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  Remembering Frances Perkins
This lifetime advocate of workers’ rights helped pioneer today’s workplace safety and health programs.
by Dionisia M. Xenos

The sound of fire engines disrupted the silence in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Nearby, Frances Perkins was enjoying Saturday tea with her neighbor when the noise aroused their curiosity. The women scurried across Washington Square to find the top floors of the Asche Building, which housed the Triangle Shirt Waist Company, in flames.

The building doors, locked to prevent employee theft, blocked the workers’ escape from the burning building. Perkins witnessed the young employees on the ledges of the upper-story windows, hands folded in prayer, leaping to their deaths. In less than an hour, 146 of the 600 workers trapped by the March 25, 1911, fire died.

The image of the charred human remains that lined the sidewalk remained fresh in Perkins’ mind for many years to come. It intensified her growing conviction to improve workplace safety to protect workers.

Frances Perkins, second from left, joins a successor, Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin, left, and other Department of Labor staff at a ceremony in the former department building, before construction of the Frances Perkins Building.By the time of the Triangle fire, Perkins had already become a strong advocate of workers’ rights and protections. Her lifelong conviction began taking root when Perkins was a student at Mount Holyoke College. There, she received an assignment to visit local textile and paper mills to survey the working conditions. Perkins was so appalled by the treacherous conditions, she vowed to help change them. Years later, in her book, "The Roosevelt I Knew," she called the existence of industrial hazards in America’s factories "one of our oldest disgraces."

Perkins’ experience at Mount Holyoke led her to volunteer among the factory women of Worcester, and later, she accepted a job at Chicago Commons, the famous settlement house. There, she learned more about the ongoing struggle between workers trying to increase their wages and shorten their hours and employers attempting to reduce wages and increase working hours or the intensity of labor.

While working at Chicago Commons, Perkins lived at Hull House, another settlement house that gave her a firsthand opportunity to study the problems of the poor and help find ways to improve their living and working conditions.

In 1907, Perkins returned to the East to become the only paid staff member of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. The association was formed to help young black women from the South and young white immigrant women from Europe who were arriving in droves to find work, but were often preyed upon or robbed in the process.

In this role, Perkins surveyed the city’s rooming houses, improved investigation and counseling methods, and pressured city authorities to enforce stricter lodging house licensing. She issued a report on living and working conditions of young women supporting themselves in a major American city and lobbied for stricter ordinances for rooming house licensing.

Perkins studied economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance, then relocated to New York where she accepted a fellowship at the New York School of Philanthropy and enrolled in graduate studies at Columbia University. Pauline Goldmark, head of the School of Philanthropy, had assigned Perkins to survey the Hell’s Kitchen section of the West Side. In an effort to help a poor family she had visited there, Perkins met with State Sen. Timothy J. MacMannus, who represented the Hell’s Kitchen section. MacMannus helped Perkins, and in doing so, showed her the value of using the political system to achieve her social goals.

In 1910 Perkins became the secretary of the New York Consumers League, formed to educate workers about harmful industrial conditions and lobby for protective legislation. The league’s national director, Florence Kelly, assigned Perkins to make extensive surveys of unsanitary cellar bakeries and fire safety in industry. Kelly showed Perkins how to search beyond the immediate conditions to find the roots of safety and health problems in industry.

With Kelly’s mentoring, Perkins became a well-known expert on industrial conditions, and her surveys provided the statistics and necessary information needed to build an effective argument for protective social labor legislation.

Perkins’ efforts in advancing factory safety led to her appointment as executive secretary of the Committee on Safety, formed as a result of the Triangle fire. She later became a member of the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), created to review job safety and health conditions in New York. Frances Perkins, center, stands behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he signs into law the Social Security Act of 1935, considered one of Perkins' most enduring contributions to working people.

Perkins took the FIC commissioners to the Cattaraugus County Cannery to see little children snipping beans and shelling peas at 4 a.m. At dawn, the commissioners stood at the gate of a ropeworks watching thousands of exhausted women file out in a zombie-like fashion after working 10 hours through the night. The commissioners also went to the workers’ homes and heard testimonies of the hardships they experienced while at work—motivating the commissioners to push for stronger legislation. Between 1915 and 1922, they completely rewrote the New York industrial code with 36 new laws protecting workers on the job, restricting the hours women and children could work, and compensating victims of on-the-job injuries.

In 1919, Al Smith, then governor of New York, appointed Perkins as commissioner of the State Industrial Commission. He appointed her to the Industrial Board in 1923, then named her chairman in 1926. Three years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected governor and appointed Perkins as the industrial commissioner of New York State. In that role, she acted as directing head of the New York State Department of Labor.

In 1933, Roosevelt was elected U.S. President and offered Perkins an appointment as Secretary of Labor. It was an unprecedented move; never before had a woman served as a Cabinet member. Nonetheless, before accepting Roosevelt’s offer, Perkins told him, "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 explained her goals: to direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, public works, work hour limitations, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, social security, and revitalized public employment insurance.

Perkins asked him, "Are you sure you want these things done? Because you don’t want me for Secretary of Labor if you don’t." Without hesitation, Roosevelt agreed to back her, and incorporated most of her goals a part of his New Deal. Perkins accepted the position and served for 12 years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor in U.S. history.

Perkins’ achievements as Secretary of Labor are legendary. During the first 100 days of the Roosevelt Administration, Congress enacted 15 major laws, and Perkins was the focal point of this activity. During her term, she helped reduce the basic work week to 40 hours, fought for a minimum wage, and helped draft numerous other labor acts.

To help advance workplace safety and health, she established the Department’s Division of Labor Standards. It became the first permanent federal agency set up to focus principally on the safety and health of the entire American workforce.

Because most workers were subject to state labor legislation, Perkins focused on the state and local labor laws. She established a committee of representatives from organized labor, business, government, and the safety movement to advise her on ways to improve how these laws were administered and suggest improvements. In response to their suggestions, state labor departments began to offer training for state factory inspectors. The group also worked to increase protective legislation at both the state and federal level concerning job safety and health.

Working through the Division of Labor Standards, Perkins organized a wide range of conferences that encouraged information sharing among the states and ultimately, increased uniformity of state laws and programs. Perkins made regular radio addresses to explain the benefits of social security and other New Deal programs.

Much of the division’s work focused on outreach and voluntary compliance—still recognized today as the most effective avenues to workplace protection. The division worked with industry associations and safety organizations to establish voluntary industrial safety codes, and later used this expertise to help develop industrial codes for other federal agencies. It also helped unions establish safety and health programs, provide safety education for workers, and promote better safety and health laws. In turn, the unions helped the division, providing them with lists of hazards in different industries.

The division also helped improve state factory inspections by providing safety courses for factory inspectors and producing an inspection manual. Perkins called on a fellow pioneer in workplace safety and health, Alice Hamilton, who had worked in the Department of Labor under Secretary William Wilson, to return to the department to assist in this effort and conduct industrial hazard investigations.

Many transformations took place during Perkins’ term as Secretary of Labor. Perhaps her most significant achievements related to workplace safety and health were passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, which allowed the U.S. Public Health Service to fund state industrial health programs; The Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act of 1936, which banned contract work done under hazardous conditions; and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which prohibited children under 18 from working in hazardous jobs.

Perkins resigned as Secretary of Labor after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. This was not, however, to be the end of her career. The following year, President Harry Truman appointed her to the Civil Service Commission, where she spent seven years as a commissioner focused on privacy violations on job applications. Perkins ended her government career in 1953 and spent the rest of her life teaching and lecturing at prestigious universities. She continued to lecture until weeks before her death in 1965.

Fifteen years later, the new Department of Labor headquarters at 200 Constitution Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., was named the Francis Perkins Building in honor of her many contributions to America’s workforce.

Former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz’s tribute couldn’t better describe those contributions. He said, "Every man and woman who works at a living wage, under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or social security, is her debtor." JSHQ

Xenos served as a summer intern in OSHA’s Office of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C. Judson MacLaury, the Department of Labor historian, and Gordon Berg, a Department of Labor public affairs specialist, contributed to this article.