The latest blow to the Roosevelt legacy was reported in this weekend's NYTimes: "Even at manufacturing companies that are profitable, union workers are reluctantly agreeing to tiered contracts that create two levels of pay." Tactics like these have been used before, but almost always at financially troubled companies and with the assurance that the changes were temporary. This time, however, companies like Harley-Davidson -- usually an emblem of the working men it employs -- are making the two-tier system permanent, against the threat of pulling out of communities and taking jobs with them.
No better time than now to pick up a copy of Brigid O'Farrell's new book, "She Was One Of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker". O'Farrell goes back before ER ever set foot in the White House and takes us all the way to her death in 1962, pointing out along the way the passion she brought to the fight for workers' rights and the expansion of unions' influence. Throughout her life, ER was an ambassador between unions and minorities, the president, and the world at large. She was a card-carrying member until her death and never stopped fighting for labor rights.
But ER didn't grow up in a working-class environment. She was raised as a New York debutante in one of the city's oldest families, attending a finishing school and fancy balls. But at the age of 18 she became involved in the settlement house movement, volunteering to provide necessities to the less well off. It was through this work that she introduced FDR to the squalid life in New York City's tenements and both became involved in social justice. That passion never faltered. She then got involved in union work when her friend Rose Schneiderman introduced her to the Women's Trade Union League. And in 1936, in celebration of the first anniversary of her "My Day" column, she joined the American Newspaper Guild, a union for journalists. She stayed active in that organization until the end.
As O'Farrell explains: "She practiced what she preached." She surprised the country by going into a coal mine in 1935 to see the conditions for herself and to talk to the miners about their needs. As Heywood Broun, a prominent labor leader, put it, "It seems to me, at the moment Eleanor Roosevelt has a deeper and closer understanding of the needs and aspirations of millions of Americans than any other person in public life." In a pamphlet for a memorial fund set up in her honor by the AFL-CIO in 1963, the unions declared, "she was one of us." That sentiment wasn't just felt by the unions, however. A woman that Glenn Beck would be quick to call an "elite" today, she was beloved by average Americans of all groups, racial minorities and women included, for her work on their behalf. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her "America's First Citizen." Her whole life she worked to make sure that African Americans and women were included in union organizing efforts.
And while today the recession is used as an excuse to damage unions' influence and workers' rights, both ER and her husband ensured that an economic recovery from the Great Depression included improved living standards for the poorest citizens. While she wasn't shy about acknowledging some of the corruption, internal strife and power grabbing that would go on in the unions, she always felt that they held the key to improving the lives of working Americans and thus were vital to protect. She constantly questioned attacks on labor, even after her husband's death. In response to the passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, she wrote, "Perhaps [Congress] hope[s] to establish an economy which will keep up large incomes for certain great business corporations but cut down on small business, gradually reducing the living standard for the average individual while keeping it high for the few favored people. This is not a democratic theory." And no matter what other challenges the country faced, she never felt that workers' rights should be ignored. O'Farrell says it well: "In the face of difficulties both domestic and foreign, from the Great Depression through World War II and the cold war to the economic challenges posed by automation and globalization, Eleanor Roosevelt allied herself with workers who sought to advance economic and social justice."
ER also knew that workers' rights didn't just matter at home, but had echoes in the global arena. While she watched squabbles over alleged communism in unions' ranks and attacks on their power, she lamented, "Sometimes, when I see how inadequate we are at settling these disputes among ourselves reasonably, I despair about a peaceful world... If we can't do this in labor disputes at home, how on earth do we expect to do it when the people concerned belong to different nations?" She strived for the US to set an example of democracy and freedom for all of its citizens on the global stage. As we fight two wars and try to make economic deals with other countries, those might be good words to remember.
Her work is far from over; in fact, the torch is in need of relighting. Walter Reuther, a labor leader and dear friend, once said that ER had "the rare combination of courage, integrity, intelligence and charm blended into human kindness and understanding that entitles her to a place in history as the greatest woman in modern times." We can all find a little of her in ourselves and in our fight for social justice.
Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.