord, to the mills and then shown, it was shown to them as a kind of opportunity. Like you can go see the world and make your own money and be a little bit independent from your family. And women didn't have a lot of options at that time. Like it was basically get married, or live with your family forever, or just completely live in poverty, like it were. There wasn't a lot of career fairs going on in the 1800s.

Joe Cadwell:

So these factories seem cosmopolitan and an opportunity for them to grow as individuals

Kim Kelly:

where women can make their own money. And you know, so women, young women moved there in droves, and they worked in these factories, and they realized pretty quickly that what they basically have been sold a bill of goods like they were overworked. They're crowded in these dormitories. They're policed by factory employees, they were paid very little. The working conditions were dire. They're breathing in these fibers. They're there's no ventilation. It basically, they were dealing with a lot of the same things that factory workers deal with now. And they decided, okay, well, we need to do something about this. And they started to organize and they started to strike. And they started to form organizations and, and put together newspapers and agitate like they they did, they did something about it, they saw something that wasn't fair and wasn't okay. And they did something in 1824, which is, it's just incredible, because the way that society was structured at that time, women kind of weren't allowed to do anything. Nobody thought that we were really worth thinking about in outside of the role of wife and mother and daughter until you became somebody's wife. These women really just were way ahead of the curve when it comes to advocating for workers rights, and shorter workdays like, it's the book is full of a lot of stories like that people that were way ahead of their time, way ahead of what was expected of them, or what was thought to be possible. And they just did it anyway.

Joe Cadwell:

And I'll have to say that it does seem like women are constantly at the forefront of these labor movements. And all through your book, I was just, you know, just so inspired and enlightened into what a strong force, the women's movement within organized labor has been. And how do you why do you think that is, and again, I apologize for saying it originally, it was the immigrant women and in the, in those mills, once those homegrown American girls became dissatisfied, the upper management got dismissive of them, then they started to bring in the immigrant workers from Ireland and from the Netherlands and Poland and other places.

Kim Kelly:

That yeah, that's I'm from Canada, like that's, that's typically how it's worked in this country, right? Like when, like when a group of white workers who were born here and dissatisfied, start taking action, the bosses think, Oh, well, we can split them up, we can weaken them, we can bring in workers who are even more vulnerable, and have less options and less willing to stand on and exploit them. And we'll keep winning, but throughout history that has consistently backfired in their faces. But in terms of the role of women, like it's really important to me in this book, to focus really heavily on women and non binary people, because that's, like, where we don't get as much attention as men do when it comes to these sweeping historical epics, like a lot of people know about Cesar Chavez as they should. But do they know about Dolores Huerta? Do they know about Maria Marino? Or am attorney Yuka? Probably not. And those women were working just as hard if not harder, because they had to overcome the sexism and misogyny, and the constraints that are placed on women who work, especially if their mothers, or other taking care of other family members like women's work. The work of being a woman is hard enough, right? But then when you add on wage labor, and social expectations, and dealing with just all the different kinds of oppression that women workers deal with, like, of course, we've been out on the forefront. Whether or not people listened or took it seriously, or got out of the way is another question. But they did it anyway. And that's, that's why we are where we are like, obviously, there's a lot a lot further to go. But we're only here because of women.

Joe Cadwell:

Right and, and another one of those paramount figures in the labor movement, Lucy Parsons, and the Haymarket Affair is another chapter as I was reading through your book, I was just just blown away at what what she took out in Chicago, back in 1886, when the workers who were striking for for an eight hour work day, and they met a tremendous amount of resistance and from that from the factory owners and the corporate bosses of the that time, and they also had a lot of the politicians and the police force, you know, kind of eating their union busting efforts. And then along comes Lucy Parsons, and a group that was eventually known as the Haymarket eight, what can you tell our listeners about their story?

