They all joined labor unions. Natalie Portman, Academy Award nominee for her role as a ballerina in "Black Swan," said at the Screen Actors Guild award ceremony, "I've been working since I was 11 years old and [SAG] has taken care of me. They made sure that I wasn't working too long and made sure that I got my education while I was working and I am so grateful to have this union protecting me everyday."
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, is this year's Super Bowl MVP. He is also the Packers' team representative for the National Football Leagues Players Association. In the face of a lockout threat by the team owners in 2011, he told Green Bay fans "We all stand behind the NFLPA and we believe in them and that they're going to represent us the right way...We realize how much this means and affects not only us but the community." It's not surprising that his teammate Charles Woodson, the Green Bay defensive icon, is standing, along with many current and former teammates, with the Wisconsin protesters. Woodson recently issued this formal announcement:
"Last week I was proud when many of my current and former teammates announced their support for the working families fighting for their rights in Wisconsin. Today I am honored to join with them. Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. These hard working people are under an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights to have a voice and collectively bargain at work."
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most admired women in the world, 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 gave careful consideration to her positions, however. President Roosevelt was skeptical of public employee unions and his wife struggled in her newspaper column "My Day" with the issue.
Mrs. Roosevelt worried that the public employee unions could usurp government power and she feared for the safety of children in schools and the sick in hospitals if the teachers and nurses could strike. She favored a system of tripartite government, employer, and union committees, using mediation and arbitration as ways to resolve disputes. But she also carefully considered the position of the workers. She was shocked when a city police commissioner refused to meet with a workers' grievance committee. She acknowledged budget problems, but asked if "any workers should be kept at starvation wages?"
By the late 1950s, she concluded that unionization in the public sector 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. "Employees who are quite evidently not receiving a living wage and are dissatisfied with their conditions of work," she wrote, "would simply be slaves if they were obliged to work on without being able to reach their employers with their complaints and demand negotiation."
When teachers went on strike in New York City in 1962, she wrote 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 concluded that "Under the present set-up teachers have no other recourse but to strike to draw attention to their legitimate complaints."
Eleanor Roosevelt's belief in labor unions as a critical part of our democratic process began in the tenements on the lower east side of Manhattan, where she first learned about children working in the sweatshops and helping with the piecework at home. She walked her first picket line in 1926 to support the box makers' strike. As First Lady she refused to cross a picket line, proudly joined a union, and told striking workers in 1941 that she felt it was important that "everyone who was a worker join a labor organization."
In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt took her message to the world stage. As a delegate to the United Nations she helped guide the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the newly formed United Nations. It is no accident that article 23.4 states that everyone has the right to form and join a trade union to protect their interests. Eleanor Roosevelt saw this as a fundamental human right and she worked with her friends in the labor movement to secure its inclusion in the declaration. She supported this right for all workers, public and private, profit and non-profit.
When asked where human rights begin, Roosevelt answered, "In small places close to home...the neighborhood...the school...the factory, farm and office...Unless they have meaning there they will have little meaning any where." Workers rights are human rights and the workers in Wisconsin are threatened with the loss of this basic human right in the name of a fiscal crisis created by a radical governor, greed on Wall Street, and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Natalie Portman and Aaron Rodgers belong to unions and they have the right to bargain collectively for their wages, benefits, and working conditions. The nurses, forest rangers, teachers, police officers, clerks, fire fighters, and many more people who make the cities and towns of Wisconsin run also exercise their basic human right to have a voice at work and bargain collectively for their wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Governor Scott Walker, however, thinks they have somehow caused the greatest recession since the Great Depression. If only public workers didn't have the right to a democratic voice at work, he seems to argue, the state of Wisconsin could solve its budget crisis. Rush Limbaugh says they are freeloaders. Would either man forgo seats at the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl because of the "freeloaders" being honored?
Wisconsin workers have said they will negotiate. Marty Beil, executive director of the 23,000 member Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFSCME Council 24, told the governor that they would accept his proposed changes in pension and health care costs, but only if they could maintain the right of collective bargaining. His members understand that everyone has to compromise in times of economic peril, no matter who caused the problem. But they have a basic human right to participate as equals with the governor in deciding the cuts and sacrifices.
Governor Walker turned them down. This is not about the money. As President Obama clearly stated, this is an "assault on unions." What is it about the democratic process that the governor doesn't understand? Perhaps he would benefit from a trip to Egypt.
Brigid O'Farrell is an independent scholar whose new book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, Cornell University Press.