Frances Perkins

The industrial age brought with it very significant developments not only to America but also to most other nations. In America the industrial age was fuelled by availability of natural resources, the invention of new and more efficient machinery and the accessible and ever growing market all of which was combined and fuelled industrial growth. The demand for labor became immense as industries sought for more and more workers to fill the ever increasing positions to ensure that there was a steady supply of labor. It was however saddening the as the industries grew more and more profitable, the laborers working in the industries became poorer compelled to working under dangerous conditions, long hours and lack of medical coverage in case of injuries sustained in the working places. As a result there arose various activists who toiled to improve the conditions of these laborers to the standards that can be observed today.It is difficult to completely explain labor unions and the challenges faced by laborers during early 1900 without mentioning Frances Perkins. Frances Perkins was born in 1880 in Boston and hailed from a well to do middle class republican family who historically farmers and craftsmen. She is remembered for her role as the first American woman to hold a cabinet post during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She held the position for twelve years. She is greatly remembered for her relentless work in improving the working condition of laborers as well as seeking to strengthen labor unions at a time then labor unions were greatly frowned upon by many employers. She was able to considerably achieve her objectives. Perkins was an accomplished politician who used her skill and experience to ensure that she achieved her objectives and that she not only spoke but lived according to the principles that she believed in. she treasure the ability of America to offer economic justice and security for all citizens and these values guided her political agenda.At two years old Perkins and her family relocated to Worcester, mass where her father established and ran a profitable dealing with stationery. Perhaps at a very young age the parents instilled in her the sense of purpose and she also developed a deep sense of belief in God. Her parents were Congregationalist and as such it was not surprising that Perkin's belief for God was obvious and the belief further developed her sense of purpose. Unlike most Americans Perkins knew exactly what she wanted to do and during college year she majored natural sciences and also studied economic history. These areas would later have great influence on her career and her life in general. She read such books as 'How the Other Half Lives, Expose of the New York Slums by Jacob Rii. Furthermore she attended various lectures by famous labor and social reformers such as Florence Kelley who was by that time the secretary general of the National Consumers League. Her education, her supplementary reading in various lectures prepared her later roles as labor activist.Perkins Graduated from mount Holyoke in 1902 and after that she had the chance of getting various teaching positions. Furthermore Perkins also volunteered in various settlement houses and it was what she saw in the settlements that ignited the fire in her and prompted her to work towards forging better conditions for workers. She discovered that laborers worked under very precarious positions without any special equipment, the workers were not entitled to any compensations for injuries incurred in the factory and they factories never took any responsibility. Furthermore their wages were constantly late and the frustrations they underwent became a concern for Perkins. It is not clear whether these events and observation prompted her next choice because soon after, she left teaching and went to New York where she studied economics and sociology at the Columbia University. In 1910 she graduated with a master's degree in the same fields. Perhaps during her college years she was greatly motivated by Florence Kelly because soon after graduation she spent the next two years as the secretary for the New York Consumer's League. During this period she was able o work closely with Florence Kelly. One of her first achievements was that she was able to successfully advocate for the state legislature for a bill that would see the reduction of working hours for women and children to a maximum of 54 hours every week. After this first achievement apparently she was able to curve her niche as she became actively involved in women suffrage movements where she was able to participate in marching suffrage parades and also giving motivational and activism speeches in street corners.

