In 1995, in the first contested election in the history ofthe AFL-CIO, John Sweeney won the presidency of the nation’s largest laborfederation, promising renewal and resurgence. Today, less than 7 percent ofAmerican private-sector workers belong to a union, the lowest percentage sincethe beginning of the twentieth century, and public employee collectivebargaining has been dealt devastating blows in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Whathappened?
Jane McAlevey is famous—and notorious—in the American labormovement as the hard-charging organizer who racked up a string of victories ata time when union leaders said winning wasn’t possible. Then she was bouncedfrom the movement, a victim of the high-level internecine warfare that has tornapart organized labor. In this engrossing and funny narrative—that reflects thepersonality of its charismatic, wisecracking author—McAlevey tells the story ofa number of dramatic organizing and contract victories, and the unconventionalstrategies that helped achieve them. Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)argues that labor can be revived, but only if the movement acknowledges itsmistakes and fully commits to deep organizing, participatory education, militancy,and an approach to workers and their communities that more resembles the campaignsof the 1930s—in short, social movement unionism that involves raising workers’expectations (while raising hell).
This rousing memoir of McAlevey's decade-long experience as a union organizer spares neither the companies nor the union bosses. After success as a union organizer of home health care workers in Stamford, Connecticut, McAlevey was sent to do the same in Pittsburgh. There she ran up against a union executive vice-president who effectively sabotaged her work. After another successful assignment, McAlevey headed for Las Vegas to organize employees of for-profit "scumbag" hospitals where the hard work of getting decent contracts for nurses provides a roller coaster experience. She makes certain the reader learns how to organize; the fine points of agreements are dissected thoroughly, including how to keep union members in "right to work" states. McAlevey is not afraid to name names, offering millionaire CEOs with government contacts their fair dose of scorn. But her strongest fury is with the union leadership who seem to thwart her at every turn. Politics and turf wars are a recurrent theme in this book, which result in the destruction of the health care workers union in Nevada and McAlevey's departure from union work. This is a passionate defense of her efforts and a plea for others to pick up the gauntlet for workers.