Friday, March 25, 2011

Labor Laws, Frances Perkins, the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire - March 25th in Women's History Month!

I wrote this piece before I saw the STrib coverage, which included this:

"Perkins was appointed to the Factory Investigating Commission, convened in response to the Triangle fire, and the panel held hearings all over New York state before drafting 20 laws aimed at improving workplace safety. Some of the new laws required fire drills, set occupancy limits in buildings and required exit signs to be clearly posted."
With multiple states attempting to repeal or at least weaken child labor laws and all business regulation along with union busting, the Right continues their headlong efforts to regress history.  They're not just 'clock stoppers' they want to turn back time to the bad old days for the modern robber barons to whom they appear to have sold out their legislative agenda.

Examples include Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who wants to overturn the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which coincides with the term of Ms. Perkins as Labor Secretary under FDR.  As was noted:
"The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law in the 1941 United States v. Darby Lumber decision, overturning Hammer, on the basis of the constitutional authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. It has hardly run into controversies since."
No controversies...until NOW.  Or in Missouri, state Senate bill 222.
" [294.021. No child under fourteen years of age shall be employed or permitted to work at any occupation at any time; except as provided in this chapter.]."
And in Minnesota it was written as well as anything I could do  (from John Ferman - here):
About two weeks ago, TPTV ran an hour long documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC in about 1911. Many workers were trapped on the upper floors and burned to death and many of those were 13, 14, 15 year old girls. There is now no one alive who can tell us what a worker's life was like in the days of the sweatshops - there are only books. In those times, a kid only needed an 8th grade education and the bulk of those kids went into the sweatshops. All of the State's Cities had sweatshops and most of them still stand, remodeled into eating and drinking spas - if one goes into any of the WarehouseDistrict buildings in the dead of night and you concentrate will you hear the moans and cries of the 12 year olds laboring through the
night. When Minnesota joins Missouri it will be as a return to the19th Century.
What I sense the Rs are up to is testing all the various schemes to return workers back to subservient status. Missouri is doing the child labor thing, Wisconsin is doing the union thing, Minnesota is doing the wage & hours thing, other States are doing other anti-labor things. Put it together and is a pattern emerging of what the Rs are capable of and what they can get away with. As I see it, 2012 will be a pivotal year and unless the Ds get off their duffs, we older ones will only be able to mourn for the younger ones as they will bear the brunt of the return to the sweatshops of the 19th century. It is time to organize as never before.
This is a conservative view, that we should abandon minimum wage laws, child labor laws, union rights, anti-discrimination civil rights laws, and any number of other regulations, including safety regulations, which give labor an even playing field in negotiating with management which would exploit people for the lowest possible wages, all while championing unlimited pay for executives.
  It is no coincidence that it tends to be that group which pays the conservative politicians, directly and indirectly.  Apparently they would happily see us become a third world country, so they wouldn't have to rely on wage-slave labor in foreign countries - they could simply do it here.

For those who don't recognize the name, Frances Perkins was the first woman in a U.S. cabinet position, back in the days of FDR.  (A pop reference - she is the person for whom the main character 'Baby' is named, in the movie 'Dirty Dancing', played by Jennifer Gray.)  THAT Frances Perkins.

The reason for singling her out for mention on March 25th is that this is the anniversary of the pivotal event in New York City, which influenced labor laws about safety, the historic tragedy, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911:
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
Date March 25, 1911
Time 4:40 PM (local time)

Location Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
146 dead
71 injured

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women aged sixteen to twenty-three.[1][2][3] Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

The factory was located in the Asch Building, at 29 Washington Place, now known as the Brown Building, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.[4]
Frances Perkins was a witness to that Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It changed her life, changed it in ways which were influential in our labor history, making a difference for the better in this country during the Great Depression. She was directly influential in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which included limits on child labor, that the Republicans want to overturn, along with being influential in other areas that they would like to undo - like Social Security.

From Frances Perkins' wikipedia bio:

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, Perkins resisted having American women be drafted to serve the military in World War II so that they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers.

Frances Perkins, the first female member of the Presidential cabinet, had an unenviable challenge: she had to be as capable, as fearless, as tactful, as politically astute as the other Washington politicians, in order to make it possible for other women to be accepted into the halls of power after her.[9]

Perkins would have been famous simply by being the first woman cabinet member, but her legacy stems from her accomplishments. She was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage.[10]

Perkins had a cool personality, which held her aloof from the crowd. Although her results indicate her great love of workers and lower-class groups, her Boston upbringing held her back from mingling freely and exhibiting personal affection. She was well-suited for the high-level efforts to effect sweeping reforms, but never caught the public's eye or its affection.[11]

The Frances Perkins Building that is the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. was named in her honor in 1980.
As we contemplate the Republican agenda of changes to all aspects of labor legislation and policy, both federal and at the state level, we need to remember people like Frances Perkins, and tragedies like the famous Triangle fire, or the coal mining disasters of that era that prompted so many of the changes from that period in our history. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I for one don't care to make the same mistakes again that the Republicans are rushing so headlong to enact.

Frances Perkins, photo from
It is also worth remembering that our country achieved its greatest position of leadership and economic power in the world under this legislation, and during far higher rates of income taxes and corporate taxation.  It is not necessary to make these changes to foster a positive business climate, or to improve unemployment rates, as Republicans claim.  What they are attempting to do is one thing and one thing only - to make the rich richer, and to make the rest of us pay for it - pay for it in money, an sweat, and even in blood if they get their way.


  1. But Alice Paul Day is the 11th of February!

    And she was correct, we need an Equal Rights Amendment for ignorant buggers like Scalia.

  2. You are a very erudite gentleman!

    There is also an anglican holiday on which Frances Perkins is celebrated - in May!

  3. And yes we do need ERA and if the reduced wages of school teachers nation wide....hmmmm, who is teaching k-12 grade WOMEN about 90%are women.
    And I question education system from the point of view that- all these outragous testing, paper work paper work takes up so much of the teachers time and instead coming with innovative concepts--it seems the powers to be would rather make it worse soooooo, the can get rid of public education soooo it lands in the hands of private business AND there is indeed allot of money to be made. In my state the lottery has given their profit to public education to the tune of 7.5 billion since 1999. And thats the donations hmmmm.

  4. Beingwoman, welcome to Penigma. I hope you will join us with comments on other posts as well, and that you find our content enjoyable and informative.