Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, the daughter of Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, was born in Boston on 10th April, 1882. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, she worked as a social worker in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a teacher in Chicago.

Perkins was deeply influenced by the writings of investigative journalists such as Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Jacob A. Riis and Upton Sinclair. While in Chicago she became involved in Hull House, a settlement house founded by Jane Addams. Later she moved to Philadelphia, where she worked with immigrant girls. Perkins later explained that during this period attitudes changed towards poverty: "Proposals began to be made for laws to overcome social disadvantages. Societies and voluntary agencies, aiming to prevent abuses and promote remedies, sprang up. There was a sincere effort on the part of the American people to find the way of social justice. Shorter hours and better wages, removal of slums, new tenement house laws for sanitation, fire safety, and decency; reforms to prevent child labour, prevention of the use of hazardous chemicals in industry began to be mentioned in political speeches and legislation in some states. Foremost was the idea that poverty is preventable, that poverty is destructive, wasteful, demoralizing, and that poverty in the midst of potential plenty is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society."

Perkins took a master's degree in political science at Columbia University in 1910 before becoming the executive secretary of the National Consumer's League (NCL). This work also brought her into contact with progressive politicians in New York City such as Robert Wagner and Alfred Smith. In 1919, Smith, the new governor of New York, appointed Perkins to the Industrial Board. She became chairman of the board in 1924 and while in this post she managed to obtain a reduction in the working week for women to 54 hours.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1929, he appointed Perkins as his Industrial Commissioner. The former governor, Alfred Smith, warned against this as he argued that "men will take advice from a woman, but it is hard for them to take orders from a woman." Perkins recalled: "Roosevelt derived not only from intellectual convictions, but also from a new idealism and humanitarianism in which the economic and cultural aspirations of the common man were beginning to play a part in the political program. These concepts began to come alive in this country in the late nineties and early 1900s and found expression in literature, poetry, drama, and the graphic arts. The pity and terror of the slums, mills, and work shops, with their low wages and long hours, were used for artistic effect as in Greek tragedy."

In 1933 President Roosevelt selected Perkins as his Secretary of Labor. She therefore became the first woman in American history to hold a Cabinet post. As she revealed later, her first proposals included: "immediate federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, a study and an approach to the establishment by federal law of minimum wages, maximum hours, true unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labour, and the creation of a federal employment service." Although it was a very radical programme, Roosevelt accepted it with enthusiasm.

Hugh S. Johnson joined with Bernard Baruch and Alexander Sachs, an economist with Lehman Corporation, to draw up a proposal to help stimulate the economy. The central feature was the the provision for the legalization of business agreements (codes) on competitive and labour practices. Johnson believed that the nation's traditional commitment to laissez-faire was outdated. He argued that scientific and technological improvements had led to over-production and chronically unstable markets. This, in turn, led to more extreme methods of competition, such as sweatshops, child labour, falling prices and low wages.

Hugh S. Johnson pointed out that he had leant a lot from his experiences with the War Industries Board (WIB) He hoped that businessmen would cooperate out of enlightened self-interest, but discovered they had trouble looking beyond their own immediate profits. Despite appeals to patriotism, they had hoarded materials, charged exorbitant prices and given preference to civilian customers. Johnson explained that the WIB had dealt with these men during the First World War by threatening to commandeer their production or to deny them fuel and raw materials. These threats usually won co-operation from the owners of these companies.

Johnson therefore argued any successful scheme would need to inject an element of compulsion. He told Frances Perkins: "This is just like a war. We're in a war. We're in a war against depression and poverty and we've got to fight this war. We've got to come out of this war. You've got to do here what you do in a war. You've got to give authority and you've got to apply regulations and enforce them on everybody, no matter who they are or what they do.... The individual who has the power to apply and enforce these regulations is the President. There is nothing that the President can't do if he wishes to! The President's powers are unlimited. The President can do anything."

On 9th March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress. He told the members that unemployment could only be solved "by direct recruiting by the Government itself." For the next three months, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress passed, a series of important bills that attempted to deal with the problem of unemployment. The special session of Congress became known as the Hundred Days and provided the basis for Roosevelt's New Deal.

