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Labor Hall of Fame: Frances Perkins and the flowering of economic and social policies.

Labor Hall of Fame Frances Perkins and the flowering of economic and social policies Only through the free and open discussion of differing points of view could the truth emerge and human needs and problems be solved; Frances Perkins always employed those ideals in conducting the public's business for the public's benefit In late February 1933, Frances Perkins received a call to visit President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his home in New York City. She anticipated that he would invite her to become Secretary of Labor. Before she accepted, she had to know if he would support her ideas. Those ideas have changed and improved the quality of life of all Americans.

Before Frances Perkins would accept the Cabinet appointment, she told President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "I don't want to say yes to you unless you know what I'd like to do and are willing to have me go ahead and try."(1)

She then read Roosevelt her list. It contained much of what would become the New Deal's most important social welfare and labor legislation: direct Federal aid to the States for unemployment relief, public works projects, maximum hours of work, minimum wages, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, social security, and a revitalized public employment service. "Are you sure you want these things done?" she asked. "Because you don't want me for Secretary of Labor if you don't."

Roosevelt never hesitated. He was convinced that Perkins was the most qualified person for the job. "Yes," he said. "I'll back you." With that, Perkins accepted the post and served as Secretary of Labor during the 12 years of the Roosevelt Administration, 1933-45. She was the first woman to serve as a Cabinet member, and her tenure was longer than any Secretary of Labor.

Who was this woman in whom Roosevelt had such confidence? How did she become an expert in the field of labor affairs? To answer these questions brings into focus the life of one of America's most remarkable women. It is a dedicated life filled with hard work and perseverance.

Striving for social change

Perkins' social and moral attitudes developed during the early decades of the 20th century, a time when women were increasingly active in the era's many important social crusades. She met and worked with many of the leaders of these movements, and by combining the lessons she learned from them with her own unique talents and strengths, she was able to choose her life's work and make a success of it.

Born in Boston on April 10, 1880, Perkins had roots dating back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the mid-17th century. After a rather strict upbringing, she entered Mount Holyoke College in the fall of 1898. Although she liked the sciences, a course in American colonial history with Professor Annah May Soule proved far more important in her later life.

Students were required to visit a factory and survey its working conditions. For Perkins, going through several textile and papermill plants was her first glimpse of the modern industrial process. The things she saw, the conditions under which the workers labored, made her aware of their needs. The social education of Frances Perkins had begun.

Following her graduation in 1903, Perkins did volunteer work among the factory girls of Worcester, MA. In 1904, she took a teaching job at Ferry Hall, a girls' prep school in Lake Forest, IL. While there, she met Dr. Graham Taylor, head of Chicago Commons, one of the city's famous settlement houses. From him, Perkins learned the social meaning of trade unionism and also met other social reform leaders, including Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and Grace Abbott. By 1907, Perkins had worked at the Commons, lived at Hull House, and was firmly committed to social work.

For the next 25 years, Perkins' career, first as a social worker and later as a civil servant, was at the center of social reform activities. As the only paid staff member of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, Perkins surveyed the city's roominghouses, improved methods of investigation and counseling, and pressured city authorities to enact stricter lodginghouse licensing. She studied economics and sociology at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and accepted a fellowship at the New York School of Philanthropy.

After Perkins arrived in New York City, her hectic pace intensified. She studied for a master's degree at Columbia University and surveyed the Hell's Kitchen section of the West Side for Pauline Goldmark, head of the School of Philanthropy. During one of her surveys, she visited Timothy J. McManus, a State senator and the notorious Tammany Hall boss of Hell's Kitchen. Perkins needed his help for a slum family she had visited. McManus was moved by her arguments. Perkins received the help she needed and learned a valuable political lesson--machine politics could be helpful in enacting social welfare legislation. It was a lesson the pragmatic young social worker would soon put to use.

In 1910, Perkins became general secretary of the National Consumers' League in New York City. Organized by Lillian Wald of the Henry Street Settlement House, the league spread information about harmful industrial conditions and lobbied for protective legislation. Its national director, Florence Kelley, helped Perkins become a recognized expert on industrial conditions by assigning her to make extensive surveys of unsanitary cellar bakeries, unsafe laundries, and overcrowded textile sweatshops. She taught Perkins to look behind the immediate conditions and search for the real causes of safety and health problems in industry. These surveys gave Perkins the statistics she needed to back up her moral conviction regarding the need for protective social and labor legislation.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins witnessed the tragic holocaust of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.(2) In less than an hour, 146 people--most of them young girls--had died. Perkins saw them leap from the eighth floor of the Asch Building because the doors were locked. She saw their charred remains lining the sidewalk and vowed that this horror would not be allowed to happen again.

The tragedy of the Triangle fire spurred the city's social reform agencies into action. They formed a Committee on Safety, and Perkins served as executive secretary from 1912 to 1917.

Perkins had met Al Smith, assemblyman from New York City, in early 1911. He taught Perkins the realities of practical politics, and she educated him on the need for reform. They joined forces, and their long and fruitful relationship helped change the course of American social history.

