This is a talk by Brigid O’Farrell, of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, at George Washington University. It was given at Senior Action Network's celebration of the legacy of Eleanor Rosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The SF Gray Panthers and other organizations held a simultaneous celebration at SF City Hall.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project aims to develop a comprehensive, web-based archive of Mrs. Roosevelt 's extraordinary life, based on her writings. Brigid O"Farrell's role is collecting information and arranging Mrs. Roosevelt's papers on labor. You can learn more about the Project here. More useful information on Eleanor Roosevelt is available here.
Good Morning. I am delighted to be here and first want to Congratulate the Board of Supervisors for declaring October 11 Eleanor Roosevelt Day in San Francisco. And I want to thank the Senior Action Network and members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom for all your hard work to make this day happen and for including me in your celebration. Eleanor Roosevelt was no stranger to San Francisco. In the days long before air travel was common, she made frequent stops in the city, often between visits to her children in Los Angeles and Seattle. She had favorite places where she shopped and visited, in between her many speeches. I think she would be very proud of this proclamation.
Today, Eleanor Roosevelt’s practical, but always principled words and actions are as relevant as they were during her life time. By celebrating her life we are offering inspiration and guidance to new generations. She spoke out, loud and clear, on issues of war and peace, poverty, election reform, labor conditions, education, discrimination, housing—all contemporary problems. She was an unwavering advocate of women’s rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and workers’ rights. Her most enduring legacy, of course, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which we honor here today. In December 1948, shortly after the vote was successfully taken in the United Nations, she was asked “Why should a document that admittedly has no power to coerce people in the world have any value at all?’’ And she answered that “One should never belittle the value of words, however, for they have a way of getting translated into facts, and therein lies the hope for our universal declaration.”
The Declaration is now the cornerstone of today’s powerful human rights movement It has served as the model for rights provisions for over 90 constitutions around the world. Historian Mary Ann Glendon concludes that “The most impressive advances in human rights—the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the Eastern European totalitarian regimes—owe more to the moral beacon of the Declaration than to the many covenants and treaties that are now in force.”
A few years later, however, Eleanor Roosevelt asked a different question. “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?” And she answered “In small places, close to home…the world of the individual person; the neighborhood…the school or college…the factory, farm or office… unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Human rights have not fared so well here at home, in our own backyards. The United States is one of only four countries that has still not ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Human rights are being challenged daily in the United States. This is the focus of my work on Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project began in earnest in 2001. Under the direction of Dr. Allida Black, who has written extensively on Eleanor Roosevelt, the project is dedicated to bringing her writings, speeches, radio, and television appearances to audiences as diverse as the ones she addressed in her lifetime. Housed at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC, Dr. Black and her colleagues and students, have collected manuscripts and videos from 600 collections, scattered among 263 archives in all fifty states and nine nations. The documentary record is daunting. ER, as she first began to sign her letters to FDR in 1909, wrote 27 books, more than 8,000 columns, and approximately 580 articles. As First Lady she generated 45,000 letters a year. After the White House, she wrote 21,000 letters annually. She delivered more than 75 speeches a year, hosted over 326 radio addresses, and she broadcast a monthly television show for three years before her death in 1962.
I am enormously proud to show you today, Volume I. The Selected Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, complete with over 400 meticulously annotated documents and beautiful photographs. In addition to eventually producing 5 such scholarly volumes, the Project is mounting an electronic version of all 8, 000 My Day columns on the internet, has conducted hands on training for over 5,000 teachers, and has prepared several museum exhibits. The project is trying its very best to live up to ER’s example.
I was drawn to the project specifically to assess ER’s work with the American Labor Movement. I had completed a book in1996 called Rocking the Board, Union Women’s Voices, based on oral histories with over 80 union women. Many of these women had wonderful stories to tell about working with Mrs. Roosevelt, as they called her, going to the White House, campaigning, visiting at Val-Kill, her home in Hyde Park. How could that be? The history books shed little light on Eleanor Roosevelt and labor unions. More recent biographers acknowledge the importance of labor, but only as one of many areas she was concerned about. I began a search of the labor archives. In summary, here is what I have found.
1. After her death , the AFL-CIO wrote that “Through out the crowded years of her lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt was the tireless champion of working men and women…she was on our side, fighting for our right to organize…standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us in labor’s ranks…but more that that : she was one us.
2. “She was one of us” meant that Eleanor Roosevelt was a union member, a member in good standing of The Newspaper Guild, first CIO and then AFL-CIO, for over 25 years. She joined in 1937, a year after she began writing her syndicated My Day column. She was the first and only First Lady to join a union. She had her union card in her wallet when she died.
