Book Review: “Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor” by Kim Kelly 

By Steven Assarian, Business and Career Librarian 

When I worked at Kettering University in Flint, I used to take walks on my lunch break. 

I’d walk down Chevrolet Avenue, towards the sea of concrete that was once one of the biggest auto factories in the world. There was a plaque there, commemorating the UAW Sit-Down Strike of 1937.

Before I worked at Kettering, I knew what the UAW was, but I didn’t really know the story of the Sit-Down Strike, or the Battle of the Overpass, or really any other part of the history of unions in Michigan. I learned about Henry Ford and the assembly line in school; I even learned about the Production Line (that is, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, and Sid Abel). But I learned very little of labor history, even that of my home state. 

When I finally did start to learn about the labor movement’s history, it struck me just how little of it I knew, even though the effects of that history were literally all around me. 

That’s why you should read Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor by Kim Kelly. 

Kelly is a labor journalist. She was a union leader at Vice News, and has covered the American labor movement for a variety of outlets, including Teen Vogue, where she introduced a new generation to labor politics and people. She did pioneering work covering strikes and organizing campaigns, including the Warrior Met Coal Strike in Alabama.

In Fight Like Hell, Kelly helps the reader understand the labor movement from a variety of different perspectives, angles, and personalities. But she doesn’t just focus on the personalities, which is something I appreciate. You get the sense that she’s covering a movement of people, not a list of people, as many histories are wont to do. 

Kelly’s self-avowed goal here is to inspire the next generation of organizers, but the book is not uncritical. She’s honest about the problems of the American labor movement, especially sexism, racism, and xenophobia. If your goal is to build a new labor movement, you have to be honest about the failures of its past; Kelly does an admirable job of engaging with these failures. 

This can get a little complex - a lot of the book is an alphabet soup of different unions, organizing campaigns, and worker advocacy groups - but it’s fairly easy to follow. I think this is because Kelly takes on a tone that’s down to earth; she writes like the veteran organizer that she is. 

She structures the book around different groups of workers rather than eras. This is a really inspired move. It keeps the book very readable, and helps the reader understand that these fights are the same across time and profession. It doesn’t matter if they’re Pullman Porters or sex workers, the labor movement is a story of people fighting for basic respect and dignity on the job.

The book covers a lot of the kinds of workers people associate with unions: autoworkers, miners, teamsters, etc. But in her last three chapters, she covers disabled workers, sex workers, and prisoners. That was a really inspired choice. It really helped expand my notions of labor, and what struggles are a part of the labor movement.  

Lastly, I appreciated that there was so much history here that I simply didn’t know. She doesn’t delve into the same, well known beats of labor history. The Sit-Down Strike, for example, isn’t really mentioned; DRUM, the Dodge Radical Union Movement, which was a militant organizing effort from within the UAW in the 70’s, gets a lot of time.

Even for someone who learned about UAW in the place where it was literally born, I learned quite a lot. 

That’s why I think this book is excellent for anyone who wants to understand the labor movement from often-overlooked perspectives. 

While Kelly wrote an ‘untold’ history of American labor, she does us all a great service by telling us in the here and now.

We would do well, I think, to listen.