I can’t help it. I’m a history geek. So a day like today, the centennial of the U.S. Department of Labor, is a big deal for me. But unfortunately, we mark this special day as the nation faces automatic spending cuts known as “sequestration.” So it should come as no surprise that there isn’t much of a mood to celebrate.
But in a way, it’s also fitting. The establishment of the Labor Department came about only after decades of struggle and debate, so hardship and resilience are woven into our DNA. As a matter of fact, President William Howard Taft reluctantly signed the Organic Act that established the Labor Department just moments before he left office.
Since that day 100 years ago, the department has done remarkable things. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we have not just made work better for workers; we’ve made life a little better for everyone.
Consider the impact of healthier and safer workplaces. That’s not just a benefit to an individual worker. His safety benefits his family, his company, his community and the nation in so many different ways.
And did you know under the Family and Medical Leave Act we ensure that working parents can care for newborns? We’re also the folks who protect your pensions. Have a paycheck that just doesn’t add up? We are your first call. Job training after a layoff? That’s us, too.
So often in our history, our most important work has been behind the scenes. When world conflicts heated up, the Labor Department ensured wartime production of battleships ahead of schedule. During natural disasters and the recovery efforts that follow, we’ve kept workers safe, preventing further tragedy. And when our soldiers came home, we protected civilian jobs for them — and we still do.
In so many instances, we’ve been ahead of the times. Before “women’s liberation” became a household topic, we had the first woman Cabinet secretary: Frances Perkins, the mastermind behind much of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” during the Great Depression.
And in the 1920s, long before there was a Civil Rights movement or something called “the glass ceiling,” our Women’s Bureau — the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women — investigated and reported on the status of female African-American workers. We also had the first African-American assistant Cabinet secretary in the federal government, J. Ernest Wilkins, and that was during the Eisenhower administration.
Our work has changed the social fabric of this nation, and we’re proud of it. Personally, I’m proud to have witnessed so much history in the making, serving under three secretaries for a total of 10 years at the department as of next month.
We can’t know what work will be like in the next century but we can be confident that the Labor Department will address tomorrow’s conditions, and meet the needs of future workers, with the same foresight and passion it has shown over the past century.
View our timeline, watch our centennial video and learn more about our rich history by visiting www.dol.gov/100.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial.