At the start of the 1930s, the American workforce was in crisis. The Great Depression, triggered by the stock market crash of October 1929, began its 10-year stronghold on the nation, shattering lives and livelihoods. In this difficult time, the Department of Labor took on a new level of prominence, rising to the occasion with significant and far-reaching actions that still reverberate today.
From 1930-33, the department was led by William N. Doak, a former railway worker and vice president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. During his tenure, Doak supported the Davis-Bacon Act, co-sponsored by his predecessor, James Davis, who had gone on to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate. This law established that contractors and subcontractors on public works projects pay their laborers and mechanics at least local prevailing wages. He also established a 5-day workweek for Labor Department employees, leading the way for many other employers to do the same.
When Frances Perkins took the reins upon Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration, the department kicked into high gear. As the first female Cabinet member, “Madam Secretary” accelerated efforts to create many of the New Deal agencies that put so many Americans back to work. Perkins also was passionate about protecting workers, having served as a social worker and witnessed first-hand the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that resulted in the deaths of 146 people.
One of the department’s earliest accomplishments under Perkins was the Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933, which established a nationwide system of public employment offices — the forerunners to today’s American Job Centers. Two years later, the Social Security Act of 1935 — principally constructed by Perkins — created a safety net for people who are unemployed, elderly or have disabilities. That same year, the National Labor Relations Act was passed to protect workers’ rights to strike and collectively bargain.
In 1937, the National Apprenticeship Act ensured basic protections for workers receiving on-the-job training, and the Fair Labor Standards Act — which remains one of the nation’s most wide-reaching employment laws — standardized the 40-hour workweek and codified paid overtime, minimum wage and child labor rules. It also created the department’s Wage and Hour Division to enforce the law.
By the end of the decade, we were clearly a nation changed. We were also a department changed. Today it’s hard to imagine a time when workers were not afforded the basic protections that arose out of the turmoil of the 1930s. Those protections revived and strengthened our workforce and prepared us for the continued — though very different — challenges that lay ahead as war ignited across the Atlantic.
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 100 years. To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit dol.gov/100.