Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 15, 2009


The Woman Behind the New Deal The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience

Kirstin Downey

Wendy Smith, LA Times - Frances Perkins knew exactly what she wanted when President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered her the post of secretary of Labor in February 1933. The goals she outlined on that chilly winter night constituted the most sweepingly ambitious to-do list any public official had ever presented: direct federal aid for unemployment relief, a massive public works program, minimum wage and maximum work-hours legislation, compensation for workers injured on the job, workplace safety regulations, a ban on child labor and, finally -- and most radically -- a national pension system as well as one for health insurance. "Are you sure you want this done?" she asked FDR. . .

She had his full support, Roosevelt assured her. Like Perkins, he believed that the time was ripe for dramatic federal initiatives. The Depression had shaken Americans' traditional faith in laissez-faire economic policy; after 3 1/2 years of inaction by the Herbert Hoover administration, they were desperate for their government to do something, anything. Frances Perkins, FDR knew, was a woman who got things done. . .

A series of laws establishing the rights of labor and decent working conditions, all bearing Perkins' fingerprints, climaxed with the Social Security Act of 1935. Packaging together unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and aid to the disabled and dependent children, it promised, in Roosevelt's words, "security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life." Passage in 1938 of the Fair Labor Standards Act establishing minimum wages and maximum hours meant that Perkins could check off almost every single item on the list she had read to FDR five years earlier. (Only national health insurance had foundered, due to the American Medical Assn.'s implacable opposition.) She had rewritten the U.S. government's contract with its citizens.


Anonymous Mairead said...

Ah, yes, another hagiographic example of 'history is what the victors say it is'.

Actual historians who've studied the events of the time are clear that FDR's goal was to make the minimum changes needed to (a) keep himself in office and (b) preserve capitalism's hegemony. Whence his potemkin-village 'reforms' in 1935, once Huey Long was safely dead.

April 16, 2009 7:35 AM  

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