For the first time in U.S. history, a committed union member will be on U.S. currency: Eleanor Roosevelt, who joined the American Newspaper Guild in 1936, will be on the back of the newly designed $5 bill.
Roosevelt will enter that pantheon when she joins Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Marian Anderson on the reverse side of the to-be-redesigned $5 bill, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced on April 20. President Abraham Lincoln will remain on the front of the bill.
“We have always taken great pride in the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt was a card-carrying member of our union,” said Bernie Lunzer, President of the News Guild sector of the Communications Workers of America. Roosevelt joined the American Newspaper Guild in 1936 and remained a member until her death in 1962.
“This an opportunity for Americans to learn more about that part of her life and her values, in addition to all the other reasons she deserves to be immortalized on U.S. currency,” Lunzer said of Roosevelt.
While serving as First Lady and for years afterwards, Roosevelt wrote a column, My Day, syndicated to more than 200 newspapers, with more than six million readers. She was a member of the Guild’s Washington-based local. The former Newspaper Guild Local 35 is now the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild, CWA Local 30235.
“ER walked on picket lines, went into mines to inspect working conditions…and testified about what she saw,” Cornell University Professor Jo Freeman wrote in reviewing a Roosevelt biography in 2011. “Even during wartime” – World War II – “she supported the right of all workers to join unions.”
And Roosevelt used her column to argue for workers’ rights, women’s rights, African-American rights, and to chastise unions for excluding those groups from leadership positions, Freeman noted.
After the war, Roosevelt continued to support U.S. strikers and successfully argued for inserting the right to join unions into the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The redesigned currency, which produced the decision to put Roosevelt on the $5 bill, occurred after a flood of comments came into the Treasury about its original plan to replace former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with an historic woman.
That led to thousands of nominations for new figures on the $5, $10 and especially on $20 bills, given controversy over the record of President Andrew Jackson, now on the front of the $20 bill. Abolitionist and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman will replace Jackson on the front. Jackson will be relegated to the other side, Lew said.
Meanwhile, “The reverse of the new $5 will highlight historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial and will include images of Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.,” Treasury said. Though Treasury did not say so, the Daughters of the American Revolution had barred Anderson from singing at nearby Constitution Hall. Roosevelt not only arranged for Anderson’s concert at the memorial, but quit the DAR, blasting its racism.
Treasury said writers submitted names of 274 women to be on currency. Other unionists among those nominees were Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and co-founder of American Federation of Teachers Local 1, miners’ and labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and socialist unionist Emma Goldman.
Florence Kelley, founder of the labor-backed National Consumers League, and Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member – as Secretary of Labor – and a strong advocate who lobbied FDR to enact both Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, were also among the nominees.