There have been criticisms, too, but the one that’s stuck with me the most is perhaps the funniest. Apparently, some have found fault with the book’s positive tone, deeming it too “glowing.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more cheerleader than critic, in the book and in my reporting in general. Instead of numbers, data, or academic arguments, I’m drawn to labor stories and organizers who feel brave and brash. I’m inspired by those who swim against the current and refuse to be treated as less than. The Ben Fletchers, Maria Morenos, Dorothy Lee Boldens, Ah Quon McElraths, Marie Equis, and Marsha P. Johnsons of the labor world (and all their spiritual and political kin) are the kind of people I want to learn about. They didn’t always win, and the work they started continues, but goddamnit, they gave it their best shot. If it weren’t for the radicals and rabble-rousers, workers in this country wouldn’t have made a lick of progress against the forces of capital. Playing it safe and making nice with police and politicians gets strikes broken, unions busted, and skulls cracked.
We’re seeing this century-old tension play out with a fervor right now. A number of huge strikes continue to snake across the nation, from California to Alabama to New York and every point in between. The year 2022 was one of great suffering and disappointment for workers and poor folks; that cannot and should not be erased. The numbers (god, I hate numbers) are still grim. Union density has continued to erode throughout my lifetime—with only about 10 percent of American workers counting themselves as union members. In 1983, that percentage was over 20 percent, and at its peak in 1954, the number was a robust 34.8 percent. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency tasked with enforcing labor law and overseeing union elections, is underfunded and overwhelmed. The Biden administration just kneecapped a potential railroad strike that would have had a massive impact on the country’s economy; a strike would have sent exactly the kind of big, tenacious message that rail workers wanted to make heard against the current generation of tycoons who limit basic workplace protections. The landscape for labor isn’t always encouraging. Especially when billionaire corporate oligarchs like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz, and Tesla-turned-Twitter-boss Elon Musk are actively doing their best to crush worker-led movements (and in Musk’s case, strangle dissent and throw marginalized people to his army of hateful trolls). Sometimes it’s hard for even the most Pollyannaish pigtailed labor reporter to find the silver linings, and as much as I gravitate toward its inspiring moments, the grim realities of the class war cannot be ignored.
But the one thing we’ve always had is hope. Consciously choosing to focus—at least for a moment—on our wins and allowing ourselves to celebrate our victories leaves room for hope to grow and solidarity to strengthen. Labor is at its best and most powerful when it’s at its most inclusive and radical. The year 2022 has given us a beautiful glimpse of what that looks like in practice. Look at the Starbucks Workers United campaign, for example. Yes, they’ve suffered some setbacks and a truly noxious level of union-busting from Schultz, but just look at what they’ve built: 257 stores have voted to unionize since late 2021, and fifty-three of those stores have forced Starbucks management to meet them at the bargaining table. It was a year ago this month that workers in Buffalo, New York, began—and won—the very first Starbucks union. Since then, they and hundreds of their coworkers kicked off a worker-led organizing wave that struck fear into the hearts of C-suite suits and inspired countless other people to unionize their own workplaces.
The groundbreaking and highly public success of the Amazon Labor Union, which took on one of the world’s richest men to win its own historic election at a warehouse in Staten Island last year, has served as a similar touchpoint for workers in other industries to take the plunge. Public support for unions is at a record high. The latest Gallup poll found that 71 percent of respondents held a favorable view—the highest it’s been since 1965. Dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of workers all over the place, from Chipotle and Trader Joe’s (who have both formed their own independent unions) to dancers at the Star Garden Topless Bar to animation workers at Nickelodeon to graduate student workers at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago, have all gone public with their intention to unionize. According to the NLRB, union election petitions increased 58 percent in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2022, compared with 2021.
But the one thing we’ve always had is hope.
Not only are workers unionizing at a rapid clip; they’re also bringing that same energy into contract negotiations and onto the picket line. It’s been incredibly exciting to cover and bear witness and to get to know some of the workers leading this charge. Right now, forty-eight thousand graduate student workers across the University of California’s ten campuses are on strike. So are 250 members of the HarperCollins Union, who are in the midst of the longest strike in the publishing behemoth’s long history. Nine hundred coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, have been on strike against their Wall Street–backed bosses at Warrior Met Coal for the past twenty months—nearly two years. In October, incarcerated workers across Alabama held a weeklong strike to protest prison slavery and demand an end to the notoriously brutal treatment endemic to Alabama’s carceral system. Journalists at the Fort Worth Star-Telegramand thePittsburgh Post-Gazette have been out on strike for weeks now. Janitors at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters went on strike, were fired, and are now waiting to hear from investigators about whether Musk’s actions violated labor law (reader, they did). The Teamsters (who represent 1.4 million active members and recently elected new leadership) struck fifty-five times in various locations (!).
Those are only a few cherry-picked examples of workers taking action, and you can find many more on Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker. If you live nearby, swing by and show your support; bring a sign, coffee, some pizza, or just yourself, and show your fellow workers which side you’re on. With any luck, you’ll meet some organizers who can give you advice about improving your own workplace—because lord knows they all have issues—and point you in the right direction if you’re thinking about trying to unionize yourself.
As a labor reporter, I’m always thrilled to see more people standing up for themselves and their coworkers, and as a worker, seeing us build power together gives me much-needed hope and energy for the coming struggles. I spent most of 2020 and 2021 enveloped in the process of researching and writing my book, but in 2022, I finally got to get back out into the field and catch up on everything I’d been missing.There is never enough time or enough resources to cover every single story that deserves our attention, but in 2023, I’m going to do my best to shine a light on as many as I can, from the ongoing Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama to whatever’s brewing around the corner. It’s an honor to be able to do this work, and my goal is simple: Put the workers first; focus on the heart, the soul, and the guts; and, above all, don’t fuck it up.
The labor movement is one big family, one that is as dysfunctional and complex as any other, but there is room for all of us in it. That means you, and now is a wonderful time to get involved. Labor had a pretty good year, and here’s hoping 2023 is even better. We can’t afford to let it not be.
Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, author, and organizer based in Philadelphia. She has been a regular labor columnist for Teen Vogue since 2018, and her writing on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baffler, The Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Esquire, among many others. Kelly has also worked as a video correspondent for More Perfect Union, The Real News Network, and Means TV. Her first book, 'FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor,' is out now via One Signal/Atria Books.