The world is in a bleak state right now, and every day it feels a little more certain that the elite power brokers who control our society are not going to do anything to make things better. But giving up on the possibility of a better world and giving in to hopelessness and despair is not an option; if we’re going to get out of this mess, we have to fight.
In her new acclaimed book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, journalist and organizer Kim Kelly writes about working people who faced similarly impossible odds throughout US history but refused to accept the status quo and fought to change their circumstances. From freed Black washerwomen in the Reconstruction-era South to Jewish immigrant garment workers in early 20th-century New York, to incarcerated workers, sex workers, and disabled workers fighting to have their rights and humanity recognized, Fight Like Hell reminds readers today that working people’s struggle for justice, equality, and dignity is just that—a struggle. In this special discussion, hosted by Red Emma’s, a worker cooperative bookstore, cafe, and community events space in Baltimore, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Kelly about writing the history of that struggle and about the people who are carrying that struggle forward today.
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in a wide range of outlets, including Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The Baffler, Esquire, and The Real News Network. She is the author of the acclaimed book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.
The recording of this talk was produced in partnership with Red Emma’s in Baltimore, a worker-owned restaurant, bookstore, and social center, co-founded by our Executive Director John Duda.
Pre-Production/Studio: Phil Glaser
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Kate Khatib: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the new Red Emma’s. As many of you know, this is… Gosh, one, two, three four, fourth location, maybe fifth, I think, at this point. I don’t know. I can’t even keep track anymore. But seriously, we have been dreaming and dreaming and dreaming and hoping and hoping and hoping to find a place that really felt like the right home and the best home for our project. And we’re so incredibly happy and thrilled to have landed here in Waverly on GreenMount Avenue. For those of you who don’t know, we were able to fundraise and to chase down loans and to chase down grants to be able to buy this building and the building next door so that we can build a permanent worker owned home for our cooperative. And we’re very, very excited to have you guys here.
My name’s Kate, I am one of the worker owners here. I’m one of the co-founders of Red Emma’s. And when we started Red Emma’s back in 2003 and then we opened our first space in 2004, we were deeply grounded and deeply inspired by a history and a trajectory of labor organizing that had come before us. We were thinking about and inspired by, obviously Emma Goldman, who we named our project after, Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, who gave us the phrase that appears on the book tonight: Fight like hell. Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living. And we were very, very, very committed to that politick. Over the years, there were other labor struggles that inspired the way that we grew our project and the way that we developed our project.
In 2013 when we took our small anarchist bookstore that was mostly volunteer run, and we grew that into something that could be a sustainable workers’ cooperative that could provide us and our families with a way to support ourselves. We were inspired by the labor struggles in South America, in Argentina, we were coming out of and looking at the reclaimed factory movement. We were especially inspired by the struggles and the fight to create what would become the New Era Windows factory. This was a very, very important labor struggle in Chicago to turn Republic Doors and Windows into a worker owned union cooperative called New Era. They’re providing the windows for the building that we’re renovating next door. It feels to us like really coming full circle. And it feels to us like over the years we have really tried to build a project that would demonstrate the power that workers have when they come together. Nobody thought we were going to be able to do this building.
Nobody thought we would be able to come together to pull together the resources to make it happen, but we were able to do it because of a long history of organizing and a long history of collective organizing between cooperatives around the United States to create the resources that it takes to do this kind of development. And that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight. We’re going to talk about the power of workers, and we’re going to talk about the untold stories and the hidden stories, and the working class heroes that have helped to get us to where we are today, and the struggles in the labor movement that are pointing the way that we have to go from here. I’m so incredibly thrilled to have with us tonight Kim Kelly, who has emerged as, I would say, the most important voice writing in labor today. If there is a strike that is happening, if there is a picket line that is happening, Kim is covering it.
And we are learning from the stories that she is bringing to the fore. She’s joined tonight by Max Alvarez, who is the host of the Working People podcast, the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, which has its studios here in Baltimore. Max also has demonstrated incredible commitment to bringing the voices of workers of everyday people to the fore, to give us stories to inspire us, to help point the way that we move forward. I don’t want to take up any more time. I’m going to turn it over to our guests for tonight, but please join me in welcoming them to Red Emma’s.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yo, can everyone hear me? Man, thank you so much, Kate. Thank you to everyone here at Red Emma’s. Thank you to all of you for coming out. I feel we need this right now. And I’m really excited and grateful for the chance to have this conversation on a week when, honestly, we probably would all rather be curled under our covers. I mean, I think about the title of the book, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week. And yeah, I’m really honored to be here with you, Kim. I admire you to all hell. Sorry about that.
We’re here, as Kate said, to talk about this important book, Fight like Hell: the Untold History of American Labor, the untold story of American labor. It’s a very crucial book that is coming into our lives, I think, at a very crucial time for all of us. There’s a lot to be hopeful about right now. We see these incredible worker-led victories at Amazon, at Starbucks. We see strippers on strike in North Hollywood, demanding that their rights be recognized and that their space in the labor movement be opened to them. And I think that’s what Kim really does in this book, is she really writes with the spirit of what the labor movement is all about, which is to expand the movement, and to fight for progress by getting more progress, and to really kind of keep the torch moving forward.
And like I said, I think that’s something that we really, really need right now, because we are obviously having this conversation days after the unspeakable massacre in Texas, a week and some change after the unspeakable massacre in Buffalo. We are having this conversation at a moment when our very future and the sustainability of our planet, our shared planet, and our species is at hazard. And I think what really struck me this week after the shooting began was the immediate sense of hopelessness around the country. Immediately people said, nothing’s going to change. We have to fight against that. And I think that Kim’s book shows us people who face similarly impossible circumstances throughout our history who refused to accept the way things were, and refused to surrender the maintenance of our shared world and the direction of our future to the powerful. This is a book of stories of people like you and me who faced slavery, who faced discrimination, who faced war, and who stood up together to change their circumstances.
And I think that there’s something really beautiful and empowering in seeing this history and knowing that it is our history. And as such, it is our duty to carry it forward. That we need to understand most right now. And so with that framing the conversation, I really wanted to ask you, Kim. When I read this, like I said, it feels so empowering. It feels like, holy shit, there were people like me in the, what, I wrote them down. From the mill girls of Lowell, Massachusetts, railway workers in Chicago, farm workers in California, Black washerwomen in the South, Latina garment workers in the Southwest, coal miners in Appalachia, Hawaiian workers in the sugar fields, auto workers in Detroit, people who really stood up and took hold of their fate. And it made me think, man, if, if we had grown up with this being the history that we were all taught, maybe we would feel more empowered in this moment and less like we know that the people in power aren’t going to do shit. Then the next step should be, what are we going to do? I wanted to ask you, kind of like we were chatting on the way over here, how do you think we would’ve grown up differently if this was the kind of textbook we were given in schools?
