Eleanor Roosevelt's Fight for Labor Rights Lives On
Then as now, labor rights and labor's voice in politics are under heavy attack.
By Brigid O’Farrell
Eleanor Roosevelt and Women's Trade Union League, 1954. National Archives and Records Administration; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
This is a good time to reflect on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s values and how she translated those values into action on behalf of ideas and people she supported. Eleanor Roosevelt strongly believed in workers, their unions, and their involvement in the political process. A member of The Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO for over 25 years, she came to see unions as fundamental to democracy itself. In 1941, she told striking IBEW workers that “it was important that everyone who was a worker join a labor organization.” Under her guidance, the right to join a union was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet workers’ rights remain under heavy attack today. Her legacy is still in need of protection and promotion.
The fact that US workers have a collective voice in the political process is firmly rooted in the New Deal. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt believed that workers had a right to a voice at work as well as a voice in politics. They also saw the two as closely intertwined as they worked with labor to win elections and support their progressive agenda. John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers Union, and Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union, led the labor movement in contributing money and getting out the union vote for President Roosevelt’s re-election efforts. Resistance was fierce. Then, as now, they were outspent by anti-union forces. Yet by 1947, Mrs. Roosevelt concluded in her “My Day” column that while “labor today is stronger than it used to be, it is no stronger than organized capital.”
Similar anti-union initiatives continue to this day. Many people in California are members of labor unions, from airplane pilots and grocery store clerks to nurses and teachers, mail carriers and electricians, police officers and fire fighters. Through their unions the pay dues, elect officers, and participate in decisions that affect their pay, benefits, and workplace safety. Should these union members also be allowed to have a collective voice in our political process through their unions?
Proposition 32, on the November ballot in California, says “no.” This proposition exempts powerful corporate interests from the limits on political spending but imposes formidable barriers to unions. Paycheck deductions – money raised through voluntary deductions from workers’ paychecks – could no longer be used for political activities. Only unions, however, not companies or wealthy individuals, rely on voluntary paycheck deductions as their source of funding to support political action.
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