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Sunday, October 8th, 2023

Book Review: Kim Kelly’s Fight Like Hell is a useful synthesis of American labor history

There are some his­tor­i­cal ques­tions that are so nuanced, com­plex, and fun­da­men­tal to under­stand­ing who we are that they must be asked repeatedly.

The new answers are often nov­el — revi­sions of ear­li­er ways of think­ing about the past. “Revi­sion­ist” as an adjec­tive can be used as a pejorative.

New approach­es are described as pur­pose­ful dis­tor­tions of the past for polit­i­cal rea­sons. Yet “new approach­es” are con­stant in all fields of study.

That is how our known world grows and deepens.

Smart­phones and the inter­net are prime exam­ples. In fact, all his­to­ry writ­ing was revi­sion­ist in its time. “Revi­sion” is the foun­da­tion stone of learning.

Kim Kelly’s Fight Like Hell: The Untold Sto­ry of Amer­i­can Labor wants to be both rad­i­cal and revi­sion­ist. For the book to achieve its intend­ed goals, how­ev­er, requires some work on the reader’s part.

Chap­ters in Fight Like Hell are arranged by “indus­try” – for exam­ple, har­vesters, min­ers, met­al work­ers, clean­ers. Espe­cial­ly in the first half of the book, these many list-like accounts of peo­ple, orga­ni­za­tions, and events, chap­ter by chap­ter, each briefly described before mov­ing on, can become dulling.

Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor

Fight Like Hell: The Untold His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Labor, by Kim Kel­ly (Hard­cov­er, Atria/One Sig­nal Publishers)

Nor is Fight Like Hell: The Untold Sto­ry of Amer­i­can Labor an “untold his­to­ry.” Much of the text is based on already pub­lished work of oth­ers, and on wide­ly avail­able doc­u­ments and pri­ma­ry sources.

Despite these draw­backs, Kel­ly clear­ly intends her work to be inspir­ing. And as Fight Like Hell pro­gress­es toward its clos­ing chap­ters, the urgency of labor his­to­ry, and the rea­son for the title itself, become clearer.

Slow­ly at first, and then with increas­ing ener­gy, Fight Like Hell brings togeth­er rad­i­cal themes from our nation’s past that make the book a worth­while read.

It’s these themes, and how Kel­ly orga­nizes her infor­ma­tion to empha­size and sup­port them, that make her account well worth reading.

What are these themes, and what makes them effective?

Here are sev­er­al exam­ples of the book’s themes (as I read it) that illus­trate the poten­tial pow­er of this book:

Who is rewarded for using violence, and who is condemned for using violence?

Which groups use vio­lence to achieve their goals, and then has its use not only con­doned but praised and reward­ed, tells us what those in pow­er at the time sup­port, and what they condemn.

In oth­er words, we can study labor his­to­ry for itself and as a lens to under­stand preva­lent polit­i­cal atti­tudes at dif­fer­ent times in our history.

Vio­lence has been used — inten­tion­al­ly and effec­tive­ly — against orga­nized labor­ers strug­gling to gain basic work­place rights that we now large­ly take for grant­ed. Exam­ples include the Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts, tex­tile strike of 1912, when the gov­er­nor called out the state mili­tia; the 1877 rail­road strike, when pri­vate guards, local, state, and fed­er­al troops were all mobi­lized; and the 1894 Pull­man Strike, which includ­ed a fed­er­al injunc­tion against strik­ing workers.

On the oth­er side, the IWW (Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers of the World), a labor union that used street activism and civ­il dis­obe­di­ence to recruit mem­bers and to bring issues to the atten­tion of the pub­lic, were treat­ed as dan­ger­ous rad­i­cals to be sub­dued — by state con­doned vio­lence, when needed.

Some working people continue to lack the basic work rights that are legally guaranteed to all.

Incar­cer­at­ed indi­vid­u­als are used exten­sive­ly to pro­vide ser­vices and pro­duce prod­ucts that are then retailed to the larg­er pub­lic by pri­vate businesses.

Paid minus­cule wages, often work­ing in dan­ger­ous and unhealthy envi­ron­ments, they are with­out legal recourse to protest their situation.

Kel­ly places these prac­tices with­in the larg­er frame­work of pow­er­ful peo­ple using forced labor to sup­port U.S. cap­i­tal­ist enterprise.

Slav­ery, black codes, and Jim Crow laws are ear­li­er examples.

Many who are not accepted as workers deserving of union support – now and in the past — are in fact workers deserving of labor support and respect.

Women who work at home – in their own home, or in another’s home – often are not accept­ed as “work­ers” by orga­nized labor. Laun­der­ers, clean­ers, and child­care work­ers, for exam­ple, are said to be not “at work” because they con­form to a tra­di­tion­al gen­der role of “women’s respon­si­bil­i­ties”. If you can’t “see” a prob­lem, then you can’t rec­og­nize it as a prob­lem that needs attention.

The cause of problems for “marginalized” groups is structural. It is not evidence of an individual’s inadequacy.

Busi­ness own­ers as well as labor unions have turned var­i­ous mar­gin­al­ized groups against each oth­er. Often this has been along racial and eth­nic lines, as in the sug­ar cane fields in Hawaii. It also includes dis­abled peo­ple, gays, les­bians, bisex­u­als, old­er work­ers, and sex work­ers, among others.

Progress is a class issue.

That pos­i­tive changes have been the result of grass­roots orga­niz­ing and of mil­i­tant protests from below, not from above, is fun­da­men­tal to Fight Like Hell’s under­stand­ing of labor his­to­ry. White, mid­dle class reform­ers have not been effec­tive. Bayard Rustin’s views serve as an exam­ple. Rustin believed that unions gen­er­al­ly (and Black unions in par­tic­u­lar) were the best way to gain equal­i­ty and civ­il rights. The cause of labor is the hope of the world.

In Fight Like Hell, Kim Kel­ly offers a rad­i­cal view of the role of labor in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. I found that inspir­ing. And for good rea­son. It’s fun­da­men­tal to under­stand­ing how the Unit­ed States has evolved over generations.

While Kel­ly cer­tain­ly does not stand alone in either her per­spec­tive or her con­clu­sions, it is not the only legit­i­mate view of labor his­to­ry that is sup­port­ed by the avail­able evi­dence. Kelly’s enthu­si­asm is not in itself suf­fi­cient to val­i­date the book’s his­tor­i­cal interpretations.

If learn­ing is your goal, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that.

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