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How “Grim” Kim Kelly’s Metal Background Led Her to the Bloody History of American Labor
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If you’re reading this site, you probably know who Kim Kelly is. For years, “Grim” Kim was one of extreme metal’s most storied and respected journalists, using platforms including Invisible Oranges, Noisey, and even MetalSucks to give much-needed coverage to rising artists, while also unflinchingly calling out parts of the metal underground for fostering bigotry, prejudice, and fascism within their ranks. This led to Kelly becoming a firebrand within the scene, respected and supported by some, utterly reviled by others, and representative of the hipster/SJW menace threatening metal to a small but virulent body of listeners.
It was Kelly’s dedication to social justice that eventually led her to transition from writing about metal to writing about an even darker and more extreme cultural institution: American labor. In her new book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, Kelly examines the bloody, unjust, and inspiring history of workers’ rights in our country. For Kelly, was a process where her background in writing about brutal metal bands came in handy.
“Seeing how everything was connected was something I really enjoyed and appreciated,” Kelly explained when speaking to MetalSucks, “especially coming from a metalhead brain, where you wanna say, Oh, this guy is in this band, but he played at this fest, or on this demo. I felt like I was uniquely prepared to deal with some of that stuff.”
First off, what inspired you to move from music journalism to writing about labor issues?
It was sort of this confluence of factors that resulted in me pivoting, if you will. I think it’s fairly well-known that I’d become more and more political in my writing, even in metal, over the years. I became a very…visibly political voice, we’ll say, in the heavy metal world, for better and often for worse! So I was always interested in politics and working-class history, because I’ve been a history nerd longer than I’ve bene a metal nerd, which is saying something. But in 2015 to 2016, that specific moment in time, there was a lot happening – obviously in this country, right? A lot more people were paying attention. I was getting more involved in the activist scene in New York, spending more time going to protests than metal shows.
On top of that, I was working at Vice at the time – I was the heavy metal editor as Noisey, which, I can’t believe they let me have that as a job. That’s not a real job! — and basically, a couple weeks after I was officially hired, because I’d been permalanced for about 8 months (classic media maneuver), some of my coworkers took me out for coffee and said, We’re thinking about forming a union, what do you think about that? Of course, I was delighted, because I was being paid nothing and having a hard time at work. And I’m also from this blue-collar union family, so I had that bedrock to build on. I thought, Oh, unions are cool, this will be a good thing for us. And then as I got more and more involved, with all the meetings and committees and bargaining sessions, all the things that come with forming a new local, it kind of consumed by life.
Did this chip away at your involvement in the metal scene?
Every time I wasn’t at a protest or at work, I was at a union meeting. I didn’t even really have time for metal shows. And I kind of felt like, I’m always gonna love metal, but maybe I didn’t have to go out to the bar every night to hear someone yell at me from a stage. Maybe I can listen to their record as I’m doing research! So I began writing more and more politics- and labor-focused pieces outside of my metal day job. It all came to a head in 2019 when I got laid off with 250 other people in one day, because digital media is such a cool and stable profession! And I decided, you know what, I’m gonna give this a try. I had relationships there, I had definitely built up my knowledge base of that world — let’s give it a spin. A year later, I signed the contract for this book. So I guess it was a good gamble.
Most people grow up with two images of labor unions — organizations designed to help workers, and corrupt groups that exist as mob havens. Did you know much about unions when you started writing this book?
I knew a bit about unions because I was into history, but I didn’t realize the depths to which, or the extent to which, the labor movement had been involved in basically every movement for justice in this country. Every single one of them. For example, a ton of the influential leaders in the Civil Rights Movement were also involved in the labor movement. Bayard Rustin, the man who orchestrated the March on Washington, was a queer Black man whose role was kind of erased in that event because of prejudices and homophobia. People even within the movement feared that his lifestyle would negatively impact their goals. But he was very much a part of the cause of labor, and stayed in labor for years after that event. Or the disability rights movement, which really took off in the ’70s and later in this country – unions were providing all the buses and vans and material support for all these disability rights activists who were taking over the Capitol with these bigs protests. In the 504 Sit-In, when disabled people were trying to get the government to actually implement [Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973] — the civil rights document for the disabled, the first of its kind — they occupied a bunch of federal buildings for almost a month, and there were labor folks who helped make that happen, as well as Black Panthers and local church leaders.
