EFCA Could Lose: We Need Frances Perkins Today

photo_perkinsby James M. Wall

Your reading assignment for today combines New Deal history with a current news story. 

The book is by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2009). 

The current news story? The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is in danger. Democratic senators are wobbly. We need a Frances Perkins for today who will push Congress to do the right thing. 

The original Frances Perkins chaired New York State’s Industrial Commission under two successive governors, Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Perkins became his Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet.  

Before his inauguration, Roosevelt invited Frances Perkins for an interview in his New York City residence on East 65th Street. Kirstin Downey, the author of this stirring biography, describes their historic 1933 meeting on “a chilly February night”. 

She clutched a scrap of paper with hastily written notes. Finally ushered into his study, the woman brushed aside her nervousness and spoke confidently.  They bantered casually for a while, as was their style, then she turned serious, her dark, luminous eyes holding his gaze.

He wanted her to take an assignment but she had decided she wouldn’t accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way.  She held up the piece of paper in her hand, and he motioned for her to continue.

She ticked off the items: a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.  She watched his eyes to make sure he was paying attention and understood the implications of each demand.

She braced for his response, knowing that he often chose political expedience over idealism and was capable of callousness, even cruelty.

The scope of her list was breathtaking. She was proposing a fundamental radical restructuring of American society, with enactment of historical social welfare and labor laws.

Franklin Roosevelt would soon be sworn in as the nation’s thirty-second president. 

He would inherit the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history.  An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. The stock market had collapsed, rendering investments valueless. Banks were shutting down, stripping people of their lifetime savings. About a third of workers were unemployed,; wages were falling; tens of thousands were homeless.  Real estate prices had plummeted, and millions of homeowners faced foreclosures.

Roosevelt was about to give “this plain, matronly woman” a cabinet assignment that would place her at the heart of the nation’s economic crisis.

No one was more qualified for the job. She knew as much about labor law and administration as anyone in the country. He had known her for more than twenty years, the last four in Albany, where she had worked at his side. He trusted her and knew she would never betray him.

But a woman in the cabinet? A woman with plans that included the eight-hour work day, a standard plank of the Socialist Party?

Why Not? Frances Perkins was ready.

She had campaigned in New York politics for reform before she could vote.  It was not until August 18, 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified that Frances Perkins and every other woman in America were given their constitutional right to vote. 

Candidate Roosevelt had promised a balanced budget. Frances Perkins was proposing a budget-busting budget which gave direct aid to the unemployed.  The president-elect knew her appointment would “expose him to criticism and ridicule”.  

He said he would back her.

Perkins had worked with reformers like Florence Kelley, the founder of the National Consumers League, who had “spent her life laboring for workplace reforms”. Kelley’s victories had been “few and hard won”.  One battle she lost was the abolition of child labor, a reform vigorously resisted by the National Association of Manufacturers.

One of Perkins’ proudest moments was when the Congress finally voted to abolish child labor. Kelley was not around to see the victory. She died at age 74 in February, 1932.

Mary Dewson, who had risen high in Democratic party circles, had worked with Kelley and Perkins in the League before Perkins entered New York politics.

Dewson knew how to push Democratic party buttons. She, with Perkins’ blessing,  started a campaign to persuade FDR to give her the cabinet post and then to persuade the Congress to confirm her over strong resistance, including the opposition of union leaders who wanted one of their own male leaders for the job.

Endorsement letters and petitions flowed into Washington.  One letter arrived in December, 1932: 

I need not recite any of her qualifications, but it is a wonderful coincidence that the woman best equipped for the post should have sat in the previous cabinet of the President of the United States.

It was signed by Jane Addams, mailed from Chicago’s Hull House, with whom Perkins once worked in her initial vocation as a social worker.

Kirstin Downey first heard of Frances Perkins in 1988, when she worked as a business reporter and later wrote a column, On the Job,  for the Washington Post.  

Downey received a call one day from a man who complained that he was locked in his office at the end of each working day while his boss counted the day’s receipts. He wondered if Downey agreed that this practice was unsafe in case of a fire: “Even a rat has an escape hole”.

Calling around to her sources, she reached Judson McLaury, a staff historian with the Labor Department. She asked McLaury about famous workplace fires.

He casually asked Downey if she knew that a young social worker, Frances Perkins, had actually witnessed the famous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire disaster, in Lower Manhattan. This information launched Downey on a decade-long detective project

In the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which 146 young women died, most of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrants, who were locked in their building. Flameable cloth was tossed about on every floor.

The fire destroyed the 12-story building near Washington Park. Perkins was having lunch with friends across the park when the fire began. She raced over and saw what was clearly a “crowded firetrap” go up in flames. 

As she approached, Frances saw people beginning to plummet to the ground., “One by one the people would fall off,” she said. “They couldn’t hang on any longer–the grip gives way.” Then, just as he arrived at the base of the building, Frances saw a worker deliberately jump to her death. Then another. And another. 

