A conversation with Kim Kelly, author of ‘Fight Like Hell’

By Raechel Anne Jolie

Kim Kelly’s new book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, highlights stories from U.S. workers’ movements that are too-often overlooked. Rather than perpetuate a narrative of worker resistance as an entirely white, male, industrial phenomenon, Kelly draws on firsthand reporting, interviews, and secondary literature to nuance the image of who comprises “the working class.” Kelly spoke with me via email about the Rust Belt elements of her book–from the Wobblies in Chicago to women coal miners in Ohio and more.

Support independent, context-driven regional writing.


Raechel Jolie: You write about the famous Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as “the wobblies,” who got their start in Chicago. The Wobblies were more radical than other unions at the time, in that they actually challenged the capitalist class–how did that look materially different than traditional in-the-system unions? And do you think being rooted in Chicago had anything to do with their flourishing? 

Kim Kelly: I love telling people about the Wobblies because they have always been such a radical and vital alternative to the more traditional labor unions, and have held so much power at different points in their existence, but are still so often dismissed as a historical anachronism or purposefully excluded from dominant labor narratives. Meanwhile, there are about nine thousand IWW members in the U.S. right now (including myself), which is a much larger membership than quite a few of the mainstream unions, and they’ve won a number of recent victories, particularly in the Northwest. Unlike most other unions, the IWW has always organized around the principle of solidarity unionism—direct, worker-led action “without regard to government or employer ‘recognition,’” and often without the goal of bargaining a union contract. Sometimes that approach has worked, sometimes it hasn’t, but ever since its founding in Chicago in 1905, the Wobblies have been scaring the hell out of the capitalist class—and of course, Chicago’s own deep history as a industrial hub and beacon for radical working class organizing provided a perfect backdrop (you can read more about that in Chapter 4!).

RJ: You talk about the Haymarket Riots, which is the event that we honor when we celebrate May Day. First the hard stuff–you say in the book that it “decimated Chicago’s anarchist community.” Can you talk more about that? What did that dip in activity look like, and what impact did it have on history? 

KK: I get into this more in the book, but suffice it to say the political fallout from the Haymarket riot and sham trial, as well as the government’s execution of its martyrs, certainly had a chilling effect on the city’s anarchist community as well as its labor movement, which were of course closely entwined at that point. Imagine how you’d feel if you saw your friends hunted down, put on trial, lambasted as evil, and strung up on the gallows for a crime they didn’t commit? (Actually, I am sure some of today’s anarchists can imagine that quite clearly, since the state has never stopped its bloody repression campaign against us).

Aided by xenophobic panic over the idea that “foreign born radicals” hellbent on revolution were encouraging violence within the city, public sentiment turned against Chicago’s radicals as well as the Knights of Labor, who were blamed for allowing radicals to build power within its ranks. More conservative union members defected to the pro-capitalist American Federation of Labor, further speeding the KOL’s demise. There’s a lot of fascinating history there (I encourage readers to dig deeper into it, since I could only touch on it in the book!), but yeah, it was a real bummer for everyone involved.

RJ: Now the brighter stuff–thanks in part to Lucy Parson’s commitment to keep her husband and the other martyrs’ memories alive, May Day is a deeply important holiday for the radical left. Why do you think May Day stands out so much in our collective movement memory? 

KK: It’s the people’s holiday, a fact that is recognized in many other countries around the globe but has been intentionally obscured in the U.S., where, each year on May 1, the sitting president issues a proclamation dubbing it “Loyalty Day”. It’s meant to be a celebration of the working class and the labor movement, a commemoration of our proud shared history of solidarity and survival and a promise for the future we’re still fighting to win. Of course, the last thing that those in power want is for workers to learn more about that history, or to acknowledge all the resistance, rebellion, and militancy that it’s taken for us to inch even this much closer to the world we deserve. It’s the only true workers’ holiday, created by us, for us—and unlike Labor Day, which was created to distract us from any thought of class war, May Day makes that struggle explicit. My only goal for the timing of this book was to make sure it was out in time for May Day this year!

RJ: From stories of women in the mines to women on the assembly lines, you share stories of how unions helped enable women workers to fight sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination. Can you talk about some of those examples and also how unions can help navigate unique challenges often faced by women workers?

KK: I don’t want to give too much away, since, as you mentioned, these stories make up a big part of the book, but it is a stark fact that women workers (particularly women workers of color and those with intersecting marginalized identities) have had to put up with an extra layer of bullshit on the job since they first entered the workforce, and that unions have often (if not always) provided a useful tool to confront and change those roadblocks. Whether it was Ida Mae Stull in 1930s Ohio challenging a law that banned (white) women from heavy physical labor so that she could get back to the coal mine she loved, or Suzette Wright blowing the whistle on the rampant sexual harassment she and other Black women auto workers were being forced to bear at the Ford plant in Chicago during the 1990s, or the Latina janitors in California whose recent Ya Basta campaign laid bare the dangers they face on the night shift and has trained dozens of worker-organizers in ways to keep each other safe, women workers have long realized the value of harnessing their collective power to protect themselves and one other on the job.