Hugh S. Johnson became convinced that his plan should play a central role in encouraging industrial recovery. However, its original draft was rejected by Raymond Moley. He argued that the proposed bill would give the president dictatorial powers that Roosevelt did not want. Moley suggested he worked with Donald R. Richberg, a lawyer with good relationship with the trade union movement. Together they produced a new draft bill. Richberg argued that business codes would increase prices. If purchasing power did not rise correspondingly, the nation would remain mired in the the Great Depression. He therefore suggested that the industrial recovery legislation would need to include public works spending. Johnson became convinced of this argument and added that the promise of public spending could be used to persuade industries to agree to these codes.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested that Johnson and Richberg should work with Senator Robert F. Wagner, who also had strong ideas on industrial recovery policy and other key figures in his administration, Frances Perkins, Guy Tugwell and John Dickinson. He told them to "shut themselves up in a room" until they could come up with a common proposal. According to Perkins it was Johnson's voice that dominated these meetings. When it was suggested that the Supreme Court might well rule the legislation as unconstitutional, Johnson argued: "Well, what difference does it make anyhow, because before they can get these cases to the Supreme Court we will have won the victory. The unemployment will be over and over so fast that nobody will care."

The draft legislation was finished on 14th May. It went before Congress and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed by the Senate on 13th June by a vote of 46 to 37. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was set up to enforce the NIRA. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Hugh Johnson to head it. Roosevelt found Johnson's energy and enthusiasm irresistible and was impressed with his knowledge of industry and business.

Huey P. Long was totally opposed to the appointment. He argued that Hugh S. Johnson was nothing more than an employee of Bernard Baruch and would permit the most conservative elements in the Democratic Party to do as they pleased with American industry. Guy Tugwell also had his concerns about his relationship with Baruch: "It would have been better if he had been further from Baruch's special influence." He was concerned about other matters: "I think his tendency to be gruff in personal matters will be an handicap and his occasional drunken sprees will not help." However, overall he thought it was a good appointment: "Hugh is sincere, honest, believes in many social changes which seem to me right, and will do a good job." Surprisingly, Baruch himself had warned Frances Perkins against the appointment: "Hugh isn't fit to be head of the NRA. He's been my number-three man for years. I think he's a good number-three man, maybe a number-two man, but he's not a number-one man. He's dangerous and unstable. He gets nervous and sometimes goes away without notice. I'm fond of him, but do tell the President to be careful. Hugh needs a firm hand."

Some people argued that Johnson had pro-fascist tendencies. He gave Frances Perkins a copy of The Corporate State by Raffaello Viglione, a book stressed the achievements of Benito Mussolini. Johnson told Perkins that Mussolini was using measures that he would like to adopt. Perkins later claimed that Johnson was no fascist but was worried that comments like this would lead to his critics claiming that he "harbored fascist leanings."

Johnson told Perkins that he intended to draft a code for an industry simply by meeting with the representatives of its trade association. This would follow the pattern of the way the War Industries Board worked during the First World War. Perkins recognized that this approach could be justified in times of war but saw no compelling reason for them in 1933. She informed him that everything must be done in public hearings at which anyone, particularly representatives of labour and the public, could make objections or suggest modifications.

In 1933, Robert F. Wagner, chairman of the National Recovery Administration, introduced a bill to Congress to help protect trade unionists from their employers. With the support of Perkins, Wagner's proposals became the National Labor Relations Act. It established a three man National Labor Relations Board empowered to administer the regulation of labour relations in industries engaged in or affecting interstate commerce.

Perkins was sceptical of the value of a 30-hour week unless it included provision for maintaining wages for those paid by the hour. So she suggested amendments to combine minimum wages with reduced hours. Although this was supported by the trade unions, it was opposed by the employers. Roosevelt eventually agreed to the establishment of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). This allowed industry to write its own codes of fair competition but at the same time provided special safeguards for labor. Section 7a of NIRA stipulated that workers should have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and that no one should be banned from joining an independent union. The NIRA also stated that employers must comply with maximum hours, minimum pay and other conditions approved by the government.

Perkins was a strong advocate of government involvement in the economy and played an important role in many aspects of the New Deal including the Civilian Conservation Corps. She wrote: "In one of my conversations with the President in March 1933, he brought up the idea that became the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roosevelt loved trees and hated to see them cut and not replaced. It was natural for him to wish to put large numbers of the unemployed to repairing such devastation. His enthusiasm for this project, which was really all his own, led him to some exaggeration of what could be accomplished. He saw it big. He thought any man or boy would rejoice to leave the city and work in the woods. It was characteristic of him that he conceived the project, boldly rushed it through, and happily left it to others to worry about the details."

