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ER speaks to members of the CIO, AFL, and unaffiliated unions at the Hudson Shore Labor School, 1942. (6)

I have always felt that it was important that
everyone who was a worker join a labor organization.

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke these words to striking workers in 1941, one of many talks to union audiences as First Lady of the United States. The AFL printed the full speech in The American Federationist as seen below. Her clear and unequivocal statement in support of union membership reflected her past and foreshadowed her future. Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion of workers and she became a key player in defining workers’ rights as human rights at the United Nations.


ER's address to Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at Leviton Manufacturing Company strike headquarters, 1941. (5)

Workers Should Join Trade Unions

I have always been interested in organizations for labor. I have always felt that it was important that everyone who was a worker join a labor organization, because the ideals of the organized labor movement are high ideals.

They mean that we are not selfish in our desires, that we stand for the good of the group as a whole, and that is something which we in the United States are learning every day must be the attitude of every citizen.

We must all of us come to look upon our citizenship as a trusteeship, something that we exercise in the interests of the whole people.

Only if we cooperate in the battle to make this country a real democracy where the interests of all people are considered, only when each one of us does this will genuine democracy be achieved.

We hope to make the great battle which is before us today a battle of democracy versus a dictatorship.

I could not help thinking as we sang “God Bless America” that you who have seen hardship for so many weeks in your fight to better conditions for everyone involved must sometimes think that things are not as they should be in this country. I am afraid that I agree with you.

I know many parts of the country and there are many that I would like to see changed, and I hope eventually they will be changed.

But in spite of that I hope that we all feel that the mere fact that we can meet together and talk about organization for the worker and democracy in this country is in itself something for which we ought to be extremely thankful.

There are many places where there can be no longer any participation or decision on the part of the people as to what they will or will not do. And so, in spite of everything, we can still sing “God Bless America” and really feel that we are moving forward slowly, sometimes haltingly, but always in the hope and in the interest of the people in the whole country.


I just want to say that my education in the labor movement has come largely through Rose Schneiderman. I happened to join the Women’s Trade Union League years ago and she has taught me many things I wouldn’t have known otherwise.


I worked with Hilda Smith on her programs of workers’ education throughout the country. I always ask everybody what they are doing in the work project. I get funny answers. They say that they thought it was a dangerous subject. I said it doesn’t seem that way to me. We must have education and the ability of the people to understand the whole problem.


We should have projects to study the employees’ problems and I wish we had employers’ educational projects, too.
The important thing is to try to learn what conditions are throughout the country as a whole, and what the people are really thinking and what they are striving for.


As I look over the past few years, the thing that gives me the most hope for the future is the fact that, on the whole, people are standing together, people are working for the good of a group, not just for themselves. When we learn that I think we are going to find that we can move forward faster and faster.


I wish those of us who are employers would learn that it is through cooperation that we achieve more – that through stating our problems and asking people to work with us to solve them that we really get somewhere.

But that requires constant education for all of us, and I think we ought to bring all we can into really understanding the problems that are before the nation as a whole and as they affect our own particular situation.

We ought to try to solve the problems in our situation so that we can be more helpful in the solution of the problems that face the nation.

We find ourselves at a serious moment in the history of the world. We face problems not only as citizens of the United States; we face them as part of the entire world.

The greatest thing we can get out of the present crisis is to develop the habit of working together and realizing that whatever happens is going to affect us all.

I want to leave you this morning and express my gratitude to you for having stood together to gain those things, materially and spiritually, that will make life for your group richer and more productive.

I hope the day will come when all the people of this country will understand that cooperation will bring us greater happiness, and will bring us in the end a better life for the whole country and enable us to exert a greater influence on the world as a whole.


At the United Nations

Eleanor Roosevelt's most notable and long lasting work was through the United Nations. The UN was established in 1945 and ER was appointed one of the first U.S. delegates by President Truman. The Human Rights Commission was created in 1946, out of concern for victims of World War II. Because of her commitment to refugee issues, ER was chosen to chair the effort to draft a Declaration of Human Rights.

The Commission's mission was to create a document that might help to prevent another such war and serve as a model for how human beings and nations should treat each other. The General Assembly adopted the resulting Declaration on December 10, 1948. For over fifty years, the Declaration has been a moral beacon in the now universally recognized struggle for human rights and its principles have been incorporated into the legal systems of newly emerging nations through out the world. (For copies of the complete document in over 300 languages see the web page of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: www.unhchr.ch.) (7)

Critical to defining workers’ rights as human rights is 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 an 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 had good working relationships, as well as close personal ties, with union leaders and members. Before she was officially notified of her membership on the Human Rights Commission, she received a letter from Matthew Woll, Second Vice-President of the American Federation of Labor, requesting a meeting to discuss the International Bill of Rights already submitted to the UN Economic and Social Council by the AFL (November 27, 1946).

Mr. Woll, from the Photo-engravers Union, and her long-time friend David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, were AFL consultants to the UN. Point 2 of the AFL document stated that “Genuine freedom means the right of association and organization into various—into differing—educational, religious, economic, political and trade union organizations…” In January of 1947 ER met with Woll and Dubinsky to discuss the AFL human rights bill.

See “My Day,” Friday, January 24, 1947.

During debate on what eventually became Article 23, delegates questioned the need to single out trade union associations. According to UN documents, Eleanor Roosevelt explained that:

“The United States delegation considered that the right to form and join trade unions was an essential element of freedom. While other associations had long enjoyed recognition, trade unions had met with much opposition and it was only recently that they had become an accepted form of association. The struggle was, in fact, still continuing, and her delegation thought, therefore, that specific mention should be made of trade unions.” (8)

While these debates were going on, ER used her “My Day” column to educate the public about the complicated process of developing an international document, while also showing her support for trade union rights. The discussion at the UN went on to include issues such as the union shop and strikes. In the end, “Everyone has the right to form and to join unions for the protection of his interests,” was accepted by a unanimous vote.

See “My Day,” Sunday, October 20, 1947.

To view all footnotes, click here.

For more information on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, please visit: www.unhchr.ch