The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

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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.

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Resolution of labor historians regarding the missing mural

In Political world on April 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

To Whom It May Concern:

On behalf of the Labor and Working-Class History Association, I would like to bring to your attention a resolution that the LAWCHA board passed on March 31, 2011, regarding recent events at the Maine Department of Labor:

The resolution:

“The Labor and Working-Class History Association, the largest organization of labor historians in the United States, supports efforts to preserve public art that represents the nation’s labor history in local, state, and federal buildings. We deplore Maine Governor Paul LePage’s removal of the labor history mural from Maine Department of Labor offices over the weekend of March 26-27, 2011. In eleven panels painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor and installed in 2008, this mural depicts the working people who were central in the making of Maine’s rich industrial history. The panels portray diverse groups of working-class Mainers, including colonial-era artisans; nineteenth-century loggers and child laborers; shoe workers on strike with the CIO in Auburn and Lewiston in 1937; and women workers riveting ships at Bath Iron Works during World War II. Together with the renaming of department conference rooms previously named after important figures in the nation’s labor history, such as Frances Perkins, the first female secretary of labor, whose family has Maine roots, this act constitutes an attempt to erase the historical memory and heritage of Maine’s working people. LAWCHA urges Maine’s elected officials to reinstall the mural in its original location and to return the names of distinguished labor activists to the rooms where they belong.”

Labor and Working-Class History Association

Executive Committee

President, Kimberley Phillips

Vice President, Shelton Stromquist

Secretary, Cecelia Bucki

Treasurer, Thomas Klug

Immediate Past President, Mike Honey

Executive Assistant, Ryan Poe

Board

Randi Storch, SUNY – Cortland

Moon-Ho Jung, University of Washington

Laurie Green, University of Texas – Austin

Franca Iacovetta, University of Toronto

Erik Gellman, Roosevelt University

Thavolia Glymph, Duke Universityn

Ruth Milkman, University of California, Los Angeles

Joan Sangster, Trent University

Emilio Zamora, University of Texas, Austin

Francisco Barbarosa, University of Colorado, Boulder

Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara

Brian Kelly, Queen’s University

Clarence Lang, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Priscilla Murolo, Sarah Lawrence

We are urging LAWCHA members and all other historians in the United States to join those individuals and organizations in Maine who are working to restore the mural and conference room names to their original locations.

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

STATEMENT OF BARBARA BURT, EXECUTIVE DIRCTOR OF THE FRANCES PERKINS CENTER OF NEWCASTLE

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.

Payroll tax holiday — another idea that could come from the Grinch

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2010 at 3:04 pm

During the Reagan era, an administration staffer came up with the term “starve the beast” when discussing his perceived solution of cutting taxes to force a reduction in government spending.

Today, opponents of Social Security, who evidently consider the program a “beast,” are working overtime to cut its funding and thus force the pay-as-you-go program to reduce benefits — perhaps eventually leading to a far different program.

These opponents lost out on the Deficit Commission; they needed 14 commissioners to vote for the plan, which created huge cuts to Social Security benefits, in order to force a vote on the plan in Congress. They only got 11 votes.

So, their new tactic is to force Congress to pass a “payroll tax holiday,” cutting everyone’s Social Security tax payments by two percent.

It sounds so nice — a holiday! — yet the end result would be disastrous for the program.

Recent polls show that people are willing to pay more in taxes to maintain Social Security as it is (or even improve it — imagine that!). But once a two-year cut of two percent of payroll taxes is in place, it seems unlikely that the two percent will be reinstated. That would be a “tax increase,” just as getting rid of the “temporary” Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is a “tax increase.”

They know that no politician likes raising taxes and few have the guts to stand up to the demagoguery around that label.

So these Grinches may have their fondest “holiday” wishes come true: Social Security is starved for income as the baby-boomers retire; the program resorts to means testing, turning it into a welfare program instead of the social insurance program envisioned by Frances Perkins and FDR; benefits, now insufficient, become more and more meager; and some sort of privatization is put into place.

There’s no happy ending to that Grinch’s story.