3. ER articulated a set of “principles on labor” early in her life brought them with her to the White House. Over the years, they developed into a critical piece of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. She worked closely with people from the labor movement when they drafted the Declaration. Of the seven non-profit organizations that had consultative status with the UN, 3 of them were labor organizations. The AF of L had a full time staff person at the UN Economic and Social Council who could literally do everything but vote. Labor’s role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also missing from the history books.
4. Article 24 (of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) proclaims that everyone has the right to work with just and favourable pay and working conditions, for equal pay without discrimination, and under Section 4. Every one has the right to form and join trade unions. ER had the right to join a union and now that right was universal.
5. So, How did ER’s support for Article 23.4 come about? She began her education about working men and women at the turn of the 20th century, as a young debutant volunteering at the Rivington Street settlement house on the lower east side of Manhattan. In the 1920s, as she moved on to the political stage, she developed a close working friendship with Rose Schneiderman and the National Women’s Trade Union League. Under their guidance, she championed the right to join a union in the women’s platform at the 1924 Democratic Convention.
6. During the New Deal she supported the right to join a union in the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Act. In 1941, she spoke to a group of IBEW workers striking for union recognition on Long Island. Before the packed hall she declared, “I have always felt that it was important that everyone who was a worker join a labor organization.” She defended the right of workers to strike during the war, opposed the Taft Hartley law, led opposition to the state right to work provision, and testified before Congress on behalf of migrant workers. She believed there were only two ways to bring about protection for workers…legislation and unionization.
7. This story is filled with wonderful characters. The fiery Rose Schneiderman and the WTUL were joined by bigger-than-life John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers; David Dubinsky, master of Seventh Ave and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; Hilda Worthington Smith, poet and labor educator from the Bryn Mawr Summer Schools; Walter Reuther, the most dangerous man in Detroit and the United Automobile Workers; Jim Carey, labor’s boy wonder and the International Union of Electrical Workers; A. Philip Randolph, courtly civil rights and labor leader and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Esther Peterson, gentle labor activist, advisor to presidents and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; and many more. They worked with Mrs. Roosevelt through the critical historical events that provide the framework within which their personal stories of success, crisis, and collaboration unfold: from the tragic Triangle Fire in 1911 to the Cold War of the 1960s.
8. Eleanor Roosevelt did not always agree with labor and there were huge disagreements within the labor movement, not unlike today. She was not perfect and she did not expect perfection from others. What she did posses was unflinching faith in democracy and that faith depended on her trust in people. Her trust in people was significantly strengthened through her work with trade unions. Practicing democracy in the workplace was integral to practicing democracy in the country and in the world. In 1940, before a convention of the ILGWU, on a beautiful sunny day at the World’s Fair in New York City, Mrs. Roosevelt outlined what she saw as the fundamental similarities between unions and democracy. She began “In a trade union, each member, while he may have his own preferences and the freedom to say and do as he likes, must in the interest of the union, discipline himself to achieve results for all of the members. That is so in the labor movement s a whole…That is so in a democracy. The next day, she went on to tell her readers that she received more than she gave at the meeting for “As I looked out over those faces and listened to them sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,” it seemed to me that my faith in the reality of our democracy was deepened…Here stood a cross section of our people from many lands, bringing us an infinite variety of backgrounds and cultures. However, in all of them one felt, a confirmation of our determination to remain free and cooperatively to work out our destiny in the world…I get such a sense of power and solidarity from a meeting like yesterday’s, that I can face the uncertainty of the future with far more strength and courage.” Theirs was a collaborative relationship.
9. Why should anyone care about this history? Because today, the vast majority of workers are asked to check their democratic rights at the office door, the factory gate, the school entrance, the hospital lobby, in Wal-Mart’s parking lot. White, black, or brown, native born or immigrant, male or female, young or old, workers are denied basic human rights. Wal-Mart, for example, now considered by some to be the new corporate model for the twenty-first century economy, violates the very human rights that Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues in the labor movement worked so hard to protect. America’s largest private employer, with more than ten billion dollars in annual profits, has been fined for child labor law violations, is the subject of the largest class action law suit ever filed for discrimination against women, pays poverty-level wages with few benefits, and is outspoken in its aggressive anti-union campaign. Cheap prices come at a high cost. Citizens need to organize, lobby, educate, and vote. There is no doubt that Eleanor Roosevelt would add the internet to her set of tools, starting with a web page.
10. In remembering Mrs. Roosevelt, Esther Peterson said “She could always communicate with whomever she was talking to, connecting the little problems that they were having and fitting them into a pattern of larger legislative issues. She had a wonderful skill…I would like to walk a little bit in her shadow. Her work continues to inspire me…” Her words and actions, and especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, offer inspiration and practical guidance to all of us seeking social justice and human rights close to home and around the world.