American Laborers Fighting Like Hell With Freelance Journalist and Teen Vogue Columnist Kim Kelly
This week’s guest, Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, author, and organizer. She has been a regular labor columnist for Teen Vogue since 2018, and her writing on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baffler, The Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Esquire, among many others. In this episode we talk about her recent book FIGHT LIKE HELL, and how the American laborer is taking power back.
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American Laborers Fighting Like Hell With Freelance Journalist and Teen Vogue Columnist Kim Kelly
Kathy Fowler: Welcome to After Deadline: The Media Podcast. I’m Kathy Fowler…
Marc Silverstein: and I’m Marc Silverstein.
Kathy Fowler: We are veteran TV news reporters who turned to the dark side and now work as PR and marketing gurus.
Marc Silverstein: Our guest this week has been to the dark side herself as a PR guru. She has an extensive background working in the music industry. Not only that, she sells merchandise and she’s a roadie (it’s on her LinkedIn), but she’s also a columnist and a freelance writer. She’s also an author. We’re excited to welcome the multi-faceted Kim Kelly to the show.
How did you transition from the music industry to journalism?
Kathy Fowler: Let’s start at the beginning. You earned your degree from Drexel University, but it wasn’t in journalism. You were a music industry major with a world history and politics minor. So how did your career translate from there to journalism?
Marc Silverstein: Not only was she a music industry major, she’s on her LinkedIn that says she was in marketeering and a roadie for bands.
Kim Kelly: Oh yeah, that’s a whole other… Well, it’s kind of connected because I didn’t actually finish college. I got pretty close, but basically I went to Drexel in West Philly. I was in the music industry program, which is very small and it kind of sticks out a little bit because it’s mostly known as an engineering school and then there’s all these kind of like weirdos in the corner knowing how to use Pro Tools and record bands and do record promotions.
So I did that, but I got pretty close, got to my senior year and that’s when I saved all of the gross classes like all the math classes and like, “I’ll just get to it, it’ll be fine,” and uh, turns out I’m real bad at math and I failed a couple of them…
Kathy Fowler: Because you’re an artist and artists aren’t always…
Kim: Yeah, I’m a journalist, yeah, I’m a writer. I was really good at like my Russian language class, but I could not figure out like trigonometry or whatever. Long story… well, not that long, short story shorter. Instead of going to summer school, I decided to go on tour with my friend’s band instead, selling t-shirts and being a roadie, and then I just did that for years.
Marc Silverstein: All right, before we get it, so the friend’s band, where’d you go? All over the country? What was that? That must… That’s like a whole podcast in itself. I want to hear about it though.
Kim Kelly: Yeah, it’s… I spent my whole life in the heavy metal world, and I just… You know, you get to know because bands tour through and you get to know people, you make friends, and this one band, Dark Castle, they… were, just on a whim, like, “Yeah, we need someone to sell t-shirts. You want to come along?” Like, “Sure,” and we did like a six-week full US tour. It was definitely a baptism by fire because it was like a bunch of us stuck in this van driving all over. Nobody had any money…
Marc Silverstein: Did you sing Tiny Dancer like Almost Famous or…
Kim Kelly: A little heavier than that, yeah, not quite those guys could not have kept up, but it was… I survived and then I spent the next like five years touring with different bands and that was kind of one of my jobs, and I still… I mean, I even came out of retirement last year because right after I finished my book, some buddies were going on a quick two-week run. Like, you know, “I think I still got it, let’s see how this goes,” and I still remember how to sell t-shirts.
Marc Silverstein: So, like, was there good income in selling… no, not for you, I mean, for the band, in selling t-shirts.
Kim Kelly: Well, actually, merch is one of the primary income streams then as it is now. If you’re in a small, independent, underground band touring in a van playing bars and small venues across the country, selling t-shirts and records is kind of the only real income stream you got. Because you never know if the promoter is going to pay, if you’re going to draw. So, I had the most important job, I like to say.
Marc Silverstein: Wait, did you stand outside or did you, like, did we get in there?
Kim Kelly: Ever been to a concert where the merch booth was?
Marc Silverstein: Yeah.
Kathy Fowler: That’s where she was.
Kim Kelly: Not like outside, like selling merch at an Eagles’ game.
Marc Silverstein: Well, there’s that.
Kim Kelly: They probably make more money.
Kathy Fowler: Well, the funny thing is, now if you go to vintage stores, like, I wish I would have kept some of the old t-shirts that I had. Like, I had this crazy Van Halen t-shirt that I know would be selling for so much these days. I mean, there’s shirts that I just probably gave to Goodwill and now I look because I love some of the old bands, you know, Bon Jovi or whatever, the ’80s bands when I was a kid and went to. And I’m like, some of those t-shirts are selling for $200, $250, $300, $500.
Kim Kelly: Yeah, I have my insurance policy in there, in my drawers just in case somebody is famous someday. I’m like, okay, I’ve got the old t-shirts tucked away.
Kathy Fowler: Hang on to those little t-shirts because that’s going to be worth some serious money.
Marc Silverstein: So, when was the roadie part? Was there more beyond the merchandising?
Kim Kelly: Yeah, well, I mean all the gear has to get in there somehow. So, yeah, you carry amplifiers and guitars and gear, and you help put things together and break them down, and make sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be, and maybe act like Mom sometimes.
Marc Silverstein: Oh, yeah.
Kim Kelly: Almost Famous is, I guess, the most widespread cultural touchpoint. And it’s not quite like that. It’s not like the ’70s, but yeah, it’s just kind of controlled chaos.
Marc Silverstein: I like the way you said you came out of retirement. Is there a retirement plan for roadies, merchandisers?
