Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965), born Fannie Coralie Perkins, was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet who remained in offices for his entire presidency.
During her term as Secretary of Labor, Perkins championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With The Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service,
One of the pivotal experiences of her political life occurred in 1911, when she watched helplessly as 146 workers, most of them young women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Many, she remembered, clasped their hands in prayer before leaping to their deaths from the upper-floor windows of a tenement building that lacked fire escapes. It was, as Perkins later explained, “seared on my mind as well as my heart—a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”
In 1929, the new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Perkins industrial commissioner of the state of New York, the chief post in the state labor department. Having earned the cooperation and respect of a wide range of political factions, Perkins, ever the master deal-maker, helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.
When Roosevelt tapped her as labor secretary in 1933, Perkins drew on the New York State experience as the model for new federal programs. She put every ounce of her formidable energy into weaving a safety net for a Depression-scarred society, securing a remarkable array of benefits for American workers. Frances Perkins had large ambitions—not for herself, but for the world in which she lived. Her vision found concrete expression in such landmark reforms as the Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established for the first time a minimum wage and a maximum workweek for men and women. Perkins also chaired the Committee on Economic Security, which developed and drafted the legislation that became the Social Security Act in 1935
As secretary of labor during the 1930s and early 1940s, Perkins played a crucial role in the outcome of the dramatic labor uprisings that marked the era. She consistently supported the rights of workers to organize unions of their own choosing and to pressure employers through economic action. In one famous incident captured in a widely circulated newspaper photo, an indomitable Perkins strides toward the U.S. post office in Homestead with thousands of steelworkers trailing behind her. Denied a meeting hall by the mayor and steel executives, Perkins found an alternative site where she could inform the workers directly of their collective bargaining rights. It was also the unflappable Perkins who advised President Roosevelt to ignore the pleadings of state and local officials for federal troops to quell the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. The successful resolution of that strike as well as countless others during her tenure as labor secretary laid the foundation for the rebirth of American labor.