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Kim Kelly talks about writing about labor for glossy magazines, reporting on direct action, how unions should respond to the climate crisis, and why Labor Day is a scam

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s Labor Day. Hi, from The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

Public support for unions is rising. A new Gallup poll shows that 64% of Americans approve of labor unions. That’s as high a number as we’ve seen in half a decade, but union membership is still actually pretty low. At the labor movement’s peak in 1954, 35% of US workers were unionized. In 2018, that number was down to just 10.5%. That’s according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There has been a resurgence of workers’ self-organization in recent years, though. For the past month, for instance, a group of miners in Cumberland, Kentucky have been blocking a train. The train’s got over a million dollars’ worth of coal in it. Those miners were laid off with bad checks from the company Black Jewel and are demanding back-pay. Last year, a wildcat teachers’ strike in West Virginia, nearby, inspired a strike wave amongst educators across the whole country.

As those struggles continue, labor reporters like my next guest are there to document them, but not just at independent networks like The Real News Network, or labor publications like Labor Notes, or In These Times, or Portside, or even Jacobin. I’m here with Kim Kelly, who writes a column on labor and working-class history for Teen Vogue. It’s called “No Class.” She was previously the heavy metal editor for Noisey, Vice’s music vertical, and she’s had bylines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and a whole bunch of other places. Thanks so much for being here, Kim.

KIM KELLY: Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So I can’t imagine Teen Vogue having a labor column, a column on labor and working class history, even just like five years ago. I guess the cynical take on that is wokeness is a brand and it’s selling, but there’s also obviously been a big wave of youth activism around the climate crisis, and school shootings, and all these other things. What is it about this moment that makes it possible to write a column like yours in a teen glossy magazine?

KIM KELLY: 2019 is wild. I mean, even two or three years ago I wouldn’t have thought this was something that could happen, especially because I’m very much on the left side of things, and voices like mine are generally not given a chance to have platforms like Teen Vogue— let alone, The New York Times or Washington Post, like mainstream magazine media. But I think, honestly, in terms of what I’m doing at Teen Vogue and what others are doing at other places, is that people are hungry for this. The world’s on fire, fascism is alive and well, and people need to be able to find information and find decent reporting on these incredibly important topics wherever they can.

The fact that Teen Vogue allows me pretty much free reign to cover working-class history stories and labor stories, I think it does have a pretty big impact, at least that’s what I’ve been told. I don’t want to toot my own horn. I’m just one person writing things on the internet, but I think it’s important. It shows that young people today, and people of conscience in general today, want to know more about our history. They want to know where we came from and use that, hopefully, as a blueprint for where we’re going because the future is terrifying, and the path is terrifying too. There are ways to fight back. There are ways to win. We’ve done it before. I think, really, sometimes all people need is a little nudge and a little thousand-word essay about Blair Mountain or the Ludlow Strike. Knowing where we came from is going to get us where we need to go.

DHARNA NOOR: You’re someone who’s really unapologetic in all of your writing about your personal politics. You’re an avowed anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, a feminist, and you’re really open about that even when you’re writing about something that’s less obviously political, like when you write about music. You sort of came under fire recently for being so outspoken about your personal beliefs. Not to erase people of color, or women, or queer folks, in either labor or heavy metal, but it occurs to me that in two of your major beats, in those two major beats— both heavy metal and the labor movement— there’s definitely a lot of visibility for white men, for straight cis white men particularly. What impact has that had on you as someone who centers feminism and anti-racism in your reporting, and how do you think that that’s come out in your writing?

KIM KELLY: Well, in terms of the metal world I’ve been involved in that community since I was like 12 years old. I spent half of my life building this career as a heavy metal writer. It’s sort of funny now because people that have discovered my work in the past few years, as I’ve branched out, a lot of times they don’t even know that I am into metal, let alone that I built my entire life around it. But the issues that I personally face, I think, are about the same. As many wonderful people that actually appreciate what I’m doing, there are people that really, really hate what I’m doing. And they hate me, and they project that hatred onto me in a variety of ways, whether it’s metal forum posts or Tucker Carlson doing a segment on how terrible I am, a few weeks ago.

I’m also a super privileged white cis lady. I’m doing fine, generally, compared to a lot of people, but it’s still been difficult in a lot of ways, especially in terms of being taken seriously and accepted, dealing with sexual harassment and assault. It was not easy being a teenage girl covering heavy metal, and going to shows, and dealing with bands and industry people. While some of the issues I’m dealing with have changed, it’s still not the easiest. I could have probably picked an easier path, but we’re here now.

DHARNA NOOR: When you were covering heavy metal as the heavy metal editor at Noisey, you were also, I understand, an organizer for Vice‘s union. Was that the first time that you yourself were involved in union organizing? What was it that made you interested in the labor movement more generally, and in helping to organize this union specifically?

