[Frances Perkins standing behind FDR signing the Social Security Act as part of the New Deal - August 14, 1935. (Unknown photographer)]
With the COVID-19 pandemic taking its toll, and with millions of people unemployed and having to join food lines where available, and total deaths of over 525 000 (03/09/2021), the impact of the contributions of Frances Perkins the first female Cabinet Secretary in the nation, initiated during a previous crisis, is helping to stagger the severity of the current crisis. Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). She was highly recommended but unwillingly accepted the position.
She was trained as a social worker, was highly qualified, earning several college degrees, but chose to and spent her life working to improve the condition of the poor.
Perkins was born in Boston but moved to Chicago and worked as a teacher at the urging of her parents. While teaching she volunteered at Hull House, an organization founded by Jane Adams to lift and educate immigrants and the poor. During her stint she distributed milk, food baskets to hungry children and helped workers recover wages they were cheated out of. That volunteering experience motivated her to leave teaching.
She moved to Pennsylvania and in 1907 she investigated prostitution rings posing as employment agencies promising decent jobs to African American women and then forcing them into prostitution.
In 1909 she moved to New York where she completed a Master’s Degree in political science at Columbia University and was hired by the National Consumers League in 1910. She was tasked with investigating child labor, fire hazards, working conditions in bakeries and the excessive hours women were forced to work.
Perhaps the biggest impact on her life and life decisions was the witnessing of the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 in Manhattan. 146 people died. Many burned to death on the 9th floor, while others died when they jumped through windows of the 10-storey building, to the street below. There were 123 women and nearly half of the total was teenagers.
In 1910 she was appointed to the National Consumer League Board as chief investigator on the Committee on safety. Her work led the New York State Legislature “to ban smoking in factories, mandated sturdy fire escapes, improved exits, periodic fire drills, occupancy limits, doors that open outward and automatic sprinklers in buildings taller than seven floors,” according to Steven Greenhouse author and New York Times Labor and Workplace correspondent.
The Great Depression hit in 1929 and resulted in great suffering in the 1930s. New York was the nation’s most populous state in the 1930s. As New York’s Industrial Commissioner of Labor (1929-1932), Perkins pushed then state Governor FDR to put the jobless to work and create protections for workers in the form of a state unemployment insurance program to provide much needed money for the jobless.
When FDR became President in 1933, “fifteen million people lost their jobs; there were long food lines and one in six homes foreclosed.” In his 2019 book Beaten Down, Worked Up The Past Present and Future of American Labor, Greenhouse states, “In the new Deal’s first month, while Roosevelt and his cabinet were rushing to rescue banks and family farms, Perkins was pushing for a cash relief program to ease the woes of the poorest families.” She also persuaded Roosevelt “to embrace a trailblazing $3.3 billion public works program to build and repair roads, bridges, and schools and thereby put hundreds of thousands of Americans back to work.” he writes. Perkins was in charge of public works.
She pushed for programs to help the poor, the unemployed and workers in general. She was instrumental in the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 (known as 7A) which provided for collective bargaining. Unionized workers rose from about 3 million in 1932 to some 9 million in 1939, or 18% of the total employed population.
That same year 1933 she went on a listening tour to a Pennsylvania steel mill, where in 1892 seven striking workers were killed in a shootout, to meet with workers and was refused permission to meet with them on the property. Even the town’s Mayor would not permit her to hold a meeting in the town. Then she saw the post office, federal property, and dared the mayor to stop her. She then addressed a large gathering on the premises.
Her lasting legacy was to help create and implement The New Deal, introduced by FDR.
The Social Security Act (SSA) came into effect in 1935 and provided pensions to retired Americans, direct assistance to the elderly, unemployment payment for those who lost their jobs financed by federal taxes on employers, and payments to disabled, the blind, children and their mothers, and needy people, popularly known as Welfare.
These programs helped and provided opportunities for immigrants from Europe, women and Native Americans. More qualified women were appointed to government jobs at the urging of other women leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune who supported Perkins’ programs.
But the programs were not perfect in the early stages and some people were disqualified and are still excluded.
The New Deal proposed by the Northern Democrats could not have passed without the votes of Southern Democrats who wanted to maintain Jim Crow laws. For example to get their votes they demanded African American workers be paid less, live in segregated or separate housing, and exclusion of farmworkers and domestic workers. Even the units of the Civilian Conservation Corps were segregated. The struggle for protections for categories of these workers continues today.
The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote: “Sometimes leadership serves good purposes, sometimes bad; but whether the end is benign or evil, great leaders are those men and women who leave their personal stamp on history.” Frances Perkins’ ‘good purpose’ has become part of the American mainstream at local, state and federal levels as millions continue to benefit.