Frances Perkins

Tragedy seems an inadequate word to describe the stories coming out of Bangladesh, where 112 people were killed in a fire at an eight-story garment factory. About 1,400 people worked at the factory, 70 percent of them were women. Reportedly, the exit doors were locked, and worse, when the workers tried to flee managers told them it was a false alarm and ordered them to get back to their stations. We now know that the victims worked to provide American and European consumers with cheap clothing. An Associated Press reporter investigating the deadly blaze found in the rubble a hooded Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, piles of children’s shorts with Wal-Mart’s Faded Glory label, and clothes with hip hop star Sean Combs’s ENYCE tag.

A tragedy like this should never have happened. That they are rare in the U.S. is thanks in large part to Frances Perkins. Frances who?, you might ask.

Frances Perkins became the first woman cabinet member in U.S. history when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor shortly after his election in 1932. Perkins had been working as a social reformer, championing worker’s rights, long before her appointment. One incident in particular left an indelible impression on her and fired up her drive to improve the lives of American workers. On March 25, 1911, Perkins was an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed almost 150 workers, most of them young women. Emily Keller, author of the Morgan Reynolds biography Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member, quoted Perkins:

“We heard the fire engines and rushed into the Square [Washington Square East] to see what was going on. We saw the smoke pouring out of the building [the Asch building which housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory]. We got there just as they started to jump. I shall never forget the frozen horror which came over us as we stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help. They came down in twos and threes, jumping together in a kind of desperate hope.”

After the fire, Perkins threw her very heart and soul into initiating laws and policies to protect workers. She served as a member of the New York State Industrial Commission and as chairwoman of the Industrial Board of New York State’s Labor Department. She received an appointment by then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt as New York State industrial Commissioner and then, as U.S. Secretary of Labor, she initiated the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Federal-State Unemployment Insurance System. Further, she helped initiate the Social Security System and pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which covers minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor regulation.

Take a minute to think about Frances Perkins the next time you to step into a high-rise building with working sprinkler systems, posted escape routes, unlocked emergency and exit doors, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, thank her for the fair labor practices she fought for on your behalf.

For the thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh, which is second only to China in exports in the fast-growing garment industry and where reportedly factory fires have killed more than six hundred people in the last six years, let’s hope a leader like Francis Perkins soon emerges.

Sharon F. Doorasamy
Managing Editor

To learn more about Frances Perkins, check out Emily Keller’s biography of her, Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member, from your local library (ISBN 978-1-931798-91-4).


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