Eleanor Roosevelt and Labor Law Reform

Oct 11, 2010Brigid OFarrell

eleanor-roosevelt-150ER fought the very weaknesses we see today in America's failing labor relations system. ND20 ALERT: O'Farrell's new book She Was One of Us will be released this week, October 14. With wages stagnant for decades, unemployment shockingly high, and union membership at levels not seen since the Great Depression, this book about Eleanor Roosevelt's championing of working people reminds us of the struggles necessary to achieve the successes of the New Deal.

Today marks Eleanor Roosevelt's 126th birthday. How fitting that we are now honoring the 75th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act legislation vital to building our labor relations system. In 1936, just a year after President Roosevelt signed the NLRA, his wife celebrated the first anniversary of her syndicated My Day newspaper column by joining the newly formed American Newspaper Guild, CIO.

For many, however, the battles were bloody. Workers organizing under the new law, better known as the Wagner Act, were intimidated, brutally beaten, and some were killed. Companies stockpiled weapons and hired paramilitary forces and workers fought back. As strikes spread and violence escalated, ER, as she often signed her name, told her readers that "Many people do not believe in unions. Unquestionably unions and their leaders are not always wise and fair any more than any other human beings. There are only two ways to bring about protection of the workers, however, legislation and unionization."

The Wagner Act embodied her combined strategies. The legislation was necessary to unionization: guaranteeing workers the right to take individual responsibility and then act collectively, to join a union and bargain for their wages, working conditions, and benefits. She gave her full support, starting with her own very public union membership, which she maintained until her death in 1962. Union membership grew from 3 million to 8 million during the decade and by 1955 over one-third of all workers belonged to a union, creating the core of a growing middle class.

Eleanor Roosevelt fought amendments to weaken the Wagner Act, especially Taft-Hartley, and under her guidance workers' rights became part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The decades that followed her death, however, witnessed a dramatic decline in union membership. In the early 21st century, 12 million union members represent only 12% of the workforce. Just over 7% of workers in the private sector belong to a union, a level not seen since the Great Depression.

The current labor relations system is in need of repair. Work has changed a great deal since ER's day but the problems are familiar: low wages, employer hostility, plant closings, outdated laws, racial and gender discrimination. There are multiple reasons for union decline, but management resistance to union organizing and the failure of labor laws to effectively protect workers' rights contribute to the problem. Several of the core weakness in the system today are areas that Eleanor Roosevelt vociferously opposed.

Excluded Workers: The Wagner Act covers a limited number of workers in the private sector. Agricultural laborers, domestic employees, first level supervisors, immigrants, and public sector workers are among those excluded. Eleanor Roosevelt opposed such exclusions, telling striking IBEW workers in 1941 that she had "always felt that it was important that everyone who was a worker join a labor organization." She testified before Congress on behalf of migrant farm workers, for example, and encouraged domestic workers to form unions.

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Employer Resistance: Workers protected by the Wagner Act still meet intimidation, harassment, and job loss when organizing. In labor expert Kate Bronfenbrenner's most recent study workers were discharged in 34% of the campaigns leading up to elections and employers threatened to close plants in 57% of these elections. ER deplored the use of intimidation and threats arguing, "I do believe the right to explain the principles lying back of labor unions should be safeguarded, that every workman should be free to listen to the pleas of organization without fear of hindrance or of evil circumstances."

Collective Bargaining: When workers win an election for union representation, they often fail to negotiate a contract. According to Bronfenbrenner, in 37% of elections where unions win workers are still without a contract two years later. ER tirelessly reminded the country of the dirty and dangerous conditions in which many people worked and the meager wages for which they toiled. She declared that "A business has no right to exist which cannot pay every employee a living wage." Workers had a right to bargain and she supported mediation when bargaining failed.

Strikes and Mediation: Under the current system companies can hire replacement workers when a strike over economic issues is in process. Rarely used at first, permanent replacement workers have become a frequent way to weaken the effectiveness of strikes. Eleanor Roosevelt staunchly supported the right to strike and refused to cross a picket line. She reminded her readers that imposing a ban on strikes seemed to her "an abrogation of fundamental rights which eventually would do harm to every citizen." At the same time, however, she saw the strike as a last resort and she joined her friend Walter Reuther of the UAW in admiring the Swedish system of tripartite cooperation between government, employers, and unions.

Union Security: Today, so called "right-to-work" laws have been enacted in 22 states under section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act. This means that an employee can refuse to join a union or pay dues, but the union still has to represent the worker in negotiations and workplace grievances. For ER, these laws weakened the labor relations system and diminished human rights. At the age of 74, an ailing ER co-chaired the National Council for Industrial Peace to defeat the extension of the right-to-work laws to six more states, declaring that it was time "for all right-thinking citizens, from all walks of life, to join in protecting the nation's economy and the working man's union security from the predatory and misleading campaigns now being waged by the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers." In 2009, new right-to-work legislation was introduced in Pennsylvania.

Eleanor Roosevelt would support labor law reform today, beginning with the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). This proposal would make it easier for people to join a union by signing cards, increase employer penalties for breaking the laws, and provide for mediation when collective bargaining broke down. A recent public opinion survey found strong support for EFCA across party and state lines, but there is also strong opposition. Senators threaten a filibuster and the cofounder of Home Depot called it "the demise of a civilization."

EFCA would not affect many barriers to union organizing, but it could help improve the success rate for organizing drives and first contracts. With more members unions would have stronger bargaining power and political influence. As a practical politician Eleanor Roosevelt might well support such a strategy. Employer arguments echo those she criticized in the fight against the right-to-work laws as "predatory and misleading." For ER, legislation that facilitated union organizing was a necessary step to give workers a democratic voice in securing their human rights, but then she would move on to expanding protection to all workers, stopping the permanent replacement of strikers, strengthening mediation systems, and ending right-to-work laws. These are important issues to think about on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday.

For O'Farrell's full article on this topic see "Restoring Workplace Democracy: Eleanor Roosevelt and Labor Law Reform," Journal of Workplace Rights, Volume 14, Issue 3, 2010 (Click here: Baywood - Article).

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar whose research and writing focuses on employment equity, especially for women in nontraditional jobs, and labor history. She is the author, most recently of, She Was One of Us.

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