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Frances Perkins’s book, “The Roosevelt I Knew,” reissued as a Penguin Classic

In Biography on June 29, 2011 at 2:04 pm

The Frances Perkins Center is pleased to announce the re-issuance as a Penguin Classic of The Roosevelt I Knew, Frances Perkins’ memoir of her years working with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Originally published in November of 1946, it was the first definitive biography of Roosevelt, covering their years together from their first meeting in 1910 until his death in April of 1945.  The book quickly made its way to the top of the bestseller list, where it remained for ten weeks.  Even though out of print for several years, The Roosevelt I Knew has continued to make an enduring contribution to Roosevelt scholarship.

According to Christopher Breiseth, President Emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and Frances Perkins Center Board member, “Perhaps no political colleague was closer to FDR and understood him better over a longer period of time than Frances Perkins.  The portrait she drew within a year of his death in The Roosevelt I Knew was intimate, insightful, appreciative, candid and critical – all qualities that characterized their relationship.  At the same time, the self-portrait of Madame Secretary was telling.  The recent renewed interest in Frances Perkins’s extraordinary contributions to the domestic agenda of the New Deal will be deepened by Penguin Press’s reissuing of The Roosevelt I Knew, a wonderful by-product of this happy event.”

Adam Cohen, former New York Times editorial writer and author of Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America, has written the introduction to this new edition.  Cohen opens the book with an assessment of its author: “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes – as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine.  Like Franklin, Perkins was a brilliant self-creation….  Like Paine, Perkins helped to start a revolution….  The New Deal was Perkins’ revolution, and it did nothing less than create modern America.”  Cohen will be the keynote speaker at the Frances Perkins Center’s annual Garden Party on Thursday, August 4th at The Brick House, Perkins’ home in Newcastle.

The book will be available on Tuesday, June 28th at the Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta and other local, as well as online, book sellers.

Missing: One Three-Year-Old Labor History Mural, Whereabouts Unknown

In Biography, Political world on March 29, 2011 at 7:56 pm

The Frances Perkins Center deplores the secret removal of the Maine Department of Labor’s mural depicting Maine workers through the centuries and asks that it be safely returned.

March 29, 2011 (Newcastle, Maine)–Frances Perkins, the nation’s longest serving secretary of labor and the first woman to be a U.S. Cabinet secretary, was a supporter of the arts. She was also a daughter of Maine, having inherited a beloved family homestead that has been in the Perkins family since the 1750s. It’s ironic that a mural installed in the Maine Department of Labor, which portrayed Perkins along with the workers whose lives she helped improve through passage of such measures as unemployment insurance, minimum wage legislation, child labor laws, and Social Security, would be removed from view by the Maine governor.

Later this year, a new edition of The Roosevelt I Knew by Frances Perkins will be published by Penguin Classics. In the book, Perkins describes how the WPA art projects of the 1930s came about: a “family member of a Cabinet secretary” suggested that the arts be included in the Works Progress Administration. In fact, that relative was Perkins’s teenaged daughter, Susanna. Perkins recognized the validity of Susanna’s suggestion, and joined with others advocating for the inclusion of artists, performers, musicians, and writers in the WPA, an idea that President Roosevelt also strongly supported. The Federal Art Project was born, and during the Great Depression, it created jobs for more than 5,000 artists. More than 225,000 works of art were created for the American people.

Many of the works were murals in public places. Some still remain, three-quarters of a century later. These often depict scenes from local history; others portray factory workers, or farm laborers. The intent was to show all sorts of people in their everyday lives, to honor the history and work of the nation.

Harking back to those WPA murals, in 2008 the Maine Department of Labor commissioned a mural for its new lobby. Painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor, and paid for by tax dollars through federal funding, the mural depicted the history of centuries of Maine workers. Evidently, after viewing the mural, a visiting businessperson faxed an anonymous complaint. As a result, one week ago, Maine’s governor decreed that the mural would be removed as soon as a new home was found for it.

On Monday, it was gone. Shockingly, the mural was removed over the weekend. There were no witnesses. No new home has been announced. The government of Maine, a state that prides itself on its artistic tradition and knows well the monetary value of its Creative Economy, has now “disappeared” a work of art.

What remains are the questions. Where has the mural been taken? Why is it no longer on public display? What was the urgency for its removal?