Some leading figures in the Roosevelt administration, including Perkins, Harold L. Ickes, Rex Tugwell, and Henry A. Wallace, became highly suspicious of Johnson's policies at the NRA. They believed that Johnson was permitting the larger industries "to get a stranglehold on the economy" and suspected that "these industries would use their power to raise prices, restrict production, and allocate capital and materials among themselves". They decided to closely monitor his actions.

On 27th August, the automobile manufacturers, except for Henry Ford, who believed the NIRA was a plot instigated by his competitors, agreed terms of a deal. Ford announced he intended to meet the wage and hour provision of the code or even to improve on them. However, he refused to sign up to the code. Johnson reacted by urging the public not to purchase Ford vehicles. He also told the federal government not to purchase vehicles from Ford dealers. Johnson commented: "If we weaken on this, it will greatly harm the Blue Eagle principle and campaign." Johnson's actions resulted in a decline in sales of Ford cars and trucks in 1933. However, it only had a short-term impact and in 1934 the company had increased sales and profits.

On 7th March, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a National Recovery Review Board to study monopolistic tendencies in the codes. This was in response to criticism of the NRA by influential figures such as Gerald Nye, William Borah and Robert LaFollette. Johnson, in what he later said was "a moment of total aberration," agreed with Donald Richberg that Clarence Darrow should head the investigation. Johnson was furious when Darrow reported back that he "found that giant corporations dominated the NIRA code authorities and this was having a detrimental impact on small business". Darrow also signed a supplementary report which argued that recovery could only be achieved through the fullest use of productive capacity, which lay "in the planned use of America's resources following socialization".

Johnson was furious with the report and wrote to President Roosevelt that it was the most "superficial, intemperate and inaccurate document" he had ever seen. He added that Darrow had given the United States a choice between "Fascism and Communism, neither of which can be espoused by anyone who believes in our democratic institutions of self-government." Johnson advised Roosevelt that the National Recovery Review Board should be abolished immediately.

Hugh S. Johnson was also having financial problems. His $6,000-a-year salary did not meet his outgoings. Between October 1933 and September 1934 he borrowed $31,000 from Bernard Baruch, who told Perkins, "I like him. I'm fond of him. I'll always see that he has work to do and a salary coming in one way or another." Perkins took this opportunity to try and get rid of Johnson and asked Baruch "to say to Hugh that you need him badly and want him back.... tell him you need him and have a good post for him".

Baruch said this was impossible: "Hugh's got so swell headed now that he sometimes won't even talk to me on the telephone. I've called him up and tried to save him from two or three disasters that I've heard about. People have come to me because they knew that I knew him well, but sometimes he won't even talk to me. When he does talk to me, he doesn't say anything, or he isn't coherent... He's just pushing off. I never could manage him again. Hugh has got too big for his boots. He's got too big for me. I could never manage him again. My organization could never absorb him. He's learned publicity too, which he never knew before. He's tasted the tempting, but poisonous cup of publicity. It makes a difference. He never again can be just a plain fellow working in Baruch's organization. He's now the great General Hugh Johnson of the blue eagle. I can never put him in a place where I can use him again, so he's just utterly useless."

On 9th May 1934, the International Longshoremen's Association went on strike in order to obtain a thirty-hour week, union recognition and a wage increase. A federal mediating team, led by Edward McGrady, worked out a compromise. Joseph P. Ryan, president of the union, accepted it, but the rank and file, influenced by Harry Bridges, rejected it. In San Francisco the vehemently anti-union Industrial Association, an organization representing the city's leading industrial, banking, shipping, railroad and utility interests, decided to open the port by force. This resulted in considerable violence and on 13th July the San Francisco Central Labor Council voted for a general strike.

Hugh S. Johnson visited the city where he spoke to John Francis Neylan, chief counsel for the Hearst Corporation, and the most significant figure in the Industrial Association. Neylan convinced Johnson that the general strike was under the control of the American Communist Party and was a revolutionary attack against law and order. Johnson later wrote: "I did not know what a general strike looked like and I hope that you may never know. I soon learned and it gave me cold shivers."

