How covering metal bands prepared Kim Kelly to write ‘the untold history of American labor’

"One thing about spending years writing about the most obnoxious, obscure, abrasive music possible was trying to convince a mainstream audience that this was worth their time. It was really good training to convince those who are apathetic about unions that unions should matter and they are pretty cool.’’

The simplest things blew Kim Kelly’s mind when she first moved from the Pine Barrens to Philly.

“I always saw in movies that you could get pizza delivered to you,” says Kelly “and you could do that for real [in Philly]. It was a real thing. Trash pickup and fast internet was also amazing.”

But realizing the comforts of city living would be only a precursor to the deeper lessons and stories she’d learn in Philly. Hearing the stories of Philly labor heroes like Ben Fletcher, an African-American union leader and longshoreman, led her on the path to becoming a labor reporter, which has (thus far) culminated in a new book: Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.

Kelly never sought out to become a labor writer; in fact, she says, it’s not necessarily common for storytellers to come from places like the Pine Barrens.

“The people who get to tell the stories of what America is didn’t necessarily grow up the way I did,” explains Kelly. “I would go to school in a tiny school house from Kindergarten to eighth grade with the same 20 people. We had dirt roads, a post office in a trailer. My family hunts and fishes. I’m glad that I’m from the same place as the Jersey Devil.”

In that remote upbringing, Kelly says she was able to explore her interests more freely than kids who lived in more populated areas. Spending time with the same kids year after year left Kelly room to follow her passions—metal, reading and writing—without having to impress anyone.

“I never went to junior high or middle school,” says Kelly. “It was the same 20 kids from K-8, and I got thrown into the deep end when I went to high school. But when you’re around the same people that you knew since you were five, you can experiment and find out who you were without the fear of ostracization. It’s hard to give someone shit if you knew someone since you were five. Like so and so is dressing weird, or so and so dyed their hair, or so and so is smoking weed like, OK, who else are we gonna hangout with?”

Kelly got her start in journalism as a teenager, sending stories to the Burlington County Times’ for its “Teen Takes” section. She was also getting into metal, and so interviewed bands playing in Philly for the paper, while working at CVS to save enough to buy tickets to shows. Similar to other people who grew up in the 2000s, Kelly’s introduction to metal began with nu-metal bands likeLimp Bizkit.

“My friends Rich and Drew were really into Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park,” says Kelly. “Through that, I got into Slipknot and more metal music. It spoke to me because I was an angry kid in the middle of nowhere; of course I was into Slipknot. Then I got into death metal and black metal especially when I made friends who were older and had access to the internet. It was a stroke of luck that some of my guy friends were into this stuff, and I would go over their houses and be like, ‘Oh I like this.’ The social circle I knew was so small and I didn’t come across the prejudices that a lot of younger women faced when they were getting into metal. There wasn’t anyone to tell me, ‘This isn’t for girls, and you aren’t supposed to like this,’ because there weren’t a lot of people around. It wasn’t until I was older and started going to metal shows that I was informed it was weird for a girl to be into that and by then I was so far into it, I could just tell people to go to hell.”

While attending Drexel University, Kelly got involved with 91.7 WDKU, and had numerous internships at metal magazines—experiences which helped set the stage for her early career.

“It was a big part of my life, and I learned a lot about the music business,” explains Kelly. ““You had to be in touch with promoters and people in the industry. You learn to develop your own taste, and how to relate to people who are different from you.”

Kelly didn’t graduate because she decided to put what she learned at WDKU and her internships into action by touring with bands she knew. She believes that experience was a perfect capstone project for what she does now with labor journalism.

“It had such a big impact,” says Kelly of her music background. “I didn’t go to J school, or take any journalism classes. I didn’t actually finish college because I went on tour with my friend’s band. But the practical lessons I learned have given me a leg up. One thing about spending years writing about the most obnoxious, obscure, abrasive music possible was trying to convince a mainstream audience that this was worth their time. It was really good training to convince those who are apathetic about unions that unions should matter and they are pretty cool.

