Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin, leader of the March on Washington poses in New York City on Aug. 1, 1963. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

In February 2021, while many of us were still hibernating and waiting for the mini warehouses on wheels to deliver our Chex Mix, the journalist Kim Kelly found herself a long way from her home in Philadelphia. She was embedded in the thick of a labor election in Alabama, among Amazon workers who pack and load those very delivery trucks. Kelly, a descendant of construction and mill workers, is a fierce advocate for those who work with their hands—and she doesn’t mean fingers on a keyboard. She sees a direct line from modern-day warehouse employees striking against their 10-hour workdays to the underpaid “mill girls” of the dangerous early-19th-century textile industry and the “Washerwomen of Jackson” who formed Mississippi’s first trade union in 1866. 

Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor
by Kim Kelly
Atria/One Signal, 440 pp.

Kelly writes against the backdrop of a pandemic that has illuminated the toils of those who tend to the sick, stock the grocery shelves, and deliver the packages—those whose work is often noticed only when it goes undone. She ventures into the shadows of our society, where “air hostesses” and long-haul truckers work suspended above and between those whose lives and work are more easily seen and valued. For some workers, she argues, the only muscle they can flex to prove the significance of what they do is to stop doing it—to enter the picket line. 

Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California at Hastings and a labor advocate, describes the situation as a painful paradox:

[The working class], not only do they not have a safety net, but no matter what is going on, they have to continue to put their bodies and lives on the line. There’s some great tragic irony that it’s these “essential workers” who are the most dispossessed: the people who are carved out of all [labor] protections, the people who do the most dangerous work, and the people whose life spans are the shortest as a result.

With a voice that could easily rally a walkout, Fight Like Hell tells the stories of history makers who didn’t make it into the history books, those who worked and fought in proximity to legends. Readers learn of the gay labor activist Bayard Rustin, who worked in the orbit of Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the 1963 March on Washington. We learn of Sarah Bagley, whose writing exposed the conditions in the textile mills of the 1840s, which were advertised as “utopia[s] for godly young women” rather than the grueling, prison-like factories they actually were. Her campaign for an 11-hour workday (down from 12-plus) was among the earliest struggles of what would lead to the Fair Labor Standards Act and the standardization of the eight-hour day. 

At the micro level, Kelly has written a history of the class struggle between U.S. employers and workers as well as an inspired instruction manual for labor organizers. At the macro level, the book calls out the hypocrisy of advertising the American Dream as available to all and then denying some people the opportunity to work, paying workers less than what it costs them to eat and live, and then silencing or punishing those who object. She gives a megaphone to workers who have been injured, confined, or killed for organizing and striking. Their stories raise the question, “What is the value of one worker’s life in a capitalist economy?” The answer lies in the power of a collection of workers, speaking loudly as one. 

Fieldworkers are among the least-valued members of our economy. Despite the mystique around agrarian life in America, fueled by books and movies such as Little House on the Prairie and Field of Dreams—full of white families, amber waves of grain, and women working in the house—America has never given these laborers their due nor embraced their range of histories. The most obvious exclusion from this narrative are pre–Civil War farms that relied on the labor of African slaves. But these are not the only stories, and that’s Kelly’s point. She writes of Maria Moreno, born in Texas in 1920 to a Mexican father and a Mescalero Apache mother. Moreno was working in the fields by the time she was eight years old, married at 15, and eventually had four sons and eight daughters. By the late 1950s, Maria, her husband Luis, and their two adult sons were all working for a combined $114 a week. When her oldest son stopped eating so his younger siblings could eat, rendering him temporarily blind, Maria was thrust into labor activism. She began speaking out about her family’s low wages. “I see the people that buy delicious apples, bananas, all kinds of good foods, and then I take a look at my table—beans and potatoes!” she said. Her courage as a “crusader in rubber boots and a big skirt” got her noticed, and it wasn’t long before she was hired by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)—an AFL-CIO pilot project—to organize farmworkers in pursuit of a livable wage. Maria Moreno was the first female farmworker in U.S. history to be hired as a union organizer. 

In that role, Moreno was instrumental in fanning the first embers of the United Farm Workers union, made famous by the activism of her contemporary Cesar Chavez. Her relative obscurity compared with Chavez is all the more disappointing given her fight just for a seat at the union’s table. At one point, the AFL-CIO stopped funding AWOC. In response, the group sent Moreno to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, where she spoke from same stage as King, President John F. Kennedy, and Eleanor Roosevelt. “Don’t you think that our children had their stomachs full like the rest of you people that have a union or a decent wage?” she asked. “We don’t. I hope that you people help us.” The delegates voted to reinstate funding for AWOC.

AWOC’s struggle with the AFL-CIO is one example of a recurring motif of conflict between established labor organizations and the rallying cries of newly organized groups of workers. The author’s clear-eyed assessment of the organizations for which she so passionately advocates makes her an even more reliable reporter on the subject. She seems to lament the missed opportunities of groups who, while working to elevate the value of each person’s work, sometimes become too bureaucratic and far removed from the individuals they aim to serve. The debilitating effect of size and scale is a theme woven throughout the book—which brings us back to Amazon.

