As public approval of unions surpasses its 40-year high and national headlines broadcast union victories at Starbucks and Amazon, Fight Like Hell, by journalist and union organizer Kim Kelly, due out April 26, offers lessons and inspiration for workers in any industry. “Solidarity,” Kelly said, “is always unions’ greatest weapon.”
Unions have long been a part of Kelly’s life. Her father worked in construction throughout her childhood, and she remembers his union striking several times. She started her career as a music journalist and established herself as Vice’s heavy metal editor. When the youth media company’s editorial staff organized with the Writers Guild of America, East in 2015, she became a founding member of the Vice Union leadership. (Disclosure: the author of this article is a former Vice staffer who worked with Kelly to organize the Vice Union.) In 2021 she was elected to the council of the WGAE.
Kelly began to cover labor for other outlets while editing at Vice, and Fight Like Hell grew as an extension of her freelance work. Now she has a column in Teen Vogue; hosts videos for More Perfect Union, the Real News Network, and Means TV; and writes labor stories for outlets including the Columbia Journalism Review, Esquire, the New Republic, and Rolling Stone. She decided to write a book, she said, because the stories she wanted to tell often didn’t fit in the amount of space she was given in other outlets.
In Fight Like Hell, Kelly focuses on women and people of color whose contributions to the labor movement have been forgotten or ignored. Each of the book’s 13 chapters is dedicated to the union heroes of different industries, such as the pioneering women who led America’s first factory strike in 1824 and the immigrant crop pickers in Hawaii and California in the 1940s. Between historical accounts, Kelly intersperses vignettes from her contemporary labor coverage, including the Warrior Met coal miners strike (which has been going on for over a year) and Amazon workers’ attempts to organize a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala. In each setting, she shows how business interests use race, class, lies, and violence to divide and exploit the workforce. She also shows how workers who fight back succeed through solidarity and boldness.
It’s this balance between relevance and historical context that drew Simon & Schuster editor Nick Ciani to Kelly’s work. “Labor is the issue of our time,” Ciani said. He was already one of Kelly’s Twitter followers (which now total more than 117,000) when her agent sent him the proposal that became Fight Like Hell. Ciani brought it to OneSignal, S&S’s imprint for nonfiction, history, and memoir. He pitched it on the strength of its relevance and the trusted relationship Kelly has cultivated with her audience on social media.
“Any book has to start out with a core constituency of readers,” Ciani said. “Kim is especially gifted in that way. She has shown her audience what she’s about.”
Even before its publication, Fight Like Hell struck a chord among labor leaders, including AFL-CIO president Liz Schuler and Association of Flight Attendants International president Sara Nelson. The book is energizing because it can, as Nelson put it in a blurb, “inspire all of us to seize power for ourselves.”
Kelly selects direct examples of strategies and tactics labor leaders used to overcome entrenched racism, sexism, and exploitation throughout American history. Workers unionizing at Starbucks, for example, have a lot to learn from 1960s labor organizer Dorothy Lee Bolden, according to Kelly. Both Bolden and Starbucks workers have demonstrated the effectiveness of solidarity unionism, a model espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World in which organizations are founded and led by workers themselves. Like the domestic workers of the 1960s, Kelly said Starbucks employees are “part of a group that has traditionally been viewed as very difficult to organize, if not impossible. There’s been this idea we can’t do it because it’s too hard. It’s too messy. And a lot of traditional unions have just let it be.”
Bolden was a domestic worker in Atlanta whose boss once called the police because she refused to work late. She shared her story with other domestic workers riding the city buses, and, with encouragement from her neighbor, Martin Luther King Jr., she organized her grassroots network into the National Domestic Workers Union of America in 1968.
Kelly points to specific tactics that made Bolden’s organization particularly effective. Members trusted her because she had worked the same exhausting hours for exploitative wages that they had. Membership required a fee of $1 and a completed voter registration form, providing the funds to operate the organization and the political clout for effective advocacy in local government. The NDWUA provided classes on how to access programs like Social Security and worker’s compensation. It prioritized lifting women out of poverty by banding together to refuse jobs that underpaid. By 1970, it saw their average wages of $5 per day triple to $15 per day.
Kelly also has lessons for the workers unionizing American booksellers. Many of Fight Like Hell’s contemporary reporting covers the largest bookseller in the world—Amazon—which has spent millions of dollars to prevent its employees from unionizing. Workers at a Staten Island warehouse recently became the first unionized Amazon employees. Meanwhile, workers at community book retailers have successfully unionized in Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz in California, as well as in Austin; New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.
In spite of this progress, there are huge cultural challenges for bookseller unions. In a Jacobin article titled “Why Is Organizing Workers in the Book Industry So Damn Hard?” the authors write, “One of the steepest barriers to organizing is the myth of ‘doing it for the love of books,’ which employers perpetuate to create the illusion that publishing workers are somehow exempt from the inherent exploitation of wage labor.”
Kelly said she encountered similar rhetoric during Vice’s union organizing campaign. “People are telling you, ‘Oh, you guys don’t need a union. You have a fun job. You just hang out with books all day, that must be great,’ ” she said. “No. It’s a very difficult job, and all labor has dignity. And all workers need a union.”
Beckett Mufson is a Texas-based copywriter, cofounder of the creative agency the Auxiliary, and journalist.