It is mostly agreed that for most famous people there always is a point in life that greatly influences and provides the driving force to push ahead. For Perkins this moment came in 1911 where as described she watched, unable to do anything as 146 workers, most of them young women and children, lost their live at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It is recorded that as she said most of them 'Clasped their hands in prayer before leaping to their deaths from the upper floor windows resident building that was not sufficiently equipped with fire escapes. Perkins later proclaimed that: "seared on my mind and heart, a never to be forgotten reminder of why I had to spend the rest of my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy. In the subsequent years Perkins was also able to experience other widespread labor related disturbances mostly among garment companies and other New York City Workers. During this time perhaps oblivious to her that she would one day hold a cabinet position, she was able to learn from activists such as the then Labor leader Rose Schneiderman. Schneiderman believed that the adverse poverty that was ailing most of the laborers could only be solved through proper organization. Most people at this time had very little trust for the legislation but Perkin's knew that if laws could be passed to protect laborers then they could be protected from unfair treatment by employers. However the numbers of women at the time who valued and even appreciated the important role played by the working class were very few. Perkins on the other hand understood the value of workers coming together and forming organization that could be used as the platform from which they could air their grievances. Perkins later became a member of the Socialist party but later realized than the overambitious doctrines supported by socialists would not take them anywhere and she opted for more practical solutions in a step wise manner. This dramatic change in ideology led her to vote for Woodrow Wilson for President in 1929 instead of Eugene Debs who was the socialist party candidate.Although Perkins was an established activist and had devoted her life to the fighting of the rights of laborers it did not deter her from having a life of he own and even bringing up a family. At the age of 33 years Perkins got married to Paul Wilson who was an economist and a budget expert at the New York Bureau of Municipal Research in 1913. Perkins thereafter took some time out to concentrate on her marriage and the bringing up of her daughter who was later born. It is not conclusive whether it was her reason to get back to her professional career but it is usually believed that she resumed her professional career soon after her husband suffered from an emotional breakdown.

Soon after resuming her professional career, she was invited by Governor Al Smith to join the New York State Industrial Commission in 1918. She accepted the invitation and became the first woman ever to serve as a member of the commission. Her political and professional career then recorded an upward trend because in 1926 she became the chairwoman of the commission and three years later the new governor Franklin, D. Roosevelt appointed her to be the industrial commissioner for the state of New York, a very senior position in the state labor department. One of Perkin's major strong points is that she was graceful enough to earn both the respect and the admiration of top politicians from different political factions and she was also brilliant in conducting negotiations. During her tenure as the industrial commissioner of New York she worked relentlessly and soon enough New York became recognized as being in the forefront towards advocating for positive labor reforms. Among her implementations include increasing the frequency and capacity of factory investigations and reducing the number of working hours per week for women to 48. It should be recalled that as the secretary for New York consumer's League she was able to participate in the reduction of working hours per week of women and children to 54. Furthermore Perkins was at the forefront in advocating for the increment of the minimum age and unemployment insurance laws.At this point Perkins had demonstrated her expertise and experience in bringing labor reforms and as a result caught once more the eyes of Roosevelt. In 1933 Roosevelt appointed her as the labor secretary and Perkins used her achievements in New York as a reference point while dealing with labor reforms. Remarkably it is during this period that America was recovering from the blows of the great depression but she used her experience and energy and was able to negotiate various benefits for American workers. However she would not stop there as she believed that her priority lay in the service to the laborers of America. She was a visionary woman and as a result she was able to participate in one of the most significant reforms such as the Wagner Act which gave workers the mandate to organize themselves in unions and present their petitions collectively thereby creating a formidable force that would only thrive. Another Act that she participated in implementing was the Fair Labor Standards Act which for the first time in history was able articulate minimum wage and maximum work hours per week for men and women. Apart from these achievements Perkins was also able to chair the committee on economic security which later developed and drafted a legislation that would become the Social Security Act in 1935. It can be noted that Perkins brought positive and constructive change everywhere she went being guided by the values she solemnly swore.During her years as the labor secretary instead of will and strength waning away, Perkins became even more aggressive. It is recorded that in 1930s and early 1940s, Perkins was materialistic in the ensuing outcome as a result of the widespread labor uprisings. Her support for the rights of workers became relentless and as much as she believed on the power of organizations in the same way she supported the formation and support for labor unions and even supported the use of economic actions in a bid to pressure employers. For instance in a specific incidence that was well documented in various tabloids she walked boldly towards the U.S post Office in the company of thousands of steel workers in a bid to seek audience with the mayor and steel executives. Although they were denied the audience they found an alternative site to air their grievances. Later on Perkins was materialistic in advising President Roosevelt against using federal troops to contain the San Francisco strike of 1934. Perkins resigned from her position as he labor secretary in 1945 and subsequently headed the U.S delegation to the International Labor Organization conference in Paris. Perkins was later appointed to the Civil Service Commission and held the job until 1953. She later became a professor at the Cornell University at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Perkins died at the age of 85.Perkins was able to achieve a lot for laborers during her time without stepping on toes of politicians and without participating in any violent demonstrations. She valued the aspect of dialogue and practical reforms.

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