In 1957, UAW President Walter Reuther introduced Eleanor Roosevelt to delegates at the union’s convention as the “First Lady of the World.”International Women’s Day is a fitting occasion to celebrate the proud international history of Reuther, Roosevelt, and the UAW; then recommit ourselves to working women’s international solidarity.
Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most admired and controversial women of the twentieth century. She was also a life long advocate for working women and their unions. Practicing what she preached, as a newspaper columnist she was a member of The Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO, for over twenty-five years. Reuther told the delegates she “carries a union card in her purse”.She spoke that day about foreign affairs and the important role of unions in educating the public. She often challenged union members to take a “world view,” giving people everywhere “hope for better economic conditions”.
Walter Reuther and Eleanor Roosevelt were close friends and allies. Together they argued for a program of full employment at home and economic aid rather than military aid abroad. They exchanged strategies and travel plans to other countries including India, Russia, and Sweden. With a shared vision of unions as critical participants in the fight for social justice they championed not only auto workers, but all workers including immigrants, migrants, and domestic laborers around the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed the unions were fundamental to democracy. She took that message to the United Nations. Working closely with union allies and the UN Commission on the Status of Women, she led the United Nations committee to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They defined women’s rights and workers rights, including equal pay without discimination and the right to join a union, as human rights. In the early 1950s as they worked on translating the words into actions Victor Reuther, represetning the CIO in Europe, was a frequent visitor when Mrs. Roosevelt was in Paris for UN meetings.
Outsourcing provides just one example of then and now. As early as 1933, the new First Lady understood that cheap labor would lead to jobs moving from north to south and then to other countries. She told her women only press conference that “We should educate public opinion not to profit by labor anywhere unless it was done under decent living conditions”. Yet just last year 126 women workers were killedin the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in Bangladesh, reminiscent of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City where 146 workers, most of them young women,were killed. The sweatshops didn’t end after that tragedy, they moved. In the rapidly globalizing economy, companies like Walmart, Sears, and Disney continue to outsource jobs with low pay and dangerous working conditions. Eleanor Roosevelt’s words ring true today.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed that women had the ability and power to achieve their goals and told her readers that “In numbers there is strength, and we in America must help the women of the world.” Interntional Women’s Day is a time to consider how we can best do that in our crowded lives. At the local level we can do just a little of what she was doing to support the international efforts in our union and in our communities--learn about the human rights program then go to a union meeting, introduce a resolution, organize an education program,write a letter to the editor(http://www.uaw.org/page/standing-others-morally-right-and-protects-our-rights).
The UAW says that “our fight for democracy in the workplace and economic and social justice cannot end at our borders”. And Eleanor Roosevelt told delegates to a CIO Convention, “We can’t just talk. We have got to act”.
Author Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar in Moss Beach, California. Her most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. She is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981: www.bofarrel.net.