Frances Perkins’s grandson and only surviving descendent, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, also wonders, “Was the artwork properly removed? Is it in a safe place, suitable for the storage of art?” He is especially sensitive to this issue, as Susanna’s son. His father was the well-known painter, Calvert Coggeshall.

The Frances Perkins Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Newcastle, Maine, at Perkins’s beloved historic homestead. The center celebrates Perkins’s accomplishments and seeks to carry on her commitment to economic security and social justice.

“This is a chilling act,” said Barbara Burt, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center. “We are concerned about the condition of the art. We are also aghast at the message of censorship that this action conveys. Removing this artwork is an attempt to erase the significance of Frances Perkins and the heroic struggles of Maine workers. We believe that the mural should be returned to the place for which it was specifically created, at the Department of Labor.”

Statement at press conference in response to Maine governor’s action

In Biography, Political world on March 25, 2011 at 7:12 am


March 25, 2011

Augusta, Maine

The Frances Perkins Center deplores the edict handed down by Maine’s governor to strip the Department of Labor of its mural depicting Maine workers through the centuries and to rename conference rooms that currently honor heroes of Maine’s workforce. I am sorry to miss this occasion to stand with artists, union members, and outraged members of the public. Ironically, at this very moment, many of the Frances Perkins Center’s board members and I, along with thousands of people from all around the country, are participating in the commemoration of the Triangle Factory Fire in Manhattan’s Washington Square. One-hundred-forty-six factory workers lost their lives in that fire one hundred years ago today.

Frances Perkins witnessed that tragedy and was galvanized by the experience, becoming a lifelong advocate for working people. As the first woman Cabinet member and the country’s longest serving secretary of labor, she is largely responsible for Social Security, the minimum wage, many workplace safety laws, and unemployment insurance.

Maine can be proud to claim Frances Perkins as one of our own. Artist Judy Taylor included a portrait of her in one of the mural’s panels, and a conference room is titled the Perkins Room. Although she wasn’t born in Maine, Frances spent her summers at her grandparents’ home in Newcastle and eventually came to own the homestead, known as the Brick House, which has been in the Perkins family since the 1750s.

It is shocking that Maine’s governor would want to divorce himself from a leader so significant in the history of our country and so closely allied with Maine. His action is completely misguided. Frances Perkins was no enemy of business. Her concern was that the relationship between employer and employee be fair and balanced, that the need for profit not outweigh the need for safety and reasonable wages.

The workers of Maine built this state just as surely as did their employers. And, as Frances Perkins recognized, they often paid for that work with their lives or disability; they certainly didn’t get rich. We strongly urge the governor to honor their contributions by allowing the mural to remain in its current location at the Department of Labor.

Maine Governor “Disses” Frances Perkins

In Biography, Political world on March 23, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Believe it or not, the governor of Maine wants to remove a mural depicting the history of Maine workers — which was commissioned by the Maine Arts Commission and painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor — from the lobby of the Department of Labor because it’s “not friendly to business.” (In the excerpt above, the eighth panel depicts Frances Perkins.)

The Maine Department of Labor has also been ordered to rename the meeting room now known as the Perkins Room.

We are aghast at this action. It is an attempt to erase history and a direct affront to the millions of workers in Maine and the country who built thousands of businesses. It’s also misguided. Frances Perkins wasn’t opposed to business; she simply wanted the drive for profit to be balanced by workplace safety, fair wages, and economic security.

Is this part of a national plan to weaken respect for working people? Add the Maine governor’s action to that of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan…

For more about the Maine issue, read this article in the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Frances Perkins: The Force Behind Social Security

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on August 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

[Reposted with permission from New Deal 2.0.]

by Bryce Covert

We may not have our social safety net if it weren’t for her tireless work.

Social Security is, rightly, thought of as one of the major accomplishments of FDR’s presidency. But he wasn’t alone in the fight, and the whole project may have failed if not for the passion of Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labor. Indeed, Perkins sometimes had to fight against FDR’s whims to secure a package that would ensure a better future for American citizens.

Perkins was born to working-class parents who were very supportive of her education, sending her to Mount Holyoke College for undergraduate studies. Later in her life, what was likely bipolar disorder left her husband, economist Paul C. Wilson, unable to continue his career and act as breadwinner. This may have propelled Perkins into pursuing her own career, to which she devoted all of her energy.

Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 first-hand, and it galvanized her crusade to protect American workers. After studying economics and sociology at Columbia and Wharton, she worked at settlement houses and then as a factory inspector for New York State. She later became Commissioner of Labor for the State of New York under Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would go on to invite her to be his Secretary of Labor as president. Before taking the position, she brought a laundry list of ideas to FDR as collateral for her acceptance. He accepted them, and she went on to hold the position for 12 years. FDR would eventually name her to 18 separate committees. She worked for reforms in favor of workers and to combat the Great Depression. But her crowning achievement may very well have been the Social Security Act.

During the Great Depression, 6.5 million people were sixty-five or over and few had money set aside for old age — and those who had set money aside saw it disappear in the economic crash. Only about 300,000 had public pensions, 150,000 had pensions from private employers or unions, and 700,000 had federal relief. The rest were on their own.

FDR had drawn up ideas to tackle these issues when he got into office, but officials were too busy to deal with them. A year into his presidency, Perkins decided the time was right, notes biographer Kirstin Downey in “The Woman Behind the New Deal.” “She nagged the president to get it started. ‘It is probably our only chance in twenty-five years to get a bill like this,’ she told Roosevelt.” She knew that the dire conditions of the Great Depression were the only hope for passing something so radical: “Nothing else would have bumped the American people into social security except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression,” Perkins later said.

With rampant joblessness, Perkins went after unemployment first. But as unemployment insurance seemed ready to sail through passage, FDR decided instead to focus on a bundle of programs under the label ‘economic security.’ The whole thing would have to wait. Downey gives us the subsequent scene: Perkins “hit the roof. ‘That man, that man!’ she muttered. She ripped over to the White House. The next day, FDR told the press conference that he was ‘tremendously’ for the bill.” The two worked together for an “expansive version of an ‘economic security’ package that would cover people from cradle to grave,” Downey writes:

The concept included not only unemployment insurance, which would tide over the jobless workers who were the primary source of support to children and old people, but also old-age pensions, which Frances was eager to promote; health insurance, so people would have medical care, even when they had no money; and financial assistance for the handicapped and for widowed women with children. Many women earned so little money that losing their husbands meant that they must put their youngsters to work or place them in orphanages.

The package would provide “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” in FDR’s words.

FDR named Perkins chair of the committee on economic security, set to craft the legislation. And she wanted to hold people firmly to the mission of the program. “In a meeting with Roosevelt present, she went around the table and extracted from each of the major members of her committee a pledge to support the program being prepared by the committee. Publicly obligated, they could not back down later,” Downey describes. But she couldn’t always keep the fickle Roosevelt to it, and after making his initial announcement to create the committee he neglected to allot money to it. That didn’t stop Perkins, though. “Frances went hat in hand to raise money and borrow staff from other departments,” reports Downey.

The process was rough going, with worries over court challenges to the final legislation, internal struggles within the committee, and even FDR himself publicly doubting whether it was the right time to deal with old age security. Details were hard to resolve and they were close to bumping up against the arbitrary Christmas deadline FDR had set. On December 22 or 23, Frances called committee leaders to her home, “led them into the dining room, placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table, and told them no one would leave until the work was done,” Downey writes. They met the deadline.

Troubles for the bill continued. Treasury Department conservatives raised fears that it risked “alarming business,” while liberals worried the provisions were so weak as to have “little value.” (Sound familiar?) Opposition to the bill became so heavy that a New York Times March 30, 1935 headline declared “Hopes Are Fading for Security Bill.” But Perkins toiled on, determined. She secured 50 signatures from prominent people to a letter urging passage, and “the tide began to turn,” notes Downey. The House passed the bill, and then it passed the Senate, but not before a caveat was inserted that made the Social Security Board entirely independent of Perkins’ department. She would not run the Board, but no matter what her personal disappointment may have been, she helped push the bill through.

Perkins’ tireless, selfless work paid off in the end, and FDR signed the bill into law on August 14, 1935. On the day of the signing, Perkins said it was “one of the most forward-looking pieces of legislation in the interest of wage earners.” By 1936, 1 million people were receiving benefits, made up of nearly 750,000 elderly, 184,000 dependent children, and 18,000 blind.

We owe much to FDR’s vision as a progressive president, but we also owe a great deal to the passion and perseverance of Frances Perkins. Without her, it is very likely that the social programs included in the Social Security Act would never have come to be. Charles Wyzanski later said that she “virtually forced the President to have a Social Security program.” Indeed, Maurine Mulliner, an assistant to Senator Robert Wagner, said, “The one person, in my opinion, above all others who was responsible for there being a Social Security program in the early 30s was Frances Perkins.” The program lives on, her gift to the American people.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

News from Worcester, Massachusetts

In Biography on June 17, 2010 at 1:42 pm

An interesting email arrived this afternoon from Ann Marie Shea, along with three of her photos.