“Also spending years with heavy metal bands as a merch girl and a roadie helped me as well,” she continues. “I would spend hours a night selling T-shirts to drunk guys and talking to people and talking to people and talking to people. It’s definitely hard to stay shy when you are in that environment. I used to be quiet and a bit of a wallflower, and now I can talk to anybody about anything. If you made it through a Pittsburgh tour stop for Clutch—where everyone is drunk, excited, and everyone wants to talk to you specifically and there’s a line and everyone is yelling—if I could get through that with a smile, I could interview anyone about what goes on at their jobs.’’

Kelly parlayed that experience into a job at VICE, where she was a heavy metal editor. Kelly realized her background was different from her coworkers who went to well-known schools and grew up in areas that aren’t as remote as the Pine Barrens. And along with those different backgrounds, there were different motivations and personalities among her colleagues, Kelly says.

“I wanted to go to metal shows,” says Kelly. “I didn’t want to go to weird bars and do cocaine with editors after hours.”

For as big a platform as VICE provided, Kelly says working there left a lot to be desired. So when coworkers approached her to talk about starting a union, she was eager to help.

“I finally got hired at VICE after being on contract, and two weeks later my coworkers pulled me aside,” says Kelly. “We went to a coffee shop, and they asked me, ‘Hey, we are thinking of forming a union, what do you think?’ I was all about it, and my family was involved in unions. I thought it would be a good thing for us. I thought it was a good idea because we weren’t treated great, and there was a lot of weird stuff going on in the office. A lot of sexual harassment, and we were getting paid like crap. Something had to give, and I got super involved right away.

“I helped bargain our contract, and got other people involved. It became like a second job to me, and I found myself going to a lot more union meetings than metal shows. I guess that was a harbinger of what would come. It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and to sit in front of rich people and force them to listen to you and give you a better deal… it was great to see the actual material impact of the contract and to see the impact it had on people’s lives. Once you get into that sort of thing, it’s hard to get back out.”

And she hasn’t. Kelly now writes about labor for Teen Vogue and other pubs, and last year, she intensively reported on the first Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. This year, Kelly released her first book Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor—a digestible read that showcases the unsung heroes in labor history in America, and regular people who stood up for themselves in the workplace. 

“I wish I had this book available when I started to get interested in labor,” says Kelly. “There is so much research and academic writing about labor in this country, but it’s not necessarily super accessible to everybody. It’s not in every library or Barnes & Noble, and you have to know what you are looking for. I wanted to write something that is inclusive, accessible and fun to read and an easy lift. You can read a section on your lunch break or on the bus, and then come back to it. You don’t have to read the whole 300-odd pages. You can pick out what speaks to you at that specific moment. I wanted to make the book as diverse and inclusive as possible, and make it so anyone who picks it up can see themselves in the book.”

“I want to try to make labor sexy and get people excited about it, and to show people that this movement belongs to everybody,” Kelly says. “Not just the white guys in hard hats who tend to get top billing when we talk about labor in this country.”

One of Kelly’s goals with Fight Like Hell was to build off of her Teen Vogue column, in which she connects labor history with events that are going on today. Kelly sees parallels with what is going on in the past to the present. 

“In the book, there’s a section on garment workers, and I wrote about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the early 1900s, where nearly 200 young women were burned to death,” says Kelly. “The conditions in the factory were so bad and there was poor ventilation in the building. The bosses locked the doors because they were afraid of the young women stealing scraps of fabric. This horrible tragedy happened, and it had a lot of impact on regulations and safety and labor laws. 