Kim Kelly: I know people who have been out here for decades, but I just, since I was doing that, but I was also writing, and I was doing PR, and I was booking shows, I was doing all these different things. I always wanted to just be a writer. And when I finally got the opportunity to have a real sit-down media job in New York because it’s like, “Oh, okay, maybe I should get some health insurance and like get a steady paycheck and maybe not be paid in cash all the time and actually do some more writing.” So that my retirement plan was, I guess, the rest of my career.
Marc Silverstein: So, how did you get from that to journalism then?
Kim Kelly: Well, I’ve always been a writer. Like, I started writing for local publications in the local newspaper when I was 15, and just wrote throughout high school. I’d write for little zines and we called them webzines back then, early 2000s.
In college, I got some internships. I got an internship at a heavy metal magazine in New York called Metal Maniacs. I learned a lot there, and I worked with the college radio station, so I met a whole bunch of music industry people that way. I was always just writing for anybody who would have me and worked my way up from small, little, tiny underground publications.
By the time I was in college, I was writing for things like Brooklyn Vegan. I think I started writing for an AOL website and started writing for NPR. I worked my way up through the little music journalism ranks, specifically in the specialized heavy metal world. It’s a huge global genre, but there weren’t that many people at that time in the US who were writing about it or writing about it well. I’m pretty good at writing about heavy metal and a couple of other things, so it worked out pretty well.
I just kept hustling, and by the time I was 27, a friend who worked at Vice – Noisy, their music vertical – told me they had an opening. He asked if I wanted to come work there and try it out, and I said yes. That worked out pretty well for a little while.
Marc Silverstein: So it’s a lot of making connections and keeping in touch with those connections.
Kim Kelly: Yeah.
Marc Silverstein: And doing the hard work. You really worked hard.
Kim Kelly: I would be in a tour van at 3 am driving overnight somewhere after a full day of chaos and being on tour, and then just writing. Like writing up my record reviews for Pitchfork or writing up artist interviews for Decibel. I don’t know how I did it really. I didn’t sleep very much for like five years straight, but it worked out, and I still write about music, but not as much as I write about labor and workers’ right stuff now.
There was a big pivot that happened while I was working at Vice.
How did you transition into writing about labor and workers’ rights?
Kathy Fowler: How did that happen? So at Vice, you were working for Vice, and did they want you to start covering those topics?
Kim Kelly: Oh no, I hated it. I was the heavy metal editor there. That was my title, that’s what I did. I wrote about some other stuff sometimes too, like country music. So I got to interview Dolly Parton and things like that too, which I always flex about.
But right after I got formally hired full-time, some co-workers pulled me aside and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about unionizing. What do you think about that?” And I was like, “Oh, thank God,” because I grew up in a union family. I always knew that unions were a great thing that were really helpful for people but didn’t think I’d have an opportunity to take part myself because I sell t-shirts and I write about heavy metal. There’s not like a Metalhead Local 666 for me, but it turned out there was.
Marc Silverstein: Would it be 666? Would that be the number?
Kim Kelly: At least the kind of metal that I’m involved in. While that was all happening, I got super involved. I was in every meeting, every committee, got to know the organizers, got to know the labor lawyers. I had a long-standing interest in politics and kind of in labor in a more just like, “Oh, that’s a cool thing” sort of way, but when I finally got my hands dirty and got involved in organizing myself, I thought, “Oh, this is the coolest thing in the world. This is what I want to write about.” But my job was still heavy metal editor, so I was doing a lot of freelancing. The thing that kind of tipped it over is when I started pitching some articles to Teen Vogue.
This was earlier on before they became known as this big, you know, revolutionary publication. That was kind of unique to see somebody writing about labor unions for Teen Vogue.
Kathy Fowler: Right? Like, it doesn’t seem like something you’d see them write about.
Kim Kelly: At least in 2017, 2018, it was not uh…
Kathy Fowler: It was very revolutionary. That’s cool.
Kim Kelly: And then once I started building up some clips, writing about labor, and kind of establishing myself as someone that kind of knew what she was talking about in that world, I just sort of kept going. Kept pulling in clips, kept meeting people and making good contacts. And by the time I got laid off in 2019, I thought, you know what, I want to try doing this. I’ve done heavy metal for 20 years, I want to try to be a labor reporter and see how it works. And then about a year later, I signed the contract for my book, so I guess it worked.
How did you end up writing Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor?
Kathy Fowler: That’s awesome. So tell us, you mentioned your book, recently published, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. So, oh yeah, wait, hold it up for longer there, you can hold that up for longer, that’s great. Wow, so tell us about it. Because writing, did you always want to write a book and was that on the checklist, or did that just, an opportunity came and it was the right topic, the right time, and it was happenstance?
Kim Kelly: I mean, I’ve always used those little, I always assumed I would just be a writer before I knew anything about what went into the other one that looked like as a job, or a job. And especially as I got into journalism, I always assumed I would write books because that’s what you do when you’re a grown-up who writes, right? You write books. That’s what I had in my head, at least, because of course not everybody wants to or is able to do that.
But yeah, I actually connected with my agent back when I was still at Vice. He reached out to me, he was a Jersey guy who was into heavy metal, like, “Oh great.” And I initially wanted to write a book, like, a heavy metal book, so that’s what made sense at that time. And then that idea kind of shifted into, like, a different direction, like a book of personal essays about where I grew up, because I grew up in kind of a weird place. And then that shifted more as I was covering labor and getting more of a reputation for that, and decided, “Okay, I want to write a labor book.”
And we put together a proposal and we sent it out, and some publishers were like, I mean, obviously a couple of them, at least, were interested. And it all came together really… it took a really long time to get to that point, but then once we had the proposal and once we’d reached out to editors, it went really fast. And all of a sudden, I had my biggest homework assignment ever, I had to write a whole big ass book in a year.
