April 18, 2013 By Jack Jodell.
It has been some time since I have added a post to this series, which has highlighted a wide array of people from a great many walks of life. Each has, through progressive ideals and actions, greatly contributed to the welfare of our citizens and whose efforts have had a profoundly positive effect on the lives of every single American.
Today, I would like to place my spotlight squarely on perhaps the greatest progressive voice this country has ever known: that of the truly remarkable FRANCES PERKINS.
Born Fannie Coralie Perkins to Frederick and Susan Bean Perkins of Boston in April of 1880, she legally changed her name to Frances 15 years later, upon joining the Episcopal Church. She earned a B.A. in Chemistry and Physics from Mount Holyoke College, and a Masters in Political Science at Columbia University, and very early on became heavily influenced by the leading social and labor writers of her day, among them such famous muckrakers and reformers as Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair. While in school, she took a course in history which featured field trips to nearby factories. There she saw firsthand the negative and injurious effects that long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions were having on working people. This experience led to her lifelong commitment toward the betterment of workers’ and poor people’s lives. She once remarked on her anti-poverty efforts by saying, “…foremost was the idea that poverty is preventable, that poverty is destructive, wasteful, and demoralizing, and poverty, in the midst of potential plenty is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society.” To achieve her goals, Perkins worked as a social worker after college in Worcester, MA, and briefly taught in Chicago. There she involved herself with the Hull House, a settlement house set up by Jane Addams. She later moved to Philadelphia for a time to work with immigrant girls, many of whom had been forced into prostitution by greedy landlords or exploitative employers. Perkins then moved to New York and eventually became the executive secretary of the National Consumers League. She lobbied vigorously for shorter hours and better working conditions for workers. The following year, she witnessed the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, the worst industrial fire in New York City history, in which 146 women senselessly and needlessly perished because they were physically locked-in their sewing rooms and forbidden to leave while working. Perkins became active with the New York State Factory Commission, and worked tirelessly to promote job safety. She testified before the State Assembly and persuaded lawmakers to actually visit factories and workers’ homes to see up close the poor working and living conditions they faced. In this capacity, she came into direct contact with leading progressive politicians of the day such as New York State Senator Robert F. Wagner and soon-to-be New York Governor Alfred Smith. Her efforts were successful, paving the way for important new legislation which provided strengthened worker safety measures, compensated workers for injuries they suffered while on the job, and established less working hours for women and children between 1011 and 1915. Frances Perkins’ social and political star was just beginning to rise…
In 1919, the newly-elected Democratic Governor Smith appointed Perkins to the state’s Industrial Board (which she became Chairperson of 5 years later). She managed to obtain a reduction in the working week for women to 54 hours while at that post. Prior to this, in 1913, she had married Paul Caldwell Wilson and successfully sued to keep her own original last name, as she was unwilling to sacrifice the influence it had already achieved in the social and political world. Her suit showed her to be a real pioneering trailblazer, as it was common for all wives in those days to adopt their husband’s last name. By 1929, newly-elected Democratic New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt called on her to become New York state’s Commissioner of Labor. Perkins proved herself to be quite politically adept, as she skillfully worked with numerous competing political factions to turn New York into a leading example of pragmatic progressive reform. During her time as Commissioner, she successfully implemented expanded factory investigations, instituted a 48 hour maximum work week for women, and worked hard to end child labor and provide for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws for New York woekers. But the pinnacle of her success would come with the election of Roosevelt as President in 1932.
On March 4, 1033, FDR was inaugurated as President , and Frances Perkins was finally able to exert her social justice influence on the national stage. The country was at the lowest, seemingly most hopeless point of the Great Depression. Roosevelt nominated her to be his Secretary of Labor, and she became the very first woman member of a President’s Cabinet, a post she remained at during his entire time in office. Prior to agreeing to serve as Secretary of Labor, Perkins told the new President, “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.” She outlined her proposed agenda to FDR, and it was a bold one indeed: a federal minimum wage, specified maximum weekly work hours, unemployment benefits, a SOCIAL SECURITY system for the elderly, and UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE FOR ALL! Roosevelt agreed to support her plans, so she accepted his offer and soon set herself into a whirlwind of activity.