Dear Tomlin–

Your inquiry about the Worcester residence drove me to visit and shoot a few sites in Worcester that may be of interest to you and the center, if you do not already have them on file.

Attached are three images:

Frances Perkins' alma mater, former Classical High School, which is now housing the administrative staff for the Worcester Public Schools (in her day work probably taken care of by a single clerk tucked into the corner of some office in City Hall).

Pilgrim Congregational Church, where she worshipped with her parents while living in Worcester. My source for this item was Lillian Holmen Mohr, in Frances Perkins: That Woman in FDR's Cabinet.

50 Queen Street, as the residence of the family some time after 1882. (The house is a duplex; #50 is on the right side of the image.) FP returned to live there for a while after college graduation, until she moved to Lake Forest, IL.

An interesting story about 50 Queen. Although in the late part of the 19c and the early part of the 20th this was a very respectable neighborhood, graced with a variety of excellent examples of domestic architecture of the day, in recent decades the neighborhood has fallen on hard times. As I was shooting the picture this morning (and noting how nicely the area has been rehabbed) a gentleman approached me, and introduced himself as the caretaker of the property. A short time ago it was a crack house, but now, thanks to the efforts of Rev. Fred Enman, S.J., of Boston College, this and other properties have been restored. (Three families and the administrative office of the foundation now fill the house.) The man I was talking to was quick to point out that the area has been restored, not gentrified–working class/immigrant families enjoy these fine houses. Wouldn’t FP love it!

Time to think big like a Roosevelt

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on June 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Photo of an illustrated pillow from Michigan.

Robert Reich, who is a member of the Frances Perkins Center’s advisory committee, suggested on Sunday on his blog that something good could potentially come out of the awful catastrophe of the oil spill in the Gulf — jobs. Here’s a quote:

Friday’s job report was awful. For most new high school and college grads finding a job is harder than ever. Meanwhile, states are cutting summer jobs for disadvantaged young people. What to do with this army of young unemployed? Send them to the Gulf to clean up beaches and wetlands, and send the bill to BP.

…we’ve got hundreds of thousands of young people sitting on their hands right now because they can’t find jobs. Many are from affected coastal areas, where the tourist and fishing industries have been decimated by the spill.

The President should order BP to establish a $5 billion clean-up fund, and immediately put America’s army of unemployed young people to work saving the Gulf coast. Call it the new Civilian Conservation Corps.

Today, Laura Flanders, in her blog The Notion on The Nation’s website, takes it one step further. In her diary, Learning from Roosevelt(s), she says:

Obama could don the mantle of two Roosevelts at once. … Channel Teddy Roosevelt and stick it to the polluters and channel FDR and put people back to work — and create programs that create goodwill for generations.

President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and  asked Frances Perkins to administer it, eventually putting three million young men and women to work from 1933 to 1942 building enduring landmarks that are cherished today. I hope President Obama will be inspired to think BIG like a Roosevelt. It’s the only way to tackle these two HUGE problems–the oil spill and pernicious unemployment.

Lower the retirement age and help workers young and old

In Biography, Economics on May 26, 2010 at 9:23 am

Linda Stinson, the historian at the Department of Labor, sent me a wonderful news clip this morning of Frances Perkins testifying in Congress on a bill that would have adjusted the work week from 40 hours to 30 hours. (Frances Perkins appears about a minute into the clip.)

Click the photo to go to the video.

Watching Secretary of Labor Perkins talking about jobs in the 1930s got me thinking about our current situation. For some reason, there is a huge push in Washington to worry about deficits, but no one seems to be worrying about jobs, even though the unemployment rate stands at 9.9 percent and is projected to remain quite high for months and years to come.

Some deficit-obsessed “experts” are trying to convince us that raising the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70 will cut the deficit. This is false economics on many fronts.

First of all, Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit. So changing Social Security will not change the deficit. As Rep. Andrew Weiner states in Politico today:

They ignore that Social Security is fiscally responsible. By law, it cannot spend money that it doesn’t have. And the Social Security Trust Fund now has a $2.5 trillion surplus that can help pay out benefits for years to come.

