Today, as in 1933, the nation faces serious economic uncertainty. As we struggle to find new answers, we look to the example of Frances Perkins, labor secretary during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, for inspiration.
Perkins is best known for creating much of the social safety net that protects the elderly, young and those experiencing hard times. She is credited with creating Social Security, unemployment insurance and the system that became Aid to Dependent Children.
She also was behind the Fair Labor Standards Act that set a 40-hour workweek to prevent workers from getting broken down by exhaustion, a minimum wage that ensured they would receive a certain level of compensation, a ban on child labor and creation of overtime pay for workers asked to work long hours.
On April 21, an organization based at her family homestead in Newcastle, Maine, is holding its official Washington, D.C., “coming out party” for the brand-new Frances Perkins Center. Started in January by a group that included Perkins’s grandson, the center aims to continue her legacy by spreading the word about her accomplishments and working to carry on her commitment to social justice.
The Perkins family home, known as the Brick House, will become the eventual site of a center and gathering place for elected officials, labor leaders, historians, policymakers, students of all ages and others interested in honoring and building upon Perkins’s commitment to working people around the world.
During a recent appearance at the AFL-CIO here in Washington, Kirstin Downey, author of a new biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, said Perkins:
wasn’t from the labor movement herself, but she was a very strong supporter of the idea that workers need to organize into unions so they can negotiate better wages and working conditions. (See video.)
Her moral compass kept her going, Downey said:
Why did she do all that she did? It wasn’t for riches. She ended up living in a small dormitory room. She didn’t get a lot of glory or fame by the time she died. And she suffered very badly for what she’d done. She was ridiculed and stigmatized, and even suffered an impeachment attempt.
The real answer, according to Downey, was in something Perkins wrote to Justice Felix Frankfurter as she was leaving office.
I came to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain common working men.
Click here for more information on the Frances Perkins Center.