Kim Kelly: Wow. I mean, I grew up in a very rural, isolated place. I don’t remember what textbooks we had, but they certainly did not have Bayard Rustin or Idem A. Stall, or probably even MLK in them. And growing up, I was a little disabled girl out in the woods who got bussed into the big high school an hour away and exposed to differences in class and differences in experience, and finding out, oh, my family is broke, and we’re a bunch of weird rednecks. Okay. I guess I’m just going to work with that.
And that was a really sobering thing to learn. Because when you’re little, you don’t necessarily know how the rest of the world sees you or what’s available to you as an option, as a path, as an avenue. And I think, at least for me, if I had read… Well, I don’t want to be too… I know it’s my book thing and all that. But if I had read a book like this, maybe not this book, but a book like that that talked more about women or queer folks, or disabled works, people of color. It made clear that people like me had actually done things worth doing, had changed the world, had fought back, had pushed against these ideas of what we were capable of and what we were good for. I mean, one of my favorite people in the book, she wasn’t a labor leader, she wasn’t in a union.
She was just one woman in 1930s Ohio, Idem A. Stall, who was a coal miner. And she really loved her job. And she worked in the mines for years. She followed her dad down there, like a lot of coal miners now do, a multi-generational job. And at one point, the federal mine inspector showed up and was like, oh, you can’t do this. You’re a woman. You got to go back in the kitchen. This heavy work, it’s not acceptable. You can’t do this. And she was like, well like hell I can’t. I’ve got bigger muscles than you. And she fought it out in court and she got her job back.
And I think that’s just one person, one example, but even just having an example like that of someone who has told, well, you fit into this little box. This means that you can’t access anything else, your fate is predetermined. You can’t do anything, but we say what you can do. And seeing a person like that say, well, no, I can and I will, and then do it, that is such an important lesson for a kid, or for any person. The whole goal of writing this book was to show that not only do workers have all the power, not only are workers behind every step, well, every inch towards progress this country has ever made. That even though there is this enduring avatar of the white working-class dude, the white guy in a hard hat, guys like my dad, guys like the people that raised me, they are part of this history too. They’re important. Shout out to some of them. But the rest of us have always been here too.
And we’ve done a lot of that work, even if it hasn’t been made as explicit in the history books we’re given, whether it’s in elementary school or high school or college. I mean, I didn’t even finish college, so maybe I’m not the expert here. But I feel it’s pretty rare for folks to come across these kinds of histories unless they’re actively looking for it. And only if they actively know where to look. You can’t necessarily walk into any given library, because they’re all underfunded, or any given independent bookstore and find all of these different stores laid out for you. I would love to see that, but not every place has those resources, not everyone is able to just walk into a store and pick up a book and see someone who looks just like them doing something incredible. A lot of that’s locked away in academic archives or the magical places where historians do what they do. And God bless them for doing that work. But I wanted to write something that was really accessible and approachable and just very clear that showed that this history is our history, it belongs to all of us. Every victory, every struggle, every drop of blood and tear, that came from us. And that’s how it’s always going to be. We protect us, and that’s how it’s always been.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and the thing is, this is how the world that academics talk about doesn’t necessarily map onto the world that we’re all living in. And I say that as someone who’s been in and out of academia. But as a historian in academia, one of the first things that you learn is that, oh, we are beyond the great men narrative of history. Here are all the different evolutions and how we tell history over the past century. We no longer talk about, you have the few powerful, predominantly white men who made society what it is. Everyone else just experienced history as they were living through it. But the thing is that struggle is never over. The great men narrative of history is yawning and yearning to redominate the way that we think. And I see on the History Channel. There’s a literal fucking series – Pardon me, sorry – There’s a little series called The Men Who Made History, and it’s about Rockefeller and stuff.
No, they didn’t make shit. And the same series can show these sort of amorphous silhouettes of working people building it. And yet it’ll all be about this or that tycoon. And I see that in the ways that so many people are essentially putting what faith they have left in humanity in figures like Elon Musk, or Donald Trump. People who can charge us towards a history and a future worth living in, and we surrendered that sense that we have a hand in shaping that, right. And so I think, again, we’re seeing those two tensions play out right in front of us. You either can say the history of this moment will be written by what Elon Musk does, or the history of this moment will be written by what happens at Amazon, what happens at Starbucks, how we supported it, or didn’t, how we made sure that they won.
And I think that’s something that has always drawn me towards your work since, before we even knew each other. But I wanted to kind of give one example that you and I have worked closely on, which is the coal miners’ strike in Alabama where 1,100 coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, have been on strike for a year and two months?
Kim Kelly: 13 and a half months.
Maximillian Alvarez: 13 and a half months, suspected to be the longest strike in Alabama history. Many people have never even heard that it’s happening. And it’s even been a source of tension on the left because these are largely conservative coal miners in deep red Alabama. And I’ve had the honor of working with you on a number of assignments to send you down there for The Real News, you did incredible documentary reports with coal miners’ wives, with coal miners, with the community.
And what you guys don’t see but you probably can feel in the coverage is that when Kim and I are texting about it, she cares exceedingly deeply about these people. They are her friends now, and she wants to see them succeed. She wants to see them happy, because she believes that they deserve it, and she respects how complex every single individual is, even if they have wildly different political views. I bring all this up because I see so much of that love for people and the dignity of each person’s life speaking through your book. And so I wanted to ask you how you integrated that into the task of writing this kind of history, making that struggle sing with the same spirit of the workers that you report on today. Does that make sense?
Kim Kelly: Yeah. I mean, well, first I tried to write it in a way that I would want to read, which I think is probably how most writers write. Or maybe not. I’m one guy, I’m one writer, I’m figuring this out as I go along, making it up most of the time. But I wanted to write these stories as stories. And they’re not a novel, they’re not a movie treatment, they happened, and it makes them so much more exciting. This is real. This happened to people, human beings just like you and me 10 years ago, 100 years ago, 300 years ago. And so it was so exciting for me when I was doing my research and doing my interviews and doing all the stuff that goes into figuring out what goes into a book just to either hear in a living person’s voice their own excitement or their passion or their sadness about something that happened.
And then going back through the decades and the centuries and finding quotes and interviews and bits and pieces that showed how people were feeling at a given time. It’s not very academic, but I spent so much time on newspapers.com. And I swear I’m not being sponsored. I mean, that was a really important resource because, and that’s something that I think journalists try to do now, too. We’ve supposed to have been doing this the whole time, talking to people, getting the story, seeing how they feel. And I’ve found so many great quotes and so many different situations, different campaigns, different events were described in workers’ voices. And I would go through with my little copy paste, and I would find people’s voices and put them in the text. My editor even gave me a little bit of, I’ll say guff, because I know there’s kids.
He gave me a little bit of guff because there are so many quotes in the text. He was like, well, this is a little much. No, they’re the important ones, especially the people that are dead. I can’t call them up now. I’ve got to get their voice in there somehow. And I also was really lucky to be able to interview so many people for the book, some of them who were there from the beginning for certain movements. There’s one person, Carol Leigh, AKA Scarlet Harlett, who is an incredibly important sex workers’ rights organizer who started out in the ’70s, the first wave of labor organizing in the sex workspace. And she’s still out here, she’s still part of the community, she’s still doing work.
