Jane McAlevey’s Raising Expectations, an account of the problems and possibilities of trade union activism in the US, is full of wit and wisdom, finds Season Butler

Jane McAlevey, Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (Verso 2012), 325pp.

Jane McAlevey’s engaging memoir kicks off mid-battle during the contested US presidential election of 2000. Amid accusations of voter fraud and election rigging, McAlevey was pulled into the fray to help dig out the truth from the piles of badly-aligned ballots and now-infamous hanging chads in the hopes of showing that Al Gore and not George W Bush had actually won in Florida. She remembers confusion, and then outrage, at the American left’s over-polite approach to organising angry voters who felt that their votes had been stolen. Constrained by old-guard labour’s resistance to forming alliances and raising their voices, her suggestions were muted as America’s nasty party pulled off a successful coup. Her opening effectively fires-up readers and leaves us firmly on her side, spoiling for the fights to come.

Direct action, it seemed, was the Republicans’ game, with factions of the right engaged in nasty public rallies and blatant acts of intimidation, while the left was scattered, too protective of their nice-guy image to band together and prevent the political coup which secured the Bush regime’s decade in power. This is the first lesson that the reader learns through Jane McAlevey’s experience of organising workers: the existing rulebook privileges the most powerful elite. A flexible, unified approach may not win mainstream friends, but it wins battles. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear what was at stake that November and in the months that followed: ‘an endless war in Afghanistan, an unprovoked war on Iraq, American torture, warrantless wiretapping, eight years of doing nothing on global warming, not to mention a relentless class war against workers and their unions, all building up to a second Great Depression’ (p.5).

I never imagined that I would suggest that someone did indeed have the required approach to worker-organising which could have prevented World War III. But, honestly, Raising Expectations makes me think that someone really did. Her prologue ignited my anger and frustration, made me feel that the old-guard left was simply not good enough. Expectations raised, I read on and found a funny, revealing story of ‘the ugly underbelly of the new labor movement as well as its outward promise’ (pp.61-2).

The body of McAlevey’s memoir takes the reader through a decade of union work with an approach which the author calls ‘whole worker organisation’, expanding labour unions’ activities to involvement in issues both inside and outside the workplace with the (dare I say) common sense approach that workers’ lives do not end when they punch out for the evening. ‘No matter how much workers might win in wage and benefit improvements … the cost of housing [could] still condemn them to poverty. Representing the interests of these workers meant rethinking the role labor unions might play in such community issues’ (p.43).

So far, so good. McAlevey introduces the tactics that she and her teams initiated to find out who the real leaders were among the workers she was helping to organise, and to empower worker-led victories on real issues. She does so with enough detail to be useful to other organisers and with sufficient charm and wit to keep the lay reader reading.

Face-to-face, boots on the ground approach, getting to know actual workers and their most pressing concerns, without limiting these to the nine-to-five hours, and finding out where real power lies in the workplace, (the loudmouth who isn’t afraid of being bolshy to the boss probably isn’t the real leader in the ranks; it’s more likely to be the quieter, older woman of colour with years of faithful service to whom everyone goes privately for advice), rather than filtering the unions’ national priorities down, and shoehorning a local union into those, proved the key to some of the most impressive wins against some of America’s worst employers.

From the beginning, she mentions ‘turf wars’ and internal, Washington-led political pettiness far removed from the concerns of rank and file workers. This threat looms even on the brightest days of big wins in Connecticut and Nevada until the storm finally breaks and internecine point-scoring threatens to scorch the earth of worker-led victories.

Early on in the book, one of McAlevey’s mentors bolsters her confidence with the promise that ‘any good new idea … won’t be a bad idea until we try it and it doesn’t work’ (p.40). Indeed we see successes won when traditional protocols are exposed as potential liabilities whereas an energised naivety and willingness to place power firmly in the hands of workers makes space for common sense to prevail and real progress to be made. When this is perceived by the old guard as an affront, resources are squandered, talent is wasted and the only real winners are the bosses. Once workers’ expectations are raised and comprehensive victories have been won, the ensuing in-fighting makes actions on the part of centralised union power seem like the saddest kind of friendly fire.

The lasting message of the book is that it is essential for all of us to unlearn the capitalist approach to power that seeps in to even the most well-meaning organisations and individuals. We have to constantly check that we’re not replicating the same power structures which we’re opposing.

While at times it felt like I needed a crib sheet for all the acronyms and the very full cast of allies, conspirators, proxies and villains, Jane McAlevey’s memoir is an engaging, inspiring read. Full of moxy, McAlevey names names and puts it to you straight. You’ll cheer, you’ll boo, you’ll probably throw it out the window more than once, but you’ll count to ten and pick up where you left off with a book that has something to teach everyone who thinks – and especially those who doubt – that meaningful, lasting change is indeed possible.