Health and safety legislation

The New York State Factory Commission, created by the New York State legislature in response to the Triangle fire, reviewed the entire scope of job safety and health conditions in New York. Between 1911 and 1915, the commission rewrote the New York industrial code and the legislature enacted 34 new laws protecting workers on the job, limiting the hours of women and children, and compensating victims for on-the-job injuries.

Perkins testified several times while serving as an investigator on the staff of the commission's director of investigation from 1912 to 1913. But she did much more than document dangerous working conditions: she insisted that the commissioners experience them. Perkins arranged for them to see children shelling peas in a cannery at 4 a.m. At dawn, they stood at the gate of a ropeworks as women filed out after working most of the night. Perkins and the legislators went into the workers' homes, where they heard, as she had so often heard, of the hardships workers faced on the job. Those experiences helped motivate the lawmakers to push for strong protective legislation. For Perkins, safe working conditions and reasonable hours of labor were basic human rights which society should guarantee through practical, morally sound legislation.

On September 26, 1913, Perkins married Paul C. Wilson, an economist and assistant secretary to John Purroy Mitchell, New York City's reform mayor. The marriage was the source of both great happiness and great heartbreak for Perkins.

The couple agreed she would retain her maiden name for professional purposes. Perkins feared she might lose some of the stature she had gained if she changed it. In December 1916, a daughter, Susanna, was born. Both Perkins and Wilson continued their active careers.

But in 1918, Wilson showed the first symptoms of an illness which lasted until his death in 1952. Through the long years of his confinement, Perkins worked diligently to meet both her family and her professional obligations. Always a very private person, she sought to protect her husband and daughter from the press and public. In this, she was largely successful and continued to carry on her active public service career.

After Al Smith became governor of the State of New York in 1919, he appointed Perkins to the State Industrial Commission, despite strong opposition from manufacturers' associations. When Smith was again elected governor in 1922 after 2 years out of office, he reappointed Perkins to her old post. She was also an active member of the Industrial Board of the State Labor Department. By 1926, when Smith appointed her chairman of the Industrial Board, she had become a recognized expert in labor law. Judge Benjamin Cardozo, who sat on a court upholding many of her decisions, said that she had made new laws with some of her rulings. Years later, Supreme Court Justice Cardozo would hold Roosevelt's old Dutch bible and administer the oath of office to Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor.

Smith ran for the Presidency in 1928 and lost. Roosevelt was narrowly elected Governor of New York. Although Roosevelt did not retain many of Smith's assistants, he appointed Perkins Industrial Commissioner of New York. She was the first woman to hold such a position in the United States. During the next 15 years, their partnership altered the basic fabric of American life.

The New Deal

This, then, was the woman President Roosevelt entrusted with the awesome responsibility of helping to restore public confidence and to put people back to work. Much had to be done and done quickly. The first 100 days of the Roosevelt Administration are legendary. Before adjourning on June 15, 1933, Congress had enacted 15 major laws. Perkins was at the center of this feverish activity.

Among the programs enacted during Perkins' first year in office were: the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which spent millions of dollars on food, shelter, and other human needs; the Civilian Conservation Corps, which paid young men, ages 18 to 25, $30 a month to work in flood-control programs, reforestation, soil conservation, and highway constuction; the Civil Works Administration, which created 4 million temporary jobs; the National Recovery Administration, which regulated minimum wages, maximum hours, and child labor; and the Public Works Administration, which undertook large-scale construction of schools, hospitals, and river-control projects.

Although Perkins was deeply involved in creating and implementing the Administration's massive relief and employment programs, she simultaneously worked to reorganize the Department of Labor to make it a more effective and efficient Government agency. She improved conditions in the Bureau of Immigration and increased the responsibilities of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Social Security Act of 1935 was probably the most enduring contribution Perkins made as a Government official. As a member of the Committee on Economic Security, she worked tirelessly to create a practical Social Security program which the Congress would pass. She made hundreds of speeches supporting Social Security. Its enactment, on August 14, 1935, helped change the economic and social structure of American life. Her belief that working people had a right to benefits during unemployment and in their old age was made the law of the land by this act. Her leadership, and the dedicated work of many others, helped remove the threat of starvation, eviction, and destitution from the doorstep of every worker's home.

Federal labor policies

If Social Security was Frances Perkins' pride, the Fair Labor Standards Act must have been her joy. She had long advocated minimum wage and maximum hour legislation. The collapse of labor standards during the Depression made some type of government action imperative. Many among Roosevelt's advisers were uncertain of the constitutionality of Federal labor standards legislation. To lay the groundwork for Federal standards she believed inevitable, Perkins instructed the Labor Department to work with State governments to create a body of consistent laws and standards. She set up a Division of Labor Standards and was the first Labor Secretary to show real interest and concern for State labor agencies. She made an effort to attend meetings with State representatives and considered those sessions very useful in developing workers' compensation and safety and health standards.

During his 1936 campaign for reelection, Roosevelt promised to support a Federal labor standards bill. The measure passed the Senate but died in the House Rules Committee. Perkins and Roosevelt would not let it rest. Compromises were made and pressure was applied. The Fair Labor Standards Act finally became law on June 25, 1938.

