22 Jun 2022


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

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Academic level: Master’s

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Jane McAlevey’s memoir titled Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, is an account of her insider perspective on a series of labor campaigns during anti-union period. Jane McAlevey is a celebrated unionist; she achieved a lot as the organizer for the AFL-CIO before taking an offer as a consultant for the Service Employee International Union. However, the book focuses mostly on her role and achievements as the executive director of the Nevada local Service Employee International Union. McAlevey wrote the book with Bob Ostertag, a writer and a labor activist. 

The book follows a chronological order, with the authors combining McAlevey’s experience with important aspects of the U.S. labor movement. The prologue describes McAlevey’s involvement in the recount of the 2000 presidential election. McAlevey was frustrated with the poor approach taken by the democrats and the American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). AFL-CIO adopted a legalistic approach, which failed miserably in comparison to the strategy of militant mobilization used by the Republicans. Militant mobilization appeals to the masses, and sometimes it gets things done. The prologue sets the tone for the rest of the book; McAlevey wants to show how journey in the union and her achievements, despite the environmental challenges. 

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Chapter 1 of the book is an account of McAlevey’s work with the Multi-union Stamford Organizing Project. McAlevey organized a campaign to defend affordable public housing in Stanford against property developers. This was one of the successful campaigns she organized at the beginning of her career, and it inspired her future work. In Chapter 2, McAlevey explores important concepts in the U.S. labor movement. She argues that it is important to elect sympathetic politicians that are more likely to side with the union, and help citizens achieve better social services. She urges unionists to network and establish connections in the political and economic sector. 

As from chapter 3 to chapter 12, the book analyzes McAlevey’s insider activities in Las Vegas after she was appointed the director of the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Chapter 3 is an analysis of McAlevey’s short term success as the local SEIU director. Within two months, she managed to increase union membership at a private hospital from 30% to 85%. She identified worker leaders to help her recruit new members and organize events, such as petitions, rallies, and strike threats. Chapter 4 is a continuation of chapter 3, but the focus is on challenges in organizing activities on a local level. Chapter 5 gives strategies for negotiating a contract to attract members in a ‘right to work’ state where union membership is optional. 

In Chapter 6, the book details the strategy of ‘big bargaining’ in negotiations. McAlevey supports the strategy of big bargaining, whereby many workers and many elected representatives engage in negotiation with the employers. The tactic generates a sense of unity and urgency because the employers will recognize the many employees want change. Chapter 7 analyzes the cross-sectoral bargaining; McAlevey is not fond of this style of bargaining as antagonizes labor movements and the employers. Chapter 8 to chapter 10 focuses on the challenges faced by McAlevey as a director of SEIU local in Las Vegas. Employers fought the union by deploying union busters such as threat of dismissal and legal action. In chapter 10, the book focuses on gender and class as factors that affect union activities. Women organizers face more challenges in confronting macho management and misogynist anti-unionists. The union busters, in most cases, men from the upper class, use intimidation and influence to threaten the union and women union leaders. 

The previous chapters culminate in the first-ever nurses’ strike described in Chapter 11 of the book. The strike is a victory for the local nurses, and it even gained the support of a former mayor. However, the victory is short-lived as Local finds itself in a conflict with California Nurses Association. Internal strategic differences and power struggles in the SEIU begin to unravel, ultimately tainting the work of McAlevey in the local SEIU in Las Vegas. The rest of the book is a critique of SEIU; the union’s growth strategies created at the national level limit the activities of the locals. The national SEIU frustrated the development of strong local unions.

The way the authors discuss labor relations concepts while relating it to McAlevey’s experiences informs the reader’s view of labor relations. McAlevey is passionate about organizing; her narrative shows that only passionate individuals can survive the challenges of organizing union activities. McAlevey shares her organizing experiences, even the smallest victories that motivated her. For instance, her earliest union experience when working with AFL-CIO was the Stamford Organizing Project. It was a multi-union and multi-sector project whereby members pooled together their resources and engaged in collective decision making (p. 35). The book employs first person narrative so that the reader can engage with McAlevey on an emotional level.