RJ: You begin the chapter about auto workers naming the Midwest industrial worker archetype we’re all so familiar with–some big burly white guy on the assembly line. But the rest of the chapter is devoted to dispelling the myth that this is the actual prototype of the working-class, even in the auto industry. Can you tell us a bit about the Black radical roots of auto industry organizing in Detroit and also about the history of Arab worker solidarity?

KK: That was one of my favorite sections to dig into, and I have to point readers towards Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s incredibly detailed book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying A Study in Urban Revolution which goes way deeper into that history. During the 1960s, as the UAW continued to be a major player but failed to properly represent its Black members, those Black auto workers—inspired by the Black power movement as well as Marxist theory—began organizing their own radical worker-led groups to call for change on the factory floor. Bosses had regarded Arab workers as “docile” and easier to control, but were soon disabused of that flawed notion when those workers began organizing, too—and stood in solidarity with the Black workers instead of allowing the boss to drive a wedge between them. Detroit’s radical Black and Arab auto workers are such a perfect example of the power that comes from multiracial, multicultural working class solidarity—they had the auto barons shaking in their shoes, and built a legacy that remains critical to our understanding of labor history today. (I just picked up a copy of Herb Boyd’s Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, and am excited to learn more myself!).

RJ: You conclude the book with some powerful reflections on the state of work during Covid-19. Can you reflect on how histories of labor resistance can help inform the current state of worker struggles today?

KK: The pandemic has had an immeasurable impact on the working class in this country, both in terms of lives lost, and lives irrevocably altered; I think that this experience has changed the way that a lot of workers see themselves and their relationship to work, and that there’s a big correlation between that and the upswing in both widespread new organizing and in overall public support for unions. I hope that workers will see themselves in the people and past struggles I describe in this book, take heart in learning about their victories, and think about ways they can use past tactics and strategies to inform their own organizing efforts. Everything old is new again–the Amazon Labor Union’s worker-led win in Staten Island is an exciting new entry in the history of the same solidarity unionism that Dorothy Lee Bolden employed to organize her fellow Black domestic workers in Atlanta during the 1960s, that helped Ben Fletcher organize a multiracial, militant dockworkers union on the Philadelphia waterfront in the 1910s, that the IWW has relied on for well over a century. We’ve won these battles before, and we’ll do it again.

RJ:  Finally, I’m curious about how these histories don’t inform our current pandemic, post-George Floyd uprising, intensifying climate crisis moment. Specifically, I’d like to ask a bit about how the Left can reconcile anti-ecocide and anti-work politics with continuing to support organized labor, especially (regarding the former) in industries that actively harm the environment. (On that note, I loved reading about indigenous workers in the mining industry.) How can we hold all these things at once? 

KK: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, as I’ve flown back and forth to Alabama to cover the ongoing Warrior Met Coal strike in Brookwood. There is a lot of tension between supporting these workers as they go toe-to-toe with Wall Street private equity ghouls and fight for a fair contract, while also recognizing the impact that their industry has had on the environment, and the stark fact that coal is dying out; they just want to secure a decent contract and get back to work, but that eventual victory won’t erase all of those other issues. Even if we switched to an entirely green energy economy today, those miners in Alabama will still have jobs waiting, because they mine metallurgical coal that’s shipped overseas and used to make steel. That demand won’t disappear, and so that complicates their situation too. We could say the same about oil refinery workers, right? Or any group of workers who labor within the fossil fuel industry. When I interviewed Jen Deerinwater for the book, part of our conversation centered on Jen’s research into Indigenous oil refinery workers, and the Catch-22 they have to navigate. How do we support these workers and their families while moving away from the industries themselves? I don’t know that I have an answer, or if there is an easy answer.

I think about my dad, a devoted woodsman who is also a union construction worker and will more than likely be called up to help build a pipeline through our beloved forest someday; he needs to take care of my disabled mother, he’s not going to change careers or learn to code, and he deserves to be protected, too. I suppose the only answer I have is that we need to continue to show solidarity and empathy to the workers who are employed in these industries, because ultimately, they’re not the ones destroying the planet–it’s the corporations and government officials who set this crisis into motion centuries ago, and now as always, it’s the workers who will pay the steepest price. ■



Raechel Anne Jolie is Belt Magazine’s engagement editor.

Cover illustration by Chris Harvey.

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month