Monday, December 06, 2010

She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker

by Brigid O'Farrell, Cornell University Press, 2010, 304 pp.

On December 10, 2010, World Human Rights Day, the AFL-CIO is hosting an event at its headquarters in Washington DC to honour Eleanor Roosevelt. The speakers are Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and Julie Kushner, director of Region 9A of the United Auto Workers, and, Brigid O'Farrell, the author of this book.

Human Rights Day is an appropriate date because of Roosevelt's prominent and pivotal work in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, has now been translated into 375 languages, and counting.

Especially pertinent to workers and the labour movement are these three articles of the Declaration:

Article 23

1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25

1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

--from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, official English translation.

It is noteworthy that the recently created United Nations Human Rights Council is developing a method for reviewing and delivering opinions on human rights complaints on a regular basis.

According to the unions organizing the Friday, December 10, event, Eleanor Roosevelt "was born to privilege and married a U.S. President, but Eleanor Roosevelt was a committed, lifelong advocate for workers and a proud union member for more than 25 years. She Was One of Us reveals—for the first time—the story of our greatest First Lady’s deep ties to the American Labor movement."

The Cornell University Press webpage for the book is more explicit about Roosevelt's union membership, in the AFL-CIO's Newspaper Guild. I have not yet seen the book, but here is the remainder of the description from the publisher's site:

Brigid O'Farrell follows Roosevelt—one of the most admired and, in her time, controversial women in the world—from the tenements of New York City to the White House, from local union halls to the convention floor of the AFL-CIO, from coal mines to political rallies to the United Nations.

Roosevelt worked with activists around the world to develop a shared vision of labor rights as human rights, which are central to democracy. In her view, everyone had the right to a decent job, fair working conditions, a living wage, and a voice at work. She Was One of Us provides a fresh and compelling account of her activities on behalf of workers, her guiding principles, her circle of friends—including Rose Schneiderman of the Women's Trade Union League and the garment unions and Walter Reuther, "the most dangerous man in Detroit"—and her adversaries, such as the influential journalist Westbrook Pegler, who attacked her as a dilettante and her labor allies as "thugs and extortioners." As O'Farrell makes clear, Roosevelt was not afraid to take on opponents of workers' rights or to criticize labor leaders if they abused their power; she never wavered in her support for the rank and file.

Today, union membership has declined to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and the silencing of American workers has contributed to rising inequality. In She Was One of Us, Eleanor Roosevelt's voice can once again be heard by those still working for social justice and human rights.

This event and book came to my attention through the US National Council of Women's Organizations. Brigid O'Farrell is a member of NCWO, and she researched labor issues at NCWO and at the Women’s Research and Education Institute (WREI). She is now affiliated with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University.

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