The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Working women remember Frances Perkins

In Biography on March 12, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Congresswoman Jan SchakowskyCongresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Il) wrote a great op-ed in The Hill on Tuesday. Here’s an excerpt:

March is National Women’s History Month, and working women across the country are remembering Frances Perkins — the first woman Cabinet secretary and a fighter for labor rights. For Frances Perkins, workers’ rights were women’s rights.

She witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 workers (many of them young women) who had been locked in their building and couldn’t escape. She saw women working in sweatshop conditions and being denied their earned wages and benefits. She spent her career working to fix those problems.

Under her leadership as Labor secretary, Congress enacted two key laws: The Fair Labor Standards Act to establish a minimum wage and maximum workweek, and the Wagner Act to give workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. These were landmark laws and made a real difference in women’s lives.

Rep. Schakowsky goes on to urge two actions that would make a tremendous difference to workers:

But there are two key steps we must take to restore the progress made by Frances Perkins.

First, we need to enforce the FLSA and ensure that working women (and men) actually get to take home the pay they have earned. In a new book, Wage Theft in America, Kim Bobo highlights the problem, particularly important to women who dominate job categories where wage theft is prevalent. Wage theft comes in many forms — circumventing minimum wage laws, denying overtime, misclassifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees, underreporting hours worked, or not giving laid-off workers their last paycheck. Estimates are that lost overtime alone could run as high as $19 billion.

Second, we need to restore the Wagner Act’s promise to workers of the right to organize.

The original Wagner Act recognized that workers should decide not just whether they want a union, but how to make that decision. It recognized that employers could use unfair pressure and tactics to deny workplace rights. Over the years, we have returned to that situation and prevented workers who want a union from getting one.

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