Two year earlier, workers had pleaded for help from their crowded and dangerous work conditions. They “had been rebuffed, even persecuted, for complaining about their work conditions.”

Until that experience, Frances Perkins assumed her life would follow the pattern of most women in her social group,”doing volunteer social work while living comfortably and well. Now she began to suspect that much more might be needed of her. Workplaces needed to be made safer and more humane, but she had already lost her innocence about the ease with which those changes might occur, and she realized a lifelong commitment was needed.”

It is without doubt that the Triangle fire was a turning point. It reoriented her life. Journalist Will Irwin, a close friend, summed it up: “What Frances Perkins saw that day started her on her career.”

Perkins’ life had already been shaped by her earlier experiences. 

Her parents were devoted Congregationalists and instilled in Perkins an earnest desire to “live for God and do something.” At Mount Holyoke College, she began to understand just what that meant. . . 

After graduation from Mount Holyoke in 1902, Perkins accepted a series of teaching positions and volunteered her time at settlement houses, where she learned first hand the dangerous conditions of factory work and the desperation of workers unable to collect their promised wages or secure medical care for workplace injuries. . .

Because of Frances Perkins’ work with the New Deal, labor unions and social legislation have made enormous strides.  Kristin Downey notes that “it is a great historic irony that Frances is now virtually unknown.”

Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire-prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collect Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker’s compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits.

None of these advances were made without a struggle.  Labor unions and their Democratic party allies have not always worked in the best interests of their members. Well-funded and politically connected corporate America constantly sets up barriers to keep workers from making even further advances. 

Most recently, the Congress has danced around a final agreement to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which is expected to be voted on by this current Congress. Corporate lobbyists are playing word games that imply what is at stake is “the secret ballot”, which Frances Perkins, were she still with us, would have exposed as a the same word-game bogus tactic she encountered when she fought to implement the basic reforms of the New Deal. 

The EFCA is written to make it easier for working men and women to organize unions without being intimidated or threatened by their employers. Corporate America has never been comfortable sharing power with the workers. The same National Association of Manufacturers that fought Frances Perkins is still around, still working to “defeat bad labor policy”. 

Frances Perkins was 85 when she died in 1965. Her first two successors were men, both miserable failures in the office. (Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Truman, complaining that he should have named a woman to replace Perkins.) Harold Ickes, who had served with Perkins in the Roosevelt cabinet, had retired and was writing a newspaper column when he finally realized what a good job Perkins had done. (Ickes’ son was more recently a key advisor in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.)

When Miss Perkins was Secretary of Labor, she was hounded and harassed with sadistic delight. There was a consistent demand that President Roosevelt replace her [with] a strong he-man. Well, we have two strong he-men–John Steelman and Lewis Schwellenbach–running the labor policies of the Government. . . I wonder if our labor affairs would not be in more competent hands if only Secretary Perkins was back on the job.”

In July, 1945, Perkins attended the International Labor (ILO) conference in Paris, where “she was greeted with cheers by the delegates from other nations, who gave her a standing ovation”.  Upon her return home, Perkins asked President Truman to appoint her as a member of the Social Security Board. Instead, he offered to name her to the Civil Service Commission.

She protested, saying her preference was the Social Security Board. Truman called her and said he understood “why  you would like that, and I see why”.

It’s right up your line and you were responsible for the Act entirely. . . But we’re in a kind of a jam, you know.  We have to take care of many people and many things, and Oscar Ewing wants it.  He’s been a great supporter of the Democratic Party, and a great contributor.” 

Will this present Congress, with its own loyalty to many “great supporters” and “great contributors”  pass the EFCA?  For the answer to that question, you will have to ask Democrats like Arlen Specter, Diane FeinsteinBlanche LincolnMark PryorJim WebbMichael BennetMark Udall and Ben Nelson, all of whom either oppose EFCA or are wobbling around for a greatly weakened compromise. 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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4 Responses to EFCA Could Lose: We Need Frances Perkins Today

  1. Claudia Olsen says:

    Thanks for that great article! I am always looking for good history to read- can’t wait to get this book!

  2. Cotton Fite says:

    Interesting, isn’t it, how witnessing tragedy and/or injustice – such as the Triangle Fire – close up transforms at least some of us. It’s hard to erase those memories; so I suppose we either suppress or we engage with a passion that doesn’t allow us to stop. With Perkins, that passion was allied with a formidable savvy.
    This, Jim, will be the 43nd book I want to read.

  3. Yeah, Great article , now a days, injustice is increasing in the world.

  4. Joy Edery says:

    I will ask Arlen Specter, Diane Feinstein, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Jim Webb, Michael Bennet, Mark Udall and Ben Nelson and so should every last one of us and hold them accountable.

    We are in the fight of our lives. Everyone deserves the dignity and respect for a fair days pay for a fair days work and with a labor union it will level the playing field for workers in America.

    It is up to us to make sure that our children and our childrens children will be entitled to certain rights that the Employee Free Choice Act will provide like arbitration rights.

    Why are they wobblying? Does it have to do with big business and the money they control?

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