The Strike Zone: Little-known labor heroes provide a path forward for today.

AuthorWeeldreyer, Sarah P.
PositionON POLITICAL BOOKS - Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor

Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor

by Kim Kelly

Atria/One Signal, 440 pp.

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-i9th-century textile industry and the "Washerwomen of Jackson" who formed Mississippi's first trade union in 1866.

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 Dubai, 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...

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