As a self-proclaimed history geek, I’d love a time machine. But truth be told, I wouldn’t use it to travel back very far. While there are infinite events of interest throughout human history, the era I find most fascinating is the early part of the 20th century, specifically the 1910s.
That’s because it was a decade that forever changed America and the world. Our “boys” were sent abroad to fight in World War I, the first “war to end all wars.” Long-standing empires collapsed and America emerged as a world leader. But another important battle was fought that decade by Americans at home — by women and men, young and old, natural-born or recently immigrated.
Spurred on by myriad social problems, American workers in the 1910s organized in large numbers to bring attention to widespread poverty, illegal monopolies, rampant child labor and unsafe workplace conditions. The latter especially was underscored by industrial disasters like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, an entirely avoidable tragedy that claimed the lives of 146 female garment workers.
The confluence of such conditions and events led to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Labor in 1913. It was in that year that President William Howard Taft — on his last day in office and with reluctance — signed the legislation creating the department and giving workers a direct seat at the president’s Cabinet table for the first time. For America’s workers, it was a significant victory on the home front.
Shortly thereafter — two days after his inauguration, in fact — newly elected President Woodrow Wilson appointed William B. Wilson (no relation) as the nation’s first secretary of labor. A Scottish immigrant who starting working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania at age 9, Secretary Wilson championed the 8-hour workday, improved employment options for women and minorities, and mobilized the workforce for defense production in support of the war effort. He also established the first benefits for workers who sustain injuries or contract illnesses on the job.
Secretary Wilson’s tenure, which lasted through 1921 (the end of President Wilson’s two terms in office) laid a strong foundation for the department’s work going forward. Although the nature of work in America has changed significantly since the 1910s, the Labor Department’s purpose has not. A century later, we still strive to advance employment opportunities for American workers and ensure that workplaces are safe and fair. Our goals remain the same, every day of every decade.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past century. To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit www.dol.gov/100.