Work Friends is our interview series that digs into the complicated realities of people with interesting jobs.
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labour, class, politics, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, the New Republic, the Washington Post, the Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.
Nora Jenkins Townson, Early Co-Editor: In your book, you mentioned coming from a strong union household. What impact did that have on your view of work?
Kim Kelly: I grew up in a family that was so blue collar that I'm not even sure I ever saw anyone wear a collar in the first place. Maybe more like no collar, ha! My dad and my grandpa and my uncles all work in construction. My granddad was a steelworker. One grandma was a newspaper delivery person, the other one was a teacher, and my mom worked in my high school cafeteria—about as working class as you can get. While my dad and grandparents were in unions, it wasn't something that I necessarily thought about that much because when I was younger, my primary goal was getting to college and getting out of my little rural town. I always wanted to be a writer and I didn't think there were unions for writers, so it never really crossed my mind until I got to VICE in 2014 and became involved in the organizing drive there.
Until I experienced the opportunity to organize, I didn't think that people that do the kind of work I did qualified to be in unions. I thought work was working with your hands, was hard hats and backhoes and oil splatters and black lung. I didn't necessarily think that there were labour protections or unions for people that did what I did—which, for a long time, was touring with heavy metal bands and selling T-shirts and booking shows and writing about death metal. I didn't think writing about heavy metal on the internet really counted the way that my granddad's work at a steel mill or my dad's working on a job site counted.
But then I got to a point where I understood that my work does count. That was really revelatory and has definitely informed the way that I go about my work. It's important that everyone understands just how much their labour counts, no matter whether they're working at a tech company or in a coal mine.
Nora: Personally I hadn't even heard of unions until I went to HR school and I was in a labour relations class.
Kim: Unless you're from a union family or you're in a heavily unionized profession, it's not necessarily something that most people are going to come across. One of the biggest hurdles we faced when we were organizing at VICE wasn't that people were opposed to the idea or anti-union, they just didn't know what a union was or how it could apply to their work as a social media editor or the punk music columnist. There's barriers thrown up and there's a lack of education, a lack of access to these really important life changing opportunities that are available to workers. But once you find them, that's when things get interesting.
Nora: What do you think people misunderstand about unions, besides not knowing that they exist?
Kim: There's a lot of classic anti-union talking points that you see pop up especially whenever a new union drive goes public, whether it's at a coffee shop or at a video game company. All of the pushback from the boss's side is like, "Oh, well, these people just want to take your money. They want to disrupt our close relationship. They want to tell you what to do and change your job. And can you really trust these people, these outsiders?" And that “third partying” can be an effective scare tactic for people that don't know as much about unions. “Third partying” is when an employer, or whoever is opposing a union drive, tries to paint the union as an outside entity—someone who isn't part of their little work “family” that is trying to disrupt things.
That's false because unions are made up of the workers that organize them. That's a big thing I think that people don't necessarily understand, is that unions are built by workers, by the members. It's not just some company that comes in and it's like, "All right, here's your contract." That's not how it works. You do it all yourself. And of course because there's been such a prolonged war on unions in this country you see the stereotypes and B.S. talking points like, “unions protect bad workers” or they're all corrupt or they don't care about the economy. I think the lack of public knowledge and understanding of unions contributes to those stereotypes and misinformation techniques. Once people figure out what a union is, they're usually pretty down. That's why there's so much of an effort to obfuscate and lie about what they actually are and what goes into forming one because if people find out, they're going to be interested.
Nora: And it's interesting that companies use this rhetoric of outsiders coming in, when often these same companies are hiring union-busting consultants, which I think is a pretty scummy job.
Kim: Then paying them thousands of dollars an hour. There's this whole union avoidance industry out there, it's so grimy. All these shadowy organizations that make so much money off of companies that are desperate to avoid unions. And the silliest part of it is that all the money that these companies pour into anti-union campaigns, they could have just taken that money and given the workers what they were asking for and avoided the whole thing. It's just absurd. It's very inefficient.
Nora: Have you seen any examples of companies who were actually supportive of a union forming or handled it well? What does that look like?
Kim: You see it once in a while. There's a bookstore in the bay area, that once the workers went public with their intention to unionize, the employers immediately recognized it. There also was a recent story about Microsoft where they came out and just said, we won't fight it if the workers want to unionize. Sometimes employers will do the bare minimum cool thing and recognize the union voluntarily and bargain in good faith. And it works out better for everybody because the employer gets to look good, they get less resentment and anger and frustration from the worker side, and for the workers, that just makes it so much easier to get a good contract. Unfortunately, that is such a rarity instead of the norm.
"... any effort that you see to split blue collar white, collar apart, is just an effort to try and weaken the working class."
Nora: So, really, the benefits to the employer would be happy employees and maybe a united voice of what those employees are looking for.
Kim: Well, yeah, even on top of that, not to fall into ugly capitalist rhetoric, but happy workers are more productive workers and safer workers. It's pretty basic. If you take care of the people working for you, it's much less likely that things are going to go south.
