The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

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“You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.”

In Economics, Legislation Today on January 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

President Obama made the above statement today as he signed a series of executive orders in the White House that are meant to “level the playing field” for labor unions.

According to the New York Times report of the meeting:

The orders he signed, which union officials say will undo Bush administration policies that tilted toward employers, would require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change, and would make it more difficult for federal contractors to discourage union activities.

The president also announced a new task force on the problems of middle-class Americans, and he named Vice President Joe Biden to chair it. Jared Bernstein, a liberal economist, has been tapped to lead the task force. More information can be found at

President Obama and VP Biden at White House ceremony (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

President Obama and VP Biden at White House ceremony (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

More from the Times:

The president and vice president did not define the “middle class” precisely in terms of income or standard of living, but it seemed clear that they were not speaking of Wall Street people.

“These are the men and the women who form the backbone of our economy, the most productive workers in the world,” Mr. Obama said.


“Medicare for All” bill, HR 676, reintroduced

In Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation, Political world on January 30, 2009 at 11:32 am

Rep. John Conyers reintroduced HR 676  on Monday, and the bill already has at least 33 co-sponsors, including Maine’s freshman Congresswoman, Chellie Pingree.* Known as the “United States National Health Care Act” or the “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act” proposal, the new version has some significant improvements over its version in the 110th Congress, in which it had 93 co-sponsors.

In an excellent blog post at DailyKos, Action Time for Single Payer Healthcare, blogger SarahLee gives lots of information about the bill and urges support for it.

The California Nurses Association, which has been working hard on this topic, released a study last week showing the economic impact of the proposal.

Establishing a national single-payer style healthcare reform system would provide a major stimulus for the U.S. economy by creating 2.6 million new jobs, and infusing $317 billion in new business and public revenues, with another $100 billion in wages into the U.S. economy, according to the findings of a groundbreaking study released today.

The study, found here, refutes the commonly held belief that such a plan would be too expensive, particularly at this time of economic difficulty.

But, as Paul Krugman says in his Op Ed in yesterday’s New York Times, “Health Care Now,”

Paul Krugman (Fred R. Conrad/NY Times)
Paul Krugman (Fred R. Conrad/NY Times)

The whole world is in recession. But the United States is the only wealthy country in which the economic catastrophe will also be a health care catastrophe — in which millions of people will lose their health insurance along with their jobs, and therefore lose access to essential care.

Krugman examines potential reasons for the Obama administration holding off on introducing health care reform:

Finally — and this is, I suspect, the real reason for the administration’s health care silence — there’s the political argument that this is a bad time to be pushing fundamental health care reform, because the nation’s attention is focused on the economic crisis. But if history is any guide, this argument is precisely wrong.

Don’t take my word for it. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, has declared that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Indeed. F.D.R. was able to enact Social Security in part because the Great Depression highlighted the need for a stronger social safety net. And the current crisis presents a real opportunity to fix the gaping holes that remain in that safety net, especially with regard to health care.

Frances Perkins always looked on universal health care as the unfinished piece of her legacy. By the time FDR was ready to consider it, the industrial build up to World War II had begun, workers were in high demand, and employers began offering health insurance as a benefit to entice job applicants. The need seemed to have diminished, and Roosevelt knew he had a big fight on his hands over the coming war and didn’t want to expend political capital elsewhere.

Someone born that year is now well into retirement age and receiving social security. But for that person’s children and grandchildren, health insurance may still be out of reach.

*Full disclosure department: Chellie Pingree is my former boss and an advisor to the Frances Perkins Center.

Daytime TV

In Legislation Today on January 29, 2009 at 11:51 am

It was fun to watch President Obama sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, with Lilly Ledbetter herself at his side. Michelle Obama attended the signing, along with the bill’s co-sponsors, labor leaders, and others. I noticed Senator Olympia Snowe smiling broadly in the group of co-sponsors behind the president. You can watch it yourself and smile, too:

NY Times Ed Board blogs for Hilda

In Legislation Today, Political world on January 28, 2009 at 2:27 pm

“Hilda! Hilda! Hilda!” — that’s the title of a blog entry posted a few hours ago on The Board. Here are two excerpts:

If there was ever a time the nation needed a strong secretary of labor, this is it. And yet, for the past several days, at least one Republican senator has been using a parliamentary procedure to hold up the confirmation of Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-California), President Obama’s choice for labor secretary. The “hold” tactic delays a full vote by the Senate on the nomination, pending, well, pending what?