Kathy Fowler: People don’t realize, unless… Marc has written a book, I have a sister who’s written a book, and I know that I could never write a book because I’ve watched other people write a book, and I’m like, it’s hard to write a book. I mean, like, it’s not even coming up with the book itself, it’s all the other things you have to do with the book, like it’s just like, it’s big.
Kim Kelly: That’s the thing. Like, I can, like writing, that I can do, like researching, that I could do, interviewing, talking to people, that I can do.
It was all sort of like the fiddlier things like dealing with legal and the fact checker and the edits and then dealing like putting together promo. Like all of the stuff that happened after I put the words in the Google Doc and sent it to someone, that was kind of the most stressful.
Like putting it all together, because I write, I’m very prolific generally when I’m not promoting a book, and so I’m used to writing a whole lot and meeting deadlines. And kind of the book itself is sort of, it’s very similar to the work I’ve been doing already, and so it was just kind of an opportunity to stretch my legs and really go deeper on some of the things that I’d had to otherwise restrict like a 1500-word web article, so it was a lot of fun even though I was tearing my hair out by the end.
And my husband came down one night at like 3 A.M, and he looked at me, and I just looked at him, I said, “What if I just delete the whole thing?” And he convinced me not to, but…
Kathy Fowler: Thank God.
Kim Kelly: At that moment, I was just like yeah. So yeah, it’s difficult, but it can be fun, but it is definitely a…
Marc Silverstein: Well, there’s two parts to it. There are two parts. There’s the writing, and then what the publisher really cares about is the selling…
Kim Kelly: Yeah, that part.
Marc Silverstein: …which you gotta have a long list of contacts and, you know, where are you gonna go? Where are you gonna pitch this to? And where are you gonna be written about? And how’s your social media following and all that kind of, you know, can you get into Barnes & Noble?
Kathy Fowler: And where in Barnes & Noble? Can you be on the shelf when you first walk in the door?
Kim Kelly: Right? Like, I felt like that was the publisher’s job. You guys do the distribution; you do all that stuff. I’m gonna work on my connections and talk to people and hit up all my media friends and hit up people I know in different cities where there are cool bookstores, and I did. I mean, you know, my team obviously worked really hard, but I definitely did a lot.
Marc Silverstein: Right.
Kathy Fowler: You have to do a lot.
Kim Kelly: It took a very DIY approach to this thing.
Tell us about the book. What have you learned about the history of unions and where we are now?
Kathy Fowler: Tell us about the book and tell us more importantly about American labor. Like, what have you learned when you look at unions and the history of unions and where we are now and the breaking of unions and all that went into breaking unions out? We had a TV Union that I was a part of, and you know, there are companies that moved to different states just to hope, you know, to break unions in different towns or to weaken them.
Kim Kelly: Is that SAG-AFTRA or WGA, do you remember?
Kathy Fowler: SAG-AFTRA, but there was a company in particular that literally in the DC Market, one company went and moved to Northern Virginia just to weaken the labor, because in the DC…
Marc Silverstein: That was always the speculation. They never cop to that, but…
Kathy Fowler: Yeah, okay, they never cop to it, but in the meetings, you know, yes, no, they wouldn’t cop to it publicly, of course not. But one of the stations…
Marc Silverstein: Kim has a new story. She’s gonna go…
Kathy Fowler: …it would break them because if one station got to lower the rates, it just brought the whole market down. So the whole market went down in salaries because of this one station.
But anyway, you know that it’s like people, I don’t think people appreciate, you know, what unions gave to this country and the benefits that you have today was because of unions.
Kim Kelly: People fought and died for these things. I mean, I’m lucky that I grew up in a union family because not that many people are able to say that anymore because union rates do stay so low because you know, unions have been kind of cut off at the knees by… there’s a lot of reasons, but the more it’s more fun to talk about my book, I guess, to getting into the life and death of the U.S labor movement.
So, the book. The idea,well, it’s called Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, and going into it, I guess I describe it to people like, like an elevator pitch. It’s kind of like, you know, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US, but focusing specifically on the US labor movement and specifically on women and black and brown and Asian indigenous workers and queer and trans workers, disabled workers, sex workers, incarcerated workers, all of the people who have been here the whole time, who have fought and died for the rights we have now and for the protections and benefits we have now, but haven’t necessarily gotten there due, have been relegated to footnotes or left out entirely because of who they are what someone else thought about their opinions or their identities.
Basically, I wanted to pull up a whole bunch of different stories of people and movements and campaigns that happened and had an incredibly important impact, but maybe we don’t know about as much as, you know, the Troy Auto Workers, a lot of people know about that or about gosh, what do people even know about U.S labor, right? Like I didn’t learn anything in school about it.
Yeah, basically, I just wanted to show like all of us, we’ve all always been here and look at what we’ve done, and here are some of the people that I think are important, some of the moments that are important, and I had a lot of fun putting it all together and putting it together in a way that it’s definitely not an academic work, so I’m obviously not an academic, but I tried to pull it together in a way that was compelling and kind of fun and pulled people in and make sure that was really accessible.
Like, it’s structured in a way that it’s kind of like shorter, like every chapter is a couple short pieces about different people or moments or events and my thought is like I kind of want people to be able to pick it up and read it on their lunch break or on the bus or after they get home after a long day’s work. Maybe they don’t want to read a 300-page book all the way through, but maybe there’s a part in one of the chapters that speaks to them that can give them a little bit of a pick-me-up before they get on with the rest of their day.
What impact did you want to have with your book?
Kathy Fowler: And what do you want them to do as a result or learn like or what did you want to change when reading this book? Like, did you want to inspire change, inspire people, what? What was the goal?