How much of labor reform in this country is tied to slavery, which seems like American history’s ultimate exploitation of laborers?
It’s sort of inescapable. Even if you look at some of the most basic and important labor laws we have in this country – for instance, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, that’s a biggie, and that basically gives workers the right to unionize and take part in collective bargaining. There are two groups of workers who were significantly left out — domestic workers and agricultural workers. And at the time that this legislation was passed, who made up the majority of those workers? Black men, Black women. Those were the two groups left entirely out of the equation, which is a specific sop to racist southern lawmakers who were like, Okay, if you wanna pass this, you gotta give us this little carve-out. And that’s still the law of the land. That’s still THE major labor law.
Does that sort of labor-based racism still echo in the modern day:
Oh yeah. For instance, if we’re talking about incarcerated labor, which in this country is made up predominantly by Black folks, the majority of the people in federal and private prisons have jobs – doing maintenance or in the kitchen, while being paid a few pennies on the dollar. That’s building directly on the legacy of convict leasing, which was very popular in the south. This was after reconstruction, and in that era, workers who were incarcerated, who were still predominantly Black, were leant out to private and state companies. And all the profits of their labor went directly back into other people’s pockets. It was essentially a legalized form of slavery. The fact is that we’re still in a country where slavery is legal if you’re behind bars, and the powers that be don’t seem very interested in doing much about that. That’s why we’ve seen things like prison strikes, trying to bring attention to what’s happening and the vicious unfairness of the system – who is targeted, who is jailed, who is exploited, and who is allowed to get away with murder. It’s all connected. It’s all part of the same story.
What is one of the most chilling aspects of American labor history that you discovered in this book?
Honestly, convict leasing is just so atrocious, and so accepted. Just thinking about that…one of the people I interviewed, my friend David, he was just getting out of Rikers, and he had helped organize a strike while he was inside. He told me about that experience – what it was like to be in prison when COVID-19 pandemic popped off. Seeing it from that personal account, it made it all so much worse. I think a habit that a lot of folks in this country have is turning away from the ugly stuff, or the bad parts. Trying to focus on the good, or at least the tolerable. And sometimes you need to be forced to see the ugly parts, because that’s what the truth is. That’s what the history of this country is.
Something else that kept popping up is how labor unions…I’m very pro-union, but they’re not perfect, because they’re made up of people. And something that has really followed the movement for decades, if not centuries, is the purposeful exclusion of certain groups of people. If not Black folks, then Chinese immigrants, or for a long time women. For a while, people were really upset about anyone who was thought to be a Red, or lefty, or queer. Even now, there’s this exclusion of workers who aren’t documented, or incarcerated, or sex workers — workers whose work is stigmatized or criminalized. There’s still a lot to be done for accepting and protecting and helping ALL workers. That’s a criticism I hold of the movement in general, especially in the more powerful areas. There’s always the old guard and the younger radical types who want to shake things up. You see that on the local, state, and federal level. It’s taking a warts-and-all view – we’ve come this far in spite of ourselves, so how do we take this knowledge and push forward and be better? Because you can always be better.
When one thinks of labor in America, the image is often male — a broad-shouldered man in suspenders, rolling up his sleeves. How did women shape America’s labor movement?
I mean, we’ve been out here since the beginning, even if we weren’t always welcome! And certain types of women were especially not welcome. It was hard enough to get some types of labor unions to accept white women in the first place, let alone Black women, women of color, indigenous women, disabled or queer women – every step forward has been a battle. But one of the stories that’s my favorite because it’s so badass and inspiring — so in 1866, which is one year after emancipation, a group of washerwomen, who were women who did other people’s laundry, in Jackson Mississippi, formed the state’s first labor union. 1866, one year after being set free, they decided, Okay, we’re not being treated properly, we’re not being paid right for our work, we’re going to come together and organize around us. And it worked! They set this incredible precedent, and in the early 20th Century, we saw these massive strikes by garment workers in New York City, who were primarily eastern European, Jewish, and Italian women. And they shut down the city.
