President Obama is calling for higher wages to help close the gap between the rich and poor. In fact, he wants to make that the hallmark achievement of his remaining years in office. Wal-Mart employees are striking for higher wages at the new store in Washington, D.C. Some fast-food workers are striking and asking for a doubling of their wages. Congressional Republicans say they are ready to let emergency unemployment benefits lapse on December 31, cutting off checks to more than a million recipients. And there is a call to raise the cap on the payroll tax to help fund Social Security. You can’t read or hear the news lately without a daily reminder of the impact of wages, labor, entitlements, taxes, and the deal-making of Congress, on our lives and livelihood.
Many of these matters fall under the purview of the federal Department of Labor (DOL), which was given the mandate “to promote American wage earners” when it was created as a cabinet level department, 100 years ago, in 1913. The creation of the DOL attested to the power of the American Federation of Labor, the nation’s most influential labor organization. A predecessor department, the Bureau of Labor, established in 1884, had largely been a statistic-gathering agency, analogous to today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. With a budget of $4 million, the new department, charged with representing the interests of workingmen, went to work under its first leader, William D. Wilson, a Scottish immigrant and union leader. At that time, “workingmen” included children, often working 55 hours or more in factories, often in unsafe conditions. Wilson was determined to change that and set an activist tone for the DOL.
But the DOL could be said to have made its greatest contribution to the struggle of workingmen during the 12-year tenure (1933-45) of Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member in American history. Perkins was also the first DOL chief to not come from the ranks of union labor and to be college educated. Graduating as president of her class at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, Perkins resisted returning home to Worcester, Massachusetts, after graduation in 1902, as most of her classmates did. A physics and chemistry major, Perkins’s passion was social reform. According to her biographer, Kristen Downey, in The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, Perkins traveled to New York City to seek work as a social worker. She insisted on being interviewed by the director of the Charity Organization Society (later United Way), but was deemed too young, inexperienced and lacking in judgment to be effective. She was sent on her way with books to read and a stack of Charity’s newsletters.
Not to be deterred, Perkins obtained a teaching position in Chicago, where she soon became involved in Jane Addams’s Hull House. The nation’s leading settlement house, Hull House was a boarding house whose goal was to rekindle a sense of community “that had frayed in America as the Industrial Revolution divided the nation into haves and have-nots.” Sound familiar?
The event that galvanized Perkins’s crusading for labor reform was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911. She was an eyewitness to the horrific fire in a 12-story clothing factory that offered no means of escape. One-hundred and forty-six workers died, mostly young, immigrant women, many of whom jumped to their deaths from windows. The company’s management had refused union demands that factory conditions be improved. Investigations into the causes of the fire produced safety laws and focused support for the idea of a federal labor department.
Perkins worked in Franklin Roosevelt’s New York gubernatorial administration as state industrial commissioner, and answered his call to the Cabinet when he was elected president in 1932 amidst the Great Depression with upwards of 25 percent unemployment. She was responsible for many New Deal programs that benefited workers — the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Civil Works Administration (CWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and Public Works Administration (PWA). Under her leadership, the DOL won passage of the Social Security Act, which provided financial assistance to unemployed and retired workers, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour and a maximum workweek of 44 hours.
Soon after FDR’s death in 1945, Perkins resigned. Those who would debate the merits of the Social Security Act and its consequences would debate Perkins’s legacy. Two other significant acts, promoted through the DOL, reverberate today. The 1964 Employment Security Act created Job Corps, offering basic education and vocational training to underprivileged youth. In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), was designed to assure safe and healthful conditions for workers.
Is the Department of Labor intrusive, oppressive, a provider of unearned or earned entitlements? Or is it a beneficial safeguard and necessary advocate for workers? You decide.