What the Labor Movement Can Learn From Its Past

Essential, fed up, in demand: These are terms often used to describe American workers in the COVID era. Companies have laid off millions of people; the coronavirus has killed many others. Panicked employers have scrambled to raise wages and offer perks in response to the “Great Resignation.” More than 100,000 workers either striked or threatened to during October 2021, which some dubbed #striketober.

Throughout the pandemic, Kim Kelly, a labor journalist and organizer, has reported on these shifts, following coal miners, grocery-store workers, and Amazon-warehouse employees. In her new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, Kelly turns her focus away from the present to highlight past protests, strikes, and struggles. Synthesizing Kelly’s own reporting with archival and scholarly research, the book serves as a primer to introduce readers to historical events that are not widely known or taught in schools.

I spoke twice with Kelly about the growth of unions during the pandemic and what the labor movement can learn from past struggles. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Morgan Ome: Some historians have criticized the subtitle of your book, which is The Untold History of American Labor. How would you respond to their concerns that other scholars have worked to tell this history?

Kim Kelly: I know there’s been criticism, and I think it’s entirely valid and very fair. I wasn’t really aware of how loaded that term is, specifically within academia. I wanted to pay homage to this book from the ’50s called Labor’s Untold Story, by historian Herbert M. Morias and writer Richard O. Boyer. Obviously, these stories have already been told: first by the workers, next by archivists and documentarians, then by historians and academics and scholars who dug into all of the existing material. I really can’t express enough gratitude for the people who’ve done this work. I wanted to synthesize the information in an accessible, intersectional way and build off the work they did by showing the ways that these different struggles intersect and how they relate to current issues.

What I hope to do with this book is to show people that whatever you’re dealing with right now, someone else was dealing with this same problem 50, 100, 200 years ago, and they did something about it. The history of labor in this country is so complicated, bloody, sprawling, heartbreaking, and incredible. We can take those lessons and apply them to the future and hope we get a little closer to where we want to be.

Ome: What are some of the parallels you’ve noticed between the current moment and the history you were researching for your book?

Kelly: People are embracing this idea of solidarity and organizing across linguistic, social, racial, and gender lines, which is what has kept the labor movement going. It makes me think of the Great Sugar Strike of 1946, in Hawaii. The workers were predominantly Asian and Puerto Rican immigrants on massive sugarcane plantations owned by white people who were growing rich off of the workers while treating them like garbage. The bosses separated workers by language, culture, and country of origin in order to prevent those workers from communicating and finding common ground. But during that strike, workers found ways to foster real, multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual solidarity in a way that allowed them to win. That same kind of history is being made right now, with Amazon workers in Alabama and Staten Island, and with Starbucks, and they didn’t come out of nowhere.

Ome: You spent a lot of time in Bessemer, Alabama, reporting on the Amazon-warehouse union drive last year. What are the differences between that unionization effort, which failed, and the union’s success in Staten Island?

Kelly: With Staten Island, they didn’t follow the established playbook. They organized organically, worker-to-worker, to build an independent union. In Bessemer, they chose to organize with a more established labor union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The first time around, they couldn’t anticipate COVID-19 preventing organizers from holding meetings or door-knocking or really getting close to anybody. That had a big impact.

Amazon was able to pull this classic “third party” maneuver where they said, “These people from New York City came down, and now they’re trying to mess with your money. They’re trying to force you to join this union.” I can see why you would be scared or intimidated by anti-union propaganda. In addition, RWDSU organizers and other union organizers were not able to go inside to talk to workers. They couldn’t connect the way that workers inside the facility at Staten Island were able to.

Ome: Can this type of organizing be replicated at other Amazon warehouses or even at other companies?

Kelly: When I think about what happened in Staten Island, I think about what Dorothy Bolden was able to accomplish in the 1960s with the National Domestic Workers Union. She didn’t have any paid organizers. She didn’t have any playbook. She just talked to her fellow workers and organized them by relating to them. And they won.

The folks at Staten Island weren’t necessarily coming out of the labor movement. And I think we’re seeing that replicated in another way with Starbucks. And that’s why over 200 Starbucks locations in the country have announced their intention to unionize. The fact that these efforts have been so public and so visible has the potential to inspire other workers: I know these brands. I order stuff from Amazon. I buy coffee at Starbucks. And if they’re taking on these kinds of giants, maybe I can go talk to my boss; maybe I can talk to my co-workers. Maybe we can form a union, too. Visibility is such an important piece of all of this, because you don’t know what’s possible until someone shows you. That’s why it’s so important to know our history and to make those connections. And you know, we’re never going to figure out where we need to be if we can’t look back and see how far we’ve already come.

