Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement

How one militant union organizer fought the bosses—and national labor leaders.

In 1995, in the first contested election in the history of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney won the presidency of the nation’s largest labor federation, promising renewal and resurgence. Today, less than 7 percent of American private-sector workers belong to a union, the lowest percentage since the beginning of the twentieth century, and public employee collective bargaining has been dealt devastating blows in Wisconsin and elsewhere. What happened?

Jane McAlevey is famous—and notorious—in the American labor movement as the hard-charging organizer who racked up a string of victories at a time when union leaders said winning wasn’t possible. Then she was bounced from the movement, a victim of the high-level internecine warfare that has torn apart organized labor. In this engrossing and funny narrative—that reflects the personality of its charismatic, wisecracking author—McAlevey tells the story of a number of dramatic organizing and contract victories, and the unconventional strategies that helped achieve them.

Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) argues that labor can be revived, but only if the movement acknowledges its mistakes and fully commits to deep organizing, participatory education, militancy, and an approach to workers and their communities that more resembles the campaigns of the 1930s—in short, social movement unionism that involves raising workers’ expectations (while raising hell).


  • “This book is gripping, funny, sad, and very thought-provoking. Jane McAlevey uses her own experiences in a movement that has been undergoing dramatic changes—within a workforce that has undergone even greater changes—to suggest to the reader the necessity and potential for a transformation of the union movement into a real labor movement. Once I started reading it, there was no stopping.”
  • “This book casts a bright light on the problems of American unions. Jane McAlevey gives us an on-the-ground account of the obstacles the union hierarchy throws in the path of a bold and energetic organizing effort that scored a string of brilliant successes before the hierarchy cracked down. We need to read this book and learn its lessons partly for what it tells us is wrong about unions, but also because it demonstrates that good organizers can in fact succeed. That message is heartening because the simple truth is that we can’t rebuild a democratic left in the United States without a revived labor movement.”
  • Raising Expectations is a breath-taking trip through the union-organizing scene of America in the 21st century. In the battles McAlevey recounts, hardly anyone comes out standing tall. But her story, along with those of so many brave health care workers, fills me with hope.”
  • “This book renews my faith that organizing works. It calls for a new kind of unionism and makes a compelling case for a new vision for the American labor movement. In the ‘whole worker theory’ that McAlevey tested and retested in real life campaigns, all the issues negatively impacting the poor, working and middle class become the cause of unions, not simply wages and narrowly defined workplace conditions. At a time when climate change is wreaking havoc at home and abroad and communities of color are becoming the vital center of progressive social change, this book offers one path to building a movement that can and must tackle many issues. Raising Expectations is so refreshing because it aspires to tell us how we can rebuild a movement that can win.”
  • “McAlevey's message—that unions alone give working people voice at the bargaining table and the ballot box—burns with conviction. She makes for bracing company in interesting times.”
  • “McAlevey burns with a passion for the cause”
  • “McAlevey promotes the concept of "whole worker" organizing, which seeks to go beyond the "labor-community" paradigm in a manner that recognizes that workers are rooted in, and not separate from, communities and also recognizes the value of bringing community organizing techniques into the realm of labor and vice versa.”


  • Jane McAlevey discusses how women are leading changes in labor movement

    With traditional labor organizations at perhaps their all-time weakest, and with union membership steadily dwindling, the labor movement has finally made room for women leaders, according to a recent article published in The Nation.

    There may be more at stake, however, than a few past-due seats at a molding table. In the article, Verso author Jane McAlevey discusses how female labor-leaders like herself have been working to expand the demands of the movement.

    Drawing on her own experience as a labor organizer, as well as research done for her recent book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), McAlevey insists on the necessity for a more holistic approach in the fight for labor justice.

    “McAlevey’s approach blends the two realms, public and private life, which have historically been gendered—men go to work and care about wages, women stay home and care about the roof over their families’ heads and what’s for dinner. ‘If you want to contend for power, and workers need a lot more power than what they have in this country right now, we actually have to bring power to the table with us,’ McAlevey explains.”

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  • Jane McAlevey Points Out Underlying Problems with Recent McDonalds Budget

    This past week, McDonalds invited outrage when, as part of a newly-launched website designed to help minimum-wage employees plan their budget, they posted a laughably unrealistic sample monthly budget.

    Though the budget offered much to be upset about, the crowning offense was the suggestion that workers hold two near full-time, minimum-wage jobs to meet their basic living expenses. Not only does this underscore the growing divide between the minimum-wage and a living wage, but it brings to light another glaring fallacy of the sample budget: with many struggling to find one full-time job, who can manage to find two? Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), joined Dawn Rasmussen and Sylvia Allegretto on HuffPo Live to discuss the both the problems with the McDonalds sample budget and the alarming rise of part-time employment when so many are desperate for full-time work.

    Visit the Huffington Post to see the video and read the full comments.

  • Jane McAlevey on MSNBC, HuffPo Live and Counterspin

    In her newest book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), author and maverick organizer Jane McAlevey draws on her two decade-long experience and sets out a plan for revitalizing labor. Reacting to Michigan’s Republican-dominated legislature’s passage of the so-called “right to work” law (an uncomfortable term to use due to its racist origin) and the corporate-backed effort to push for similar legislation nationwide, she made several big media appearances last week and over the weekend to outline the state of labor in America (prognosis: not good) and how labor can be revived. She appeared on MSNBC's UP with Chris Hayes, Counterspin, KALW in San Francisco, The Real News, Huffpost Live, and KBOO community radio in Portland. Audio lies below the jump. Click on the links to listen and watch the interviews in full.

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