On International Human Rights Day, take a moment to celebrate the former First Lady's work to include labor rights in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. **Catch Brigid O'Farrell speaking today about labor, human rights, and her new book, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, at the AFL-CIO Headquarters, Washington, DC.
Today, people around the world stop to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. In a recent speech, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the Declaration as one of the United Nation's core founding documents that "guides our work and informs our thinking to the present." Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon has concluded that "The most impressive advances in human rights -- the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the Eastern European totalitarian regime -- owe more to the moral beacon of the declaration than to the many covenants and treaties that are now in force."
Eleanor Roosevelt played a critical role in the development of this document. In 1945, shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt's death and following the devastation of World War II, she accepted President Truman's offer to be a delegate to the United Nations. Soon she found herself responsible for bringing together a coalition of women and men from many diverse countries and cultures to define the first international bill of rights. Just as Lincoln orchestrated a team of political rivals, Eleanor Roosevelt guided a complex international team of philosophers, lawyers, politicians, diplomats, and trade unionists to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What is frequently left out of this remarkable story is the role of trade unions. In the midst of the current recession, with growing inequality, stagnant wages, unacceptably high unemployment, and union membership hovering at just 12 percent of the workforce, today seems a fitting time to review labor's role in securing workers' rights as fundamental human rights. To start, as a syndicated columnist Eleanor Roosevelt was herself a union member with the American Newspaper Guild. She was a staunch labor advocate in public and behind the scenes and worked closely with the union leaders throughout her life. Labor had a long history of engagement on international issues, as well, and was part of the discussions about the United Nations early on.
On April 25, 1945, just weeks after FDR's death, delegates to the San Francisco conference began deliberations to develop a charter for the United Nations. In an unprecedented move, over forty nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were invited to participate as consultants, including the AF of L and the CIO. Phil Murray, president of the CIO, said that he represented all of labor when he gave his full support to including human rights in the charter and establishing a Human Rights Commission, both of which were accomplished. Only seven NGOs were then given consultative status to attend meetings, suggest agenda items, and present positions to the Economic and Social Council; three of them were labor organizations. The AF of L was represented by ER's longtime colleague David Dubinsky of the ILGWU and Mathew Woll of the Photoengravers Union. Her friend Jim Carey, CIO, took a strong leadership position through the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). They were joined by the International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions based in Europe.
After a meeting with Woll and Dubinsky, Roosevelt told the readers of her My Day column about the exchange, noting that "It is natural, of course, that labor unions should be interested in human rights. And one of the things that I hope will evolve from any bill of this kind is the right of people to economic as well as political freedom." Both the AF of L and the CIO brought her their proposals for workers' rights. The AF of L also hired Toni Sender, a journalist and politician who had fled Nazi Germany, to be their full-time staff person at the UN.
Sender made strong arguments for the specific inclusion of trade union rights in the document. Debates included the closed shop and the right to strike. Eleanor Roosevelt explained that the United States delegation considered that "the right to form and join trade unions was an essential element of freedom." This was a remarkably bold statement, given that at this same time Roosevelt was arguing strongly against the anti-labor Taft-Hartley legislation that was making its way through the Congress at home.
After months of deliberation, the General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10 with 48 votes in favor and none against. It is worth reading and reflecting on 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.
Eleanor Roosevelt quickly returned to New York, knowing that the Declaration faced many obstacles. She thanked the unions for their assistance and they acknowledged her contribution when Phil Murray sent a letter to the Norwegian parliament supporting her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Eleanor Roosevelt took great pride in the Declaration and it remains the cornerstone of today's powerful human rights movements, offering an international framework for achieving workers' rights at home.
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.