Kim Kelly: Absolutely, it’s the idea to show people like, look, like you, no matter what your identity, no matter what your background, someone just like you has been out here doing this work already, so there’s no reason for you not to try. There’s this weird, I guess, like, I want to say fancy media because it’s not all of us, right? But there’s this fancy media and politician impulse to paint the US working class as one specific type of person. And when they say that, they mean white guys like my dad who wear hard hats and have pretty bad political opinions and live in rural areas.
And yeah, those guys are part of it, but the rest of us are there too. Like the American working class is incredibly diverse. Honestly, the most common type of person to be a union member in this country is a Black woman, and she probably works in healthcare or hospitality, not on a factory line or in a meatpacking plant.
So, I wanted to put this out there and challenge some of these common perceptions of who unions are for, who unions have been for, what they’ve done, who has been part of the whole thing because I think a lot of people just don’t know this history. And so, they may feel like it isn’t relevant to them or it’s closed off to them, or they wouldn’t be welcome at a union hall or protest. I wanted to show that that is absolutely not the case.
And I’m hoping that people are able to pick this up, especially younger people now who are getting interested in the movement through hearing about Amazon or Starbucks and going through and reading about Stonewall, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the 1983 copper strike, or the Mine Wars. All of these incredibly potent moments in our history that you’re not necessarily going to hear about in school, you’re not necessarily going to see on the front page of your newspaper, or sitting on the shelf of Barnes and Noble. But I wanted to make something that was easy for people to pick up and look at and think, “Oh wow, so I’m allowed here too.”
Tell us about your Teen Vogue article about workers out in the heat
Marc Silverstein: What I noticed about your writing is your great ability to focus in on an angle that hasn’t been magnified yet. And I was reading your piece for Teen Vogue about workers out in the heat, and I was like, “Wow, that is a, you know, I never would have thought of that”, but you found this angle. And you just wrote a great piece about it. And it sounds like that’s what you did in your book. But tell us about the Teen Vogue article about the workers out in the heat.
Kim Kelly: Yeah, that one was really, honestly, that was really personal because my partner works on an urban farm here in North Philadelphia. So he was out there, and you know how hot it was this summer, and he was just out there every day. He would come home just drenched in sweat, exhausted, feeling sick, no matter how much water he drank, it didn’t seem to matter.
And this is the person I love the most, coming in feeling like this. I’m like, “Oh God.” And I just thought, “Okay, we’re in Philly, it’s hot, but it’s not Nevada hot or Texas hot or California hot.” So just thinking about the folks who are outside all day, who can’t hide in the air conditioner, go pop into Starbucks for a minute for a break, maybe like farmworkers and construction workers, and also people like I interviewed a couple folks who work at airports.
Marc Silverstein: Yeah, that’s what got me. I was like, “Oh wow, I don’t think the baggage handlers or the people out on the tarmac…”
Kim Kelly: There’s just so much, I think, there’s so many different types of work, and there’s so many things that go into keeping our society going, and it’s so hard to just exist that people don’t always necessarily take the time or have the presence of mind to think about whose work is powering all these things, whose work is making all this happen.
Think about, “Oh, that’s really hot on my subway car.” What about the maintenance people going out into the tunnels to check and see what’s going on in the tracks?
We’re all connected in so many different ways and I have this platform when I want to use it to show, to kind of bring some of that invisibilized or forgotten or overlooked labor into the spotlight. Because we really don’t know how good we got it. As we saw earlier in the pandemic, the idea of essential work, all work is essential unless you’re like a CEO or something, but certain types of work we just can’t exist without. And those are typically the jobs that get the least respect, and the least money, and the least care.
Kathy Fowler: When you think about climate change, I think about people who have to be – I know that OSHA was doing some work and we work with an international safety equipment association – and now people think PPE is like… people learn about PPE because of COVID. They learned the mask and the gloves and all that kind of stuff.
But cooling, I mean people who work out in the heat need PPE that is specifically to help cool down their body because, like you said, there’s not enough water on the planet that can help you. It’s like unhealthy sometimes for people to be outside. And just think, if you have a pre-existing condition that already makes you more susceptible to heat, and then you have to work out in the heat, it can be very dangerous, it could be deadly. People have died working because it’s too hot.
Kim Kelly: One of the people I interviewed for that piece was an 18-year-old boy who works with his mother in the fields in California. And one of the things I asked him was, what do you need to help get through the day? The biggest thing he wanted was longer breaks and some real shade. He’s not even asking for air conditioning or sports drinks or anything.
Thinking about PPE, there are just so many different types of hazards that people face on the job. Whether it’s heat, cold, or, you know, I’ve been following the coal miner strike in Alabama for the past two years and these are folks who are on 2,000 feet underground in an underground coal mine filled with methane gas, who are breathing in silica, and who are dealing with black lung.
Black lung is an occupational lung disease that has been around for far too long. People don’t think that it’s still out there. People don’t think it’s impacting people. It’s actually at a 25-year high and it’s impacting younger and younger people because of geological conditions and all sorts of other things.
There are just so many different ways that workers need to be able to protect themselves that they’re so often not given. And since people don’t necessarily see it, they’re not out there demanding for a change, so the workers have to do it themselves.
Are you trying to bring compassion and understanding for workers with this book?
Marc Silverstein: Do you think there is enough… I don’t know if I’m a compassionate person, but I see these workers out there and go “That’s the job they chose.” Is there enough compassion? Are you trying to bring compassion? Are you trying to bring understanding about what the workers are up against? And I was just using me as a fake example.
Kim Kelly: Sure, I was going to say…
Kathy Fowler: I was going to say I want to get off this interview now.