Kim Kelly:

There's so many layers to that Lucy Parsons is someone that even when I sat down, I thought, Okay, I'm gonna write a book. She was one of the first people that came to mind like, Okay, I have to write about Lucy because she was, she was this mysterious figure that kind of obscured her own background because she, like historical research has shown that she was probably a mixed race black woman who was born enslaved in Virginia, and had a really interesting life that eventually landed her in Chicago, married to a former Confederate soldier turns socialist, Albert Parsons, then became very deeply enmeshed in the Chicago radical political community. And they started organizing she helped found union she was part of organizing campaigns, but her real calling was as an agitator as a speaker and a writer. She was out there preaching for revolution, while other people in her circle were organizing factory workers are organized around the eight hour day as part of this whole big revolutionary push towards really what a better world a shorter work day than the big stuff. algorithm that erupted during that time was eight hours for us eight hours for work eight hours for what we will. And at that point, people were used to working 10, 12, 14 hour days, an eight hour day was this. It was seen as this absolutely utopian pie in the sky dream, but the people fought for it. And there are a couple of different political undercurrents happening at the same time. And at the moment, when these RiverWorks workers were out on strike, there was a big mass meeting and Haymarket Square in Chicago one night, and a bunch of these radicals came up and they spoke. Lucy and her husband weren't there. They're out with their kids, but they were they're part of the the anarchist socialist community in Chicago. And so when something happened at the rally, a bomb was thrown by someone, they still don't know who and chaos erupted, some police officers were hurt, a lot of workers were hurt. It turned into this whole circus where the people in charge wanted to find someone to scapegoat. And they chose these seven anarchists who most of them were actually involved in labor. Most of them were Jewish immigrants, or second or second generation. They were painted as these like demonic, destructive figures, whereas these people were just trying to organize factory workers and shorten the work day. A lot of BS happened along the way. But essentially those most of them were hanged included, there

Joe Cadwell:

were four of them, including Lucy Parsons, husband and

Kim Kelly:

Albert was named was killed. Yeah, a couple other had their sentences commuted and one killed himself in jail. And Lucy, she, she took it almost in stride, she spent the rest of her life advocating for workers and for revolution and for the world that she and her husband had fought for. And she was a complicated figure because she, she did not present herself as a black woman. She told people she was like Spanish descent. She didn't really try to organize within the black community, she focused on white factory workers. Her family life was pretty complicated. Like she was just such a fascinating character who wasn't it wasn't just a good guy, bad guy sort of situation. And there's so many people in the book who fall into that same category, right? Because people, even if they're heroes, they're still human. And that was one of the most interesting parts of research in the book, just finding just finding out new things about my heroes and reevaluating how, how I feel about them how I feel about what they did, and if I still think it was all worth it, and most of the time it was

Joe Cadwell:

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Kim Kelly:

God that's a painful one right like the Ludlow massacre was just absolutely brutal. And it's it just shows like you said how much blood has been spilled to get us even a little bit closer to a better world during this really bitter conflict between coal miners and coal bosses and Colorado. Actually, Mother Jones was in prison. At the time of the massacre, because public officials heard she was common, because if there was a conflict in the coal fields if workers needed her Mother Jones was common. She was

Joe Cadwell:

rabble rouser, she was ready to fight for those workers rights to the Hellraiser

Kim Kelly:

as self described. I mean, the title of the book fight like hell comes from her. And so she was she was a force and the workers loved her. And they listened to her. And so that certainly would not do so they, the they locked her up. And she had to hear about this massacre, you know, after the fact when Cole bosses sent their goons into a coal miners camp and just massacred a bunch of miners and their families.

Joe Cadwell:

Yeah, 2121 died in that Ludlow massacre. And again, most of them from what I understand were from from reading were women and children. And those were the company goons that came in and did that the Colorado National Guard was brought in again to suppress this workers organizing for safer working conditions, possibly better pay better living conditions,

Kim Kelly:

the most basic requests turned demand like let us organize pay us a little better make it a little safer. If the bar is so low, the bar was so low then and even now it's, it's pretty low. And you think about the coal miners in Alabama who've been on strike for over a year, they're not even asking for a better contract, they're asking for a return to a previous contract that wasn't as terrible as the one that got saddled with a few years ago. Like it's, it is truly incredible to see, like through research, and even just through living through labor now to see how much greed has propelled these really horrible bloody events. Like if bosses were not quite so greedy, a lot of lives would not have been lost. But here we are.