She’s an elder, she’s dealing with health problems, I don’t know that we’ll be able to enjoy her presence for that much longer. But she took the time to speak to me about her life and her work and the intersections with labor, and she put up with all my questions. And being able to have her in there was so important because she’s a living piece of history. She’s one of our elders, she’s one of our heroes. And I don’t know that you will find her in every labor book, but you should. Bringing in the blood and the guts and the heart of these stories, that’s what I’ve always tried to do because that’s what speaks to me. I’m kind of selfish, I write for myself. And I think if you want to connect with people about issues, especially issues that maybe they don’t necessarily come in caring that much about, because one thing I’ve learned from reading a whole lot of labor books and a whole lot of labor reporting and a whole lot of labor related writings is that we love an acronym.
We love jargon, we love dates. It can get a little dry in there, it can get a little dusty. Very important work that doesn’t necessarily read like something you’d want to read on your break. It’s a little bit more like homework. And I never wanted to write anything like that, because like I said, in a little unboxing video I did with my partner and he was like, oh, this is like a textbook. I’m like, no, don’t say that. No one wants to read a textbook unless they have to. I wanted to make it fun to read. And how do you make things fun to read, how do you make it vibrant, how do you make it sing a little bit? You get people’s voices in there, you ask them how they feel, you show how they’re feeling. You depend on them to tell their own stories.
Because in any story I report, just like any story in this book, the experts are the people who are living through it and doing that work. They know more about their lives and their stories than I ever could. I’m not a mind reader, I’m not a coal miner or a sex worker or a domestic worker, so giving them the space to talk about what it is like to do those jobs. That’s how you get the real story across. I see myself as, like I said at dinner, I kind of see myself just as a microphone. As someone who has kind of stumbled into a position where I have a little bit of a platform so now I can be like, oh cool, let me hand this to somebody important.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I sympathize very deeply with that and it’s one of the reasons that I cherish your work so much, because again, read any article that Kim writes, not just this phenomenal book that everyone should leave with a copy of and read. But yeah, I mean, again, that focus on people’s lives, their voices, their struggles that you don’t reduce people to those sound bites and quotes, you try to give, at least… You’re never going to be able to capture the fullness of a person’s life in any article. This is one of the things that I’ve been struggling with on my show Working People. And now with my book of interviews, which 10 workers recorded a year ago during COVID. I spend most of the intro to the book apologizing. I was like, look, I’m only giving you a small sliver of how complex every single person is, but there’s something beautiful in that.
I mean, every day we walk down the street, we are passing by an endless archive of stories and experiences that, if you sit down and you listen to someone who’s been in the movement that long or someone who’s lived 80 years, you just realize how precious that experience is. And you feel this kind of responsibility to help share it as best that you can. And I think it’s a real testament to you and your work that you never lose sight of that. I can tell you’re always kind of struggling with that, because people see you, they want you to speak for others. And you’re always trying to say no, listen to them. And I’ve been feeling that myself as well. I try to tell people, my message from the beginning is don’t listen to me, listen to the workers. And yet, it’s very hard to get people to listen to workers. And so I think that’s really where your expertise as a writer comes through. You lend that to these stories by giving them that lift, by bringing that drama through in a way that makes people really gripped.
Kim Kelly: Yeah. I mean, because so many stories, especially when it comes to labor, which is… Well, as long as there were labor sections in the newspaper, which probably stopped before we were born, but they ended up tucked away in the business section. It’s not a subject that gets top billing. And when it does, it tends to get kind of bogged down in the more economic aspects, the facts and the figures and the data, which is very important, but isn’t necessarily going to pull your heart strings. I could tell you there are 1,100 coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama who have been on an unfair labor practices strike against Warrior Met Coal since April 1 and negotiations are ongoing. Or I could tell you about Greg Pilkerson, he still has to go to the doctor and get gel injections into his knee every week because when he was on the picket line, a company scab ran his truck into a burn barrel that knocked into him and knocked him over and messed him up.
And a couple weeks later when his wife Amy was out on the line supporting him and the other workers, she got hit by a car too. And he got hit with a little legal order because he crossed over onto company property to check on her and see if she was okay, because someone had just hit his wife with a car because he’s on strike trying to get a decent contract to take care of his family. And which one of those stories are you going to pay more attention to?
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, this brings us perfectly to what I wanted to focus on in the second half here. Because, for anyone who was hoping for us to run through the book, it’s hundreds of years worth of –
Kim Kelly: No spoilers.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. It’s hundreds of years worth of incredible history. You just got to read it, I’m sorry. We’re not going to be able to do it justice in this short of a time. I’m not going to grill you on dates and figures. You spent all the time putting it into the book.
Kim Kelly: I don’t like math. I dropped out of college because of math, dude. That’s why I write.
Maximillian Alvarez: Again, having had to do, in a past life, the PhD prelims where I had to memorize like 8,000 acronyms, I have nightmares about that. We’re not going down that road. But I said in the beginning, right, that I think one of the things that makes this such a beautiful book is that it’s written not just about the labor movement, but with the spirit that makes the labor movement what it is. Which is to always be expanding the power that working people have to shape the world that we live in. Expanding and pushing for more rights and liberty and dignity that we are denied. And to include those whose rights and dignity and liberties have not been secured, even if ours have. And what I mean by that is that you don’t just… Even parts of labor history that folks may know a little about like the coal wars, you still humanize it in that impeccable way. But you also really write about a lot of struggles that most of us have probably never heard about.
And you also bring that sort of attention to the humanity of every individual, to people who are usually written out of the labor movement even today. It’s been a struggle for the strippers at North Star to get the kind of respect and attention from the rest of the movement that they deserve. They’re getting a little bit of it now, which is great, but you write about sex workers, as you said. You write a beautiful chapter about disabled workers, a beautiful chapter about… I hesitate to call them prison workers, because in many ways they’re just slaves. That’s how they’re treated. But you bring them into this narrative of the untold history of American labor. And so I wanted to ask you about that, why was it so important for you to include those chapters in this book?
Kim Kelly: I love all my chapters, they’re all my babies. But those three, those are the ones that I think I spent the most time on and I agonized over the most and that just felt the most personal and important to me because, well, first the disability chapter. I’m a disabled lady in the labor movement. And I’m a big nerd about this stuff, and even I never really thought that much or learned that much about the intersections between those two movements. Because there’s this sort of siloing that happens when it comes to different social movements or economic movements, movements for justice. And there’s this thought like, okay, a labor right movement is here. And the disability rights and disability justice movement is here, and they’re doing things. And we don’t cross the streams that much. But we’ve always been here.
Whether you show up disabled like me on your first day of work or you go home disabled because of something that happened on the job, I mean, we’re the biggest minority group in the country. And with COVID, that’s continued to increase. Disabled folks have been part of every movement. But we’ve very much been a part of the labor movement. I start out that little chapter talking about the sideshow, which might not be the first thing that you jump to when you think about labor history in this country, but for a long time, workers… I mean, I keep talking about myself specifically, because my specific situation means I would’ve had a pretty good time in the sideshow. I could have been a lobster girl, could have made a little money, because that was the only job that would’ve been available to me.