Last year, the former Amazon human resources executive David Niekerk admitted to The New York Times that the company had outgrown some of its human management policies, created in the early days when Amazon was smaller. The Times reported, “As Amazon rapidly grew, Mr. Niekerk said, its policies were harder to implement with fairness and care. ‘It is just a numbers game in many ways,’ he said. ‘The culture gets lost.’ ”

With statements like this in mind, Kelly’s thesis takes on new urgency. If they (the corporations) are too big to fail, then we (the workers) must be too big to be ignored. If capitalists allow themselves to outgrow their ability to responsibly manage the people who do the work, then those people must have recourse to take care of themselves. It’s essential that their right to combine their voices and make themselves big enough to be heard—to unionize—should be respected by corporations and protected by law.

My favorite parts of this book were the introductions to new role models; I often felt like I was being let in on a secret. But beyond the fun of discovering these fascinating characters, there’s a lesson about people we pay attention to and people we don’t. 

In the early 1960s, the now-legendary feminist Gloria Steinem went undercover as a cocktail waitress at New York City’s Playboy Club and then wrote about the low wages and other exploitation that women endured there. But two decades before Steinem became famous for her investigation, Marvel Cooke, the first Black female staff writer for The (New York) Daily Compass, set out to shine a light on the invisible, underpaid work of Black domestic workers in New York City. Cooke stood with the “paper bag brigade” on the Bronx streets—women holding their belongings in paper bags while begging to be hired for a day of housecleaning. After washing and scrubbing for less than $5 per day, Cooke wrote of her experience in a five-part series for The Compass called “The Bronx Slave Market,” which was advertised with signs that said, “Read: I Was a Slave.” Steinem and Marvel both transformed themselves and made themselves invisible to reveal the work of their voiceless sisters. Most of us recognize the name of only one of these pioneering women.

As I read about the men who built our first skyscrapers, my mind went to “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” the iconic photograph of white men dangling above a cityscape. But it misses others who donned hard hats and worked suspended in air to build landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Waldorf Astoria. Kelly introduces us to, for example, the Mohawk ironworkers from the territories of Akwesasne and Kahnawake (located in modern-day Ontario, Quebec, New York State, and Montreal), whose U.S. labor history goes back to the late-19th-century construction of the bridge over the Saint Lawrence River connecting Canada to the United States. In the 1920s and ’30s, these “skywalkers” traveled into Manhattan to build the new Art Deco skyscrapers. They successfully fought their deportation in the 1920s and established a community, “Downtown Kahnawake,” around the local ironworkers’ union hall in the city. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, descendants of the Mohawk ironworkers who had built the towers came to help clean up the rubble.

Kelly also recounts devastating stories of violence and despair. She writes of Frank Little, who was harassed, beaten, and finally lynched for his involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World—“the Wobblies”—on behalf of miners, lumberjacks, and farmworkers at the turn of the last century. She describes children working in coal mines and women pushed into sex work when their $6 weekly income for housecleaning and laundry services didn’t cover food and shelter. 

My own ancestors were European Jews who came to this country and opened a grocery and then a chain of lumber and hardware stores that employed generations of families. My father and grandfather integrated the restrooms of their stores and warehouses before the government required it and instituted an employee pension program before doing so was standard. This business made the American Dream possible for owners and workers alike for a hundred years, until competing with the likes of Walmart and Home Depot finally shut its doors. 

Among the myriad differences between a family-owned hardware store and Amazon is that the people issuing the paychecks at the store know the names and faces of the people cashing them. Perhaps this is the only kind of environment where moral capitalism is possible. In a $1 trillion-plus enterprise with warehouses the size of 15 football fields, the humans packing, loading, and shipping the stuff are just interchangeable links in a conveyor belt. 

In 2011, an emergency room doctor in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, reported Amazon to federal regulators after treating several warehouse employees for heat-related problems. The local newspaper wrote that the temperature in the warehouse that summer was often above 100 degrees—a literal sweatshop. Amazon’s solution was to keep a revolving door of paramedics in the parking lot to treat the dehydrated workers and rush them to the hospital as new applicants filed in to take their places in the facility. 

No Lehigh Amazon employees died due to heat exposure that summer, but the story harkens back exactly one century to the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, which claimed the lives of 146 seamstresses. There were no safety regulations on the books at the time, and thus no sprinklers and no fire extinguishers. To protect inventory and profit, the doors were locked to prevent workers from stealing. The workers themselves had no such protections.

How much has changed in 100 years? Kelly laments the understaffing and neglect at the National Labor Relations Board, and the outdatedness of U.S. labor laws. But I don’t think you’ll find her marching on Congress. Her fight is on the picket line, which is where she is at the end of her book—speaking up for the Warrior Met Coal strikers in Alabama, in the 10th month of their struggle for a new union contract. It’s in battles like these, Kelly finds, where workers have not only the power to change their own circumstances, but also to be revolutionary.

“Collective working class power was behind every stride forward this country has made, grudgingly or otherwise, and will continue to be the animating force behind any true progress,” Kelly writes. Her book is a persuasive reminder of that.

Sarah P. Weeldreyer

Sarah P. Weeldreyer is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and other outlets.