Marc Silverstein: I saw your eyes light up and not in a good way.
Kathy Fowler: I didn’t realize I was talking to an inhumane person
Marc Silverstein: Well, the American worker is… look what’s going on at Twitter, look what’s going on at Amazon. Amazon’s laying off, I mean we may be at an all-time record in high employment, but they’re just shedding whoever they can in emails. I mean…
Kim Kelly: The lack of compassion, that’s definitely something I hope to foster in this book. I don’t know how many people that run companies and act like that are going to read a book like this, but at the very least, I want people to read it and realize just how important and precious they are and how powerful they are, especially when they work together.
Because you said there is such a lack of compassion, because people, I think the way that our society is structured is just so cruel, and we’re not encouraged to look after each other or to support one another. We’re encouraged to just bootstrap our way off and get yours and do what you can to take care of your family, your people, your bottom line. But none of us can do any of this on our own and even if you’re the kind of person who’s like “Oh well that fast food worker, like that’s what they picked, that’s all on them”, how many opportunities do you think they had?
Sure, some people like that job and that is perfectly fine, but a lot of folks are taking what they can get with the opportunities that they are given and able to access because we know this country is not fair and it’s not set up equally for everybody.
So if you’re the type of person that looks down on someone for the job they chose, I asked earlier if I could use profanity, but you can just use your imagination on that one.
Marc Silverstein: We’re gonna cut that question out… yeah, no we’re not.
How long do you think that the leverage workers had will hold?
Kathy Fowler: The other question is that, since we’ve had a labor shortage this is the first time I feel in a long time that labor has had a little bit of leverage and COVID brought a ton of bad things, but people were able to say “No, I’m not coming back” and people were like “Why aren’t they coming back? They’re lazy, I’m coming back”, because you’re not paying them well, you’re treating them like crap and they decided that they have a second to breathe and to rest, because they’re working two jobs, three jobs and the wage gap, it has never been greater, and this is not sustainable rich people, billionaires. If you think this is sustainable, there’s going to be an uprising and y’all gonna… it’ll be like the Roman Empire falling, you know what I mean, and this is happening globally right, everywhere the wage gap is unsustainable between the haves and the have-nots.
Do you think, for a nanosecond, labor did have a little bit of leverage, like they could say “No, right now we got a little bit of leverage because you need me more than I need you, so I’m gonna demand at least minimum wage and not the crappy seven dollar minimum wage, at least the $15 minimum wage that’s in certain states”, how long do you think that leverage will hold? Because it could shift very quickly and what do we need to do to close that gap? It’s insane. It’s not sustainable.
Kim Kelly: I mean I think you can’t put a genie back in a bottle, right? There’s been such an increase in, a kind of like, mass consciousness, class consciousness of people realizing like you said early in the pandemic I have a second to breathe and to think, because the government actually did something useful for once and gave people some money, I left my terrible job. What do I want to do with my one short life?
And a lot of people, they decided, “I want to organize with other people and force some of these changes at my workplace and in my county, in this country.” And we’ve seen this wave of new organizing happening across the country and across a whole bunch of different industries, and a lot of it is being led by younger people and people in industries that aren’t traditionally thought of as union industries, like retail, or in the academic world, or even in tech.
And I don’t think that’s something that’s going to go away, especially as this rampant, vicious, crushing inequality continues to expand. We continue to see these wretched billionaires just kind of rubbing it in our faces, and we continue to build tools to communicate with each other and to share our stories and to get information out there.
Because even if the New York Times or Washington Post isn’t going to show up and ask somebody on an assembly line what’s going on, they can get on TikTok and tell everybody for themselves, and that might hit a million eyeballs, or it might just make that person feel a little bit stronger and a little bit more empowered and able to talk to their co-workers about something that’s been bothering them.
We’re in this point where it doesn’t have to be like this. We could have so much more, we really could. It’s just, I mean, not to veer too far into a different type of soapbox, but I think our political leaders have so little will to actually change things because they’re so concerned about their corporate donors and about The New York Times yelling at them and about people being rude to them in the subway or whatever, they don’t really care that much about working people. They care about us when it’s time to vote. Shout out to the blue-ish wave or whatever’s going on. Unite Here Hospitality Workers Union, which is based predominantly of black and brown immigrant workers who do low-wage work, but have a very strong union, basically saved democracy…
Marc Silverstein: In Nevada, you’re talking about?
Kim Kelly: Yeah, in Nevada. They’re here in PA. They run this massive ground operation just because they wanted to make sure that things wouldn’t get quite as bad as they could be. But are our politicians gonna reward them by enshrining union rights in every state constitution or in a federal way? Are they going to raise the minimum wage to at least 20 bucks at this point? That remains to be seen.
Kathy Fowler: The problem, though, is what happens is they bring the Democrats in and they save democracy, right? But what people don’t look at is the Republicans will block everything, and it’s just because there’s still not enough Democrats. Because both political parties have not done enough for the American workers, but the Democrats by far at least want to do. They haven’t had enough power because there’s too much on the other side, you know? They can just block things like that.
Kim Kelly: The Republicans are just insane at this point.
Kathy Fowler: But then what will happen is the Democrats will get, “Well, you didn’t do it.” “Well, we tried to do it, we still didn’t have enough on the other side.”
Kim Kelly: Maybe this time.
Kathy Fowler: Maybe this time, hopefully.
Kim Kelly: I think everyone just kind of knows that Republicans are useless when it comes to caring about working people, or poor people, or human people. They get to pretend, they’re very good at pretending to care about the American worker.
Kathy Fowler: And the military, religious people, but they don’t really care about any of them. They don’t act like it anyway.
