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

Demonstrates that good organizers can in fact succeed.”– Frances Fox Piven

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 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. Raising Expectations is so refreshing because it aspires to tell us how we can rebuild a movement that can win.”
  • “An on-the-ground account of the obstacles the union hierarchy threw 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.”
  • “Perhaps the most readable and fun account I know of what it means to build a militant and participatory labor movement, even if the account ends in double-dealing, disaster, and expulsion.”
  • “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 ... to suggest 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 has got to be about the best-told, most deeply instructive account I have ever read of just what it feels like to be part of making something like this happen, or, more precisely, to be making something like this happen with others. Just plain fun and profoundly moving.”
  • 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 healthcare workers, fills me with hope.”
  • “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.”


  • Interns, Occupiers, and Strikers: A May Day 2014 Reading List

    The 1st of May marks International Workers' Day, a festival of working-class self-organization stretching back over 130 years. It was originally inaugurated to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago, where a bomb thrown during a worker's strike kicked off a period of anti-labor hysteria.

    In 1890, the first internationally coordinated demonstration for an 8-hour day was held, in commemoration of those killed in the massacre. Eight anarchists were executed on trumped-up charges after the event.

    Here, Verso staff present an updated reading list for May Day. Since first posting the list a few years back, we've added some of our recent titles that trace the changing nature of work and the labor movements in the U.S. and around the world. 

    All books listed are available for direct purchase from our site at discounts of 40% off paperbacks, 30% off hardcovers, and 50% off ebooks, with free shipping, and ebooks bundled with your print purchase where available. 

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  • 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.

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