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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).

Reviews

  • “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.”

Blog

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    Chavez and other members of the Community Service Organization. Courtesy of the César E. Chávez Foundation.

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