For a long time, people with certain disabilities like physical disabilities that were thought to be exotic or horrifying or especially interesting, we would work at the sideshow because otherwise the option was you stay home with your family, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or you ended up in some kind of carceral institution and you just wasted away there. One of the tensions when it comes to writing about or just thinking about disabled workers in the labor movement is that not only have we had to fight for higher wages and benefits and accommodations, accessibility, all the things that every other worker needs, for a really long time we weren’t even allowed to participate. We weren’t allowed to work. We had to fight to get in the front door just to get jobs in the first place. And that’s something that stood out to me a lot as I was writing that chapter, whether I was writing about sideshow workers or coal miners with black lung or the section 504 protest.
I mean, one thing that I think everybody should know is that – It’s just such a badass fact – Is that the longest occupation of a federal building in US history was led by disabled people who were trying to force the government to do its goddamn job and enact specific regulations to help disabled people. That was at a point where a group of disabled activists, predominantly queer women and Black folks, led these occupations in Health and Human Services buildings throughout the country. The longest one was in 1977 for 26 days in San Francisco. And they were able to keep it going because the Black Panthers fed them. Local churches showed up with resources.
When some of those leaders went to Washington to meet with Congress, the Nashist Union showed up with a truck and some rope and were like, okay, I know a lot of y’all use wheelchairs, use mobility aids – This is way before we had any kind of accessible transit – We’re going to get you where you’re going. Might not be comfortable, but we’re going to help. And just reading about and writing about those very specific examples of those intersections between different movements for liberation, it was just really cool. It made me really happy just to see one of the most militant occupations that have ever been led in this country’s history led by queer Jewish women and a Black Panther. And why doesn’t every school child know that?
And when it comes to writing about sex work, that was a chapter that a lot of people I love are sex workers. And that is a group of workers who have this incredible history of organizing and advocating and defending their own communities, but have been shoved out of the narrative thanks to whorephobia and stigma and every type of bigotry and oppression you can think of. Because of course sex workers tend to be the most vulnerable, marginalized identities of workers.
And there is a really unfortunate and unconscionable fact with the labor movement has not always shown up for sex workers, and has rarely shown up for sex workers. That’s something that’s changing a little bit because sex workers have decided, okay, we’re going to try and work with you, we’re going to organize unions. Right now, the workers at Star Garden in North Hollywood, who actually you and I both interviewed some of the same people. One of them, whose name I will not say, is from Baltimore. If you see this, shout out to you. But they’re going this traditional route, they’re unionizing with an independent union called Strippers United. And that is historic, that is awesome. They’re going to win. But there’s a historical basis for that too, because the president of that union, Antonia Crane, she helped organize the Lusty Lady Peep Show in San Francisco in 1996, which was the first unionized strip club in America.
And they worked with the SCIU. They dipped their toe into the traditional labor movement, gave it a shot, and they made history. But there are reasons why so many sex workers have decided to organize outside of that specific milieu. Because if someone’s not going to be welcoming, be inclusive, and understand your specific struggles, why are you going to bother with them? You can take care of yourself. But it was really important for me to add so much of that history to this book because obviously sex workers are part of the labor movement, they’re part of labor history. They’re workers, sex work is work, it’s a no brainer. And I think it’s kind of ridiculous that that isn’t just an understood basic given in any labor history, any discussion of labor rights, but we’re working to change that.
And in terms of the chapter on, I call it “The Prisoners,” about incarcerated workers. I mean, as someone who’s for prison abolition, I’m an anarchist, I’m all… I’ve got a guillotine tattoo, you know how I feel about these things. But that was something that politically meant a lot to me. But also just as someone cares about labor history, it was actually through an interview with Victoria Law, who is a brilliant journalist and author and a friend. I was talking to her for the book about something completely different. And at one point she was like, oh, unions. Something in the ’70s, the Supreme Court did something that messed with unions. I’m not sure, look it up. And I was like, okay. Took me a while, but I figured out what she was talking about. There was this 1977 Supreme Court decision, Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, that essentially kneecapped what was a burgeoning union movement within prisons across the country. Incarcerated workers were organizing unions and were bargaining contracts.
And this movement was really getting off the ground, it was really incredible. And the powers that be decided, well, we can’t be having that. You can’t do that. You’re too dangerous. You’re not workers. We’re going to invent all of these BS reasons why you cannot have access to the same rights to organize as any other kind of worker in this country. The Supreme Court showed up, screwed that up. But workers inside kept organizing. Whether it’s Iowa, whether it’s the Free Alabama Movement, even with the full force of the US government grinding down upon this particular class of workers, they still organize, they still strike, they still fight for what they deserve. I mean, while I was writing this, one of my best friends was incarcerated in Rikers.
I’d be doing my little research and writing my little chapter in my little office in South Philly. And I would get a phone call and I’d run because you never know when they’re going to call. And he’d tell me, oh yeah, I’m helping organize a hunger strike right now because we’re not getting PPE, we’re not getting soap. There’s 30 of us stuck in this dorm. COVID is ravaging our whole facility. We have to do something. Even just having someone I love so much be actively participating in this labor history and making a little piece of history for his own, him and his coworkers inside. While I was doing this research, while I was thinking of it in this broader abolitionist lens, it meant a lot. It was really intense. I mean, he’s home now, he’s good. And I tease him about being a labor activist because he’s just a grad student in Paris.
He’s a nerd. That’s a very long-winded answer. But there’s kind of a personal dimension to all of these chapters, all of these stories. I care about everybody in the book, but I really cared about these folks specifically because those aren’t stories you’re necessarily going to find in every labor book, every history textbook, any discussion of labor rights in this country. A lot of times it focuses on more well worn paths, on more less complicated workers. People whose professions fit easily into neat little boxes and don’t have any caveats or nuance or stigma. And I mean, that’s not the whole story. If you want to tell what happened, you have to tell what happened and who was there and who did what and who fought the hardest.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, I thought that was beautifully put, not long winded at all. I mean, as, again, someone who thought he knew labor history, and I thought I was hot shit because I had to read a bunch for my PhDs. And I was learning a whole lot from this book. I wanted to just personally thank you for putting that into our historical consciousness, putting it on the record and making sure that it’s part of this story, our story. Because it needs to be. And I think that every struggle in here has its particularities. Every individual has their own circumstances, their own qualities. Again, that’s one of the beautiful things about reading that history is you feel less alone, I guess. How lonely must it be to feel you’re the only person as complex as you feel you are?
I remember feeling this way as a kid, as a young conservative. I always tell people my path to left politics went through literature. Because literature, these big 800 page Russian novels, was one of the first places where my young dumb conservative brain had to confront the fact that other people were as complex as I was. That maybe a prostitute in St. Petersburg had just as deep thoughts as I did and cared as deeply about their family as I did. Dostoevsky taught me that. And that was a very valuable lesson for me to learn. And now I really try to take that lesson as far as it can go, whoever I’m talking to. And I’m constantly amazed by, just again, how incredible each person is and their experiences and how much we all have to offer to this movement and how much we need to build that movement to save our planet. And to save ourselves.