KIM KELLY: Well, it sort of fell into my lap. About two weeks after I got hired— And this was following eight months as a permalancer because that’s how people are treated at some of these media companies. Two weeks after I got hired, I got pulled aside by a couple of my coworkers, and we went and got coffee, and they told me that they were thinking about unionizing. My first question was, “Okay, cool. How could I help?” Because I’m from a union family. That’s been a part of my life and sort of in the background since I was a little kid. My dad and uncles are all construction workers. My granddad is a factory worker. My grandma’s a teacher. It’s always been a part of my understanding that unions are a good thing, and sometimes you have to do difficult things, make difficult decisions in order to better your lot as a worker, and your fellow workers’ lot. My dad’s been on strike. I remember what it’s like to worry about groceries, and bills, and when he was going back to work. This is something I was familiar with.

And so, when I got an opportunity to actually participate as a member organizer at Vice, it felt good. It was really incredible to be able to be a part of that. I mean, I was just one of dozens of people over the years who poured their time and energy and heart and soul into organizing this company, but by the time I got laid off, I think we had about 500 people who were in our union. Well, in various unions because we had a bunch of different job titles. But it’s really the point where I realized I wanted to spend more of my time writing about these issues and these concerns, than staying in the heavy metal world because at this point, I’ve kind of said everything I need to say. People know where I stand, and I felt like I needed to take my energy, and my ambition and my skills to a broader arena. And it’s worked out pretty well, touch wood.

DHARNA NOOR: In your work, as you just kind of did for your own personal history, you connect contemporary labor struggles to labor history. I mean, one of your last pieces on the miner blockade in Harlan County, in that piece you really connect that to the area’s fraught labor history. Could you talk a little bit about that, about reporting that story and why it’s important to write about that sort of forgotten labor history, for young people, especially teenagers who might be reading something like Teen Vogue?

KIM KELLY: I was following the miner’s blockade loosely because I pay attention to as many labor stories as I can. It’s kind of my job. But that one really struck a chord because it was happening in Harlan County, in the heart of Appalachian labor history. It’s something that we’ve been seeing, especially in the past, it feels like forever. But the past two and a half years, there’s been this sort of media spin around Appalachia and about specifically the white working class, trying to sort of blame them for all of our current troubles and the current administration, and the way that Trump has used coal miners as this sort of crutch and like a token to gain cred with the working class that he’s continually exploited and totally screwed over.

It’s upsetting, especially when you think about how the true history of Appalachia is so, I mean, it’s just completely rooted in militant labor action, and collective organizing, and the working-class struggle for liberation. Especially fancy coastal reporters, I think they still have this view of Appalachia that was either shaped by just general stereotypes or JD Vance. And they don’t really know what kind of organizing is happening there and it does a true disservice to anybody who actually cares about these stories. Appalachia has been red. It has a very radical history. I think if we don’t talk about that, acknowledge that and pay tribute to that, that’s something that can be lost in the shuffle.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, and I think that that sort of rich history of the labor movement in Appalachia is really clear in this kind of action because the workers who organized that blockade weren’t even in a union, formally. So this was totally a self-organized and sort of emergent, spontaneous action that’s been taking place for like a month now.

KIM KELLY: I think it’s really inspiring. It shows one of the big problems we have in the States where we have so much terrible right-to-work legislation. They should have a union. Everybody should have a union, but they don’t because of these roadblocks that have been in place. But the fact that they were able to do this without one, just with their own collective power, I think is really inspiring. Back in the day and during the mine wars, a lot of those workers didn’t have a union either. They were fighting to get one. Unions are incredible, and they’re incredibly important, but ultimately it comes down to collective action, and solidarity and worker power. You don’t need a union to change the world, but it does help a little bit.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. You’ve also written about sort of the intersection between the labor movement and climate organizing, and how the climate crisis is going to become a labor issue and has become a labor issue. As the coal industry declines, the need for a just transition is really important. You’ve written about why some workers in extractive industries like coal haven’t totally embraced even proposals like the Green New Deal that directly call for workers to be unionized. Could you talk a little bit about that hesitation on some workers’ parts, and what more could be done to bridge both the climate movement and the labor movement in this moment where both of them are really in turmoil?

KIM KELLY: That’s a big question, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I think the Green New Deal is a good start, but that’s assuming that we can even make it work. I think it’s very easy to understand why people in these industries are scared. If you’re going to work every day, trying to feed your family, trying to just get through life, and then it seems like everyone is screaming at you about how you’re killing the planet, your job is a problem, it needs to be legislated out of existence, of course you’re going to push back to that because it’s easy to make grand proclamations and talk about big solutions, but it’s really hard to make your rent. There’s a disconnect there, and I think that’s something that really – I think the labor movement needs to really be rallying around these workers and actually putting in the effort to create infrastructure that will lead to a just transition.

You can’t just send a couple of people with laptops down to teach people in West Virginia how to code. That’s something that you can do, but that can’t be all of it. This is people’s livelihoods. There’s been this sort of impetus, especially the conservative right-wing fascist side, that is trying to act like coal miners and oil rig workers don’t care, that they’re opposed to this entire idea. And that’s not true at all. We’ve seen so much of this happening in the labor movement with major unions endorsing the Green New Deal and talking about the need for just transition. Look at the BlueGreen Alliance. Even today, UE, who is a very large industrial union, just endorsed the Green New Deal.