The delay in confirming Ms. Solis isn’t because the Senate needs to know more. It’s a way for Republican senators to score tough-guy points with business constituents who are driven to distraction by the thought of unions.

The betting is that Ms. Solis will be confirmed. It’s past time to get on with it.

It’s good to have the Gray Lady adding to the pressure to confirm Solis.

Is there a “hold” on Hilda Solis?

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has not yet voted to send Congresswoman Hilda Solis’s nomination as Obama’s labor secretary to the floor. The nomination was announced on December 19th, and since then, a number of other cabinet positions have been voted on. So what’s the hold up with Secretary-designate Solis?

A “hold” is when a senator on the committee anonymously “blackballs” a nominee, which effectively stops the nomination process in its tracks. Technically, a hold can’t be placed until after a nominee is voted out of committee, and Solis hasn’t even gotten that far.

But some are speculating that a hold has been threatened by Republicans who don’t like Solis’s strong endorsement of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

But here’s the problem for the Republicans on the HELP committee: President Obama is also a strong supporter of  EFCA. And he’s not going to nominate a secretary of labor who isn’t.

Teddy Partridge, in “Who Owns the Holdup on Hilda?” which appeared yesterday in firedoglake, has this to say:

The GOP needs to understand that Barack Obama voted for the Employee Free Choice Act (which the Chamber of Commerce calls “card check” instead of “Majority Sign-Up”) and his Labor Secretary-designate, Hilda Solis, co-sponsored EFCA in the House. The GOP needs to face facts: this new Administration favors EFCA. A delay in confirming the Labor Secretary doesn’t, and won’t, change that.

Here’s a video put out by SEIU that demonstrates the Administration’s support for EFCA:

And finally, Alternet has this post today: “A Historic Opportunity: Hilda Solis and the Financial Crisis” by Andrew Thomaides. Here’s an excerpt:

Like Frances Perkins, Hilda Solis is also a very passionate, serious, and courageous leader and also happens to be the most progressive appointee in the cabinet of the new administration. She has deep ties to organized labor, the immigrant community, and movements for environmental justice. With the right amount of grassroots support and pressure, Solis could make a serious contribution to the formulation of progressive legislation that would greatly impact and improve the daily lives of the majority of Americans long into the future. The financial crisis the Obama administration has inherited is the greatest of our time. It presents the same opportunities that were there in 1933 when Frances Perkins and FDR took over the White House and created the modern welfare state, bringing the US out of the Great Depression and into the 20th century socially and economically.

Let’s hope the HELP Committee and the full Senate move quickly to approve Solis’s nomination.

Hope and Change

In Legislation Today, Political world on January 20, 2009 at 8:28 am

Supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act have chosen a good time — Inauguration Week — to state their case.

And here’s our new president’s statement on the Employee Free Choice Act:

More on “Nothing to Fear”

In Biography on January 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm

It’s great to see Adam Cohen’s new book, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, getting so much notice. Many books have been written about FDR’s first hundred days but most of them, while quoting Frances Perkins extensively (she wrote a book called The Roosevelt I Knew, now out of print), give her little credit. Even Jonathan Alter’s book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, slights Perkins’s contribution.

Cohen sets up the internal conflict within FDR’s administration–the fiscally conservative, union-hating Douglas on one side and the social justice crusader Frances Perkins on the other–and shows how the crusader won, luckily for all of us. Where would we be today without Social Security, unemployment insurance, workplace safety laws, and a host of other safety net features?

Cohen has been getting lots of press recently. Here are some places to read or hear more: Amy Goodman’s blog, “Nothing to Fear but No Health Care,” and his appearance on her show, Democracy Now.  Salon had an interview with him today: “What Can Obama Learn from FDR’s First Hundred Days?” in which Cohen said:

One more thing, which is one of the main points of my book, is the degree to which — although FDR was a brilliant communicator and a brilliant politician and an inspiring leader — so much of the substance of the hundred days, the policies that emerged, came from his inner circle, from the people around him and people like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, who I think have not been given the historical credit that they’re due.

Mark Green: Who will be Obama’s “Frances Perkins”?