Joe Cadwell:

And so that brings us to more modern day in your book, you know, again, starts in the 1700s. And brings us to modern day down in Bessemer. Alabama, you've done some reporting down there about the workers wanting to organize within Amazon, we've had recently the the workers up in Staten Island where the Amazon warehouse were successful in their campaign. So you get to travel around and see a lot of just modern day, bottom up organizing campaigns. And what's what's inspirational, that you're seeing Kim and how do you use these stories, when you talk to people to I guess enlighten them or inspire them or motivate them that reforms and change can be made.

Kim Kelly:

I'm just always in such awe of the power of the workers themselves. I mean, you need the infrastructure is very useful and the resources are helpful. But ultimately, you don't need as well as workers and and Stan I just showed you don't need to work with an established institution to win, to advance the cause to organize your coworkers like all you really need to do is talk to people and relate to them and listen to them listen to their concerns and show that you're on the same team that you're part of the same struggle that you want the same things. It seems like such a basic organizing principle, but it seems like it might have been kind of left by the wayside in recent years when there there's this idea that there's a specific way you need to run an election or run a union drive or organize a workplace. And if you deviate from that, you're doomed. Obviously, that's not the case. And I think they tell you that was a labor union, what they did is going to be a very inspiring example for a whole new generation. And I feel so lucky that I'm able to witness it and to talk to folks and just to learn more about these worker stories, because that's the whole point of all of this. Every story is a labor story. And it's it's just a historic time to be alive is it's, I mean, it's the most excited I've been about the future the movement in a long time, and I'm only 34 But still, there's people a lot older than me they're feeling the same way. So it's gonna mean something.

Joe Cadwell:

There's definitely an upswell in unionism in the country right now. And I think people are beginning to become aware that this corporate greed is unchecked corporate greed that is being enabled by a lot of our policies brought forth by the government are enabling these people to get away with with these egregious acts that take it out on the on the working middle class diff. And it's really unfortunate and it's about time that that we begin to wake up and understand that yeah, it's we need to push back. This episode of grit nation is proudly supported by the carpenters local to 71 based in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks to their generosity, the hard working men and women of the local 271 can now support an official I've got grit high visibility t shirt. This us made garment is produced by image point of Waterloo, Iowa and features the American flag and the newly designed grit nation logo. I have to say it looks really sharp. I'm pleased as punch to have their support. If your local business or organization is interested in collaborating with grit nation, the building trades pod cast, I'd be happy to hear from you. Grit nation is proud to support those who support the blue collar trades people of America and Canada. And now back to the show. In writing in the book, did you have a particular favorite chapter or personality that you came across that was really inspiring for you.

Kim Kelly:

I turned to them, really, they're all of course, I love them all. They're all my babies. But I really connected personally to the chapter on disabled workers. Because that's something because I'm disabled and like a lot of people I love are disabled. And that's something that I had necessarily seen connected before, like the disability rights movement, and the labor movement. And I knew there had to be something there. But it wasn't until I started research, and I realized just how deeply intertwined those two movements have been, since the beginning, and continues to be and a little bit more intentionally now. I think as people in the move in various moments, I've started to realize how intersectional those struggles really are. And like, even when I was covered, when I was thinking about the word that strike I was writing about in that chapter of disabled coal miners in Appalachia who had been, you know, laid out with black lung, seeing them in the 60s organized against the will of their union, which was then run by Tony Boyle, this corrupting and OVA, kind of gangster ish figure. They went on on wildcat strikes and home petitions and caused a whole lot of hell just trying to get the benefits they needed, because they had just been ravaged by the job they're doing. And one of the big themes of the, of that chapter, I guess, is these kind of two pronged issues that disabled workers had to deal with. First, you know, the things that everyone does on the job, you know, dealing with wages and safety and respect all the things that every worker needs. But for a very long time, disabled folks couldn't even get jobs, like we weren't even allowed or welcomed into the workforce at all. Because there's no accessibility because discrimination before the section 504 Act was passed. In the 70s. I believe, like, there wasn't any anti discrimination legislation for disabled people. They could just say, oh, you can't work here. And then

Joe Cadwell:

I apologize. The 504 is that the ADEA Disabilities Act?