This needs to be a collective effort, and I think the AFL-CIO really needs to throw its weight behind this idea, around the just transition and not just capitulate to certain union leaders who have a vested interest in avoiding the whole climate crisis conversation. You need to listen to the workers and listen to the actual working people whose lives are going to be impacted. I don’t know the answer, but I know we need to figure it out fast because the world’s on fire. And that’s not an ideal scenario for anybody, except the rich people who are benefiting from it.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. What you’re saying here is really interesting. There has been definitely a split that lots of workers talk about amongst the rank-and-file and the leadership of a lot of unions. Is it ever hard to, one, parse the different kinds of narratives about what unions believe— whether that means the union leadership or the union members? And B, to sort of center the people who are most impacted, the workers, is it ever hard to make sure that those are the voices that you’re really getting for your stories?

KIM KELLY: It’s not really a question or a conscious choice. That’s just what makes sense to me. If you are going to be reporting on an issue, why wouldn’t you spend the majority of your time talking to people who are being directly impacted? I will reach out to a union comps person. I’ll reach out to somebody higher up in the food chain, but ultimately my interest and my sympathy lies with people who are dealing with this on a day to day basis, and who are going be impacted, and who don’t have massive savings or a big salary, or any of the sort of nice investments that people who are higher up are able to depend on. My dad’s a construction worker, and this is going to directly impact him and my family. Those are the people who I’m most concerned about because that’s who I feel the most affinity for. I’m a broke freelancer. We’re all in the same struggle together.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of authority to begin with. I mean, you always do your due diligence, and you always reach out and talk to as many people who will speak to you, and get— I don’t want to say both sides because that is not a useful phrase in 2019, but there’s definitely— there’s always multiple viewpoints on an issue. You just have to do your best to approach it from as many angles as possible, to get as close to the full picture as you can. It’s not easy, and this is definitely a time in which the labor movement is at a crossroads, and there are a lot of disagreements across a lot of different issues. One would hope that generally we’re all looking towards the future and being as progressive and justice-minded as we can, but there are still pretty big conflicts. I mean, ICE has a union. And there’s a lot of things that we need to work on before, I think, we get closer to realizing the dreams of liberation that our forefathers and foremothers and foreparents worked towards.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. To switch gears a little bit, I’m curious, when you write for Teen Vogue specifically, is the audience you have in mind really usually teens? And how are teens and young people responding when they’re reading your column?

KIM KELLY: You know, I do get the feeling that not as many actual teens read my column, going from the feedback that I get on Twitter and Facebook and emails and such. But something that has been really heartening is that I’ve had a lot of teachers hit me up and tell me like, “Hey, I’m taking this piece you wrote and I’m bringing it to my classroom and we’re discussing it,” or using it to investigate this historical thing, or this current thing in the news. That is extremely gratifying because even if the 16-year-old kid doesn’t want to click on an article about how Labor Day is a scam, their teacher who brings it to class and assigns the reading, might give them an avenue to actually explore that and think about things in a different way.

Even though I’m not entirely sure who is reading it, I want to assume who’s reading it. I do try and make my writing as accessible as possible, without—I’m never going to dumb things down because teenagers are smarter than all of us and are going to save the world, but I do try to break down complex topics in a way that I think are just more accessible because you don’t want to be preaching at people, or throwing tons of jargon at them, or making them feel they need to read 17 different books before they can understand what you’re talking about. Because if we’re going to reach the working class and everybody in general, then I think there needs to be the understanding that not everybody knows every specific piece of jargon. We need to make sure that when somebody reads what you’re writing and is presenting these maybe revolutionary ideas, that we’re not doing it in a way that feels like gatekeeping, or like we’re keeping the best parts for ourselves.

DHARNA NOOR: We’re almost out of time, but I guess I’ll wrap up by asking you, why is Labor Day a scam, Kim? And what do you hope that people reading your columns will take away from it? We’re posting this on Labor Day. So this Labor Day, what’s your big message for your readers?

KIM KELLY: Well, actually, in my next column, which is dropping tomorrow, explains exactly why Labor Day is a scam. So maybe I’ll just direct your readers to that, but in short, May Day is the true workers’ holiday. And the fact that it’s not celebrated as widely in the States is because the government doesn’t want lefties and radicals and the working class to come together and express dissent against the things that are keeping us down. Labor Day has become – it wasn’t always intended as such, but it’s definitely become just this sort of exercise in capitalist excess. The fact that we have Labor Day, as it is, and that May 1st in the States is officially known as Loyalty Day, I think says quite a lot about the priorities of the government when it comes to the working class, and then when it comes to us knowing our own history.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Kim Kelly, Labor Reporter for Teen Vogue, bylines at a number of other places, thanks so much for being here today. We hope to talk to you again soon. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.