Kim Kelly: The amount of military veterans who are facing suicide, homelessness right now would look a little bit different if Republicans who are in power actually cared. But it’s all about photo ops. They’re going down to a coal mine, putting on a hard hat, and then ignoring the strike that’s been happening in Alabama, a red state for 20 months.
Kathy Fowler: So, do you think though, I mean, my thoughts were, I think politicians have always wanted to keep people overworked, underpaid, under-educated, because that’s benefiting them. Because you’re so busy, and then you only listen. The only way, if you do have time to vote, you’re only voting on the 30-second ads where you’re hearing the pretty stuff, and you don’t have time to do the research. So, an overworked, over-exhausted, underpaid worker, keeping them so busy where they can’t afford to take off to vote, or if they can, they certainly don’t. They’re less educated about voting because they don’t have the time to actually do it because they’re so exhausted. I think that plays into the whole system that helps keep the wage gap exactly where it is today.
Kim Kelly: That’s capitalism in a nutshell, right? Keep people miserable and starving and uneducated, so they don’t know that they have the option to collectively organize and try and force change, or vote for something better, or get rid of some of the worst of the worst that are somehow allowed to tell us how to live our lives. It’s all, you know, I think it’s all engineered. It’s been like that since, it’s always been like that, right?
And we’re living through this new Gilded Age, and there’s not very, there’s no daylight at all between the likes of Jay Gould and Jeff Bezos. You know, the politicians back then who would campaign to keep certain workers out of major labor laws due to racism and misogyny, they’re still keeping people out. They’re still doing their best to make sure that some classes of work or some classes of people feel like they’re less than and making other people think that they’re better then so that that division continues to grow and keep people from coming together. It’s all, everything old is new again.
How did you end up writing for Teen Vogue? And how did Teen Vogue change?
Marc Silverstein: On a positive note, you guys are depressing the hell out of me…
Kathy Fowler: Wait, she’s right. Part of the only way to change it is to write about it, uncover it, and you’re doing this stuff. It’s very interesting that you talk about this in Teen Vogue. So, how did that topic… because when I think of Teen Vogue, when I read those teeny bopper magazines, it was, you know, “What’s the best lipstick?” and “How to get a guy”, and I don’t even know…
Marc Silverstein: It’s not a teeny bopper magazine anymore.
Kathy Fowler: I know, but I’m just saying.
Kim Kelly: It’s been so interesting seeing that specific publication, like it’s changed so much within the actual content that it creates and how it is perceived by the public. I started writing for them in 2017, and I first started writing just a couple of pieces about various prison industrial complex stuff that I pitched to them.
Then, one day, I thought, “Okay, Teen Vogue’s audience is predominantly younger women and younger people. It would be cool to write something about Mother Jones, this labor icon who’s like this badass. Maybe they don’t know about her. I’ll pitch a profile.” So, I pitched my editor there on it.
She wrote back saying, “That sounds really cool, but I don’t think our readers will know what a union is. So, why don’t you write about that first?” I was like, “Oh, oh yeah, okay.” I wrote an explainer about what a union is for Teen Vogue. It got a lot of attention because people were like, “What is this doing here?” That was the reaction at that time. It wasn’t what it is now.
That was also at a point, I think, during the life of the media, where a whole lot of people were paying more attention to politics, and especially to social justice issues, because things were already getting so bad under the Trump regime. So, there’s this opportunity, I think, for people to start really pitching stories like these and getting them out there.
I was really lucky to work – because I’m a freelancer – but I was really lucky to work with a couple different editors at Teen Vogue who got it, who understood where it was coming from, who just kind of let me do what I wanted to do and didn’t really get in the way. So, I was able to write a lot of pieces that I think, I mean, I think they hold up. It was pretty cool to write about exploited garment workers in a fashion publication, right? I think that’s probably – I still can’t believe they wouldn’t get away with that one.
Kathy Fowler: That’s awesome. But you’re right. I mean, think about garment workers, and in particular, in rough conditions, low pay. They used to get paid by the piece, which is ridiculous.
Kim Kelly: I mean, this still happens now in garment factories in Los Angeles. That’s one reason that labor history appeals to me so much, even as a younger person. Like, everything that’s happening right now has a precedent or is happening because of something that happened earlier, or is building on work that someone did five, ten, fifteen, two hundred years ago.
And it’s just so satisfying to see those threads and to also be able to learn from some of the lessons and mistakes and victories that people that came before us were able to pull off. There are so many lessons from the past that are so relevant right now, and it’s just been really cool to be able to dig through them and share them with people. Because I’m a big nerd, but I think it’s the coolest thing in the world.
Marc Silverstein: There was a big article that everybody went, “Why is Teen Vogue doing this?” It was like the big turning-point article that they did, and they got a lot of pub for it because it was like, “It’s not your mother’s Teen Vogue.”
Kathy Fowler: My Teen Vogue.
Kim Kelly: I think there have been a couple, and like, people on Fox News get mad at Teen Vogue and do segments on them.
Marc Silverstein: They must be doing something right.
Kathy Fowler: I consider that a compliment.
Kim Kelly: I think I’ve been on there a couple of times for things I’ve written. Damn, so things you’ve written.
What was the story that had the biggest impact?
Marc Silverstein: So, what was the first or the most recent story that had the biggest impact, or a surprise impact to you, or just made a difference that you went, “Damn, I did this.”
Kathy Fowler: Or that you’re so proud of.
Kim Kelly: So, I’ve been kind of consumed with the book for the past couple of years now. But, I mentioned it briefly earlier, I’ve been covering this coal miner strike in Brooklyn, Alabama, where over a thousand coal miners have been on strike since April 1st, 2020. This is in deep red Alabama. It’s a diverse workforce. They’ve been in those mines for, some of them for generations. They’ve been on strike for so long against this Wall Street-backed coal boss company that came in and was trying to squeeze them and starve them out.