And so there are a whole bunch of particularities in this book, but there are still some really big lessons that jump out, or some commonalities throughout our history that I feel we need to learn and beat into our heads yesterday. We started with one, the one that immediately jumped out at me when I was reading this. We can do this. We can change this.
Kim Kelly: We’ve done it before.
Maximillian Alvarez: We’ve done it before. I often tell people, just imagine how lonely and impossible it must have felt to be Christian Smalls two years ago, fired from Amazon for protesting the COVID policies. To take on the second largest private employer in the world, one of the richest men in human history, and to beat him by banding together with your fellow workers. It can be done. To think, let alone dream, of freedom in the South during slavery is as impossible of a concept as running to the moon and back.
And yet people still dreamed it and fought for it, right. To be accepted as a whole human being in a society that tells you are less because you are not able bodied, or you are not a white man. And the rest of society confirms that. And to reject that, that is a tradition we carry on and must carry on and have to stop acting like that struggle ended some time ago. We’re seeing right now how much progress can be undone. The right, right now, they still believe that another world is possible. They’re making it. Why don’t we? Why have we given up on that? Why have we surrendered that fight to technocratic elites who are sitting their fat asses on society as it crumbles and all of us fight over each other?
We can’t give the world over to these people anymore. We have to take it back. And this book is full of people who have done that. That’s one of the big lessons that jumps out to me is we can do this, people have done it. The other is a very vital lesson that I think is more relevant now than ever. What you see in this book is the most effective tool the ruling class has ever had at its disposal to break that power, divide and conquer. Always.
Which is why whenever anyone, whether they’re on the left, center, or right, starts trying to carve out who is and isn’t in the labor movement. These sex workers are not part of the labor movement, they’re a special boutique concern. These Starbucks workers aren’t part of the labor movement, they’re a bunch of gen Z kids. Prisoners aren’t part of the labor movement. That is how they win. Every time, every goddamn time when we start thinking that we can save ourselves by kicking others off the life raft, we have already lost. Because they will kick us off when time comes. That is one of the enduring lessons of this book and our history. I promise you. And so we got to look out for one another.
Kim Kelly: Yeah. Solidarity is our greatest weapon. I mean there is, like Max’s very eloquently said and I’m going to screw up, there are a lot of examples like that in the book. One of my favorite little stories that I mention when I’m talking to people, because I think not a lot of people know about it, is this one specific moment in 1946 in Hawaii. And at that point in time, and for a long time before that and probably still now, the sugar cane plantations on the island were owned by white guys, white men, Europeans who lived on the mainland. They controlled everything. The big five sugar companies were like Google, Apple, and Elon Musk combined in an agricultural sense in the ’40s. And the people that actually worked on those plantations, that created that value, that sweated in those fields, were native Hawaiians and Chinese and Korean and Japanese and Filipino immigrant workers, immigrant workers from other countries, too.
It was a big mishmash of people. And for a long time, the bosses would exploit that, exploit those differences in linguistic and cultural and ethnic differences, and try to keep people apart. They would pay people differently, they would house them in different camps, they would try and emphasize, you are not on the same team. It’s you against you. And we’re in charge of everyone. At certain points throughout that history, different groups of workers would be brought into break strikes. At one point, Filipino workers were brought in to break a strike by Japanese workers. That happened with different ethnic groups for years. And so when 1946 rolled around, it was time to strike. The workers were organized under the ILWU, International Longshore and Warehouse Union. It has a really cool and radical militant history of its own.
They have been out there on the docks for a long time doing cool stuff. They were organized with that union. And the union realized, okay, we cannot let them divide us, we cannot fall into these old patterns. We have to build solidarity, we have to build a real community here. Well, how can we do that? And the answer was so simple, but it was so effective. And honestly, it’s something that we saw much later in that parking lot in Staten Island in Amazon. They recruited worker organizers who spoke different languages, who had support and respect from the workers. And at meetings, they made sure that everyone understood what was being said and felt heard. A lot of different languages were spoken. They made a little bit of an extra effort to make sure people actually knew what was going on.
They had different groups of workers cook for one another, the strike kitchens they built, they had folks share their cuisine and share their recipes and build community that way. I remember finding a cute little tidbit where the Japanese workers preferred how the Filipino workers made rice. They started sharing recipes there. I feel that’s a big deal. But just little things like that. The jollof rice that they served in the parking lot at Staten Island. And it’s all so basic and it seems so simple, but sometimes it’s so hard to get to that point where you see your fellow workers as your fellow workers, as your coworkers, as people, someone who’s standing next to you. Oh, you’re here with me not, oh, you might be making more money than me. Oh, you’re living in a better house than me. Oh, the boss likes you more so I got to keep you at arms length.
Pulling people in is how we build, it’s how we build communities, it’s how we build neighborhoods, it’s how we build strikes. And that’s how we won. It’s how those workers in Hawaii won. I think at the point that they settled their strike, they got a huge raise that was like a 20 year high. And they set that precedent. And Hawaii is still one of the most heavily unionized states. And I mean, shout to the workers in 1946 for showing that multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual, multi-gendered, multi-generational solidarity is the way to go. And I mean, that’s a very basic lesson, but so many people have seemed to miss the memo over the years. But those who haven’t are the ones who have won and have gotten to us close to where we need to be.
Maximillian Alvarez: Feels like as good a spot to end as any. Yeah. I don’t want to add anything to that. I guess I want to open things up to Q&A. But I guess first, could we give a round of applause to Kim? [applause]
Kim Kelly: Very unused to all this. Thank you. That was really nice.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. Yeah. Let’s open it up to Q&A.
Kate Khatib: We’re going to ask folks to use the mic, if you don’t mind, just so everybody can hear. Hands up.
Kim Kelly: Someone’s going to be the first, it’s always weird being the first.
Speaker 1: I was wondering, I’m an artist, and I was thinking about your process as a writer and as artists. At what point did you get from writing articles to being like, I need to make a book?
Kim Kelly: It was kind of a weird jump. Because it actually… I had to get an extension on finishing the book because I had such freelancer brain. I didn’t stop pitching and writing articles for the first six months of when I was supposed to be writing the book. And eventually I was like, oh no, I have to write a book. It was hard to make that shift. But I’ve always wanted to write a book. And honestly, I kind of always assumed my first book would be about heavy metal, because I spent most of my life in the music industry. I’m going to MDF tomorrow. That’s a big part of my life and career too. But things changed, things shifted, especially once you unionize your workplace, it’s kind of hard to go back. I knew I wanted to write a book.
