Friday, October 9, 2015
Frances Perkins- labor movement activist
Having grown up in a well-off, conservative and republican family, Frances Perkins was not exposed to poverty until she began school. From a young age, Perkins was shocked by how the "other half" lived. In college, her main focus was in physics with minors in chemistry and biology. It was only in her last semester at school that Ms. Perkins took a class called 'American Economic History' which gave Perkins her fist look at industrial working conditions when she was assigned to observe the mills along the Conneticut River.
In 1905, Perkins moved to Lake Forrest Illinois where she took a teaching position. In her free time, she volunteered at Chicago Commons and Hull House where she would work with the poor and unemployed one-on-one. Ms. Perkins spent her next few years working to help the less fortunate all while getting her masters of sociology and economics from Columbia University. In 1910 Frances became the executive secretary of the New York City Consumer's league. Her work focused on improving sanitary and fire regulations, and decreasingworking hours for women and children in places such as bakeries and factories. About a year after taking this job, Frances and her friends were having tea on March 25, 1911 when they heard an overwhelming number of fire engines pass by. Perkins ran down the street to find women jumping from the flaming shirtwaist factory windows above. Appalled by what she was seeing, Frances Perkins said that this was "the day the New Deal was born."
The New Deal was a series of programs that were put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to restore prosperity and create new opportunities in our economy. FDR was elected as the presidential candidate for the democratic party in 1932. In response to the economic issues of the depression, Roosevelt declared that "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people". Once elected in 1933, FDR got to work on the New Deal. The New Deal included, but weren't limited to emergency relief programs, union protection programs and the Social Security Act.
Now you're probably wondering how this related to Frances Perkins...
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory incident outraged the public (including Perkins). They were furious at the factory owners as well as themselves for allowing such a thing to happen. As a result,the Committee on Safety of the City of New York was established to prevent further tragedies from occurring. Perkins was the group's executive secretary where she lead investigations into state factories where she saw the dangers of industrialism first hand. New York's governor at the time, Al Smith, appointed Perkins to the Industrial Commission which regulated workplace conditions. Perkins was no average woman for her time. Smith's goal was to weed out corruption in the state labor department and Perkins was his enforcer. During Smith's final term, he chose Perkins to be the Chair of the Industrial Commission. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took over as governor kept Perkins in this position. In 1932, when FDR was chosen as the democratic presidential candidate, he asked Frances Perkins to be his Cabinet Secretary of Labor. In 1933, she became the first woman cabinet member. As the president's secretary of labor, Perkins outlined policies such as a minimum wage, a 40 hour work week, abolition of child labor and social security.
In my eyes Frances Perkins was one of the most influential people in country's economic history. Motivated and inspired by the women of the triangle shirtwaist factory, she devoted her life to improving the lives and working conditions of others. It's hard to imagine life before minimum wage, 40 hour work weeks and social security. However, these things may have never came to pass if it wasn't for the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers and Frances Perkins.