On the Importance of Unions

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On the Importance of Unions

12. My Day

26 May 1945

Hyde Park, Friday—I was amused the other day to be sent an editorial from a paper published in the southwestern part of the country,1 which claimed that there was no more reason for backing the fair employment of people regardless of race, color or religion than there would be to back a bill insisting that people be employed regardless of whether they were union members or not.2

It seems to me that this is a very peculiar attitude. It shows a lack of understanding of the reasons why we have unions and of why it is possible to insist that people in certain industries shall join a union before they are employed. Unions were established for the protection of the workers. Like all other organizations composed of human beings, unions sometimes go wrong; but the objective for which unions exist still stands. Agreements under which certain employers employ only union members are entered into after negotiation between the union and the employer.

I know that in certain unions the fees demanded are too high, and practices sometimes arise which are harmful to the union members. But the remedy lies in their own hands. Under a democratic form of government you have to use your franchise, and use it fearlessly, to be free and to have the kind of government that you desire. The same holds good in a union organization.

I have always felt that the closed shop was debatable, but I have never felt that the desirability of joining a union was debatable.3 There are plenty of associations of employers. Evidently they feel there is something valuable to be derived from group associations. Since that is the case, it seems to me quite plain that there are advantages to be derived for the worker in forming associations.

The last part of the editorial sent to me suggests that there is something un-American in employing anyone who is not a native-born citizen, and that a native-born American citizen should get a job ahead of any foreign-born person, regardless of qualifications and without being a union member. Apparently, this editorial writer would have us ignore the fact that an industry may happen to have an agreement with a union requiring that a worker shall be a member of the union. In war work, besides, it is very rare for anyone who is not an American citizen to be employed. If he is, it must be because he is really needed and has been carefully checked. Yet I think this question, in any event, was simply raised as a red herring to confuse people about the real issue of whether unions are valuable to the workers or not.


1. ER did not keep a copy of this editorial for her records. A search of ER's papers revealed that she also did not discuss this editorial with close friends and relatives in the southwest. Therefore, its content remains unknown.

2. See Document 5. The editorial addressed the current congressional debate over appropriations for the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Since its inception, the FEPC's operational funds had come from the president's emergency fund. In February 1944, the Budget Bureau approved the FEPC's request, which was then forwarded to FDR for his approval. As FDR prepared to sign it, Georgia Democrat Richard Russell, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the committee's fiercest critics, attempted to strip the FEPC allocation from the president's domain (and thus abolish it) by introducing legislation to the Subcommittee on Education and Labor mandating that no funds could be allocated to any agency established by executive order "if Congress has not appropriated any money specifically for such an agency … or specifically authorized the expenditure of funds by it." The subcommittee quickly concurred. May 26, Congress adopted Russell's proposal, thus requiring congressional, rather than presidential, approval of the FEPC budget. The House then voted 141 to 103 against continued support for the agency. The Southern press rejoiced, declaring along with the Montgomery, Alabama, Advertiser that death of "the meddlesome committee" meant that "Eleanor Roosevelt and others" could not "force their ideas of racial equality on the people of the South." The House, however, voted to continue funding, albeit a smaller appropriation than the committee requested. Despite Russell's repeated efforts to kill the committee in conference, the FEPC survived. FDR then campaigned for a permanent committee.

As the 1945 appropriations debates began, Congress weighed two pieces of FEPC-related legislation in spring 1945. One dealt solely with appropriations for the coming fiscal year and limited the committee's authority to gathering and analyzing data and making recommendations to the president. The other, supported by ER's close friend Congresswoman Mary Norton, would have made the FEPC a permanent investigative body that could prosecute offenders in federal court. Congress was in the process of cutting the first bill while Southern conservatives were refusing to allow the second out of the House Rules Committee (Reed, 156-59; Hamby, Man, 61).

3. ER joined the Newspaper Guild in 1936 and remained a loyal member until her death in 1962. While she opposed the closed shop, in 1941 she told striking electrical workers that she had "always been interested in organizations for labor" and that she had "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" (Roosevelt, "Workers Should Join Trade Unions").

On Stettinius and the San Francisco Conference

Although ER refused appointment as a special delegate to the San Francisco conference, she followed the deliberations there with great care. Often she turned to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius for his assessment of the proceedings and for clarification on positions proposed by the American delegation. Of particular concern to ER was the contentious debate over the admission of Polish and Argentine delegates. Stettinius, who admired both Roosevelts and shared their commitment to building the United Nations, valued ER's expression of support, took care to keep her up to date, and responded to her inquiries "in detail."

As the conference drew to a close, the secretary addressed the nation to report on the progress the United Nations had made to date and announced five major goals by which America would govern its foreign policy. He then wrote ER to "clarify our policy" supporting the seating of Argentina and opposing that of Poland, and enclosed "for your convenience, a marked copy of my speech, for I am anxious that you should not feel that we have deviated from the policies of President Roosevelt." Although ER listened to the broadcast, she appreciated the gesture and made the first of several invitations for the secretary to visit her in New York. "I shall be very anxious to see you after you get back," she wrote, "and hear in detail about the conference. I am in New York fairly frequently and perhaps it would be more convenient for you to see me there."

Still worried that the contention over Poland and Argentina would undermine American confidence in the United Nations, she dedicated two columns to Stettinius's remarks. The columns pleased the secretary and, as he wrote ER June 11, he "keenly looked forward" to seeing her "after the Conference is successfully concluded."1

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