American Federation of Labor on President Johnson and Human Rights

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American Federation of Labor on President Johnson and Human Rights

Book excerpt


Date: February 23, 1968

Source: Fink, Gary M., ed. AFL-CIO Executive Council Statements and Reports, 1956–1975. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

About the Author: The first step toward organized labor in the United States occurred on November 15, 1881, when delegates from local units of the Knights of Labor met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to form the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. An eclectic group of cigar makers, merchant seamen, printers, and others, they wrote a constitution and set the eight-hour work day as a central part of their platform. The group was already popular among workers, but it lacked public backing. On December 8, 1886, members of the federation aligned with representatives from various other unions to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and quickly began to strike for the eight-hour work day and other issues. In 1935, AFL in-fighting led to the exodus of several key unions, who created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). With the addition of several other unions, the CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938. The CIO and AFL disagreed bitterly, but they continued to make substantial gains for workers, including minimum wages, workers' and unemployment compensation, as well as other benefits. During World War II, the two organizations began to put their disagreements aside and work more closely together. In December 1955, they officially joined forces as the AFL-CIO. In the postwar years, the organization has added human rights to its agenda.


The first International Conference on Human Rights met in Teheran, Iran, from April 22 to May 13, 1968, to review progress that had been made in the twenty years since Eleanor Roosevelt had first presented the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The year was a pivotal one, as the Vietnam conflict brought international human rights into the spotlight.

The harsh and bloody North Vietnamese Tet offensive led to the war's escalation, and in 1969 news of the My Lai massacre became public. In addition to the war, the United States had also endured over a decade of civil rights strife, beginning with the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas schools. Protests for civil rights, women's rights, and other avenues of social discontent were led by civic and political groups including the AFL-CIO, which joined these campaigns for the same reasons that it mandated desegregation of unions: Human rights are part of workers rights.


In his formal proclamation of 1968 as Human Rights year, President Johnson emphasized that U.S. ratification of human rights treaties was long overdue. This ratification is all the more urgent because, otherwise, our government will not be able to participate effectively in the United Nations Conference on Human Rights to be held in Teheran next April.

American labor has had an unceasing interest in promoting and preserving human rights. Devoted to this course, the AFL-CIO Executive council strives to do its utmost to help assure the success of this historic conference which marks the 20th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly. In this regard, we note that the initial drive for the adoption of this inspiring Declaration was provided by organized labor in the U.S.

Furthermore, over twenty years ago, in November 1947, American labor took the initiative in placing the issue of forced labor before the entire world community. We then petitioned the U.N. Economic and Social Council to request the International Labor Organization (ILC) to make a comprehensive survey of the extent of forced labor in the member States of the U.N. We proposed, at the same time, that positive procedures be established for revising the 1930 convention and that measures be taken for its implementation so as to eliminate forced labor.

We of the AFL-CIO are very much interested in our country playing the decisive role in making the Teheran sessions fruitful. With this in mind and in the spirit of President Johnson's aforementioned Proclamation, the Executive Council calls upon Chairman Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to cease all further delays in holding hearings on the ratification of the remaining human rights treaties. This Committee has, so far, reported favorably only on the supplementary convention on Slavery. I cannot afford to lose any more time in taking similar action on the other convention before it—as strongly urged by the late President Kennedy and President Johnson.

The Foreign Relations Committee must realize that it is no credit to our country that the U.S. is not one of the 71 nations which have approved the convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that was unanimously recommended, on December 9, 1948, by the U.N. General Assembly for ratification by member states; the U.S. is not one of the 79 nations which have approved the Convention concerning the Abolition of Forced Labor; the U.S. is not among the 76 nations which have approved the Convention on Freedom of Association; and the U.S. is not among the 55 nations which have already approved the Convention on the Political Rights of Women.

Further delay by the Senate, which has the constitutional responsibility for ratification of the above Conventions, will place our country in an entirely unnecessary and dangerously ambiguous position—playing into the hands of the slanderers of the U.S. at home and abroad. Since the American people as a whole now enjoy the rights, freedoms and standards provided by these conventions, no member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee can, at this very late date, raise the question of the so-called sanctity of states' rights as an objection to their ratification.

We of American labor continue our uncompromising opposition to the use of totalitarian and other authoritarian methods for resolving, by force, social problems relating to work. In this light, we condemn unreservedly all political policies and economic procedures which provide for the employers (state) using organizations with workers in their ranks to police the factories—for instance, as in communist countries, to serve as instruments for speeding up the workers or, under the guise of new "codes of Work," to penalize them for what the employer (state) considers inadequate use of machinery.

We are especially distressed over the failure of the U.S. Senate to act with dispatch in promoting human rights, because, more recently, mankind has witnessed the frightening recurrence of a massive growth of the utterly inhumane practice of forced labor—particularly in the Soviet Union, Communist China and other totalitarian and tyrannical lands.

The Teheran conference provides our government with a unique opportunity to take the lead in seeking concrete worldwide implementation of the International Covenant on Human Rights which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1966. Towards full utilization of this opportunity, the AFL-CIO Executive Council urges our government to take the initiative in proposing that the Teheran Conference take the following positive steps for implementing:

(1) Article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

(2) Article 14 (1) of this Declaration which provides that "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

(3) The creation of more effective safeguards against the violation of human rights by establishing a Permanent U.N. Commission on the Preservation and Promotion of Human Rights, with authority to appoint Human Rights Observation Committees endowed with the rights and powers of investigation, surveillance and reporting.

(4) The elimination by the U.N. Member States of all legal, political, administrative, and police barriers to the widest freedom of circulation among their peoples of all U.N. publications, surveys, reports, and other documents acted upon by the General Assembly or any of its subdivisions.

(5) Enforcement of effective sanctions against repressive colonialist regimes in the African territories under Portuguese and Spanish administration, in Rhodesia, and South Africa.

(6) Preparation of a program for a more effective solution of all refugee problems (Arab and Jewish alike) by ratifying the October 4, 1967, protocol on Refugees which enlarged the scope of the 1951 Refugee convention.

Finally, we urge our government to include a representative of the AFL-CIO in the U.S. delegation to the Teheran Conference.


The late 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in protests for women's, ethnic, and civil rights. The brutality of the Vietnam conflict (as well as numerous other conflicts in Africa, southeastern Europe, and Central America) forced the United Nations to add clauses to the Geneva Conventions, which are guidelines for acts of war and the treatment of prisoners.

As American labor union membership declined after World War II, the United States withdrew its support from the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1977, primarily because the AFL-CIO had traditionally avoided international committees and politics. Other reasons cited were political divisions in the organization and its shift from original goals. Two years later, the United States rejoined the organization when it reformed itself to its original plan of strengthening employer-employee relations to ensure and elevate human rights. Labor unions continued to decline in the United States, but such setbacks did not prevent the world community from pushing forward.

The United Nations began holding World Conferences for Women's Rights in 1975, and the first World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Like the women's rights conference, which addressed issues concerning discrimination and unequal treatment of women, the 2001 meeting sought to develop international mandates against racism. The conference also raised the issue of migrants and political refugees; clear and concise agendas for the treatment of such individuals is still under discussion.



Mertus, Julie. United Nations and Human Rights A Guide for a New Era. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Steiner, Henry, and Philip Alston. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wehrle, Edmund F. Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Web sites

United Nations. "Key Conference Outcomes on Human Rights" 〈〉 (accessed April 22, 2006).

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American Federation of Labor on President Johnson and Human Rights

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American Federation of Labor on President Johnson and Human Rights