The last of the New Deal's major social measures, this act was also one of its most far reaching. It covered 12 million workers and immediately raised the pay of 300,000 people and shortened hours for a million more. Most workers involved in interstate commerce or producing goods for interstate commerce were covered by the law. Child labor, a major concern of Perkins since her days as a social worker, was prohibited in many industries.

Perkins' greatest trial during her term of office came not from management or labor, but from Congress. The attack was not on her ability, but on her integrity. The issue centered on Harry Bridges, an Australian and leader of a long and bitter longshoremen's strike on the west coast in 1934. The Labor Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, investigating allegations of Communist influence in the strike, could find no evidence to justify deporting Bridges as an undesirable alien. But a vicious whispering campaign, aimed at forcing Bridges out of the country and Perkins out of office, began in mid-1938.

A special House Committee on Un-American Activities held hearings, and its chairman, Martin Dies, publicly called for Perkins' resignation. Hate mail poured into the Labor Department. The ordeal lasted more than 6 months. Through it all, Perkins continued to meet every engagement, fulfilled her duties as Secretary, and stood firm in her decision not to order Bridges deported. In the end, the House Judiciary Committee confirmed Perkins' opinion by reporting that sufficient evidence had not been presented to warrant Bridges' deportation. The official proceedings were closed, but the ugly scars remained.

Social legislation of the 1930's forever changed the position of the American worker. While the Federal Government was instrumental in creating these laws and indispensable for putting them into operation, Perkins often advocated more involvement for the individual States. She believed that programs such as unemployment insurance should be administered by a Federal-State system. At the National Conference for Labor Legislation in February 1934, she said: "The fundamental power to make regulations with regard to welfare...lies with the sovereign States."(3) While many New Dealers have been seen as "big Government" people, Perkins rarely favored the Federal Government dictating or making policy for the States. The closer the decisionmaking process was to the people, the better Perkins liked it.

The outbreak of World War II dramatically shifted much government attention from domestic to foreign and military affairs. But Perkins still fought some important, although less historic, battles on the homefront. She counseled Roosevelt against FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's plan to fingerprint and keep a dossier on every citizen. The idea went against her firm belief that privacy was the basis of individual liberty. The internment of more than 100,000 Japanese--Americans--two-thirds of them U.S. citizens--horrified her. Even at the height of the war, Perkins opposed extraordinary measures for total national mobilization. She believed that the social regimentation which might result was a step toward treating people like cattle. Her trust in the innate intelligence of the people to make sound decisions and to act on them never wavered.

During her years in office, Perkins' steadfast commitment to principles of law and morality won her many admirers from all walks of life. In her work, however, her loyalties were few and well defined. In a letter to Justice Felix Frankfurter, written just after her resignation as Secretary of Labor, she said: "I came to work for God, F.D.R., and the millions of forgotten plain, common working men."(4) Friend or foe, powerful or powerless, they were all treated squarely and honestly by Frances Perkins.

When Roosevelt died in April 1945, Perkins submitted her resignation as Secretary of Labor. She was 65, but had no intention of otherwise retiring. In October, President Harry S Truman sent her as a Government representative to the International Labour Organization meeting in Paris. Perkins certainly deserved to go, because it was she who originally urged Roosevelt in 1934 to submit legislation--which was accepted by Congress--authorizing the President to apply for membership to the ILO.

On September 26, 1946, Truman appointed Perkins to the Civil Service Commission. During her 7 years as a commissioner, the principle guiding all her work was that the Commission "is concerned only with the question as to whether the applicant is a suitable person for the post for which he applies."(5) She opposed any questions on applications which pried into a person's private life. She believed that the right to privacy was a basic human right, the basis of liberty in a democratic society.

Frances Perkins ended her government career in 1952. She still had no thought of retirement, however. For 2 years, she lectured and held seminars at the University of Illinois. In the spring of 1955, she returned to New York City, where she began her illustrious career.

In May 1955, Perkins delivered a lecture at Cornell University. A few months later, she was asked to join the faculty of the university's prestigious School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In the spring of 1960, she was invited to become a member of the scholarly Telluride Association at Cornell. As in the past, Perkins was the first woman ever to live at Telluride House. Telluride and her work at Cornell made her last years happy and personally fulfilling. She died on May 14, 1965. FOOTNOTES (1)George Martin, Madame Secretary: Frances Perkins (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976), p. 240. (2)Martin, Madame Secretary, p. 84. (3)Ibid., p. 421. (4)Ibid., p. 375. (5)Ibid., p. 477. (From a decision by Perkins in a U.S. Civil Service Commission case.) Gordon Berg is a supervisory public information specialist in the Bureau of Labor-Management Relations and Cooperative Programs, U.S. Department of Labor. This article is drawn from an essay published in 1980 to mark the dedication of the Frances Perkins Building in Washington, DC. A booklet of this and other biographies of Labor Hall of Fame honorees is scheduled for publication later this year by Friends of the Department of Labor, which sponsors the Labor Hall of Fame.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on persons elected to Labor Hall of Fame
Author:Berg, Gordon
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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