Eleanor Roosevelt Fought for Human Rights and Union Rights

December 17th, 2014 | Mike Hall

Image: Mike HallToday is International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the day in 1948 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the prime movers behind the declaration was Eleanor Roosevelt. As Mary Jo Binker and Brigid O’Farrell write on the History News Network that was just one piece of her long post-White House, progressive—and pro-union—activist life after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1945 death. Something they say was glossed over in the recent Ken Burns series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

“This period is a complete mystery to most Americans who usually associate Eleanor with Franklin and assume that her role in American life ended with his death in 1945 or that her postwar life merely echoed his New Deal.”

They write that the later part of Roosevelt’s life was marked by three key concepts, political courage, civic education and citizen engagement. Political courage was highlighted by her stand against McCarthyism, while her civic education activities included a six-day-a-week newspaper column, 27 books and several radio and TV public affairs programs.

Binker and O’Farrell point to Roosevelt’s action on civil rights within a then-divided Democratic Party and helping found Americans for Democratic Action as two components of her civic engagement. They also write:

“Another important aspect of ER’s [Eleanor Roosevelt’s] civic engagement philosophy was her support for American labor. ER did more than foster the labor movement, she actually joined it. In 1937, one year after she started writing My Day, she became a member of what is today The Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO. Despite allegations that her membership implied communist affiliation, she remained a member for over 25 years. Indeed, her union card was in her wallet when she died. ER also numbered many union leaders among her personal friends. She was particularly close to United Auto Workers Union President Walter Reuther. Reuther and ER worked and relaxed together—staying at each other’s homes and befriending each other’s families.

During the postwar years, ER gradually became a strong supporter of public-sector unions and vigorously led an effort to defeat so called “right-to-work laws” in six states. She was a keynote speaker at the AFL-CIO merger convention in 1955, a merger she had championed for 20 years. When A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, asked her to join the National Farm Labor Advisory Committee in 1959, despite failing health she agreed. She attended meetings, wrote columns and testified before Congress on behalf of migrant farm workers.”

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO. org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Global-Action/Eleanor-Roosevelt-Fought-for-Human-Rights-and-Union-Rights

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

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