I’ve written about that for a bunch of different places. I think the one that got the most attention earlier on was I wrote about it for The Nation. I’ve written for The Nation a couple of times, but that was the first anybody had really heard about it because local media is firmly on the company’s side. They’ve been running kind of anti-strike stories, and the major media hasn’t shown up because it’s in Alabama. It’s not in New York, Chicago, or LA.
The people involved, the strikers, a lot of them are conservative, religious, Trump-voting people. That is an extra layer of nuance to this kind of story that I think makes it a little bit more complicated for people to come in and cover. And, they also work in coal, which is a fossil fuel. We’re in the middle of a climate crisis, another very complicated topic. So, there are all these kind of forces working against them, and I’ve just decided this is my personal crusade. I am going to keep showing up and keep writing about it.
Marc Silverstein: So do you go down there?
Kim Kelly: Oh yeah, just last week.
Marc Silverstein: So a boots on the ground kind of thing.
Kim Kelly: Oh no, I’ve been down there, it’s like eight or nine times. I’ll probably be back again. Just hearing from the people themselves about how much it matters to them that someone who’s not from around there, who isn’t from coal country, who maybe looks and thinks a little bit different than they do in broad strokes is still coming down and getting their stories out there and paying attention, because so many people in this country, especially those who work, those who are poor, those who are in rural places, nobody pays attention to them. They feel like they’ve been forgotten, they’ve been left behind, and no one gives a damn whether they live or die.
So, doing the work that I do, it’s I wish I could be everywhere and I’m only one person, but even being able to make just a few hundred people in Brooklyn, Alabama feel like they haven’t been forgotten and people do care, and that by God they are gonna win. That is the biggest privilege I can imagine, and I’m just gonna keep doing it.
What will it take for change to eventually happen?
Kathy Fowler: A lot of those people who were forgotten, they ended up going for Trump because he spoke to them, although none of his policies actually benefited them. But what’s it going to take, like what do you think? I feel like they’re so fed up with all the politicians, they just think they’re all rotten apples, you know what I mean? And maybe, I don’t think they’re all rotten apples, but they all get painted with a bad brush, and then people just disengage. And that’s the worst thing that you can ever do because if you disengage, well then forget it, you’re never gonna make change.
But I think then also, like, what’s it gonna take for change to eventually happen? Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel after doing this for so long?
Kim Kelly: Yeah, and it’s…I mean, I think they’re all rotten too, so I think they’re onto something there. But if I worked for, if I was, like, a Democratic operative and I was like, “What are we gonna do about Alabama?” I would send all of my biggest guns down there right now and send a whole bunch of media crews and politicians and people that are good at talking to people and send them down there and get a ton of attention on this strike and show like, “Oh, wow, okay, people are paying attention to us, they’re donating to our strike fund, they’re doing all this.” And they’re Democrats, but I was told that they were, like, evil baby-eating lunatics. Like, interesting.
Like, I think so much of this is just showing up and listening to people and meeting them where they are, and obviously, some things are never allowed, one, you can never let slide, but you can have a conversation with somebody and find that common ground.
I think labor is a really fertile place for that to happen because no matter who you are, almost everybody has either had a job or is going to have a job or has a job right now, and there’s probably something about it they don’t like, and complaining about your job is a great way to build some solidarity with somebody because there’s probably things that you have in common, there’s probably things that you can find that you can agree on.
That’s something I’ve learned from being down there with these folks. Like, I see the world a lot differently from a lot of the folks there that I talk to and that I call my friends now, but there’s a mutual respect. We’re able to talk about some of the more complicated things in a way that I think we both are able to see where each other’s coming from and be like, “Okay, all right, stalemate, but okay.”
Something that I’ve seen that actually gives me a lot of hope and does actually, I think, if again, if I was a political operative, I’d be paying attention, is that these folks in, again, in Brooklyn, Alabama, not a single Republican anybody has showed up for them. Their senator, Tommy Tuberville, actively has worked against them in the Senate and held the company’s line
Marc Silverstein: Does he know he’s acting against them or he’s not really well aware of what much of what he’s doing?
Kim Kelly: He read a statement from the company in front of a hearing in Congress in front of a bunch of the coal miners, then tried to shake their hand. What a herb.
But just to say that, right. So they’ve been abandoned by the people that are supposed to be on their side. The people who have shown up have been people like the DSA, like the local Democratic Socialist chapter, other labor groups, a ton of Black union members from the Gulf have come out on buses and showed up and showed support. Union members, new supporters from across the country, have donated to their strike fund, their auxiliary. The people who have shown up are not the people that they have been told are on their side. And after a while, that’s gonna get through.
I have friends on that strike who have gone from saying, “I’m a conservative Republican” to being like full-blown socialists, and you know, maybe you don’t even have to push it to that extent, maybe you just need to try and get them a little bluer, but really just showing up and listening to people and not writing them off because of where they live or how they talk or what you think they believe. It sounds almost hokey, but I think that’s the secret, you know? And not showing up in a suit and being a big dork, because Democrats love doing that.
Just be cool and be normal and talk to people, and you’d be amazed.
Kathy Fowler: Wear jeans and a sweatshirt.
Kim Kelly: Yeah. Get a bunch of tattoos; they love me, you know?
Kathy Fowler: You can do a sleeve. No, they won’t respect fake tattoos.
What is your next goal?
Marc Silverstein: In addition to the book, what else is the next goal?
Kim Kelly: So, I’m working on right now, it’s not super announced, but whatever. I’m working on a young reader’s edition of this book, “Go Fight Like Hell.” for ages 10 and up. which will be really fun. I’m going to start working on that this month.