And I had this nice man, this nice agent hit me up years ago. And he was like, I like your writing, you should do a book. And I was like, okay. And it took years to get a proposal together and get to do all the machinations that go from idea for a book to this guy. But yeah, I mean, I got laid off from VICE in 2019. I was freelance. I was stuck at my house. I didn’t have a lot going on besides just hustling, freelancing, writing, grinding myself down. I was like, it would be really cool to take a little bit of time and really dig deeper into these stories that I’m writing about in 1,400 word increments for the internet, and maybe slow down for a minute and really do the kind of research and the kind of deep conversations I’ve always wanted to do. And well, the opportunity kind of came up.
I was like, here’s my idea. And then my agent sent it to some people and some of them were like, cool, you can do that. And I was like, sick. It sounds very flippant and silly, but I guess I lucked out. Some really smart and nice people believed in my work and gave me some opportunities to try and pull something cool off. And I have tried to pull it off. I made that. And it’s weird because now I’m just back to freelancing. I was up until 4:00 AM last night writing another piece because I’m like, oh shit, I need money again. Writing a book doesn’t magically change everything. I spent a really long time writing a very long blog and now it’s published, and now I have to write more stuff. I don’t have a job. This is all I do. And it is awesome, it’s amazing, but I don’t have any money. I don’t need stability, I’m just trying to make it work.
Speaker 2: Hi, thank you. On that too, how did you get started doing a lot of labor journalism and that in your beat too as well? Because I’m a journalist myself too, and I’ve worked for different publications, I’ve pitched stories about labor, I’ve written them. And once I do that, it gets to be a little bit uncomfortable in the workplace. They start to realize, oh, maybe she’s sort of a threat for unionizing, things like that too. I’ve tried to really break into this space. I’ve had a really hard time doing that given the different work environments that I’ve been in. How did you manage to break into that space?
Kim Kelly: Well, first you got to unionize where you’re working, because then they know to be afraid.
Speaker 2: Yeah. For sure.
Kim Kelly: I mean, that’s kind of what… Well I, alongside a bunch of other really smart, dedicated people did. I’ve been writing about heavy metal since I was 15. I was the heavy metal editor at VICE from 2014 to 2019, which is a ridiculously long time to hold such a silly job. But I got away with it. VICE was a weird place in the early 2010s. But yeah, so I was doing that. I never thought I would write about labor, I would be in the union, I would be involved in this world at all, because I didn’t think it was available to me. My dad was union, my granddad was union. He was a steel worker, he was a construction worker. Those were the jobs I saw as union jobs.
Which I think is how a lot of people think unless they are shown differently. And really all that kind of changed when we organized my workplace, when I got super involved and I dived in and was part of every meeting, every committee, every possible thing I could do, I was part of it. And at that time, I was always freelancing because I wouldn’t get paid any money, VICE paid like shit, which is just part why we unionized. I was always freelancing about other things, and I’ve always had other interests. I’m a complete human, I got other interests. But I started pitching stuff about labor after we unionized, after I’d been through the process, I got into organizers, I’d learned things about labor law. I’d learned a lot. I kind of got a crash course and I finally felt like, okay, I’m interested in this, I’m passionate about this.
And finally I feel maybe I have a little bit of cred, maybe I can pitch this. I kind of gave myself permission. I was like, okay, maybe I’m not an expert, but I’m excited about it and I know a little bit about it. Maybe I can pull off a couple of blogs. And with the audacity of a freelancer, I hit up Teen Vogue purely because I heard they paid pretty good and it seemed like they were responsive. It’s not any deeper than that. Freelancing sucks. Hold on to whatever life raft you can find. But it ended up working out because the editor there, I had pitched them, actually, ironically, a profile on Mother Jones. Because I was like, okay, your audience skews towards younger people, she’s this cool badass labor icon. They should know about her. That seems easy.
And the editor’s like, oh yeah, that’s cool, but I don’t think our readers necessarily know what a union is. This was 2017. Why don’t you write about that? I was like, okay, bet. And I wrote about that and it kind of popped a little bit online because people were not expecting Teen Vogue to be writing about that kind of content at that time. That was before guillotine Vogue had taken over. And that popped, and as an opportunistic freelancer, I was like, cool, you should let me write a column. What if you did that? And they’re like, okay, whatever. And that was four years ago and they just kind of have let me run rampant writing very small versions of this book, basically, up until I got to the point where I just ended up writing the fucking thing. But really writing for Teen Vogue, getting a couple bylines, and kind of establishing myself as someone who, even if I wasn’t an expert, okay.
This person, she can string a couple words together, she can write okay, she’s interested in labor. Maybe we’ll give her a shot. You know how it goes. If you have a couple of clips, you can kind of, hello editor, I’ve written for this and this, give me a shot. It’s a little bit easier. You got to get a couple good bylines and then you kind of talk your way into anything. And if you show that you know what you’re talking about and you’re passionate and you have some sources, this shit isn’t rocket surgery. You can do it. If I can do it, you can do it. Even if your workplace is kind of gnarly, it’s kind of weird, don’t write for them. Write for other places. Right now, we’re in the middle of this really interesting and convenient moment where people are hungry for labor stories and worker stories. It’s a whole new generation of labor reporters. It’s not just Stephen Greenhouse, shout out to our boy. There’s lots of people, it’s not just a couple guys. There’s a lot of people doing this now. There’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t be one of them.
Speaker 3: Hi. Last year I was part of a group of folks at a private school here in Baltimore in the city that tried to unionize, and it didn’t work, but one thing that we kept coming up against was people who felt sorry for the bosses. And I really couldn’t get over it, because it was like, wait, what? And we just wanted to make things better for everybody and have more of a say in every part of the labor we were doing. And so I just wanted to know, what are some stories you’ve taken away from workers, and have you heard about this? People who are sympathizing with the owners, and how to kind of help them see that that’s, I don’t know, is it Stockholm Syndrome, gaslight? Whatever it is… I don’t know. But yeah. Thank you.
Kim Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. I feel that’s something that comes up a lot in so-called creative industries or industries where there’s a lot of emotional labor attached, where there’s a very personal touch involved, education or healthcare or journalism, or nonprofits. Anywhere where you have to not only do your job, but emote, to be a person, bring your personhood to the table. And if you’re working side by side with somebody day by day and they’re not a complete dick, well, they’re probably going to be friendly. You see how stressed out they are, you might see the pressures they’re under and think, oh, well I don’t want to add to their plate, I don’t want to make it more difficult for them. They’re a nice person. And it’s hard to counter that.
We came up against that at VICE when we were organizing years ago. It wasn’t that people were necessarily anti-union, it was mostly that they didn’t know what a union was. And then their second concern was, well, I don’t want to upset this person, I don’t want to make them feel we hate them or we’re mad at them. Well, you’re not mad at them, you’re mad at this system that you’re in, the structure that you’re in. And like it or not, they benefit more than you do. They have more power over your life and your work day than you do. And that doesn’t seem fair. And honestly, if you’re organizing at your workplace, chances are you like it, you care about it enough. You didn’t dip. You care about it enough to change it and to fight for changes that make it better for everyone. Forming a union is a very altruistic act.
If you’d won your union – And I bet you’ll win next time – And anybody who tries to unionize, you want to make it better for everyone. You’re not going to get a union contract that says, okay, we’re going to get all this stuff, and fuck you, Karen. You’re not going to leave anyone else. That rising tide is going to raise their boat too. It’s not implicitly adversarial, it’s adversarial in the sense that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, but that doesn’t mean you got to go fire bomb their house about it. If you are able to access the human part of things and the emotion part of things, in as much as you can connect with that person as a boss, as an employer-employee relationship, they should be able to connect with you and respect you as a worker who’s trying to change things for the better for everyone.
It’s a two-way street. You can feel bad for your boss, but they’re still making more money than you and they still have more power than you do. They should feel… Well, they shouldn’t feel sorry for you, they should be afraid of you. But they should at the very least respect you. When you end up in these workplaces where it’s a liminal border between different layers of management and managee and it’s kind of squishy, it can be a little bit harder to build power because there are those weird intersections. There is like, oh, but I really like Jeff, he’s been cool to me. You kind of have to go for that big picture of, I’m glad that Jeff has been cool to you. He hasn’t been cool to everybody. Perhaps we should improve things somewhat to the point where everyone’s good, including Jeff. It doesn’t have to be a war unless they want it to be.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to pick up on that real quick. Because I think the thing to also recognize in the general sense, is that makes it so case dependent. Then you’re just like, well I actually have one of the good bosses, so I shouldn’t rock the boat. We are sitting across the street from one of the shittiest companies in this country that union busts and even closes down stores when people try to unionize. Others aren’t so fortunate. And so as a class, workers need to kind of understand that, again, if you have a lily pad or a life raft, that does not mean that everyone else does, and we are not going to collectively advance if our focus is essentially finding little safe harbor for each of us. Obviously, and that may mean a lot in general, but on the personal level, still doesn’t mean a whole lot. Here’s what I would say about that.
Like Kim said, it usually only goes one way. I always think about elections. When they try to humanize candidates by saying, oh, they’re just like you, right. What was… Hillary’s like your Abuela. Sure. But just these lizard people attempts to make ruling class folks to whom we appear as little more than human shaped cardboard cutouts. I guarantee you, the people down the road in DC, that is how they see you. That’s how they see all of us. It only goes one way. And that’s why they look so awkward trying to act real, because they don’t have to act real around real people most of the time. But that still works on a lot of us. And the way that I think about it is that they are weaponizing the better angels of our nature.
They are turning what is good about us against us. And we shouldn’t allow that to happen, because the answer is not don’t empathize with people. I remember this in the wake of Trump getting elected that we had a lot of understandable debates because it was a very scary time that we’re still in where people were like, I don’t have to empathize with Trump voters. I don’t have to empathize with this or that person. They can go to hell. And I think we were thinking about empathy the wrong way. Empathy has always been one of the greatest weapons of the oppressed and downtrodden, because we have to understand how our enemy works. We have to understand how others could train themselves or be trained to see us as less than human. That’s a strategic necessity to learn how to beat them. Not to get along with them as they are, but to learn how to beat them.
And so I think however we handle that, we should recognize that sense of empathy is a weapon in our camp. And we have to turn it sideways and not let it be weaponized against us in the way that bosses and politicians do.
Speaker 4: Thank you both for this awesome talk. And I guess this is a question for both of you, maybe. We’ve heard a lot of these amazing victories that have happened around the country with people organizing their workplace, but I think the rate of unionization is still at the lowest it’s been in close to a century. What do you think are the most important lessons right now from the history that are relevant today for people that are trying to stem the tide of the lowest rate?
Kim Kelly: Yeah. I mean the simple one is don’t give up. Because we’ve been licked before, we’ve been down before. The numbers have never been great. They were pretty good when my dad was a kid, but ever since it’s been [descending noise] in terms of union density. But I mean, one thing, and I guess I’m going off script a little bit, because I love unions, shout out to unions, but you don’t have to be in a union to change things. Collective power can be built in many different means. You don’t have to go… And shout out to the NLRB, especially under our queen Jennifer Abruzzo, what a cool turn that’s been, seeing a government agency that seems to actually care about people. But you don’t have to go that route. You don’t have to do the NLRB election.
You don’t have to go through the red tape, you don’t have to be an official, you need to get things done. You can be independent, you can go through a worker center, you can build your own grassroots worker-led organization. I think that, and I know the number’s not been great, union density being what it is. All the roadblocks and all the kneecappings, all of the negative stuff we’ve had to wade through to make it through the day and to survive as a movement is very real. And as much of a Pollyanna as I am, you got to acknowledge that. But I feel the workers themselves are the only thing that matters, and that power that’s being built and the enthusiasm and the optimism we’re seeing.
And I don’t want to hinge all of our hopes on Starbucks and Amazon workers. They’re incredible, they’re revolutionary, they’re regular workers trying to make things better. And there are so many more people in this country that could do the same thing if they had the time or they had the will or they just had that spark. And I think a lot more people are finding that within themselves. I think we’re at the beginning of a moment that, I don’t know how the numbers are going to shift, but I’m less concerned about numbers than in what’s happening on the ground with actual workers, with organizing.
And it’s not even just organizing your workplace, it’s organizing your neighborhood or your block or your community. There’s so many different ways to build power as working-class people, as workers, as poor people, as people who have been left out and reduced to cardboard cutouts. One thing that I always try to keep in mind is that there’s more of us than there are of them. And we can get shit done if we want to. It doesn’t have to follow any prescribed path. As much as I believe in unions and believe in the labor movement, there’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat.
And there’s a lot of different ways to organize people. We’ve seen that throughout history. Because not every group of workers has been welcome in the organized labor movement. Whether it was Dorothy Lee Bolden organizing Black domestic workers in the ’60s in Atlanta, or Ben Fletcher in the Philly waterfront in 1910 creating this interracial union from scratch with the IWW, or independent unions we’re seeing pop up right now at Star Garden and Amazon. There’s always a way. And even if it doesn’t reflect in the BLS statistics, I think that there is something happening, I think there is a moment. And I think there’s kind of a rising tide of interest and enthusiasm that, maybe it’s not shown up on the charts yet, but I think it’s going to make a real difference. We just kind of have to wait it out a little bit and see what happens.
Kate Khatib: Right. We’ll take two more questions over here and then I’ll come back over to you.
Speaker 5: I’m just a freshman in high school. I’m just recently starting out on trying to become more of an activist in the future. As an openly queer and physically and mentally disabled freshman, I realized that a lot of tips on where to start have been for those who don’t have drawbacks. I’ve noticed that I struggle a lot with getting my word out there. The most I’ve done is an English project that I presented to the class with shaking legs, and art posters that I’ve hung on the wall. But I wanted to know if there was more I could do at this age?