Nora: That's a great point. In the past there wasn't really much unionization in the tech sector, probably because the labour market already granted folks like software engineers a lot of bargaining power. But recently I've been seeing movements like the Alphabet or Kickstarter union which are mostly organized by those white collar office workers. What do you think is the incentive to organize for those white collar workers? And why is it important for workers outside that traditional blue collar work to get involved?
Kim: Well, here's the thing. If you have a job, you have an employer, you have a boss. Even if you're getting paid well, even if you have decent benefits, even if you like your job, all that could go away in a moment without a union contract. And chances are, there's still other issues at work that are dragging you down or making you feel unhappy or unsafe, or impacting other people you work with. Right? It's not all about a good paycheck and free meals on Saturdays or whatever. A lot goes into doing these jobs.
We see that, for example, with the (game industry) workers at Activision Blizzard. I'm sure they make more money than I do. And they have a cool, fun job in some respects, but they also have to deal with these punishing crunch time periods where they're doing 16 hour shifts. And through being collectively organized they can make things better. Whether it's through a traditional labour union like some of them have achieved recently, or through solidarity unions, coming together as a group of workers — which really is all a union is. You don't need all the red tape and rubber stamps. You can just be a bunch of people, together, organizing and forcing change.
There has been a lot more recognition of that in the tech world, in the music and entertainment world, and the media world, where this prevailing idea is that you just work at a desk and you make good money and you have healthcare. What do you have to complain about? Actually there's a lot of bad stuff going on, and people are organizing to change that.
Here’s one example I think about a lot in terms of how that blue collar, white collar divide can be utilized in a way that is beneficial for everyone. Look at the United Auto Workers, this storied industrial union with factory work, auto work, about as legit as you can get when it comes to being an old school, traditional industrial union. And right now, 25% of their membership out of 400,000 workers is made up of graduate students and education workers across the country. 25%! Now their union is in a much stronger position. It has more members and those workers are real fired up. They're excited to be part of this institution.
All the other workers, they're your union siblings now, right? You're all in the same union. Even if it takes a little bit more education and understanding to see how your jobs intersect. I'm sure working as an adjunct at a California university is not quite the same thing as working at an auto factory in Michigan, but there's still that overlap. There's still someone screwing you over, and you're still working together with your buddies to try and do something about it. That cross class, cross job, cross employment, cross everything solidarity. It might take a little bit more time, a little bit more effort to really get folks to understand how much they do have in common, despite their job titles, but it's going to be worth it.
And, really, any effort that you see to split blue collar white, collar apart, is just an effort to try and weaken the working class. You don't have to be a factory worker to be getting screwed over.
Nora: One of the interesting things that I'm seeing as well about the Alphabet workers union was that part of their reason to unionize was that they wanted that solidarity. They wanted all workers, regardless of employment status, to enjoy the same benefits. They wanted to bring those contract or piecemeal or different types of workers into the fold as well. And they also wanted the freedom to decline work on projects that don't align with their values.
Kim: Some of that is new and some of that is very old. What they're engaging in is called wall to wall organizing: trying to organize the entire shop. Shops look a little different now, especially if you work at Alphabet, but the sentiment's the same. We all make this work. Our labour is what creates the profit here. And it does away with this hierarchical tier system that you see in some workplaces, where some people's work is valued more than others. That's not how it should be. When workers realize that and pull in their coworkers from all kinds of other sections, that's when they build a stronger union and a stronger movement.
And in terms of trying to organize around more ideological, social or political viewpoints and necessities like that, people have been doing that for a really long time. It's looked different over the years, of course, but there have always been people who have tried to organize around issues like racism and homophobia and exclusion, xenophobia, or transphobia. Every possible type of bigotry that has been leveled against workers in this country. People have always organized against that.
And whether now it looks like somebody at Alphabet turning down a project working with ICE, or back in 1946 during the Great Sugar Strike in Hawaii when workers of different ethnicities and racism and linguistic backgrounds came together and beat back the Big Five sugar employers by organizing across languages and across cultures, realizing they were stronger together, even if some of them were being paid more than others or were treated better than others. It's all the same thing. Labour history just keeps repeating. It just adds some interesting new twists and terms as technology and society evolves.
"And if you are an HR person that finds out about some organizing, being supportive is great, but at the lowest bar possible, just don't say anything."
Nora: So, since some of our readers are in the HR space, I wanted to call out that there's generally this idea that HR is only there to protect the company. Personally, I do know a lot of people who get into HR because they want to make work better. Do you think that HR is just too much of a fundamentally flawed position to be in for that to be possible? Or do you think that it is possible for somebody in an HR role to have solidarity or be supportive of labour?
Kim: Instead of going off about my specific opinions and experiences with HR, which are not good, I wanted to engage with the actual question. How can people in this role actually help people who are organizing? Here are a couple of concrete things that HR people can actually do. If the workplace is already unionized, when you're onboarding somebody, when you're doing all of the paperwork and orientation stuff, you should make sure that that person receives contact information for their union rep, and receives information about how to join up, how dues work, how to contact the shop steward, how things are structured at their shop. Make that part of regular orientation and make it clear that being part of the union is part of this job, and that it's a good thing. It's something that we're putting out there alongside everything else to show that it's important, it's worth your attention, and we're not trying to hide anything.
