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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 914

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This is the grave of Frances Perkins.

Born in Boston in 1880, Perkins grew up relatively well-off, though not rich. She grew up in Worcester and then went to college at a time when this was still not super common for women. She went to Mount Holyoke and studied chemistry and physics, graduating in 1902. Like a lot of young women at this time, these women’s colleges served not only as places for higher education but also as political spaces, where they could learn about activism, women’s rights, and being empowered to make change. This was the Progressive Era and those politics were not always great from a modern era (given the propensity of Progressives, men and women, to engage in coercion such as taking single women’s children away and giving them to orphanages if they dared to date men), but certainly could be very positive. Perkins became interested in two of the most important causes of the day, women’s suffrage and labor rights.

After graduation, Perkins taught for awhile, but wasn’t really satisfied with that. She was a lot more interested in political change than science by this time. So she moved to Philadelphia to work in a settlement house and learn economics. Then in 1909, she went to New York for a master’s degree at Columbia, focusing on childhood malnutrition. The next year, she became the head of the National Consumers League in New York after getting to know Florence Kelley. So she was already on the path toward being a major transformative figure in the history of labor.

On the morning of March 25, 1911, around 500 workers started another day working for Triangle Waist Company in New York City, as they did six days a week. These mostly young immigrant women could not have guessed that many of them would die that afternoon. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owned a factory making shirtwaists—a popular garment for women of the era—on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, just off Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Like other apparel manufacturers, Blanck and Harris did not market clothing. Instead they took orders from designers and department stores under contracts that allowed sellers maximum flexibility in a rapidly changing fashion world without responsibility for the workers. So long as Blanck and Harris made the clothes for the agreed cost, the stores asked no questions. Clothing sweatshops could burst in flame at any time. Bosses crammed workers into tiny spaces and piled flammable cloth around them. The factories were hot and the air filled with fibers. Blanck and Harris had ordered the fire exits shut so that workers’ bags could undergo inspection for stolen cloth before they left. At about 4:40 p.m., just before the workers were to depart out into the sunny afternoon, a fire started on the eighth floor. When the fire started, workers on the eighth floor called up to the tenth to alert the bosses. Almost all workers from the eighth and tenth floors escaped. However, the ninth floor had no working telephone and no one got the word to flee. By the time workers realized that smoke was rising from the floor below, it was too late. Some workers escaped on the elevator before it became too hot to operate. Others got out via a fire escape, but it collapsed from the weight of the fleeing women. The fire department’s ladders were useless, since they only reached the seventh floor. Over 100 young Jewish and Italian immigrant women were stuck on the ninth floor and faced the grim choice of burning to death or jumping. Many workers jumped, landing on the street below with a sickening thud. Others were burned beyond recognition.146 workers died that day. The Triangle Fire was the most deadly factory disaster in American history.

Among the people who saw the Triangle Fire in person was Frances Perkins.

Seeing smoke, Perkins rushed to the scene and witnessed the horrors. Over fifty years later, she remembered, “Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. We had our dose of it that night and felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people, as they heard about it in all parts of the city, they began to mull around and gather and talk.” Witnessing these deaths changed Perkins’s life. She committed herself to fight for workplace reforms so another Triangle would never happen. She helped create the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, which had the power to document and regulate working conditions throughout New York. Within a year, the commission drew up eight bills that became law, including one that mandated automatic sprinklers and another that forced factories to register with the state for regular inspections. She convinced Al Smith and other leading New York politicians to enter the workplaces themselves, leading to major changes as they were shocked with what they discovered. New York City cleaned up its fire building codes, prohibited smoking in factories, and required new fire suppression techniques and technologies. Al Smith and Robert Wagner took Perkins’ suggestion to create the Factory Investigative Commission that led to the passage of 15 new bills by 1915 to make workplaces safer.

Perkins married an economist named Paul Wilson in 1913. She had to go to court to keep her last name, which she did to keep her husband, who was connected to New York political figures, out of being connected with her more radical politics. He had serious mental illness and so even if she wanted to stop working, and she did cut back with the birth of their daughter, she had to work to pay for his frequent hospital stays and to keep the family going. Sadly, their daughter also suffered from severe mental illness.

Perkins became a close ally of Al Smith and was his leading labor advisor while governor of New York. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became governor after Smith, he named Perkins state Industrial Commissioner that oversaw the state’s labor department and the two of them worked together to fight against the deepening Great Depression.

When Roosevelt named Perkins Secretary of Labor it was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that she was a woman, an unprecedented step (I don’t believe a woman had even been considered for a Cabinet position before this). She also wasn’t a union member. Most people who had held the job of Secretary of Labor had been unionists, and with the Democratic Party far closer to organized labor than Republicans, this was expected. So the unions were initially pretty unhappy with Perkins’ appointment.

Perkins had a strong agenda for what she wanted to see the Democrats do while she was in the Cabinet–create a 40-hour workweek, federal unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, the abolition of child labor, federal employment of the unemployed, and national health insurance. She would be centrally involved in getting much of this passed. She brought a young Harry Hopkins from New York to help with the federal employment programs, particularly the Federal Employee Relief Administration, which he headed.

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.

Perkins’ primary role as Secretary of Labor for FDR was helping to write much of his key legislation to benefit the millions of impoverished Americans in the Great Depression. This included the Social Security Act of 1935. She also chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security, which oversaw all the New Deal’s economic legislation goals. She refused to deport the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union head Harry Bridges in 1939, angering congressional conservatives, but she faced no real pressure to step down. She famously called General Motors head Alfred Sloan in the middle of the night once, yelling at him for not settling with the United Auto Workers. She said, “You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men. You’ll go to hell when you die.”

Perkins and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only cabinet members to serve all 12 years of Roosevelt’s administration, although Henry Wallace served the administration as Agriculture Secretary, Vice-President, and Commerce Secretary during the entirety of the administration as well. Unfortunately, she was somewhat isolated in World War II, not playing the major role in labor issues that she had in FDR’s first two terms. She stepped down in June 1945. Maybe she could have stayed on, but she was not at all close to Truman.

Perkins then wrote a biography of FDR that was published in 1946. Truman named her to the United States Civil Service Commission in 1946. She worked in that role until 1953, when she became a lecturer at the new Cornell School of Industrial Relations. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

Frances Perkins is buried in Glidden Cemetery, Newcastle, Maine.

If you would like this series to visit other people who were Secretary of Labor, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lewis B. Schwellenbach is in Seattle and Maurice Tobin is in Brookline, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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