Women to Obama: Hands Off Social Security

In Legislation Today, Political world on September 28, 2010 at 11:37 am

By Susan Feiner

WeNews commentator

Monday, September 27, 2010 [Cross-posted at http://www.womensenews.org/story/retirement/100924/women-obama-hands-social-security]

Obama’s discussion of the economy on CNBC last week included what Susan Feiner sees as an alarming reference to Social Security as an “entitlement.” In fact, it’s a self-funded insurance program that women can’t afford to lose.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Anyone who watched President Barak Obama defend his handling of the economy in the televised town-hall discussion last week might have come away remembering the exchange with the hedge-fund manager. He had the nerve to ask when Obama would stop giving Wall Street “the treatment.”

The president’s answer: “If you’re making a billion dollars a year after a very bad financial crisis where 8 million people lost their jobs and small businesses can’t get loans, then you shouldn’t feel put upon.”

Obama’s retort drew warm applause, and rightly so. But minutes earlier the president made a remark that should terrify the majority of Americans–especially women.

In responding to a question about closing the federal deficit he said that after you set aside “security spending”–whatever that may mean–the biggest part of the national budget is “entitlements.”

Ominously, he specified Social Security as one of those “entitlements,” along with Medicare.

Stop right there Mr. President.

Women Should be Horrified

Women in this country should be horrified by your comment for the following reasons:

  • Women still earn less than men, so their opportunity to save for retirement is more limited.
  • Only 13 percent of women aged 65 or older currently receive a pension.
  • Social Security provides 90 percent of the income for 42 percent of women, but only 28 percent of men rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their income.
  • Women are more likely than men to be single, widowed or divorced in retirement.

Adding up these facts leads to one conclusion: The health and dignity of women over age 65 depends on their continued receipt of monthly Social Security checks.

Moreover, Social Security is not an entitlement program as it’s paid for entirely by payroll taxes. It is an insurance program, not an entitlement. Not one penny of anyone’s Social Security comes out of the federal government’s general fund.

Social Security is, by law, wholly self-financing. It has no legal authority to borrow, so it never has.

If this incredibly successful and direly needed program hasn’t ever borrowed a dime, why is the president and his hand-picked commissioners putting Social Security cuts (and/or increases in the retirement age) in the same sentence as deficit reduction?

Fully Paid Until 2037

Social Security insurance is fully paid until 2037.

The program began in 1935 and is considered the greatest achievement of Frances Perkins, labor secretary under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first woman to hold a cabinet level position in the U.S. government.

In every decade of its existence, lawmakers have adjusted its funding formula to ensure its solvency.

President Ronald Reagan, for instance, in the mid-1980s appointed the “Greenspan Commission” (Greenspan later became the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank), which recommended significant increases in Social Security payroll taxes to ensure the build up of a trust fund to finance baby boomers’ retirements.

The Greenspan Commission was honest; it looked at Social Security and figured out how much was needed to pay future retirees’ benefits. The necessary changes were made, the needed dollars flowed in and the trust fund grew. The fix engineered by the Greenspan Commission worked: the Social Security ‘trust fund’ is valued at $2.54 trillion today. By 2024 its projected value will be $4.2 trillion.

Nothing in the accounting future of the program warrants any major changes.

Enemies of Social Security have juicy private pensions, but few women enjoy this perk.

Social Security is as essential to older Americans today as it was 75 years ago when it was founded. Leave it alone.

Susan F. Feiner is a professor of women’s studies and economics at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-author of the 2004 book, “Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work and Globalization.” She is also a board member of the Frances Perkins Center.

For more information:

Older Women’s League: http://www.owl-national.org/Welcome.html

Frances Perkins Center: http://www.francesperkinscenter.org

Cross-posted at http://www.womensenews.org/story/retirement/100924/women-obama-hands-social-security

What issues would Frances Perkins be tackling today?

In Economics, New Deal Legislation on September 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

I’ll lead off with this stunning chart from Matthew Iglesias’s blog on ThinkProgress. Note that red line.

povertytrends

You see a lot of different things happening here. One is poverty among seniors declining thanks to Great Society expansion of retirement support programs. The other is a jump in poverty for non-seniors during the 1978-82 period that persisted throughout the Reagan-Bush years. This was in part driven by an increase in the proportion of female-headed households without husbands, but the same pattern appears within that subset. We then had a giant reduction in poverty among this group in the 1990s which was a combination of strong economic performance, “welfare reform,” and also the fact that the Clinton administration really wanted to make welfare reform work so threw lots of stuff—EITC expansion, SCHIP, etc.—at making it work. Then we saw a slow, steady erosion of that progress.

———————————————————

Then I want to quote the author of the new book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life by Thomas Geoghegan. This is an excerpt from an interview with Geoghegan that appeared in Salon in late August:

How did Germany become such a great place to work in the first place?

