Frances Perkins’ New Deal
Note: Information about the inspiring life and work of Frances Perkins for this column comes from the Frances Perkins Center.
Annually, our country honors the contributions of American workers on Labor Day, but perhaps it wasn’t until this year, while living through a pandemic, when many really appreciated the essential role many workers have in our day-to-day lives.
Similarly, many Americans are unaware of the historical significance of the labor movement. Even lesser known are the leaders who helped strengthen workers’ rights and establish the working standards we all know today. Like many other labor activists, the story of Frances Perkins is remarkable, yet very few know of her and her efforts to improve working conditions in our country.
Frances Perkins’ remarkable story and her contributions to the United States helped our country become the greatest economic power in the world during the 20th Century. Her efforts for fair wages, labor rights and programs for helping people in difficult times resulted in far less families living in poverty and the birth of the middle class. Perkins’ story illustrates how we, as a nation and community look out for one another. The story of Frances Perkins is also a reminder that when we pull through together, we achieve great things.
Frances Perkins built a successful career as a labor rights activist at a time when many women didn’t hold leadership positions. Her career began in the early 20th Century advocating for working families, people living in poverty and improved working conditions for adults. She also led efforts to protect children who, more often than not, faced hazardous workplaces.
Historians from the Frances Perkins Center claim that one of the most pivotal points of her career came on March 25, 1911 when she and her friends witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This tragic event claimed the lives of 146 workers in a hazardous, fire-prone workplace. Many of the victims were young women who lost their lives because nothing was done to prevent this horrific fire. This event motivated Perkins to develop policies to support working people, much of this inspiring the New Deal.
At this time, Frances Perkins was already Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumer’s League advocating for fire protections in workplaces and standard work hours for women and children. In response to the fire, New York formed a citizens’ Committee on Safety and appointed Perkins as its Executive Secretary. The recommendations from this Committee became the model for laws in states across the country.
Perkins continued to hold high-profile roles in her career, including Industrial Commissioner in New York. As she worked to stop New York’s rising unemployment, she challenged President Hoover’s false reports that employment was on the rise and the Depression was near the end.
In 1933, Perkins became the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet when Franklin Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of Labor once he began his first term as President in 1933. As Labor Secretary, Perkins created a platform centered on workers’ rights, helping to establish programs that are now fundamental to the way our country runs today, including the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation.
As U.S. Labor Secretary, she led the Committee on Economic Security, which helped develop the Social Security Act which instituted the Social Security program we all know today. Perkins was also a key leader in creating the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938; her work with labor leaders on this legislation helped establish a minimum wage, maximum working hours and banned child labor.
Nearly a century later, our country is facing many of the same challenges Perkins dedicated her career to solving, including a struggling economy and families unsure of what the future holds. Right now, we need to take great leaps to build the next great economy. It will take ideas from brilliant and bold leaders like Frances Perkins and the collective efforts of Wisconsin workers. With determination, backbone and foresight, we can make it happen.