In Political world on January 13, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Mark Green has published an article in The Nation that lists an ambitious but doable series of ten goals for the first term of the Obama presidency. They are: (1) Reduce poverty one-third by 2016; (2) Enhance democracy to stop special-interest vetoes; (3) Get economic growth rates back to at least 3 percent; (4) Move to a clean, green low-carbon economy; (5) Reduce the costs–and expand the coverage–of healthcare; (6) Elevate science over politics in federal decision-making; (7) Restore the rule of law and human rights as American values; (8) Educate children better for the global economy; (9) Fight terrorism by working more cooperatively with allies; (10) Reduce nuclear proliferation.

These are all worthy goals but what caught my eye was Green’s mention of Frances Perkins:

No president can go much farther than his constituency wants. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin put it well in The American Prospect: “When you look at the periods of social change, in each instance the president used leadership not only to get the public involved in understanding what the problems were but to create a fervent desire to address these problems in a meaningful way.” Recall here the oft-told story how Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was urging a sympathetic FDR to adopt labor reforms, and the politician-in-chief replied: Fine. Now make me do it.

Perhaps we all should be Obama’s “Frances Perkins.” Our voices together can help “create a fervent desire to address these problems in a meaningful way.”

House passes fair pay act in 4th day of session — the first step in an ambitious labor agenda

In Legislation, Legislation Today on January 9, 2009 at 7:29 pm

H.R. 11, the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009” was introduced in response to the Supreme Court’s decision last year, which ruled it illegal for Lily Ledbetter to sue her employer for wage discrimination. The Court said that it had been too long since the discrimination initially occurred. Of course, often workers don’t learn about such discrimination until long after the fact.

The House passed the bill 247-171, and it’s possible that the Senate could take it up this month.

Here’s the language of the bill:

To amend title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and to modify the operation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to clarify that a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice that is unlawful under such Acts occurs each time compensation is paid pursuant to the discriminatory compensation decision or other practice, to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes.

For more about the Ledbetter case and the legislation, Congressional Quarterly has a good article, House Launches New Labor Agenda with Wage Discrimination Bills.

The House also passed HR 12 by 256-163, which

would require employers seeking to justify unequal pay for male and female workers to prove that such disparities are job-related and required by a business necessity. It would bar retaliation by employers against employees who share salary information with their co-workers, and allow workers to collect both compensatory and punitive damages.

This is a very encouraging start to the 111th session, redressing a flawed ruling by the Supremes and making it harder for employers to discriminate. We look forward to seeing more legislation that carries forward Frances Perkins’s commitment to the rights of workers.

“Nothing to Fear” — New book highlights Perkins’s role

In Biography on January 9, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Adam Cohen’s new book, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, has been picking up great reviews. To read excerpts of the reviews, visit the book’s web page at Penguin Publishing.

The book shows the drama of the conflict among FDR’s advisors between fiscally conservative states’ rights advocates and the advisors pushing for social reforms. In this conflict, Cohen states — perhaps for the first time in print so categorically — that Frances Perkins was the victor.

Here’s a quote pointing out this viewpoint from Esquire Magazine’s review of the book:

Cohen focuses on a remarkable group of social reformers — a mystical Iowa editor, a union-hating son of an Arizona mining dynasty, assorted Ivy League eggheads — who stared down the conservative naysayers to execute these laws, but the standout is Frances Perkins. Before she became Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, she lived in Hell’s Kitchen settlement houses, where she saw women and children working 16-hour days in sweatshops and witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire. To her, we owe the fire escape, the eight-hour day, the five-day week, and Social Security — liberal innovations that helped save capitalism from itself, the last time liberals had to save it.

Author Adam Cohen himself touts Perkins’s influence in a short bio piece in the January/February issue of Harvard Magazine, “Brief life of an ardent New Dealer.” Here’s a quote:

Her role in the famous first 100 days has been underappreciated. She was the administration’s strongest advocate for a federal relief program to help people who were, literally, on the brink of starvation. Roosevelt charged her with finding a plan, and she brought him what became the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the first federal welfare program. But her greatest achievement was persuading Roosevelt to support large-scale public works. He was skeptical, but Perkins and several progressive senators convinced him such a program was necessary to provide work for the jobless and stimulate the economy. Before the Hundred Days ended, Roosevelt pushed a $3.3-billion program through Congress—as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act—that would evolve into larger efforts, notably the Works Progress Administration.