On 17th July 1934 Johnson gave a speech to a crowd of 5,000 assembled at the University of California, where he called for the end of the strike: "You are living here under the stress of a general strike... and it is a threat to the community. It is a menace to government. It is civil war... When the means of food supply - milk to children, necessities of life to the whole people - are threatened, that is bloody insurrection... I am for organized labor and collective bargaining with all my heart and soul and I will support it with all the power at my command, but this ugly thing is a blow to the flag of our common country and it has to stop.... Insurrection against the common interest of the community is not a proper weapon and will not for one moment be tolerated by the American people who are one - whether they live in California, Oregon or the sunny South."

Johnson's speech inspired local right-wing groups to take action against the strikers. Union offices and meeting halls were raided, equipment and other property destroyed, and communists and socialists were beaten up. Johnson further inflamed the situation when he turned up for a meeting with John McLaughlin, the secretary of the San Francisco Teamsters Union, on 18th July, drunk. Instead of entering into negotiations, he made a passionate speech attacking trade unions. McLaughlin stormed out of the meeting and the strike continued.

The New Republic urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to "crack down on Johnson" before he destroys the New Deal. Perkins was also furious with Johnson. In her opinion he had no right to become involved in the dispute and made it look like the government, in the form of the National Recovery Administration, was on the side of the employers. Demonstrations took place at NRA headquarters with protestors carrying placards claiming that it was biased against the trade union movement.

On 21st August 1934, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Johnson and rebuked him for "unjustified interference" in union activity. Henry Morgenthau informed Roosevelt that in his opinion Johnson should be removed from the NRA. Rex Tugwell and Henry Wallace also told Roosevelt that Johnson should be sacked. Harry Hopkins, the head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civil Works Administration, advised Roosevelt that 145 out of 150 of the highest officials in the government believed that Johnson's usefulness was at an end and that he should be retired.

Within the NRA many officials resented the power of Frances Robinson. One official reported to Adolf Berle that as many as half of the men in the agency were in danger of resigning "because of the affair between Johnson and Robby". He had also lost the confidence of many of his colleagues. Donald Richberg wrote in a memo dated 18th August 1934: "The General himself is, in the opinion of many, in the worst physical and mental condition and needs an immediate relief from responsibility."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked to see Hugh S. Johnson. He wrote in his autobiography that he knew he was going to be sacked when he saw his two main enemies in Roosevelt's office "when Mr. Richberg and Madam Secretary did not look up" I realised they had "been skinning a cow". Roosevelt asked him to go on a tour and make a report on European recovery. Sensing that this was "the sugary lipstick smeared over the kiss of death" he replied: "Mr. President, of course there is nothing for me to do but resign immediately." Roosevelt now backed down and said he did not want him to go.

Johnson believed that Donald Richberg was the main person behind the plot to get him removed. He wrote to Roosevelt on 24th August: "I was completely fooled by him (Richberg) until recently but may I suggest to you that if he would double-cross me, he would double-cross you.... I am leaving merely because I have a pride and a manhood to maintain which I can no longer sustain after the conference of this afternoon and I cannot regard the proposal you made to me as anything more than a banishment with futile flowers and nothing more insulting has ever been done to me than Miss Perkins' suggestion that, as a valedictory, I ought to get credit for the work I have done with NRA. Nobody can do that for me."

Hugh S. Johnson continued to make controversial attacks on those on the left. He accused Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, of inspiring the United Textile Workers to carry out an illegal strike. The charge against Thomas was without foundation. It was also not an illegal strike and he was later forced to apologize for these inaccurate statements.

Johnson also made a speech on the future of the NRA. He said it needed to be scaled back. Johnson added that Louis Brandeis, a member of the Supreme Court, agreed with him: "During the whole intense experience I have been in constant touch with that old counselor, Judge Louis Brandeis. As you know, he thinks that anything that is too big is bound to be wrong. He thinks NRA is too big, and I agree with him." Brandeis quickly told Roosevelt that this was not true. It also implied that Brandeis had prejudged NRA even before the Supreme Court had ruled on the NRA's constitutionality.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that Johnson must now resign. He was unable to do it himself and asked Bernard Baruch to do it for him. Baruch contacted Johnson and bluntly told him he must go. He later recalled that "Johnson kicked up a bit" but he made it clear that he had no choice. "When the Captain wants your resignation you better resign." On 24th September, 1934, Hugh S. Johnson submitted his resignation.

