The Rest of the Story Behind America’s Labor Movement

By Esther Wang

Labor journalist Kim Kelly’s new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, comes at the perfect time, as enthusiasm for labor unions is at the highest point in decades, and workers from Amazon warehouses to Starbucks stores are demanding more—better pay, dignity on the job, and a say in their workplace. Her book goes beyond the simplified history we’re exposed to in textbooks (and that’s if we’re lucky) to tell a fuller, and therefore more true, story of the labor movement, as well as our country. Her message? “This is your history, too,” Kelly said. “And it’s also our future.”

Esther Wang: You started off your book by acknowledging the enormous debt the labor movement owes to women—immigrant women from countries all over the world, Black women, and queer and trans women. Why did it feel necessary and important to tell those stories?

Kim Kelly: I wanted to focus specifically on women just because we’re so often left out of the equation when it comes to writing about labor and labor history and the idea of the working class and what a worker looks like in this country. There’s this enduring avatar of the working class in this country that is the straight white guy and a hard hat. And he belongs here, he’s done a lot of great work, too. My dad is that guy. But if you look at the actual composition of the labor movement, the most common face of a union member in this country is a Black woman who probably works in home health care or domestic work. It’s not even a shift—it’s kind of always been like that.

You include the stories of labor activists like Dorothy Bolden, Rosa Flores, and Ella May Wiggins. What would it mean for all of us if we looked to those women as labor leaders from the past? 

I think it would reframe a lot of the perceptions of what organized labor and collective power look like. Dorothy Lee Bolden started working as a domestic worker when she was nine years old. She’s visually impaired. She grew up in the forties and fifties in the South as a Black woman. So she had every possible disadvantage, but she managed to overcome those obstacles that were unfairly thrown her way. She made history in a way that was so incredible, the way that she organized and worked and advocated for domestic workers [as the founder of the National Domestic Workers Union of America].  At its height, it had about 10,000 members. They organized to win fair wages and to professionalize household work. They were people that were seen as unorganizable. And they’re like, well, we’ll just organize ourselves.

Ella May Wiggins, who died on the picket line, who was this balladeer who was the heart and soul of a strike down in Gastonia, she’s another Joe Hill. She’s another Billy Bragg. Rosa Flores was this 18-year-old woman who ended up being the face of an entire massive strike for being this militant presence, for seeing what the world offered her as a young Chicana woman and was like, well, that’s not good enough.

That is the kind of energy that we need to be bringing to the labor movement. That’s the kind of energy that it always had, but it’s been buried under white patriarchal bullshit.

You make it so clear and so apparent that labor issues, workers’ rights, and the fight for a union are intertwined with so many other issues—Black liberation, immigrant rights, feminist battles, disability rights. They’re not silos. 

One of the greatest truths that we have found to be evident over and over and over again throughout the history of labor and work in this country is that solidarity between workers is the greatest weapon that we have. And solidarity means obviously standing up for people that are on your side, but also people that maybe don’t look like you or talk like you or come from the same background, but are also dealing with the ravages of capital, dealing with bad bosses, dealing with mistreatment.

I think every story is a labor story because wherever you’re coming from, wherever you’re going, whoever you are, you’ve probably either had a job or you have a job now, or you’re going to have a job. And that common ground really is a uniting force.

There’s so much momentum and energy in labor right now, stemming from the successful Amazon unionization drive, the workers organizing Starbucks, the mining families on strike that you’ve been following for more than a year in Alabama at Warrior Met Coal. How are you thinking about what’s happening?

History is being made right now, from Amazon to Starbucks, to Appalachian coal mines, and in North Hollywood strip clubs. There’s momentum. And I think it’s just been very inspiring for folks that maybe for a long time thought there wasn’t any hope, or maybe thought that there wasn’t any room for them in the labor movement. To go back to Amazon and Starbucks, those movements have been led predominantly by Black workers and workers of color, young queer workers, a lot of women, nonbinary people—the exact workers that common wisdom or whatever has told us are not organizable. They are organizing, and they’re winning.

Esther Wang is a New York City-based writer who covers social movements, immigrant communities, and the intersection of culture and politics.