And I’m also working on this investigative project for In These Times about, like I mentioned earlier, the rise of black lung among younger coal miners in Appalachia. I’m working on that for a couple of months, and I hope, I think, yeah, I think that’s due pretty soon, but those are my two big things.
Then after that, the paperback of “Fight Like Hell” comes out in spring and summer of 2023, and it’ll be, you know, spruced up a little bit for that. I’ll probably do some more bookstore stuff around that. Then, I guess eventually, I’m going to have to write something new.
Tell us about the version of the book for younger people.
Kathy Fowler: So, tell us about the use of the younger version for 10-year-olds. Are you just trying to educate people younger so that they’re aware and they can think about organizing and changing their lives, you know, so you don’t go around thinking it is the way it is and you have to accept whatever’s in front of you?
Kim Kelly: Yeah, I mean, there’s a really cool tradition, especially like modern upswing, and more, not even more radical, but just like, you know, a little bit like radical kids’ literature, because kids are people too, and they’re smart, and they deserve to read real books about real history, real people.
I’m going to take a handful of people from my book, whether it’s, you know, Bayard Rustin or Dorothy Lee Bolden or Ben Fletcher and just do the kind of little profile, so here’s this person, here’s what they believe in, here’s what they did. Isn’t that neat? And put it out.
Kathy Fowler: I love that, yeah, I love that.
Kim Kelly: And there are a lot of union parents and a lot of teachers who are in unions who would probably love to have something and give their kids to explain why Mom or Dad is going to a meeting every night.
Kathy Fowler: Yeah, that’s cool. I love that. I think that’s great. You know what? You’re going to change things by educating the younger generation who’s truly going to change things.
Kim Kelly: That’s the thing, you know, like now that I’m not like… I was always the youngest person in the room when I was doing something, and now that I’m in labor, I’m still kind of in that position, which is funny because I’m 34, but there are kids 10 years younger than me that are already causing such an immense amount of good trouble. I’m just like, imagine what the 14-year-olds are going to do.
Where can people find the book and how can they connect with you?
Kathy Fowler: Oh, wow. So, how do people get the book? How do people follow you on social so they can follow all the great work that you’re doing, and they can learn about labor and politics?
Kim Kelly: Sure, yeah. The book “Fight Like Hell” – is out on One Signal, part of Simon Schuster, so it’s kind of all over the place. I always tell people if you’re able to get it from an independent bookstore or bookshop.org, but it’s also important to know it’s on Amazon if you have to, or just get it from the library. I think that’s awesome too.
Also, in terms of finding me, for now at least, I’m on Twitter.
Marc Silverstein: At the moment, this week, maybe today, at least, we don’t even know if it’s the week.
Kim Kelly: As long as any of us are on it, right? So for now, and I’m also on Instagram @kimkellywriter, and I am trying to figure out TikTok, we’ll see about that, but yeah, for now, I’m pretty easy to find.
Kathy Fowler: Hey, if you do that book for the 10 year olds, you’re going to have to get on TikTok.
Kim Kelly: It’s on the agenda. I have some younger friends.
Kathy Fowler: Just have them do it. You tape the things and you have them post it.
Kim Kelly: We’ll see. I’m pretty easy to find if you want to find me, just give a little whistle.
Marc Silverstein: Keep up the great work, get the word out. We’re honored to talk with you.
Kathy Fowler: We need to clone you and have like hundreds of you.
Marc Silverstein: I don’t know how you’re able to do all that stuff.
Kathy Fowler: Not enough people are doing this, you know? I’m just so frustrated by what’s happening, and I’m like the middle-class worker, just things are looking worse and worse for them, you know? But I’m glad, you’ve given me hope, so I’m glad I feel more hopeful.
Kim Kelly: Thank you.
Marc Silverstein: Kathy had mentioned that I had a book, so when the book came out, but when it first came out, I would go to the stores and make sure it was moving around and make sure the cover was up, and then I went to Costco, and I was like, “Why aren’t we in Costco?” And then we got to Costco, and I was like, “Oh, is this not good? Is this the end of the road for the book? Is it over now because they’re just trying to get rid of it in Costco?”
Kathy Fowler: No, I think, honey, it was over when it was being sold for 25 cents at Goodwill or something.
Marc Silverstein: Yeah, Amazon.
Kathy Fowler: But hey, you were still unpacking the person. Goodwill is hip now.
Marc Silverstein: We have many, many stuck in our house, so if you need one, you know, anyway. Great talking with you. The book is “Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor” by Kim Kelly. It’s been a pleasure.
Kim Kelly: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been really fun.
Marc Silverstein: Thank you.
Kathy Fowler: That was cool. I love that topic, not that you could tell.
Marc Silverstein: Yeah, that was nice of me to ask one or two questions and elbow in there. That’s fascinating, great. And I really do mean that. She just comes up with great angles on things and makes it interesting. You know, when you hear about labor, you’re like, “Maybe I do want to, you know, maybe I don’t.” But when you look at the spotlights she puts on the different angles, good job. I mean, it makes it very interesting.
Kathy Fowler: Yes, go out and get her book, because, especially if you work with a really big company, Walmart…
Marc Silverstein: We all work, so we all should know.
Kathy Fowler: We all work, but if you were, especially if you work with a big company, like some of these big companies, like because they get out of not paying you and not giving you what you deserve, read it, organize, organize.
Well, we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. “After Deadline: The Media Podcast” is a production of On the Marc Media. If you enjoyed this and want to hear more of our interviews with incredible journalists across the country, around the world too, be sure to follow us on social media @OnTheMarcMedia and subscribe to After Deadline: The Media Podcast anywhere you get your favorite podcast.