The Uprising of the 20,000 was led by Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant who was just this young women who stood up at a meeting and said, ‘No. We’ve had enough. This cannot stand.’ There are stories of women like that throughout the decades, the centuries – because it is centuries! This shit goes deep! The book focuses heavily on women, because while there are some nonbinary folks and some dudes, of course, it’s easy to write off the labor movement as a white dude in a hard hat – guys who look like my dad, and probably think like my dad. But right now, it’s made up of everyone else, too. I’d have to check my statistics, but I think the highest percentage of union memberships in this country is among Black women. So yeah, it can be a white guy with a Trump flag who works in a factory, but more often it’s going to be a Black woman who works as a home healthcare aid, or a Latino woman who works as a housekeeper. That’s always been who we are, but we’re finally at a point where people are paying more attention.
The Uprising of the 20,000 makes me think of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, and how it reformed labor and housing laws in the city. How did that grisly event impact the labor movement?
Well, working-class women were invisible then, so to see these women, some as young as 14, burning to death, was a shock. And one of the biggest impacts of that tragedy, not even just in terms of organizing and later strikes, was that young woman named Frances Perkins was there. At the time, she was working for the National Consumers League as a secretary , but she was interested in the cause of justice for working people. She ended up being the first woman appointed to the presidential cabinet as secretary of labor. She worked under FDR. She is the major architect of the New Deal. She’s the reason that it had so many worker protections and benefits built in. She wanted it to go further, but there’s only so much you can do in the 1930’s when you’re the only woman in a cabinet full of cigar-smoking politicians. She was the power behind the throne when it comes to moving forward some of the most important pro-worker legislations in history. And that’s because she was there. She saw those girls. She heard those screams. And she did something about it.
Even today, millions of Americans are anti-union, or are dismissive of labor movements. Why do you think that is?
Propaganda! I mean, I will say, the latest Gallup polls put public support of unions at about 66%, so there has been a pretty big shift. When people understand what a union is and what it can do for them, it’s a pretty easy sell – working together with their coworkers to make shit better – but like you said, there’s this prevailing idea, whether it’s on The Simpsons or in the newspapers, that unions are these corrupt, lazy, negative influences. I think a lot of that goes back to the ‘80s, when Regan broke up the air traffic controller’s strike in a really brutal corporate way. He signaled to business and corporate leaders that they didn’t have to play fair anymore. They could alter their strategy in a way that really damaged the labor movement. And I think there’s a real lack of understanding and education about working-class history, labor movements, and unions in general, that convinces some people that they’re a bad thing.
Is that level of propaganda and gaslighting still happening now?
Look at what’s happening with Amazon or Starbucks – workers at these large companies, surrounded by anti-union propaganda, lies, that these very well-paid, deep-pocketed corporate interests are trying to bury them under. Oh, well, the union’s gonna protect the bad people. It’s going to take all your money and give you nothing. Of course they’ll say that, because they’re afraid! Unions are powerful. The labor movement has been behind every step forward we take in this country, because when one person tries to fight back, it usually doesn’t work, but when a bunch of people come together to force the powers that be to listen, they do, because there’s more of us than there are of them. It’s much easier to look at Fat Tony and the teamsters and think, Oh, that’s not for me. But when you sit down with your coworkers to try and improve things? That’s kind of hard to argue with. Which is why people who oppose unions work so hard to smear ‘em. Because the alternative is, for them, very scary.
Kim Kelly’s Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor is out now via Simon & Schuster, and is available for purchase. The book’s launch party goes down April 29th at 7pm EST at the Bushwick Public House in Brooklyn, NY. Performing at the event will be grindcore act Trophy Hunt and New Jersey’s Sunrot. Tickets can be purchased online now.
The post How “Grim” Kim Kelly’s Metal Background Led Her to the Bloody History of American Labor appeared first on MetalSucks.