I just finished reading one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read, Jane McAlevey’s Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement. I feel like I was tricked into reading it, by Sam Gindin’s uncritical, glowing review in Jacobin. (After re-reading it, I have to say that his criticism of Steve Early’s review is extremely off; Gindin says Early attacked McAlevey for her criticism of Sal Rosselli, who McAlevey “only mentions […] in passing,” which is absolutely absurd – she talks about him a lot.) Gindin makes the book sound about 100 times better than it actually is. The afterword to the paperback mostly lives up to his acclaim, but the rest of the book certainly does not. There are nuggets of wisdom contained within it (for instance, industrial unionism is usually more effective than craft unionism), but you have to wade through pages and pages of bad writing, hyperbole, petty personal attacks, and an ego the size of the goddamn moon before tripping over them. If you removed the self-congratulatory bullshit and petty snipes at people, the book would be half as long. As Michael Yates notes in Monthly Review, “She tells readers that Raising Expectations is about organizing; it is, but it is also a memoir centering on herself and her wars with the SEIU’s top leadership.” I would actually say that the organizing is secondary, and just the background to a very long set up to an eventual defense of her ousting from the SEIU, which in part was caused by her illegal involvement with internal union elections. She tries to make excuses for this, but they come across pretty thin, especially in light of the fact that she consistently blames everyone else around her for any problems – almost nothing is ever Jane McAlevey’s fault. And as Yates also notes, “Nothing that McAlevey did was new, but she often writes as if it was.” Like I said, ego the size of the goddamn moon.
Another comment by Yates is worth quoting at length, in particular to counter her transparent attempt to act like she was the most democratic unionist ever (which she lays on really thick towards the end of the book, just before quickly running through the whole election illegalities thing):
Jane McAlevey was never a rank-and-file worker. She was appointed to various union staff positions after working in a number of social-change organizations. Most of her book describes her tenure as executive director of a large local of public and private sector workers in Las Vegas. […] She simply does not have a working-class consciousness, a sense of herself as an interchangeable part of a collectivity. Her sensibility is essentially bourgeois—individualistic and narcissistic. Collective give-and-take, much less self-criticism, are not in her vocabulary. When workers see her, they do not see themselves, just her. In the end, capital and the union chieftains are not afraid of such people.
Joe Burns has similar problems with McAlevey’s book. In a review published by the blog of the Democratic Socialists of America, he writes that “Raising Expectations offers an unapologetic defense of the idea that middle class progressives should be running the labor movement, arguing ‘it takes a professionally trained staff to run a union.’ For obvious reasons, this conception of unionism proved widely popular with college-educated staffers and labor academics.” A comment on this review by someone named David Peter, claiming to have “personal experience with her style of top down, staff driven leadership while she was in Nevada” is worth noting: “[McAlevey] talks a good game, but her actions reveal the truth that she was a self promoting ego driven leader who thought she was smarter and better than rank and file workers and that only through her vision could the union thrive.” That sounds exactly like the impression I got of her from the book.
Don’t suffer through the masturbatory horribleness that is the JANE McALEVEY FTW! memoir. I actually agree with most of the points she makes about how to renew the labor movement, but she brings nothing new to the discussion in her limited treatment of it, overshadowed as it is by personal squabbles and a giant ego.