Ome: Is solidarity enough to inoculate organizers against tactics such as Amazon banning certain words on its worker chat app, or Starbucks hanging up flyers with fake tweets from the union account?

Kelly: I would love to see some action from the government to limit egregious, blatant union busting that is allowed to flourish. One thing I’m really excited about is the way that the National Labor Relations Board, under General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, has grown some teeth. It’s probably the most pro-worker NLRB I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, because it’s actively and very publicly pushing back against established anti-worker norms. Last month, Abruzzo put out a memo basically saying we should get rid of captive-audience meetings. [Editor’s note: Employers hold these mandatory meetings during working hours to try to dissuade workers from joining a union.] That matters. The NLRB can only do so much, but it could do a lot if it had the proper funding and the proper staffing.

Ome: It’s interesting that you bring up Abruzzo, because President Joe Biden has portrayed himself as a very pro-union president, even saying that he intends to be the most pro-union president in history. President Donald Trump seemed to broadcast cultural affinity for union members and for certain unions, even. But at the same time, he opposed pro-union legislation and made it really difficult for people to unionize.

Kelly: That’s the classic Republican playbook: using certain kinds of workers as props and then completely abandoning them once they ascend to power. When I was covering the Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama, the miners’ elected officials are Republican as heck, and none of them showed up. Republicans want to use certain types of working people as foot soldiers in their culture war. Trump wanted to wear a hard hat and beep a big truck horn, but he didn’t want to actually talk to people who work.

Ome: Not all Americans have the desire to be in a union. Is there danger in assuming that those workers are simply misinformed or misled, rather than considering the reasons behind their opposition?

Kelly: You’re right; not everyone wants to join a union. What organizers need to be asking is: You’re anti-union. Why? Have you been in a union before and had a bad experience? Have you heard bad things from your friends who are in unions? Do you not know very much about them, but distrust them? Where is it coming from? Then, when you know what their reasons are, you can work to address them.

Unions are not infallible. They’re not a monolith. And they’re made up of people. Sometimes people don’t work in other people’s best interests. There’s a very long history of unions not standing up for everyone and excluding or discriminating against certain workers. I think it’s important that if these questions and these challenges are being thrown our way—toward the organized-labor movement—that we’re ready to answer them honestly and be frank about the issues within the movement and about the shortcomings, but also be clear about the massive benefits that come from a union contract and a union job.

Ome: Many of those coal miners are Christian, conservative Trump supporters. Does the split between the parties on labor issues make bringing those workers into the labor movement difficult or impossible?

Kelly: Unions are a really fertile state of collaboration where workers who may come from different backgrounds realize, Okay, we have this common ground. One reason that I’ve covered the Alabama coal strike so closely is that some of the folks involved have shifted their political perspectives. There are some folks who I met at the very beginning who would happily describe themselves to me as a conservative Republican. But throughout the strike, they’ve seen who is ignoring them: basically all of their Republican state representatives. Some folks met with Bernie Sanders, collaborated with the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter on mutual-aid efforts, and describe themselves as socialists now. Some folks have stayed exactly the same. People aren’t a monolith. But they know what it looks like to rely on their communities and their families and the labor movement instead of looking at things through this binary Democrat-Republican lens. A lot of people live in that gray area of the middle, and that’s where the change and progress come from.

Ome: Pro-union sentiment among Americans is at its highest point since 1965, at 68 percent. At the same time, union membership remains low: 10.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the same as in 2019. Why haven’t organizers been able to translate this level of public support into meaningful, lasting legal changes that would strengthen the labor movement?

Kelly: Many people want to get involved, but labor laws still exclude a lot of people from organizing, including agricultural workers and independent contractors. We’re dealing with the Reagan-era hangover of virulently anti-worker legislation, right-to-work laws, and pervasive anti-union propaganda. Perhaps we need to think outside the box a little bit. If it’s this hard for workers to join traditional labor unions, there are still things we can do. Many worker-led, independent efforts have sprouted up, such as the Amazon labor union in Staten Island and the Haymarket Pole Collective, a group of Black, Indigenous, and trans sex workers in Portland, Oregon, who have put together an incredibly robust mutual-aid program.

Many people have not grown up in a union household. I’m third-generation union, but not a lot of people are able to say that anymore.

Ome: You highlight the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike, and Ronald Reagan’s response, as a turning point for weakening the power of unions and their ability to threaten strikes to demand action. What would need to happen for unions to regain the strength they had pre-PATCO?

Kelly: I think that as always, progress has to come from below the executive and legislative branch. There have been times when certain administrations have done more to help in those ways, but by and large, all of the progress has come from the working class and the poor. And I think it’s going to stay that way.

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