Editor’s note: The following guest blog post was authored by Dr. Christopher N. Breiseth, chair of the board of directors of the Frances Perkins Center. Previously, he served as president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. He lived at the Telluride House at Cornell while earning a Ph.D. at the same time Frances Perkins was a guest there teaching at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Frances Perkins was fond of saying that there was no New Deal blueprint before Franklin Roosevelt became President on March 4, 1933, that she and others in his new administration put their ideas together and experimented. At the same time, she suggested in the years after she stepped down as the longest serving Secretary of Labor and first woman cabinet member that the New Deal began on March 25, 1911, the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. Miss Perkins witnessed the fire, watching many of the 146 people who died in the fire jump to their deaths.
She became a key instrument in turning this huge tragedy into the progressive legislation enacted in the state of New York during Al Smith’s four terms as governor. From being the chief investigator of the Factory Investigating Commission established by the legislative leaders, Al Smith and Robert Wagner, Frances Perkins helped shape 30 pieces of legislation dealing not only with fire safety but also with working conditions.
She played the central role in Governor Smith’s labor policy formulation from her position on the newly created Industrial Commission, which she chaired after Smith’s re-election in 1922 — the first woman to hold such a powerful senior public administrative office. She helped Al Smith become the most progressive governor in America which was crucial to his becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1928. While Smith lost to Hoover, his hand-picked successor for Governor, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected and appointed Frances Perkins as Commissioner of Labor. Thus in 1929, just before the onset of the Great Depression, Perkins began her service to FDR, which would continue until his death in 1945. She was the continuity of the Progressive tradition from the time of the Triangle Fire, through the governorships of Smith and Roosevelt, to the New Deal. Indeed, back in 1911, she was recommended for the role of chief investigator of the Factory Investigating Commission by Theodore Roosevelt, and on more than one occasion told me of her identification in those early years with TR’s Bull Moose Party.
From her position as New York State’s Commissioner of Labor, she challenged President Hoover’s confident announcement in January of 1930 that the nation’s unemployment picture was improving. Without conferring with Governor Roosevelt, she called a press conference and indicated that both in New York State and elsewhere unemployment was getting worse. Recommending that FDR convene a national meeting of governors to discuss worsening unemployment, Perkins helped move Roosevelt into a position of national leadership among governors — and potential challengers to Hoover in 1932 — as the Great Depression deepened.
Kirstin Downey, in her wonderful book, “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” portrays in her opening paragraphs the only terms on which Miss Perkins would accept the offer of President-elect Roosevelt in February of 1933 to become his Secretary of Labor. “She ticked off the items: a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.” During his first term, Roosevelt accomplished all of these goals, except national health insurance. And they did much more in which Secretary Perkins played a pivotal role, starting with the Civilian Conservation Corps, which she and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes put in place within the first weeks of the new administration. Simultaneously she introduced Harry Hopkins to FDR to institute the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which soon put millions of unemployed men to work. FERA helped spawn the Civil Works Administration and the Public Works Administration that gave way to the Works Progress Administration.
Thus, she was correct in characterizing the New Deal as a spontaneous adoption of experiments to take on the problems of the Great Depression — there was no blueprint. But when you consider her list of non-negotiable demands of the President-elect, they constituted the core domestic program of the New Deal. And they flowed directly from the progressive initiatives she and Al Smith undertook as a result of the Triangle fire. I had the good fortune to help invite Frances Perkins to live with us at Telluride House at Cornell University, where during the last decade of her life she taught in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. After the first dinner in our “rushing program” to encourage her to join us in the spring of 1960, I asked her what she regarded as her most important contribution. Her answer was direct and simple: “Social Security.”