If the aim of social work is to alleviate human suffering, there are few whose reach has been as wide as Frances Perkins’. Perkins was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and an architect of modern-day social welfare policy. Much of the New Deal’s enduring legacy—the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the primary concept and components of Social Security—are the brainchildren of Perkins.
In 2008, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall founded the Frances Perkins Center to advance the legacy of his late grandmother. Chairman of the Center’s Board is Dr. Christopher N. Breiseth, who lived with Perkins and 39 other young men at Telluride House, when Perkins was teaching at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations during the final years of her life. In honor of National Social Work Month, Coggeshall and Breiseth reflect on Perkins, her chosen profession, and her impact, exclusively for The New Social Worker.
. . . Al Smith had never heard the words New Deal, he was governor of the State of New York, he had been in the legislature before. As a member of the legislature he was the majority leader he could have appointed anybody he wanted to the factory investigating commission, but he had himself appointed to the factory investigating commission so that he could see with his own eyes what was going on. As he said, this is too raw, we can’t have any mistakes here, we can’t make any blunders and I am going to sit there myself, I am not going to turn this over to somebody else. So he appointed himself to the factory investigating commission in 1911 which was the year of the great Triangle Fire in New York City, a terrible industrial accident which burned out the contents of a 9th and 10th floor loft building factory where they made light cotton shirt waists for women.
It caught on fire and the blaze spread very rapidly. There was only one means of exit available, the other two means of exits were the elevator which was ablaze almost immediately as the flames got into this open shaft and spread from floor to floor and the second exit was locked. It was an exit to the roof, not a very good means of exit at best but it would have saved most of the people in that building if it had not been locked.
It had been locked by the employer himself because he feared that on a Saturday afternoon which he was working just before Easter on a lot of shirtwaists for the market, he feared that some of the people in the shop might stroll out over the roof exit with a few shirtwaists rolled up under their jackets or that somebody might come in and take a few shirtwaists. In other words, he was – I only know what he said on the stand – he was afraid he would be robbed either by his employees or by the outsider. Not so much by the outsider, mostly afraid of his employees. I remember the judge in righteous indignation reproached him for his attitude toward his employees. It may have been a perfectly legitimate attitude. He may have lost goods that way, one doesn’t know, but it was at least bad judgement to tell it to the judge on that particular occasion.
By Jim Taggart, Changing Winds, published January 25, 2010, updated May 12,2011
Franklin Delano Roosevelt rates as being one of America’s greatest presidents. Yet he was despised by many during his ascendancy to president and during his four term tenure. And he is still reviled by conservatives and many Republicans.
FDR, of whom I am a great admirer, was an exceedingly complicated man. He most certainly had his warts, weaknesses and biases, but he was also a visionary who understood what America needed to do during the Great Depression and as World War Two proceeded initially in the absence of the U.S. Furthermore, FDR was probably the most effective president at initiating and sustaining action. He launched the Civilian Conservation Core, instituted the New Deal, and deftly handled a demanding Winston Churchill during the War.
This all sounds great. And it is. But there’s one important omission: FDR didn’t accomplish his achievements alone. One person who served under him, and who was in effect his backbone in many ways, was a woman. Her name was Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965).
(Note: the link to the audio files of Frances Perkins’ speech is near the bottom of this article; the entire speech is about 78 minutes long in 4 parts)
I must say I feel very much at home even though I just arrived. I feel at home because the Social Security Administration has, ever since it was established, been a sort of special concern of mine, although by the chicanery of politics it was not placed in the Department of Labor. I, of course, thought it should be.
As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I feel so deeply involved with the Social Security Administration is that even though it was not in the Department of Labor when it was first established, the Department of Labor had to carry it the way you carry a dependent child. It didn’t have any money. That was so unfortunate. And we didn’t have very much either. But [what] we did, however, was to provide the Social Security Administration with offices in the Department of Labor Building. I even gave to the Chairman of the Social Security Board (as it was called in those days) the large, handsome, red-upholstered, high-back chair out of my own office so that he could look like a king. I didn’t have to keep on looking like a queen. I found the chair somewhat uncomfortable so I made the sacrifice.
The whole Department did the same kind of thing. We gave them our best statisticians. We gave them the best of everything including Arthur Altmeyer, who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor and my real right hand, and without whom I felt very lost. It showed that we put our best people in there on loan, and we carried it for the first year and made it look like a going concern. In fact, it became a going concern in an extraordinarily short time.