An unprecedented level of federal activism soon prevailed. Aided by huge new progressive Democratic Party majorities in Congress, dozens of new government departments and agencies were created and sprang into action. Perkins worked hard to create programs like the Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps (which employed two of my very grateful uncles), and the Public Works Administration (which employed yet another relative of mine, along with millions of others). Soon, previously unemployed persons were building new schools, parks, roads, dams, and office buildings all across the country. Labor unions were finally legalized, which meant that workers now had the legal right to band together and collectively bargain for a fairer wage and better working conditions. In 1935, Congress gave Perkins her greatest victory by passing the Social Security Act. It was a revolutionary action which provided a guaranteed government-paid supplementary pension to sick and elderly retirees and lifted millions of them out of poverty. Conservative Republicans of the day screamed out in horror that the country couldn’t afford such a program. Consequently, they have been trying to get rid of Social Security ever since, but have justifiably failed in every attempt. They were wrong about that vitally important social safety net program back then, just as they are dead wrong in their attempts to privatize it today.
Frances Perkins had accomplished a great deal in a short period of only 3 years: millions of people had been given meaningful jobs; the sick, unemployed, and elderly had received vital relief; but she wasn’t done yet.
Roosevelt was deservedly re-elected by a huge landslide in 1936, and, in 1938, Perkins achieved another great goal with the passage by Congress of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This immediately raised wages and shortened work hours in most industries, and eradicated the use of child labor in many. In a short 5 year span, Perkins could point to a number of solid successes her government-led intervention in the economy had achieved. All of her initial agenda had been adopted except for universal health care, and the country was showing slow by steady signs of recovery. Unemployment had dropped steadily each tear since 1933, and there were undeniable signs of progress everywhere. But within a short time after his second inauguration, FDR made a big error. It enabled his conservative Republican opposition to gain ground with their preposterous lie that his and Perkins’ ambitious New Deal programs had been a mistake and must therefore be rolled back.
Roosevelt had listened to his more conservative advisors’ warnings that all his new social spending would cause tremendous inflation. Thus, he drastically cut back on his New Deal programs in 1937, and, within a few months, the effects of this disastrous advice became clear: unemployment once again began to steeply increase. These conservatives had actually caused a recession to occur within the Great Depression! This recession continued into early 1939, when increased government deficit spending for arms purchases to aid allied countries in the early years of World War II, and our eventual involvement in that war, spiked a massive increase in employment which finally lifted us completely out of the Great Depression. Of course, modern government-hating reactionaries (who mistakenly refer to themselves as “conservatives”, such as John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, as well as most of the Tea-Party contingent) disagree with this correct accounting of actual history, and ludicrously parrot the far-right lie that “government never created a single job.” We progressives, as well as my uncles and relatives who actually worked those New Deal jobs, all know the real truth. We know that it was massive government deficit spending which not only created millions of new jobs, but also lifted us out of the horrible depression which had been caused by the very same flawed, free-market economic theories that modern Tea-Party infested reactionary Republicans are once again spouting.
All Americans today owe a supreme debt of gratitude to Frances Perkins! The HUGE benefits her agenda accomplished for all of us helped usher in an unprecedented four decades of upward mobility and tremendous, unequalled prosperity. Her outstanding efforts yielded us our broad middle class, SOCIAL SECURITY, the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, collective bargaining rights, higher wages, a social safety net for the poor and elderly, disability payments, and unemployment benefits. Though she died in 1965, the magnificence she brought to our economy still endures, nearly 80 years later!
We must preserve her great legacy by firmly standing to oppose any and all modern Republican attempts to dismantle or destroy her wonderful achievements!