Kim Kelly:

No section 504. I believe the 1977 Rehabilitation Act, is it gets a little, like, little weedy but um, yeah, like, there's basically a provision of that law that made it It made it illegal to discriminate against stabled people, I think when it comes to, like federally funded businesses or institutions or whatever. And there was a huge movement around getting the government to actually enforce those regulations, because it would have cost them a little bit of money. And they didn't want to do that. It took the work of disabled activists and holding citizens and occupations and protests and talking to Congress to force them to do that. And throughout that struggle there were supported by people in the labor movement, the Nationals union, provided transportation for disabled folks, when they're coming to speak to Congress, because public transportation wasn't accessible, they couldn't get on the bus to go see the senators. The Black Panthers helped feed the people that occupied a federal building in San Francisco, like it as a part of this protest. Like, there's so many intersections there. And it was just really heartening to see that, you know, like women, like people of color, like queer people, disabled people have been part of the labor struggle since the very beginning. And I'm just glad I got to kind of show that a little bit show that, you know, people that out there, too.

Joe Cadwell:

So your book addresses that the history of labor? Kevin, your opinion, where do you see the future of labor going?

Kim Kelly:

It feels like the future is pretty bright. You know, obviously, we still have a lot of issues and a lot of reasons why it's why the movement is weaker than it was, you know, when my dad first joined 40 years ago, or whatever, but, you know, just the the amount of enthusiasm around big public union drives like we're seeing at Starbucks, that Amazon when I think there's been a shift in consciousness throughout the working classes, specifically, and maybe younger generations of workers that they do have options, they are powerful, and they work collectively they can achieve these big important goals. Like there's power in a union. I think a whole new generation is waking up to that fact. Because for a really long time unions maybe weren't in the public. The public eye unless there was a strike or somebody was mad at teachers or you know, not a lot of great press, but there's changed a lot in the past few years. And I'm just really excited to see where it goes next.

Joe Cadwell:

Yeah, I'm I am as well. I like to tell my my apprentices at the regional training center that I work at p and CI that you know, You don't know where you came from. You don't appreciate where you are. And you won't understand what it means when when someone tries to take that away, we really have to dig into our roots and understand the struggles that were made to get us to, to again, I hate to say it, but take take a lot of things for granted. And but but value those and and be able to defend them and like your book says fight like hell when someone tries to take them away. So, Kim Kelly, this has been a fantastic conversation, Where would people go to find out more about you and your work?

Kim Kelly:

I'm very active on Twitter at Grim Kim. And I also have an Instagram that I where I post book updates. And yeah, I'm always writing. So if you just Google around a little bit, you can probably see what else I'm up here. No rest for the wicked. Right.

Joe Cadwell:

All right. Well, thank you so much for taking your time to be on the show today.

Kim Kelly:

Thank you so much for a great conversation. I appreciate it.

Joe Cadwell:

I guess This has been Kim Kelly, author of Fight Like Hell, the Untold History of American labor, which is now available wherever you buy books. For more information to help you dive deeper into the subject, be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, or visit the grit nation website at rich nation podcast.com. As always, thanks for listening. And until next time, this is Joe Cadwell reminding you to work safe, work smart and stay union strong. I tell you, I read your book. I'm loving it. I apologize. I haven't finished it yet, but I am definitely enjoying the the structure of it and the style of writing and it's just it's just so interesting, you know, and being a person that has been around the labor industry for 25 years now as a member of the carpenters union. I'm so appreciative of just having a more in depth understanding of the history of labor that that you were able to do and clear concise terms. So thank you.

Kim Kelly:

I'm so happy I structured like a kind of a choose your own adventure because I figured not everyone has time to sit down and read like a 300 page book but write it in like little bite sized sections you open it up and meet someone new no matter when you're reading it.