“Over 100 years later, I was speaking to a woman who works at a garment factory in Los Angeles early on in the pandemic. Her and her coworkers were busy making cloth masks for people. She was telling me about the conditions in her factory, and how the air was full of dust and scraps everywhere. The bosses locked the doors, and we should have learned about what happened before. Things should be better than 100 years ago. Back then it was young Eastern European Jewish and Italian women who were treated as disposable, and now the women who are working the garment factories in Los Angeles and elsewhere are young Latina and Asian women, and they are being treated as disposable. It’s a terrible recurring theme in American history that there are people who are worth less. And it’s always the people who are working the hardest just to get by. It’s something that hasn’t changed and something we are still grappling with in the labor movement.’’

In Fight Like Hell there are also inspiring stories of perseverance; one of Kelly’s favorites is about fellow South Philadelphian Ben Fletcher.

“Ben Fletcher was a black man from South Philly who in the early 1900s helped organize an interracial dockworkers union, which ran the docks for almost a decade,” says Kelly. “They were an explicitly interracial and anti-capitalist union, and this took place in 1910, which was more than half a century before the civil rights movement. People were blazing these trails and got little attention for it. They got attention for it at the time, but their names aren’t necessarily well known now.”

U.S. labor history is hardly taught in public schools, though Kelly says it’s hard to teach a complete view of history without grounding those lessons in labor. And at a time when people are challenging books and curricula, and effectively trying to censor huge swaths of history, the need to for a better understanding of labor history is critical.

“It’s our history,” says Kelly. “We were taught about the politicians, the oligarchs, and powerful men who have shaped society in the way they saw fit. The only reason why they are able to do that is that people went to work and did the important labor. I hope something changes because kids need to learn this history. If we are gonna build the world up to what we deserve, we gotta know where we come from, and know what has worked or hasn’t in the past. We have to have examples of people who have changed the world and won fights against these Goliaths.

“Right now, we are facing this really terrifying moment where there are legislators and school board people who are trying to prevent teachers from teaching anything remotely accurate. We are in the middle of this book banning fervor and libraries being threatened for including diverse books that acknowledge that queer people exist or that racism is a problem. It’s a really scary moment in our country for people who are interested in history and learning from our past. If we are going to teach people the truth about this country we have to include labor history. Everything is a labor story when it comes down to it. Every movement for justice, and every struggle for liberation has been grounded in labor. Whether it was the black power movement, feminist movement or the queer liberation movement, those movements were made of people, and most of those people had to get it to work in the morning.”

Kelly is optimistic about the future of labor in our country, given events of the last two years. Hackensack native Chris Smalls organized the first Amazon union in Staten Island, and three Central Jersey Starbucks locations formed unions. Interest in unions across the country increased during and after the pandemic. And the current union resurgence is being led by people of color, women and people in the LGBTQIA+ community. Still, much work remains.

“The harsh reality of the matter is that labor has been in decline for a while, and union density is really low,” says Kelly. “The numbers aren’t great, and I don’t know if our institutions are ready to do what it takes to do what we need for organizing. But at a certain point institutions and leaders don’t really matter as much as the rank and file and the workers themselves do. What has become very apparent is that the workers are fed up, and the workers are ready to cause a ruckus. There is new organizing happening in established unions, and we’re also seeing a rise in independent unions; like here in Philly, there is Home Depot Workers United. The Philadelphia Museum of Art Union is on strike as well speak. A new page is being written right now.”

Kelly’s helping write the page, of course. She now resides in Philly, and though she’s proud of her Jersey roots, there are some “Pennsylvanians” who aren’t. Kelly recently wrote a column about her fellow New Jerseyan, Dr. Mehmet Oz, who’s running for Senate in PA.

“He’s a jagoff,” Kelly says about Dr. Oz. “I hate him, and it’s an insult to everybody. If you’re from New Jersey and try to run in PA you have to be at least from the right part of Jersey. North Jersey is none of our business. Go worry about New York! This is Eagles territory, and hoagies and Wawa territory. What are you trying to even pull down here, my guy?’’

For more information on Kim Kelly and her book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor, go here.