The Right To Join A Union: From Eleanor Roosevelt to John Kasich

When my phone rang in Moss Beach, California, I was surprised to find a young girl calling from a small town in Ohio, not far from Columbus. She and her friends in eighth grade were writing a play about Eleanor Roosevelt for a school project. She saw my book on the internet, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. They wanted their drama to address the workers in Ohio and Wisconsin. "Eleanor Roosevelt went into a coal mine, didn't she?" the girl asked. "Do you think she would be supporting the workers today?"
Now is a good time to share my answer because workers are gathering in solidarity rallies across the country calling for respect, dignity, and a voice at work. Would Eleanor Roosevelt be supporting the union rights of teachers and nurses, fire fighters and police? The short answer is an empathetic "yes.

One of the most admired women in the world, Eleanor Roosevelt was a member of the Newspaper Guild for over 25 years and a staunch advocate for unions, which she came to view as a "fundamental element of democracy." She believed that everyone had a basic right to a voice at work. She argued for union rights in the public sector, while also campaigning to defeat state right-to-work laws.

But this call had a very personal touch for me. I was born and raised in East Liverpool, along the Ohio River. First the potteries left the valley and then the steelmills shut down. Good union jobs disappeared. The city struggles to survive and now the workers who provide vital services to the citizens and keep the town running are threatened with the loss of a basic human right in the name of yet another crisis they didn't create.

Gov. John Kasich not only proposes to end collective bargaining for public workers, he has shown his disdain for the workers Eleanor Roosevelt so admired by publicly calling the policemen "idiots." My brother was an Ohio State Highway Patrolman. His son is a policeman near Cleveland; not far from where his dad and I grew up. They deserve better. The men and women who protect our lives, teach our children, care for the sick, plow the snow, and keep the cities running deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

All unions and employers, public and private, need to maintain high standards of responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Taking away the rights of unions, however, is not the answer to the current fiscal problems. As Eleanor Roosevelt argued, we need a system where "All interests shall be equaly considered and concession shall never be expected from one side only." This is not about the money. As President Obama clearly stated, this is an "assault on unions."

Eleanor Roosevelt's belief in labor unions as a critical part of our democratic process began when she was a young debutante volunteering in the tenements on the lower east side of Manhattan, where she first learned about sweatshops. She walked her first picket line in 1926 to support a box makers' strike in New York. As First Lady, she refused to cross a picket line and proudly joined a union in 1936 at the height of the sit down strikes in Michigan, when workers were being attacked and fighting back. She told striking workers in 1941 that she felt it was important that "everyone who was a worker join a labor organization."

In 1945, after FDR's death, she took her belief in democracy at work to the United Nations and the task of framing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under her guidance, working closely with union leaders, Article 23 declared that everyone, without discrimination, has the right to a decent job, fair working conditions, a living wage, equal pay for equal work, and the right to join a union.

Eleanor Roosevelt gave careful consideration to her positions. President Roosevelt was concerned about public employee unions, although not anti-union as some have suggested. His wife struggled with the issue in her newspaper column after his death, "My Day." In the 1950s, she finally concluded that unionization was necessary because employers in the public sector were little different from those in the private sector, refusing to listen to workers and treat them fairly.

"You cannot just refuse to meet with people," she wrote, "when they want to talk about their basic human rights." For teachers, police, and fire fighters she said that there was no "method of complaint and adjustment that could take the place of collective bargaining with the ultimate possibility of a strike." She told her readers that the striking teachers in 1962 had "no other recourse but to strike to draw attention to the legitimate complaints."

In 1958, as co-chair of a national council established to defeat right-to-work laws in six states, she called on "right-thinking citizens, from all walks of life" to challenge the "predatory and misleading campaigns." When human rights were invoked she called the argument a "calculated and cunning smoke screen to beguile the innocent and unknowing." She took greatest offense when the California ballot language suggested that FDR would support right-to-work laws, responding "The American public understands very well that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would never have supported such a reactionary doctrine."

When asked "Where, after all, do human rights begin?" Eleanor Roosevelt answered "In small places close to home... the neighborhood...the school...the factory, farm or office...unless they have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere." Her voice resonates today in support of workers in Ohio and across the country. Their voices were heard on April 4th. Workers rights are human rights.

American Rights at Work, Wed Apr 6 2011
Posted by: Brigid O'Farrell

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