Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly’s new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, tours 200 years of organizing and campaigning in the United States. Kelly specifically highlights what the labor movement owes to individuals who often get left out of its histories — women, people of color, sex workers, incarcerated people, queer people and many, many more.

The American Federation of Musicians Local 257 will host Kelly on Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 6:30 p.m. Kelly spoke with the Scene by phone. Read a condensed transcript of our interview below.

Is there something specifically exciting to you, or journalistically interesting, about the labor movement evolving in the South?

I keep going back and forth to Alabama because I've been covering this coal miner strike in Brookwood — Tuscaloosa County — for the past 18 months. It's still going on, which is just brutal.

Prior to that, the first trip I took down there was to cover the Amazon workers organizing at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. I've seen how little attention is paid to the struggles that they're enduring and the work they're putting in. It’s not fair. I figure, since I've built up this platform or whatever, sometimes it’s easier for someone who's at least close to New York to get people to pay attention.

Birmingham has this rich civil rights history, but it also has a really rich labor history. The United Mine Workers of America, who represent the Warrior Met Miners, opened their first office in Alabama in 1890. They've been out here. It didn't just appear in 2020. It just takes a little bit more effort sometimes to get people to dig into that history and find out what's really gone on in the South. 

Have you noticed that organizing in the South is treated differently than organizing in other parts of the country?

So many incredible people are doing everything they can in their power, working against these horrible gerrymandered, racist, every-negative-thing-you-can-think-of structures that are in place, and the people in power are continuing to subjugate all the poor and working class people of Alabama and other Southern states. And people in the South are fighting like hell to be treated the way they deserve. It’s an uphill battle in so many ways. A lot of Southern states are right-to-work — that sure doesn't help. A lot of Southern states don't have this assumed liberal pro-union bent that some of the more Northern places, especially a place like New York, likes to at least say they have.

All the bad things that happen in the South happen up North too, they just get written about differently and portrayed differently because there's so many stereotypes and prejudices against the South and against people that live and work and organize in the South.

You write a lot about solidarity and how workers have united against a common enemy — employers, the boss, capitalists. This is an element of successful organizing regardless of political identity. How do you think politics interacts with organizing and solidarity with and between workers?

I have a lot of thoughts about this. Basically every labor story, when it comes down to its core, is workers versus bosses. Labor versus capital. Good versus evil.

When it comes to the Warrior Met workers on strike, this is a multiracial, multigendered group. I think it has the most diverse UMWA membership in the country. It’s not just a bunch of white guys. There's a lot of 'em, but it's not just a bunch of white guys. Anyhow, the predominantly straight, white, cis dudes are more politically and culturally conservative. And a lot of 'em probably voted for Trump and are very religious. Most are parents. Being a coal miner in Tuscaloosa County is a pretty good job in terms of being able to support your family and pay your bills. You make a lot more money than at a fast food restaurant or at Walmart, the only other options.

And they also work in coal, a dirty fossil fuel. When you look at it in terms of two bullshit political parties: Republicans do not pay attention to them or support them or show them any love. Workers on strike are not OK in the Republican playbook. In terms of Democratic support, there have been a couple smaller overtures. I think a couple state reps have shown up, but by and large, this strike hasn't gotten any attention from that side of the aisle either. Maybe because they mine coal. Or because Democrats don’t see them as potential voters — that's how the political machinations at play work. Both of these two political sides are garbage. But socialists have shown up and labor activists have shown up, and I think that says a lot.

Reading your book had me reflecting on my own lens for understanding labor. At first I thought it was about a bunch of people causing trouble — and I think there’s a reflex to see labor as causing trouble, strikes as disruptive that kind of thing. Why don’t we see the actions taken by owners, like wage cuts or mass layoffs, as equally disruptive?

It comes down to who gets to write the narrative and how it's delivered, right? Why is it always the workers' fault? Why isn't it the bosses or the corporation or capital?

If the people in charge had merely acquiesced to workers’ demands or requests earlier on, there wouldn't have been a strike. The workers don't want to be on strike. They don't want to be in conflict with their employer. They don't wanna have to deal with this shit. They want to make their paycheck and go home to their families. 

That perspective isn't necessarily represented in major newspapers or on major cable networks. That's the position we're in. That's why independent media and labor media are so important.

Your book cuts a path through history, from the 19th century to the present. What’s the situation in the American labor movement right now? What’s historically unique about this moment and what remains the same?

It's so interesting to be living through this current moment of renewed energy around organizing and unions. Younger, more diverse people are getting involved and taking the lead because it's a sort of “everything old is new again” moment.

We have new tools — the internet, social media — but so many of the old evils are still present.

The primary example there that I point to is union busting. Back in the day, it was a little bloodier and a little more in-your-face. Companies could hire Pinkertons and armed guards to just mow you down or make you disappear. Look at the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Jeff Bezos or Howard Schultz — kinder, gentler, nerdy-looking billionaires — are busting the hell out of Amazon and Starbucks with surveillance and intimidation and retaliation, captive-audience meetings, propaganda. All of these old tactics have been streamlined.

We're still dealing with the age-old impulse that's encouraged by the bosses and sometimes even embraced by some of the labor movement to separate workers by identity or by country of origin, by language, by craft, and act as though some workers are more deserving of union protection and benefits than others. Almost all of the same problems that plagued people a couple hundred years ago are still here. Perhaps they look and act and walk a little bit different, but they're still here.

A recent dimension of labor organizing in Tennessee has put more focus on new unions in smaller retail spots, like Three Brothers Coffee, which recently won a union, and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, which is still fighting for one. What do you make of that?

I think those places feel a little bit more achievable. They’re smaller, they push a line of, “Oh, we're a family. We're independent, we're not corporate. We care about each other.” The workers take that and say, “OK, well you care about us. You know us. We expect you to treat us like human beings.”

That is obviously not the way that the employers receive the petition or the idea of a union. They crack down on it, the same as any corporate asshole. But at smaller places, I think there's a little bit more cohesion among the workforce in terms of building solidarity and relationships and knowing who you work with.

Try organizing, say, the Amazon facility in Nashville. That's thousands of people and a lot of turnover. That's the full force of Amazon's anti-union apparatus crashing down on top of you. That's not to say that people aren't gonna do it — I hope they do — but that's a much bigger lift than something that's smaller and more independent. It just makes practical sense.

Thanks for talking with us Kim — we’re excited to have you in Nashville. Anything else you wanted to mention?

Actually yes! There's a specific Tennessee example that I thought would be fun to share, because it’s sick. Do you know about the Coal Creek War? It's in chapter five. In the 1890s, there was a war between striking coal miners and their employers. The employers kept using convict labor to try and break the strike. Convict leasing was a huge deal in a lot of Southern states during that post-Reconstruction era. So bosses kept bringing in strike breakers who were Black, incarcerated men to try and break the strike for these white coal miners who were on strike. The bosses built these stockades to house the Black incarcerated workers.

And every time they would bring in a trainload of these incarcerated workers, the white coal miners would come in and free everybody and burn down the stockade. They did this back and forth a bunch of different times for months. At the end of it, the last time they burned the stockade and set everyone free, a bunch of them escaped to freedom. It was part of the beginning of the end of convict leasing in the South. Tennessee was actually one of the first Southern states to abolish it in 1896.

In the space of five years, some minds were perhaps changed or at least some people got free. There is such a thing as real solidarity between workers, even if the people in charge don't want us to know it.

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