On July 28, 1933, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins gave a speech in Homestead, Pennsylvania. When the town’s political leaders discovered she wanted to speak to workers outside the designated hall, they refused to allow her to speak. She then marched to the Homestead Post Office, which was federal property, and gave the speech from there.
Homestead was the company town of Homestead Steel. Andrew Carnegie purchased the Homestead Works, initially constructed in 1881, in 1883, part of his broader Carnegie Steel empire. Despite his incredible self-regard over being a generous employers (Carnegie was routinely made fun of by other Gilded Age elites for talking so much about what a great guy he was), he ruled his company with an iron fist, yet tried to avoid the consequences. So when he wanted to purge the union from the Homestead plant in 1892, he took a well-timed trip to Scotland to avoid being around for it and told Henry Clay Frick to take care of it for him. That became one of the most notorious events in American labor history. All this later helped convince Carnegie to retire in 1901 and he sold Homestead to what became U.S. Steel. That company was no better, having engaged in union-busting again and again, most notoriously in the 1919 strike.
Everyone realized the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant a new world for labor. When Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor, that only heartened those who longed for greater rights for workers. Perkins had risen in the labor world due to her activism after personally witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. In the aftermath, she fought for reforms to workplace safety and helped guide New York politicians such as Robert Wagner on inspections of factories. But this process of a new day for labor was contested at every front by companies, determined to resist meaningful changes.
One of the first laws passed in the New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act. This was a mess of a law, not functional in its application, which attempted to work with corporations to set labor and price codes and which had vague language giving workers the right to organize with no enforcement mechanism to see it through. Perkins, determined to push the cause of labor rights, decided to visit Homestead to investigate conditions in that notorious company town. Now, U.S. Steel had actually invited Perkins to Homestead. After all, there was real hope in the early days of the New Deal for cooperation between the government and big business, even if that meant regularizing a moderate form of unionism. That collapsed fairly quickly but was still a real thing in 1933. And as the steel industry needed to come up with its code under the NRA, Perkins needed to understand local conditions for the workers.
However, the town leadership of Homestead, which had long served as the enforcement arm of Andrew Carnegie and then his successors after U.S. Steel took the plant over, had no interest in this new, softer position on workers. To town burgess John Kavanaugh, free speech did not exist when it threatened the social order. And that included when Cabinet officials came to town. Kavanaugh couldn’t outright refuse Perkins a meeting space. His masters had invited her to town after all. But Kavanaugh had simply banned all open union meetings or any public talk of labor organizing in his town since the early 1920s. So he was highly unhappy with Perkins’ visit. She gave her talk and lots of workers came. In fact, the room was packed. There were workers who couldn’t get in. When the talk was over, Perkins realized this. So she demanded to speak to the workers waiting outside to meet her. Kavanaugh flat out refused this, saying, “”No, no, you’ve had enough. These men are no good. They’re undesirable reds. I know them well. They just want to make trouble.” She started speaking anyway. Then he interrupted her and warned her there was a law against making public speeches. Basically, he threatened to arrest the Secretary of Labor.
But Perkins was not someone easily intimidated. Just think of the sexism she had to face her whole life as a public figure. Not only was she the first female Cabinet member (and controversial not only for that reason, as lots of labor didn’t trust her because unions had gotten used to a union member being named to the position), but there wasn’t another woman named to the Cabinet until 1953. Some two-bit local thug wasn’t going to shut her down. So she asked to go to a nearby park to give the speech. Kavanaugh said that speeches weren’t allowed there either. Thinking quickly, she marched over the Post Office. That was federal property. Kavanaugh had no authority on the steps there. And she gave her speech and talked to the workers.
This would hardly be the last time Perkins had to deal with the extremism of the steel world. Shortly thereafter, she held a meeting between the steel executives and AFL president William Green over the proposed steel code. While US Steel was moving toward accepting unions and an inevitably, the so-called Little Steel plants were not. When those executives, led by the execrable Tom Girdler, saw Green, they stood up and walked out of Perkins’ office. It took FDR personally intervening with steel executives to twist their arms to agree to the code. The codes themselves did not work and while U.S. Steel would continue its surprising move toward accepting unions, Little Steel very much would not.
In 2003, the city of Homestead named the corner of Ninth and Amity “Free Speech Corner” in honor of both Perkins’ speech and another Mother Jones had given in the area during the 1919 steel strike under conditions of even greater duress.
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