Kim Kelly: I mean, it sounds like you’re doing incredible work already. You should be really proud of yourself, because that shit’s scary. Putting yourself out there is scary, especially if you’re dealing with other stuff that some people don’t have to deal with. I was just like you. You’re not weird, I was weird. A weird kid who has some extra stuff going on who had a lot to say and wasn’t sure what to do about it. And that’s why I started writing. And I mean, I was your age, Christ, 20 years ago, which I hate to say in public. But there were a few times… I’m still young. But there were definitely less avenues for me at that point. I was just on LiveJournal, which I hope you still know what that is. But… Christ.
Maximillian Alvarez: You’re on MySpace, right?
Kim Kelly: Terrible. Oh my God. We’re becoming those people. But no, but seriously one thing, especially if you’re not necessarily able to be out in the streets all the time or to talk to people in person, if you need a little bit more space, if you work better in more quiet settings, you can write anywhere. And whether that’s running campaigns on social media or blogging or… I mean, you could write for a newspaper, you could start your own blog. There are places that want to hear from people like you and that need to hear from people like you. And I’m just so happy that you’re here and you’re interested in this history and you want to get involved, because so many people, especially your age, aren’t at that point. And it’s just incredible. People like you are going to be in the 20th anniversary of this book, if I make it that far. Basically whatever that you are able to do, that’s what you should do. It’s valid, it’s important, it counts just as much as anything else. You don’t have to fight a cop to be part of the revolution.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to kind of hook that back to Jaisal’s question, because I thought your answer was perfect, is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And I think that the unionization numbers are bleak. There’s a lot that’s bleak right now. One of the mantras that I found myself often repeating on my show is no one has to do everything, but everyone can do something. And I think that how you measure what you are contributing to the movement is if you were bringing more people into the movement. Because our strength will always come from the collective. By making people feel welcome in the struggle, by finding different ways for people to feel useful in the struggle. This is one of the exciting things that comes from talking to workers, is a lot of workers who are doing that organizing, they’ve figured this stuff out.
I remember talking to a service worker in New Orleans who was like, we realized at one point that service workers make great organizers because we have to code switch all the time when we’re serving customers who have a bad day or customers who have a very specific way they want this or that to be served. You learn on the job how to communicate to different people. That’s something you can bring to the organizing effort to bring in different sides of the shop. And so I think treating everyone as having something to offer and not putting the burden on yourself to offer everything is a really important place to start. The two other quick things I would say, responding to Jessel’s question about what this means for where we are right now, is I think you’re a perfect example of this.
I was a dumbass in high school who had zero consciousness of this stuff whatsoever. My first jobs at a Mexican restaurant at the mall, at warehouses, in factories, when I was a waiter, in retail. At no point did I ever think I had any other option but to quit. Never entered my head, never entered any of our heads. And that spark that is in people’s minds right now that maybe we could stay and fight. Maybe we could do something different than just leave and leave this crappy job for some other poor soul. That realization, in my mind, those are the numbers we need to be looking at. Those are the numbers we need to be growing. As far as growing the union numbers, throw it at the wall and see what sticks. Because at this point, there’s a lot we have to learn from people who’ve been in the organized labor movement for many years, but no one can look at those numbers and say we have the answer to this.
No one, because the number doesn’t lie. And so I think what we have to do is encourage people as much as we possibly can. Even if they fail, we help pick them up, but we have to try what we can. That’s what Amazon workers did, that’s what Starbucks workers have done, but it’s happening all over the place. I just interviewed workers at a charter school network in California who unionized with the IWW. And the California version of the NLRB just basically told the school they have to bargain with them. And it started with one teacher posting a bulletin in the teacher’s lounge saying, this isn’t right. And then more people got involved, they got to talking and they did it together.
John Clampett: Hi Kim, very nice to meet you. My name is John Clampett, proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 24. Best electricians in Baltimore. Proud son of International Brotherhood of Iron Workers, Local 16. Some of the best iron workers in the world. My question is, since I got in the union, I’ve met a lot of very progressive people, a lot of people that are trying to make a very positive difference in our local and in our international brotherhood and sisterhood. I, my question is, in your opinion, or in your experience with the more established trade unions, the construction unions and such, how do you feel about the new generation coming up, and how do you rate them as making a progressive change?
Kim Kelly: It’s really exciting to see, right? Even the fact that you’re here rules. And I mean, I’m from… Yeah. Do you have a spare? Do you guys have those in a small? But I mean it’s so important too, because the building trades tend to be written off as this monolith. It’s like, oh the building trades, they’re all conservative, they’re all this, they’re all that. And that’s never been the case, because it’s always been different people involved. It’s been made up of workers, workers are not a monolith. People have different perspectives. But I mean, it’s not quite the building trades per se, but the fact that the Teamsters just shook off decades of their whole deal and elected Sean O’Brien in this Teamsters for a Democratic Union slate, that’s important.
That’s a progressive move. One thing that I tell folks who are in unions who are progressive and radical and want to make a change, especially if their union is entrenched or just older, kind of set in its ways – And it’s going to sound funny coming for someone like me – But to run for office in your union. Run to become a leader, but join your council, join whatever your structure is. If you can get more progressive and radical people in there, that’s how you make change, that’s how you work your way up to replace that old guard, to be the new guard. We did that at my union, which is a much different kettle of fish, The Writer’s Guild, but younger, more progressive people who wanted to organize more workers came in and we ran a slate.
And now there’s a whole bunch of us shaking things up at the union. The older folks don’t like it very much, but that’s how progress works. You have to know when to step out of the way. And the only way you can really make change in that context is to just do it yourself. And to find like-minded people and get groups together, get a bunch of people to see the world the way you do and want to make those positive progressive changes in your union and do stuff about it. Hold events, talk to workers, talk to members. Build up that community and make it normal to be progressive and to want to shift things a little bit outside of that established groove. Just because you’re an iron worker or you’re a carpenter, you’re a teamster, doesn’t mean you have to be any certain type of way.
You’re a worker and you’re part of the labor movement and you’re part of the working class. And I think it’s all of our duties to fight for collective liberation and to fight for one another, however that looks like in the context that you’re operating within. And I mean, my family are all building trades and they’re not as progressive as you. Shout out to you, too, for bucking that trend.
John Clampett: My dad isn’t either. It is what it is.
Kim Kelly: It is what it is. It’s cultural, generational, that’s a whole other conversation. But having people like you who are interested in changing that and shaking that up and writing a new piece of history for a very old, historic union, that’s important.
John Clampett: And it’s not just me. It’s a lot of our company.
Kim Kelly: See, there you go.
John Clampett: It’s a lot.
Kim Kelly: That’s making history.
John Clampett: New generation, it’s very progressive [inaudible].
Kim Kelly: Yes. You got to do something with it.
John Clampett: Sure.
Kim Kelly: You got to seize power and make that the norm.
John Clampett: Got it.
Kim Kelly: Doing union elections. Being a union official is a thankless task, but someone’s going to do it and it may as well be you and your friends. Because otherwise, someone who isn’t as progressive and isn’t as interested in change and expanding the reach is going to sit in that seat and stand in the way. Sometimes you have to do a little clear cutting to get to a point where you can really grow.
Kate Khatib: Folks, can we give them a round of applause? [applause]