Labor history is an incredibly deep mine filled with tragic stories, triumphs, bloodshed and valiant struggles.
Railroaders, coal miners, clothing workers saw their basic constitutional rights trampled as Billy clubs, militia bullets and court injunctions destroyed workers’ organizing attempts. Despite these constant setbacks, workers struggled and rose again, eventually creating an American labor movement that became an economic bedrock for many.
Yet is every worker included in that story? Although the labor movement has included diverse people, unions also practiced the racial, gender and other exclusions that plague America.
An inclusive labor history awaits in Kim Kelly’s Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. The average union member might not know her name, but Teen Vogue readers recognize her well-written, concise essays that explain workers’ rights, unions and the capitalist economy.
This book covers some incredible labor history but is also a connecting link between historic events to today’s struggles.
Kelly grounds her book in people often dismissed or overlooked in labor history – women, people of color, prisoners, sex workers, trans people and those with varying gender or sexual identities. She effectively reaches back not only through the century but into recent decades, highlighting how these workers faced barriers and marginalization that specifically impacted their working lives.
Her core message is that everyone works. A prisoner works for pennies and without rights to organize or protest. A sex worker faces social approbation, police harassment and potential beatings or disease. Just like a unionized construction or factory worker, these individuals also want dignity and work life control.
Kelly very effectively launches from historic incidents to today’s struggles. In her telling, workers are not anonymous, as she uses individuals and their unique perspective, giving her book a human perspective that conveys not just masses mobilized but real people taking risks to improve their own life.
She has a voluminous index of labor history sources she’s tapped. She did not necessarily dig out all the old documents but effectively uses other’s scholarship to weave a story linking the past with today.
Your reviewer will quibble with a few points – she places the tragic 1917 East St. Louis massacre in Missouri, not Illinois. Yet her narrative is well researched and told compellingly.
This book should have wide appeal. It will especially resonate with those baristas, warehouse workers and misclassified independent contractors and subcontractors who proliferate in our current economy and hunger for fairness and a living wage. Established union members should also read this book – it’s easy to get comfortable with the rewards a long-standing labor contract brings and forget those still fighting for decency. This volume is an excellent reminder to bring all workers into the labor movement’s welcoming fold.
- Mike Matejka