It's funny to think about any company giving a co-sign to a union, usually the process is a lot more acrimonious, but some places have been unionized for a really long time and some of the initial friction has dissipated, or at least it's not a weird new thing. I remember when I was still at VICE, after we won our union and started bargaining, nobody in HR told anybody anything about the union and that made a lot more work for the workers who were part of it. If you can avoid doing that, that would be a huge help for people.
If you are working in a place that isn't unionized, you can take that same opportunity you have with orientation, with onboarding new employees and with employees in general, and make sure they know their rights. You don't have to get into the specifics of labour law, necessarily. That might be a bridge too far for some folks, but you can let them know, if anyone's interested in organizing or if you have complaints, if you have issues, here are your rights. Under the law, you are allowed to organize. You're allowed to discuss your pay. You're allowed to hold meetings. You have rights as a worker and we will not get in the way of that.
If you are an HR person that finds out about someone organizing, being supportive is great, but at the absolute least, just don't say anything. Just keep it to yourself. If there's other people that you work with that you know wouldn't be supportive, don't go out of your way to tell them about what's going on. They'll find out eventually, but you don't need to be the person who lets them know that Jeff and Tara are talking about maybe organizing. That's not lying. It's just not going out of your way to be a narc.
Most HR people would not be eligible for most bargaining units, I would think. Sometimes you are, and if that's the case, hell yeah, get involved. But if not, If they're doing a button day or they're doing some solidarity action, show up. Wear a little button, give people a nod, find some way that won't endanger yourself that shows people look, I'm down. I think this is cool. If something comes up, I'm a person you could probably trust. It's often such a scary and initially secretive and potentially explosive experience, organizing a union at a workplace, that any ally is appreciated. Even if you're just getting out of the way, you're still helping.
Nora: Outside of organizing, I think HR people can use their position and power and the impact they have to make sure that right health and safety policies are in place in the first place, that pay is equitable in the first place, whether they're inside a unionized environment or not. Just creating a good workplace in the first place.
Kim: Yeah. For example, it's also taking sexual harassment reports seriously. We see so many people now organizing around workplace safety. In my own experience at my last job, HR was the opposite of helpful in that front. So, that was another potential ally that we did not have. And that hurt a lot of people.
Nora: Sorry to hear that.
Kim: If you have the opportunity to make your workplace safer, do it—even if some middle manager or someone above you doesn't like you as much—because you'd be doing the right thing.
Nora: I work with a lot of companies who have the aim of being empathetic employers and who go out of their way to ensure they are providing fair pay. Who want good work conditions. Who want fair hours for staff. Is the idea of being a good boss or a business owner possible under capitalism without something like a union or co-op? What would you suggest for small business owners who want to be better employers?
Kim: Become a worker owned co-op. I don't think there's any such thing as a good boss. I think there are people who want to be good bosses and see themselves as good bosses. Maybe they actually do treat the people they work with well, but there's always going to be that disparity in that hierarchy, and that's inherently harmful. If you're in that position, give the workers as much control as possible, make things equitable, have everyone make the same amount of money. If you're a person who's in that position, and you are able to do something that would make your workers' lives better, even if it makes yours a little bit worse, the bar is really, really low. So if you can act like a person, I feel like you'll be doing better than the vast majority of people who are employers in this country.
Nora: And then finally, what are some key changes you'd like to see in labour law?
Kim: Oh, man, our labour laws. At least in the US labour, laws are so jacked up. One of the most important labour laws we have, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, is from 1935. And there are people, specifically domestic workers and agricultural workers and a couple other categories too, including independent contractors, of which I am one, those folks are still excluded. And the reason they're excluded in the first place was because of racism. Southern lawmakers refused to let this bill pass, unless there were carve outs for these occupations that were predominantly held by Black men and Black women. And that's still the case; domestic workers and agricultural workers in this country still don't have that right. And while the demographics have shifted slightly, those are still some of the most marginalized and physically arduous and dangerous occupations.
Also, if I was in charge of everything, I would immediately decriminalize sex work. I would abolish police and prisons. But if there are people in charge listening, I would say to do something about the fact that we have prison slavery in this country, do something about the fact that there are millions of people being warehoused and forced to labour for pennies on the dollar, if anything at all.
And in terms of other labour laws, there's so much happening right now with, as you mentioned earlier, apps in Silicon Valley and rideshare drivers, all this stuff that's happening quickly and inescapably around us. The people in charge right now are really falling down on the job when it comes to protecting gig workers. People are falling into this contract trap, in this evolution of work that we're seeing, where people are being taken back to the 19th century, taken straight back to piecework. This is the thing about history, it just keeps repeating. People that have the opportunity to disrupt that rhythm tend to not do it because doing so would cause them an inconvenience. So I would like to see the people who hold power in this country actually get off their asses and do something to help the most marginalized and lowest paid and most vulnerable workers, because if they don't, we're just going to have to do it ourselves. And sometimes that gets spicy.
Nora: Thank you for talking to the enemy.
Kim: Ha! Well, thank you very much. This was fun.