10 Things to Look For in Ken Burns' Much Anticipated New History of the Roosevelts

Labor Day is a time to reflect on the state of work and unions in America. It’s also a time to remember our history. Getting that history right is important in terms of the lessons we learn. Ken Burns is about to lead us on another historical journey, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” beginning September 14. This multi-evening, seven disc, hardcover book event weaves together the stories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, “three members of the most prominent and influential family in American politics.”

The Roosevelts were involved in some of the most tumultuous and significant times of the 20th century. No matter how long the PBS special is, it will not be able to include every important issue and activity in their combined histories. The question is whether the American labor movement will be covered at all. The trailers are not promising.

For Eleanor Roosevelt in particular, any history that is subtitled as “intimate” does not bode well for her: the niece, wife, wounded woman.  We know a lot about her “intimate” life, but far too little about her policy, political, diplomatic, and activist life. Most histories have completely overlooked her significant support for and active involvement with unions.

On Labor Day 1940, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her syndicated "My Day" newspaper column that for all citizens “Labor Day must be one of the most significant days on our calendar. On this day we should think with pride of the growing place which the worker is taking in this country…That is as it should be in a democracy.”

As First Lady, a member of a union, the Newspaper Guild, for over 25 years, delegate to the United Nations, and architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes workers’ rights, she thought that individuals taking responsibility and acting collectively to improve their lives and their communities was a model for democracy around the world.

She wrote over 8,000 syndicated newspaper columns, authored 27 books, wrote an average of 50 articles a year and gave 50 speeches each year. Her letters and meetings were legend as the governor’s wife, as First Lady, and as a political force and world leader in the years after the White House.

Eleanor Roosevelt learned much about issues and politics from her Uncle Teddy and she worked as part of an effective team with her husband Franklin, though not always in agreement.  She carried her message on labor to the United Nations and around the world after his death. The Labor Day History Challenge is to watch “The Roosevelts,” see if any of the following Eleanor Roosevelt quotes, or related sentiments, are heard or seen in the special, and then report to PBS.

1. “We should educate public opinion not to profit by labor anywhere unless it was done under decent living conditions.” (1933)

2. “Many people do not believe in unions…There are only two ways to bring about protection of the workers, however, legislation and unionization.” (1937)

3. “Everyone who is a worker should join a labor organization.” (1941)

4. “I do believe that the right to explain the principles lying back of labor unions should be safeguarded, that every workman should be free to listen to the plea of organization without fear of hindrance or of evil circumstances.” (1941)

5. “[A ban on strikes is] an abrogation of fundamental rights.” (1945)

6. “[The right to join a union] is an essential element of freedom.” (1948)

8. “Without organized labor the unorganized groups would slide back quickly to poor conditions, which would hurt the prosperity of the nation.” (1954)

9. “I am opposed to ‘right to work’ legislation because it does nothing for working people, but instead gives employers the right to exploit labor.” (1959)

10. “No method of complaint and adjustment can take the place of collective bargaining…teachers have no other recourse but to strike to draw attention to their legitimate complaints.” (1962)

If none of these quotes or ideas appear then tweet, go on Facebook, or email Ken Burns and PBS and ask, “Where is labor’s part of this story?" If between 1 and 5 quotes or sentiments appear, thank them for at least mentioning workers and their issues. If six to 10 appear, write Ken Burns and PBS and let them know you are using social media to tell family, friends and coworkers about this great show they should all watch. Let them know you will be showing clips at union conventions, local union meetings, in history classes, and labor education programs. Let them know you will be happy to cooperate with a new PBS special on workers and the American labor movement.

As Mrs. Roosevelt reminded us, “We must remember that this nation is founded to do away with classes and special privilege; that employer and worker have the same interest, which is to see that everyone in this nation has life worth living."

Happy Labor Day.


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