NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

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.

Adjacent posts

  • Enjoyed what you just read? Make a donation


    Thank you for read­ing The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s jour­nal of world, nation­al, and local politics.

    Found­ed in March of 2004, The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate has been help­ing peo­ple through­out the Pacif­ic North­west and beyond make sense of cur­rent events with rig­or­ous analy­sis and thought-pro­vok­ing com­men­tary for more than fif­teen years. The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate is fund­ed by read­ers like you and trust­ed spon­sors. We don’t run ads or pub­lish con­tent in exchange for money.

    Help us keep The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent and freely avail­able to all by becom­ing a mem­ber of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute today. Or make a dona­tion to sus­tain our essen­tial research and advo­ca­cy journalism.

    Your con­tri­bu­tion will allow us to con­tin­ue bring­ing you fea­tures like Last Week In Con­gress, live cov­er­age of events like Net­roots Nation or the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, and reviews of books and doc­u­men­tary films.

    Become an NPI mem­ber Make a one-time donation

  • NPI’s essential research and advocacy is sponsored by: