Trailblazer for Workers’ Rights
(This "Look Back" feature first appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of The American Postal Work Magazine.)
In an era when few women had risen to positions of prominence, Frances Perkins in 1933 became the nation’s first female cabinet secretary. During her long tenure as Secretary of the Department of Labor, she was a trailblazer for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights. Her efforts helped the nation rebound from the Great Depression and create a thriving middle class and an economy that became the envy of the world for more than 50 years.
Born in 1880 to a comfortable Boston Republican family, Perkins recalled that she was reared to “live for God and do something” — a value she took to heart throughout her life.
While studying economics at Mount Holyoke College, she became increasingly troubled by the disparity between the privileges she enjoyed and the abject poverty of millions of working people. She was especially appalled by the working conditions she saw when, as part of her studies, she toured nearby factories. She said she was also greatly influenced by reading How the Other Half Lives by photojournalist Jacob Riis. Later on, she embraced exposes of corporate greed by other Progressive Era “muckraking” journalists such as Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), and Ray Stannard Baker (Following the Color Line).
After graduating in 1902, Perkins began a teaching career in Chicago , and volunteered as a social worker in the city’s “settlement houses,” which provided a variety of services to needy families. There she learned first-hand of the dangers and the desperation faced by factory workers so often cheated out of their wages, and so rarely compensated for workplace injuries.
Perkins moved back east in 1907 for a job with the Philadelphia Research and Protective Organization, which worked to improve the lot of the city’s young black women newly arrived from the South and immigrant women from Europe, who were arriving in great numbers were often preyed upon. Her report on their living conditions helped gain improvements, such as stricter rules for boarding houses.
Eager to make a bigger difference, Perkins moved to New York City and in 1910 earned a master’s degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University. She then began a job as executive secretary of the New York Consumers’ League and became a street-corner speaker who advocated for women’s right to vote. She also successfully pressured the state’s legislature to limit the workweek for women and children to 54 hours.
A Witness to Tragedy
A pivotal moment for Perkins came by chance on March 25, 1911. As she and a neighbor were having tea, they were disturbed by the sound of fire engines. Across Washington Square, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was in flames, and Perkins was among the crowd that watched helplessly as 146 workers — most of them young women — were killed by the inferno or leaped to their deaths from the high floors of the building. The factory was a true sweatshop, with exits sealed to prevent the theft of fabric scraps.
The events of that day, Perkins later explained, served as “a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”
In 1913 Perkins, then 33, married Paul Caldwell Wilson. She refused to change her name and even went to court to defend her right to do so. A daughter was born to the couple very early in the marriage, but within a few years, her husband had suffered a nervous breakdown and Perkins became the family’s only bread-winner.
Results and Recognition
Perkins spent several years working for the Consumers League, where she helped educate workers about harmful industrial conditions and lobbied for protective legislation. She also served on the state’s Factory Investigative Commission, which was responsible for passing 36 new laws that protected workers on the job, further restricted the hours women and children could work, and compensated victims of on-the-job injuries.
In 1919, New York Governor Al Smith made her the first female member of the state’s Industrial Commission. She became the panel’s chairman in 1926 and expanded factory investigations and lobbied for laws that created a state minimum wage and unemployment insurance.
Perkins’ ability to gain the cooperation of warring political forces put New York in the forefront of progressive labor reforms. It also caught the eye of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
New Deal Accomplishments
In 1933, the newly elected President Roosevelt asked Perkins to become his Secretary of Labor and help create a “New Deal” for American workers. Before accepting, she demanded that he agree to her goals of federal unemployment relief, stronger work-hour limitations, minimum wage and child labor laws, and social security insurance.
“Are you sure you want these things done?” she asked FDR. “Because you don’t want me as secretary of Labor if you don’t.”
With FDR’s blessing and a mostly agreeable Congress, Perkins became the driving force for passing:
As Labor secretary, Perkins also consistently supported unions in resolving the era’s major organizing struggles, which angered many conservatives. In 1939, the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to impeach her because she refused to support the deportation of a union official who some considered a Communist because of his efforts to make healthcare and pensions available to all workers. The union official also had opened the west coast longshoreman’s union to all races and religions. (The impeachment motions eventually were dropped.)
End of the Perkins Era
After FDR died in April 1945, Perkins resigned her cabinet post to head the U.S. delegation to the International Labor Organization conference in Paris. President Truman subsequently appointed her to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where she served until 1953. She later became a professor of labor relations at Cornell University, where she taught until her death in 1965.
“Every man and woman who works for a living wage,” said Willard Wirtz, the Secretary of Labor at the time, “under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or Social Security, is her debtor.”
In 1980, President Carter renamed the Labor Department headquarters in Washington the Frances Perkins Building. Her achievements for working people were also memorialized by a first-class postage stamp issued that year.