Frances Perkins, 1880-1965

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Restoring Economic Growth 1934 Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins

During the early days of the 1930s, the shorter hour cure for overproduction and unemployment was almost as important as the other solution, the gospel of consumption. The critical debate about unemployment that developed in the 1920s was not, as it has been since the Depression, over how to stimulate demand. Shorter work hours was a vital issue during the formation of the labor movement in the 19th century and continued to be important until the end of the Great Depression. Between 1900 and 1920 a rapid reduction took place-especially between the years 1913 and 1919 when weekly hours fell about eight percent. Economic abundance threatened overproduction and unemployment. Shorter hours could decrease work, raise wages, spread employment, reduce unnecessary production and surpluses, and insure a minimum standard of life for everyone. Shorter hours would counter the new "economic gospel of consumption" which had begun to define progress solely in terms of economic growth and abandon the other, more humane kinds of progress." For more on this, read THE END OF SHORTER HOURS by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, published in Labor History, XXV (Summer, 1984),373-404. Frances Perkins (1882-1965) was the first woman cabinet member. As Secretary of Labor from March 1933 to July 1945, she also served longer than any other Secretary. She was trained as a teacher, and her views were decidedly liberal. (Her enemies said she was a communist!) And she valued individual liberty. Her character combined a very strong sense of "mission" in pursuing social justice with a pragmatic, practical bent, which helped her to appraise the political realities of a situation and get things through. It was with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that her goals for social justice were able to be taken to a national level. In 1933, the new President wanted Perkins for Secretary of Labor. As Secretary of Labor, Perkins worked tirelessly to create programs such as The Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Public Works Administration. These programs provided food, shelter and jobs for millions of people and invested in conservation projects. But perhaps her greatest achievements were the enactments of the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1935, Congress passed the first, ensuring that working people had benefits during unemployment and in retirement. In 1938, the second was made law. This immediately raised wages and shortened work hours for many people, and in many industries, prohibited the use of child labor. Perkins' dedication to labor reform and the welfare of the public that needed her was manifested in these two laws. When she ended her career in government service, she took a post on the faculty of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she remained until her death in 1965. Frances Perkins was born in Massachusetts, of an upper middle-class family.. She did her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College, and graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. In 1910-12, she was executive secretary of the Consumer's League in New York City. She lobbied for a 54-hour work week for women. In 1911, she witnessed the horrible Triangle Fire, when 600 young women workers were trapped by fire in the upper floors of the Triangle Shirt Waist Company. The number of women who died in that fire was 146, many of whom leaped from the building to avoid the flames. Driven by what she had witnessed, Frances Perkins intensified her efforts in the area of factory safety. She became well known as a social worker and active lobbyist for legislative reforms. For more on her life and work, go to This film is from the US National Archives.

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