Three days later, Roosevelt appointed Richberg as Executive Director of the National Industrial Recovery Board, that had replaced the National Recovery Administration. Richberg had difficulty running this new organization. Arthur M. Schlesinger, the author of The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (2003) has argued that "Richberg engaged in double-dealing, lying to the President about the views of his subordinates and agreeing to his staff's requests that he raise issues with the President and later refusing to do so."

On 27th May 1935 the Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery Board as unconstitutional. The reasons given were that many codes were an illegal delegation of legislative authority and the federal government had invaded fields reserved to the individual states. Donald Richberg resigned on 16th June, 1935.

In June, 1938 Perkins managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act. The main objective of the act was to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers". The act established maximum working hours of 44 a week for the first year, 42 for the second, and 40 thereafter. Minimum wages of 25 cents an hour were established for the first year, 30 cents for the second, and 40 cents over a period of the next six years. The act also prohibited child labour in all industries engaged in producing goods in inter-state commerce and placed a limitation of the labor of boys and girls between 16 and 18 years of age in hazardous occupations.

Perkins remained as Secretary of Labor until the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Her book, The Roosevelt I Knew, was published in 1946. President Harry Truman, appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission. After leaving office in 1953 she taught at Cornell University.

Frances Perkins died in New York on 14th May 1965.

Primary Sources

(1) Frances Perkins and Franklin Roosevelt, like many people in the early 1900s in the United States, were greatly influenced by the writings of investigative journalists and social realist authors.

Roosevelt derived not only from intellectual convictions, but also from a new idealism and humanitarianism in which the economic and cultural aspirations of the common man were beginning to play a part in the political program.

These concepts began to come alive in this country in the late nineties and early 1900s and found expression in literature, poetry, drama, and the graphic arts. The pity and terror of the slums, mills, and work shops, with their low wages and long hours, were used for artistic effect as in Greek tragedy.

The feelings and minds of people responded to the exposure of degraded living and working conditions in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Experiences as a Factory Girl by Mary Van Vorst, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis and Ernest Poole's novel of the working class, The Harbor.

The muckraking magazine writers, like Will Irwin, Sam Merwin, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, startled the American people with documents of American life that showed deep suffering, social injustice and indifference to it in large areas of our population.

(2) After leaving university Frances Perkins became a social worker and political activist.

Proposals began to be made for laws to overcome social disadvantages. Societies and voluntary agencies, aiming to prevent abuses and promote remedies, sprang up. There was a sincere effort on the part of the American people to find the way of social justice. Shorter hours and better wages, removal of slums, new tenement house laws for sanitation, fire safety, and decency; reforms to prevent child labour, prevention of the use of hazardous chemicals in industry began to be mentioned in political speeches and legislation in some states.

Foremost was the idea that poverty is preventable, that poverty is destructive, wasteful, demoralizing, and that poverty in the midst of potential plenty is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society. One began to see the "poor" as people, with hopes, fears, virtues, and vices, as fellow citizens who were part of the fabric of American life instead of as a depressed class who would be always with us.

(3) Alfred Smith warned Franklin Roosevelt about appointing Frances Perkins as Industrial Commissioner in 1929.

When she is Commissioner she will have charge of administering the whole Department of Labor - all the men who work as factory inspectors and on the compensation boards. I have always thought that, as a rule, men will take advice from a woman, but it is hard for them to take orders from a woman.

(4) In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labour. Her first proposals were extremely radical but were accepted by Roosevelt.

I proposed immediate federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, a study and an approach to the establishment by federal law of minimum wages, maximum hours, true unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labour, and the creation of a federal employment service.

(5) Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946)

In one of my conversations with the President in March 1933, he brought up the idea that became the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roosevelt loved trees and hated to see them cut and not replaced. It was natural for him to wish to put large numbers of the unemployed to repairing such devastation. His enthusiasm for this project, which was really all his own, led him to some exaggeration of what could be accomplished. He saw it big. He thought any man or boy would rejoice to leave the city and work in the woods.

It was characteristic of him that he conceived the project, boldly rushed it through, and happily left it to others to worry about the details. And there were some difficult details. The attitude of the trade unions had to be considered. They were disturbed about this program, which they feared would put all workers under a "dollar a day" regimentation merely because they were unemployed.

(6) Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946)

It ought to be on the record that the President did not take part in developing the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, was hardly consulted about it. It was not a part of the President's program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him. All the credit for it belongs to Wagner.

The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it.