Frances Perkins-The Brain Behind The New Deal
by BobReviews on October 12, 2012Talk about your unsung hero. Frances Perkins, the woman responsible for many of the social programs we now take for granted, has only been a blip on the historical radar screen. But due to this fine book by Kirstin Downey that should all be changing. Ms. Downey makes her case very forcefully, and it is this, The New Deal was largely a Francis Perkins idea. According to this author, and contrary to the common perception, Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept his distance from many of the programs that have become associated with his name. Ms. Downey wrote the following: “Roosevelt, according to Frances, also quietly opposed the creation of the National Labor Relations Board. ‘He never lifted a finger to put the act through Congress,’ she said. ‘He never did a thing…he hoped it wouldn’t pass’”
But it was no surprise what Frances Perkins stood for. After serving on the Committee on Safety and the Factory Investigating Committee in the wake of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, Frances was well on her way to a life of public service. Frances was appointed to the Industrial Commission in 1919 by New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. She served under John Mitchell, the former president of the United Mine Workers union. She was later tapped to be State Industrial Commissioner by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. When FDR was elected president in 1932 he asked her to be Secretary of Labor, a post she held until 1945. She was the first woman ever to serve as the head of a presidential executive department.
In both her state and federal careers Frances advocated and achieved labor and safety reforms, including; unemployment compensation, disability insurance, workmen’s compensation, the minimum wage, the forty hour work week, the abolishment of child labor, and Social Security; among other things. She even had plans for a national health program, (if only they had listened to her then).
Under Roosevelt she was largely responsible for or supportive of the CCC, (Civilian Conservation Corps), the National Reemployment Service, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the CWA, (Civil Works Administration), the PWA, (Public Works Administration), the Federal Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, the FHA, (Federal Housing Administration), and the NRA, (the National Recovery Administration). And, she fully supported the National Labor Relations Act, (The Wagner Act), which paved the way for a wave of unionization.
She also suffered terribly from the prevalent sexism of the day, and she had to support a husband and daughter who suffered from mental disease. She had a lot on her plate. As Secretary of Labor she also had to contend with the duties of supervising the Department of Immigration, which came under fire for a variety of reasons. The first had to do with Harry Bridges, the west coast labor activist who had migrated here from Australia. The Martin Dies Committee on Un-American Activities pressured Ms. Perkins to deport Mr. Bridges for his alleged connection to communists. Ms. Perkins refused. It was at this point that impeachment hearings were initiated against her. She showed up for the hearing and exonerated herself. She also suffered other criticisms for her lack of success at increasing the quota for Jewish refugees escaping from the Nazis in Europe.
But much of that has faded into the historical mist. I’ll let the author take us out. “It is a great historic irony that Frances is now virtually unknown. Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collect Social security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker’s compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for the benefits.” Maybe now they will. Do yourself a favor and get this book. It will enlighten you.
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