A Labor Day story: 2021

Posted 8/31/21

This Labor Day we owe a lot to Frances Perkins.

You may never have heard of her. Most people haven’t.

Even so, in February 1933, when President-elect Roosevelt asked her to serve in his …

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A Labor Day story: 2021


This Labor Day we owe a lot to Frances Perkins.

You may never have heard of her. Most people haven’t.

Even so, in February 1933, when President-elect Roosevelt asked her to serve in his cabinet as secretary of labor, she outlined for him a set of policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized federal employment service and universal health insurance. She made it clear to Roosevelt that his agreement with these priorities was a condition of her joining his cabinet. Roosevelt said he endorsed them all, and Perkins became the first woman in the nation to serve in a Presidential cabinet.

In 1934, Roosevelt appointed Perkins to head the Committee on Economic Security, where she forged the blueprint of legislation finally enacted as the Social Security Act. Signed into law by the President on August 14, 1935, the act included a system of old age pensions, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation and aid to the needy and disabled.

In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, also crafted with the support of Perkins, establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and banning child labor.

She was a self-made woman who was a labor rights advocate.

According to the Frances Perkins Center’s website, the story of Fanny Coralie Perkins—her name at birth—was greatly influenced by what she observed around her. Born into a strict conservative, Republican family, Fanny heard stories about the French and Indian War, when the Perkins family maintained a garrison by the river to shelter the community in case of trouble. She learned about life before the Revolution and about her Otis relatives, who played a major part in the colonists’ fight for independence. She was raised with a deep appreciation of history and pride in her patriot ancestry.

Perkins came of age steeped in her New England heritage. She adopted the Yankee values that were the core of that heritage—frugality, ingenuity, tenacity and self-reliance—as well as a belief that the new nation, only a century old at her birth, held opportunities for all who sought them and were willing to work.

Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College for Women, and got an education and an experience that would reveal her vocation. It was there that she first experienced the conditions of workers. Those memories formed the basis of her labor reforms. They ushered in the middle class and have improved lives.

As part of the required curriculum for a history of American economic history course, she visited the mills along the Connecticut River in neighboring Holyoke. Of this experience, she later said, “From the time I was in college, I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at least doing what I could, to help change those abuses.”

And change those things, she did.

In 1910, through her work as the executive secretary of the New York City Consumers League, she focused on the need for sanitary regulations for bakeries, fire protection for factories, and legislation to limit the working hours for women and children in factories to 54 hours per week. She witnessed the March 25, 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 47 workers—mostly young women—jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the building to their deaths on the street below, because doors had been locked to limit bathroom breaks. In all, 146 died as flames engulfed the upper three stories of the building. She later proclaimed that it was “the day the New Deal was born.”

From there she influenced legislative labor reforms in New York State. She took on the Hoover administration, countering its underreporting of the 1930s unemployment figures saying, “It is cruel and irresponsible to issue misleading statements of improvement in unemployment, at a time when the unemployed are reaching the end of their resources.”

She was a labor champion. And she, herself, was effective in her own labor. Her labor changed the lives of all laborers.

Frances Perkins didn’t hide from the horrid conditions, she actively and effectively ushered in reform.

We celebrate her this Labor Day.


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