The Allies did it. This whole European model came, to some extent, from the New Deal. Our real history and tradition is what we created in Europe. Occupying Germany after WWII, the 1945 European constitutions, the UN Charter of Human Rights all came from Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Dealers. All of it got worked into the constitutions of Europe and helped shape their social democracies. It came from us. The papal encyclicals on labor, it came from the Americans.

As the Salon introduction notes, in Germany “they have six weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare.” And, while a six week vacation would surely be welcomed by single mothers and their families, it’s the last three items that really make the difference. Affordable higher education, accessible preventive health care, and affordable quality childcare — those are the big pieces missing in the United States today. And without them, single mothers face a very difficult uphill battle.

While Geoghegan credits Eleanor Roosevelt, certainly Frances Perkins was right in there, also. We know that Perkins was engaged in the drafting and dissemination of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. And what a different society we would be living in today if that agenda had been carried forward in the U.S. as it was in Germany and the other countries of the E.U.

Here is that Second Bill of Rights (1944):

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

Good news, bad news

In Legislation Today on September 9, 2010 at 1:01 pm

We often ask ourselves, “What would Frances Perkins do?” as we watch the news from Washington. Here are two stories that bring up that question. You can easily guess what her response to each would be.

The good news first: President Obama is starting to speak out on the economy and jobs:

Mr. Obama’s newest proposals to help the flagging recovery, like his earlier proposal for a small-business bill, include ideas that typically have strong Republican and business backing. The new proposals, which the administration had previewed in the days before his speech on Wednesday, would increase and make permanent a tax credit for businesses’ research expenses, allow businesses to write off the full costs of equipment purchased through 2011, and provide $50 billion more for infrastructure construction projects. [from the NY Times]

It’s not a sweeping proposal on the scale of the WPA, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Unfortunately, behind closed doors, secret negotiations are taking place that may ultimately weaken and diminish one of the most effect economic programs the U.S. has, Social Security. According to Richard Eskow in the blog of the Campaign for America’s Future, back-channel sources say that:

the Deficit Commission is finalizing a deal that would increase Social Security benefits slightly for low-income recipients while cutting them for everyone else. The Commissioners apparently believe that putting this “progressive” gloss on a package of unneeded cuts would allow them to move forward with their predetermined anti-Social Security agenda. This new proposal would pit middle-class seniors against the elderly poor, forcing them to compete for a stripped-down pool of dollars. The end result would be the one that many Commission members have pursued for years: to cut the most stable and successful program in the Federal government’s history.

Here are a few reasons why this idea is such a bad one:

First and foremost: Social Security and the deficit don’t belong in the same sentence. The fact that this group is fiddling with Social Security is a travesty. Social Security BY LAW cannot run a deficit; therefore, it can’t contribute to the federal deficit.

Second: How does the president’s commission get off tinkering in secret with a program that touches every single working person in the United States? Any proposals changing the way Social Security is run should be made in the blazing sunlight. Its millions of participants need to know what is going on. In fact, we know how voters feel about Social Security — they don’t want to cut it. Eskow quotes some recent poll results.

Third: Social Security’s financial condition is monitored very closely. Every year, the trustees issue a report on its health. This year, the trustees stated that the system could pay full benefits for the next quarter century or so with no changes to the current system. There is no need to panic; there’s plenty of time to act prudently and cautiously. In addition, if new revenue is desired, the easiest change would be to lift the cap on contributions. Right now, if you make more than $106,800, you don’t pay Social Security tax on that additional income. Lifting the cap would be easy from an administrative standpoint and would provide enough income to take us well beyond the next quarter century.

Finally, I really like this point that Eskow makes:

If this were a public debate and not a secret one, this latest move could be used to start the debate we should be having: Why don’t we strengthen and increase Social Security, rather than cut it?

Happy Birthday, Social Security!

In Events, New Deal Legislation on August 15, 2010 at 10:27 am

We had a great day yesterday celebrating the 75th anniversary of Social Security at our Frances Perkins Center 2nd Annual Garden Party . We’ll post more pictures and details later, but for now, here are a couple of photos as a preview:

Here's the birthday cake

We had two New Deal grandchildren on hand to cut the cake. Professor June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is Frances Perkins grandson. Perkins was the chair and Hopkins was a member of the Committee on Economic Security, which created the Social Security Act.