Though the book does not systematically discuss themes, it balances McAlevey’s personal experiences with important labor relations concepts. In some instances, the authors give a small analysis of labor relations concepts, and in some cases they extend a few pages. The two most important themes in the book are: organizing and the shortcomings of SEIU. A bigger portion of the book is dedicated to organizing given McAlevey’s role as the organizer and later the director for local SEIU in Las Vegas. The book covers in detail crucial aspects of organizing, starting from bringing in new members to planning high-intensity negotiations between union representatives and the employers. McAlevey is passionate about organizing; she comments that, “one could look at this entire book as an explanation of organizing” (p. 13). The authors define organizing as the process of bringing workers into a deep personal engagement with the union, fellow workers, bosses and the community, and all social and political issues that shape their lives (P. 109).

The book’s definition of organizing is appropriate; it captures the comprehensive nature of organizing labor union activities. McAlevey uses her experiences to show how organizing affects different stakeholders in the society, and how these stakeholders can hinder the success of the movement. The book also informs about labor relations through an analysis of the different strategies of organizing. Chapter 4- 10 focus on the different strategies of organization and negotiating to secure a better deal. McAlevey embraces the “whole worker organizing” over other strategies as it involves workers in the whole process.

The real life labor relations activities used in the book show that organizing labor relation activities is challenging. There is no specific way of organizing, McAlevey tried different strategies to get the desired result, and she realized that some strategies are more effective than others. For example, in the bargaining session between nurses at Desert Springs Hospital and the Universal Health Services, McAlevey brought in the nurses to present their side of the story about the challenges regarding their working conditions. Nurses used PowerPoint presentation as they talked about their own experience. At the end of the bargaining process, the employers had a better understanding of the challenges faced by the nurses and they were willing to compromise (P. 120).

The book can also be interpreted as an argument against unions. Towards the end, McAlevey and the national SEIU seemed to be going in the opposite direction. Some SEIU members became antagonists in the book as they fought relentlessly with McAlevey to prevent. Individuals like SEIU’s Stern, Dave Regan and Rose Ann DeMoro from the California Nurses Association disagreed with McAlevey over the strategies. There were turf wars between unions as some of the unionists felt that the Local was going against the national growth strategies. In the end, McAlevey left SEIU because it became hard to navigate the differences. Evidently, labor union politics can thwart progress; lack of support from the national SEIU affected McAlevey’s work in Las Vegas as it denied her the much needed support during a critical moment.

The biggest shortcoming of the book is the fact that everything is told through McAlevey’s lens. McAlevey is one of the greatest union organizers, but telling the entire story from a subjective view point makes the book less credible. Additionally, McAlevey sets the tone and the pace of the book; she decides which concepts to give more attention and which concepts to cover quickly. In some cases the reader is left wondering about how certain events and decisions were made because everything is narrated from McAlevey’s viewpoint.

However, McAlevey makes up with passionate and sometimes humorous stories about her experiences in CIO and SEIU. McAlevey does not talk like most unionists who focus on politics, rather she focuses on the everyday struggles in the community, and the collective effort aimed at addressing the common problem. McAlevey’s narrative show that union is not just a collective organization, but a form of social movement

In conclusion, the book is a “must-read” for industrial relations students. It provides a first-hand account of trade union activities, ranging from grass root struggles to large scale negotiation with the strongest and the best employers in the nation. According to McAlevey, unions should focus on ‘raising expectations’ of workers and ‘raising hell’ to attain the expectation. McAlevey’s journey as a trade unionist is quite impressive; she started small and quickly rose above the ranks because of her impeccable organizing skills. However, things got much harder at the top. As the director of the Local SEIU in Las Vegas, she encountered a lot of challenges stemming from poor membership, threats from employers, and ultimately internal SEUI struggles that led to her fallout with SEUI. McAlevey’s journey shows that there are many challenges in labor relations, and only persistent and skilled unionists can make a difference. 


McAlevey, J., & Ostertag, B. (2012). Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement . Verso Books

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