The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

‘Emphatically and truly, a government of the people’

In Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation, Political world on August 15, 2009 at 7:41 am

There was a fine opinion piece in the LA Times yesterday noting the anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act. The title was “President Barack Obama could learn from Franklin D. Roosevelt” and the author is Nancy J. Altman, who wrote the recently published history, The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble.

Altman compares the current health care debate with the fight over the Social Security Act and finds many similarities:

Then as now, opponents played the socialism card. In hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, a senator from Oklahoma accusingly asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, “Isn’t this socialism?” When Perkins emphatically answered no, the senator leaned forward and, with a conspiratorial whisper, pressed, “Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?”

Altman says that the difference is that FDR controlled the debate:

In a series of fireside chats and other broadcasts, the president anticipated arguments and responded before public opposition got out of control. “A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing,” he said in one talk. “Sometimes they will call it ‘fascism,’ sometimes ‘communism,’ sometimes ‘regimentation,’ sometimes ‘socialism.’ But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical. … I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing — a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals. … We remain, as John Marshall said a century ago, ’emphatically and truly, a government of the people.’ “

You can read the entire piece here:,0,6660527.story.

Let’s put a real fear of socialism in them

In Legislation Today on August 11, 2009 at 3:37 pm

National, or federal, health insurance is not a revolutionary new idea.

In 1883, Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck — a staunch conservative, he was known as the “Iron Chancellor” — instituted a national health insurance plan for workers. Why? Because he was trying to woo them away from the Social Democratic Party. In other words, 126 years ago people were demanding national health insurance and Bismarck found it necessary to deliver.

And fifty years later  in the U.S., it was considered a “practical possibility.”

In 1933, before accepting the job of secretary of Labor that Franklin Roosevelt had offered her, Frances Perkins read FDR a list of nine social programs, “practical possibilities,” for which she asked his support. After 12 years as secretary of Labor, she wrote him a resignation letter. In the letter, dated December 1, 1944, she enumerated all they had done together. This is the last part of the letter:

With one major exception all the items we discussed as “among the practical possibilities” before you took office as President have been accomplished or begun. That exception is a social security item providing for some form of benefit to persons where loss of income is due to sickness and provision for appropriate medical care for the same. [emphasis added]

I hope that this will be upon your agenda for the near future.

Faithfully yours,
Frances Perkins

The president’s response was a short and witty letter saying that her resignation was “refused and rejected.” Unfortunately, FDR died five months later.

The need for a national health insurance program has been recognized for more than 100 years. But you’d never know it today. Perhaps the usually non-political writer Jesse Kornbluth, who has an idiosyncratic blog called Head Butler, said it best (talking about the Obama administration’s effort):
This is leadership? How about staking out a position (say: single-payer) and selling the hell out of it? How about calling out the Congressmen (Democrats included) who are owned and operated by insurance agencies and telling us exactly how much they’ve been paid to vote against their community’s interest?
This issue is not beyond explanation. And there are actual facts involved. But all the lazy sots on TV care about is where the ball sits on the field and who’s got momentum. And can we have a brief sneer at the demagogues in the media and the Congress who know better but take pleasure in scaring people with talk of “death panels” and “socialism”?
It’s great to read a “rant” by someone whose regular topic is not politics. The fact is, a majority (72%) of the American public agrees with Jesse and would like to have single-payer option (see my July 16th post for details).
Maybe it would be better if those demagogues Jesse refers to were truly worried about socialism — worried that Americans would turn to a more radical form of socialism if we didn’t get single-payer health insurance. Hey, the “Iron Chancellor” was worried; why aren’t they?

A Chronology of Frances’s Achievement

In Biography on August 5, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Written by Sichu Mali, summer intern

I knew that Frances Perkins had worked for the Consumers’ League of New York after receiving her Master’s degree in 1910. I had also known from reading Kirsten Downey’s biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal, that after retiring from her public service job in 1953, Frances had pursued teaching at Cornell from 1956-1965.

However, I wondered what she was involved with after she had retired in 1953 but before she had begun her Cornell employment as a lecturer in 1956. I wondered about this missing link.

Last week, I came across a booklet from the Frances Perkins Branch Library at Greendale and it has helped me uncover this information about Frances’s career that has not been mentioned much in her biographies. Given below is the chronology of her achievements that was published in it. Booklet Cover

1907– Secretary of Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, a group organized to assist immigrant working girls
1910– Received her M.D.A. in Sociology from Columbia University
1910– Names executive secretary of the Consumers’ League of New York; lobbied state legislators for social reforms
1912-1913– Investigator for New York State Factory Committee
1912-1913– Executive Secretary of the Committee on Safety
During World War I, served as the director of the New York Council of Organizations for War Services
1919– Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Perkins to the New York Industrial Board
1921-1923– Director of Council on Immigrant Education
1923– Named to State Industrial Board (Chair in 1926)
1929– Governor Roosevelt appointed her Industrial Commissioner of New York
1933– President Roosevelt appointed Perkins Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman in the cabinet.
1934– Wrote People at Work
1935– Passage of Social Security Act, the basis for which was a report of the Committee on Economic Security, which Perkins chaired.
1935– Passage of National Labor Relations Act, which she worked on
1938– Worked on Wages and Hours Act
1945– Resigned as Secretary of Labor
1946- 1953– Served as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner
1946– Author of The Roosevelt I Knew
1953– Lecturer at the University of Illinois
1955– Lecturer at the University of Salzburg, Austria
1956-1965– Lecturer at School of Industrial Relations of Cornell University