Without any change, Social Security could cover three-quarters of benefits until 2083 — when people born today will be 73.

The federal government borrowed that money, the $2.5 trillion, and issued Treasury bonds to Social Security. This is a good thing — it raises needed cash for the government and provides interest to Social Security, because of course bonds pay interest to the holder.

However, it’s tempting to some in government to consider not making good on those bonds. As Treasury Secretary Geithner, famously quoting bank robber Willie Sutton, stated in a Congressional hearing, “That’s where the money is.” But whose money is it? It’s  yours and mine, safely invested. I can only imagine there would be hell to pay if the government reneges.

Second of all, for someone who spends his or her work week sitting in an ergonomic desk chair in an air conditioned office, 70 years of age may not seem too old to retire. But ask a construction worker, a waitress, a nurse, or any worker who puts in day after day of hard physical labor, and 70 seems old indeed.

Third, requiring older workers to stay on the job an extra three years will clog the job market with older workers, at least some of whom would prefer to retire. Meanwhile, young people will find it harder to get started on their careers due to lack of job opportunities.

Instead of talking about deficits, we should be thinking of ways to increase jobs. A 30-hour work week, as Frances Perkins discusses in this film clip? Perhaps. What is sure is that we need to consider all sorts of “nudges” toward employment. Creative thinking that looks at the problem from another perspective. We should turn conventional wisdom upside down.

For example, instead of raising the retirement age, let’s think about lowering it. How about making the full retirement age 62? To pay for the change, raise or even lift the salary cap, now set at $106,800. And get those millions of unemployed Americans back to work and paying their taxes into the Social Security system.

Wouldn’t that help workers of all ages?

Frances Perkins and the “politics of generosity”

In Biography, Events on May 13, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Today marks the first annual celebration of the life of Frances Perkins by the Episcopal Church, which named her a Holy Woman this year.

On her blog, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass says

I can’t imagine a more important saint to remember today. May we live in her example and renew a politics of generosity for our own day.

Frances Perkins’s local church here in Newcastle, Maine, is holding a special service this coming Sunday at 4:00 PM. The Bishop will conduct the service, the choir will sing a newly commissioned anthem, and a plaque in her honor will be unveiled in the sanctuary. Before the service, at 2:00, Donn Mitchell will speak about Frances Perkins and her Anglican colleagues, about whom he coined the phrase, “politics of generosity.”

Here is the Episcopal prayer for Frances Perkins on her feast day:

Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency. Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

American worker safety is still an issue

In Biography, General on April 26, 2010 at 8:10 am
Frances Perkins inspecting a factory.

Frances Perkins inspecting a factory.

Frances Perkins was galvanized by personally witnessing the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, in which 146 young workers died. From that time onward, she worked to create legislation that would provide safeguards for workers, going from New York’s Factory Investigation Commission to FDR’s Cabinet as secretary of labor from 1933 – 1945.

Almost 100 years after the Triangle fire, the issue of worker safety is still in the news, most recently with the tragedies at the Massey mine in West Virginia and the British Petroleum oil rig blast.

Teresa Ghilarducci, director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research and speaker at the Frances Perkins Center’s 2009 conference, “The New New Deal,” has written several articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, “Brainstorm,” about these recent disasters. In Who Needs Pesky Unions, Ghilarducci wrote:

All the recent disasters are in non-union mines. Union muscle make companies work better and safer. One reason is that, in union contracts, mine workers are protected from being disciplined if they stop work because of unsafe conditions. If a union miner says, “Hey, the belt is about to catch fire — I’m getting out of here,” he (or she) can’t be fired.

Humans in the 20th century learned to mine coal without carnage. Britain does it, Germany does it, and other countries do too. In Europe and Japan, computer sensors detect methane buildup and mining companies have to hire safety officers who are in their own union and who only monitor safety, not production. In American mines, the supervisors have to monitor safety and be responsible for production. Guess what goal is number one!?

And in More Energy Workers Killed, she wrote:

The causes of these deaths are not freak gassy build ups—as if the earth violently struck back at humans for using fossil fuels…

The cause of worker deaths is a plain old economic deal. The government made a deal that BP and Massey Coal can operate in the United States without adequate precautions for making the workplace tolerably safe.

If Frances Perkins were alive, she’d be voicing her outrage along with Ghilarducci. It’s shocking that the U.S. is far behind other countries in protecting our workers.