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Chapter 3: The Department in the New Deal and World War II, 1933-1945



When newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his appointments to the Cabinet that would help him guide the Nation through its worst ever economic crisis, his Secretary of Labor was said to feel "just a little odd." This was not surprising, since Frances Perkins was the only woman in the Cabinet and the first one ever appointed to such a high federal position. She might also have felt odd because she was the first Secretary of Labor who had not been active in a trade union. The AFL had nominated Dan Tobin, head of the Teamsters, but President Roosevelt was determined to break precedent in more ways than one. He had already decided to place a woman somewhere in his Cabinet. Perkins, who had served brilliantly under him as New York State Commissioner of Labor while he was governor, was the logical choice and Labor was the logical place. She served as Secretary of Labor during the entire Roosevelt Administration, from 1933 to 1945, serving longer than any other Secretary in the Department's history.

By experience and temperament, Frances Perkins was well qualified to lead the Department during this crucial and trying period. Born in 1880 in Boston and raised in New England, Perkins entered social work in New York State after graduating from college. She worked zealously to improve living and working conditions there, coming to state senator Franklin Roosevelt's attention as a representative of the Consumers League lobbying for factory legislation. She served on the state industrial board under Governor Al Smith and eventually became chairwoman. As Commissioner of Labor under Governor Roosevelt she promoted workmen's compensation. When the Depression worsened she developed plans for interstate cooperation to alleviate unemployment.

By the time Perkins came to the Department of Labor in 1933 the economy had virtually collapsed. An estimated 13 million people were unemployed and hundreds of thousands had become homeless wanderers in search of work. The nation's industrial production had fallen by 44 percent since 1929. Millions of farmers faced foreclosure. Banks were failing by the score. Local governments were running out of money for relief programs.

President Roosevelt's approach to the problem was both conservative and innovative. He spurned both the economic orthodoxy of the Hoover Administration and the wishes of many to see drastic, dictatorial action. He surrounded himself with able, creative minds and set out on a flexible and humane program to get the country back on its feet.

Perkins was one of the most creative of FDR's counselors, and she had his ear. Like Roosevelt, she believed that government has a major role to play in regulating the economic order to promote social justice and human freedom. She also believed that in the process the rights of the states and of individuals must be strongly upheld. As Secretary of Labor she successfully promoted many elements that became part of the New Deal, including direct relief of the unemployed, a public works program, minimum wage legislation, unemployment and old age insurance, abolition of child labor, and the establishment of a true federal employment service.

Before Miss Perkins could begin tackling the problems of the Depression, however, she first had to deal with a problem within the Department's Bureau of Immigration. This bureau still dominated the Department, consuming three-fourths of its total budget. While most of its work continued to be routine, its efforts to deport aliens had become highly visible and extreme. A special corps of investigators, "Section 24," was conducting sensational raids and generating controversy and Perkins had to do something about it. She immediately disbanded Section 24 and appointed a new Commissioner of Immigration who ceased the Bureau's harassment of aliens. Immigration ceased to be a responsibility of the Department in 1940 when the function was transferred to the Department of Justice.

Perkins' next pressing task was to begin implementing the law creating a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), enacted in Roosevelt's first month in office. The CCC was an interdepartmental work and relief program that sent young, unemployed men from the cities to work on conservation projects in rural areas at a dollar a day. The Labor Department's role was to recruit participants in the program. To do this, the employment service was hastily beefed up and mobilized. Within a week there was organized within it a National Re-Employment Service to handle recruitment. In a short time there were 250,000 young enrollees working in CCC camps all around the country. One of the most successful and well-received New Deal programs, when the CCC disbanded in 1942 several million young men had participated.

The day that FDR signed the CCC bill into law, Perkins held a conference of labor leaders and experts in her office to discuss ideas for relieving unemployment. Labor leaders were complaining that FDR's Administration was paying too little attention to labor's interests. Some of them met with Perkins and urged her to call a conference of labor leaders as a signal of the Administration's concern. Despite the difficulties involved -- some were Republicans, not all got along together -- she agreed to do so. Meeting in late March 1933 in the Secretary's suite, the group developed a ten-point program which was then presented to the President. The program included abolition of child labor, supporting higher wages for all workers, and government recognition of the right of workers to organize. Many of these items were already under consideration by the Administration but the conference gave added thrust to them.

Perkins played a major role in the design of the economic recovery and unemployment relief programs and agencies of the New Deal. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided grants to states to feed and clothe the needy. An agricultural recovery program helped beleaguered farmers. The National Recovery Administration forged an alliance between industry and government to promote recovery and gave a boost to the labor movement until the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935. The Civil Works Administration and later the more extensive Works Progress Administration put millions of unemployed to work on activities ranging from road-building to painting murals on government buildings.

Of all the New Deal reform and relief programs, the most important and durable was Social Security, and without Frances Perkins it might never have been enacted. Long a proponent of public old-age insurance, Perkins had only accepted her post at the Labor Department on the condition that FDR would back her in seeking this goal. She led a campaign to convince the nation that a pension system would both be humanitarian and also help prevent future depressions. By 1935 public opinion was thoroughly in favor of the idea. So was the Congress, goaded by fear of demagogues such as Francis Townsend who were mobilizing millions of despairing elderly citizens with plans for large, guaranteed federal pensions. The Social Security Act passed in 1935 and provided direct aid for the destitute elderly and a pension program for many, but far from all, workers. It also provided federal funding for state-operated unemployment insurance programs, as well as aid for the handicapped and for mothers with dependent children. An independent Social Security Board ran the entire system.

Although Perkins' activities and accomplishments ranged far outside the Department, there was a great deal of importance happening there too. The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 established the U.S. Employment Service, building on the existing service and adding more resources and so that the USES could maintain, in cooperation with the states, an effective nation-wide system of employment offices. The USES also provided placement and recruitment for programs for the unemployed, including those on unemployment insurance under the Social Security Act.

One of the important economic recovery provisions of the NRA set minimum wages and maximum hours per week. Even before the 1935 Supreme Court decision overturning the NRA, Perkins had the Department draft a bill setting wage and hour standards for work on federal contracts. With this bill and a related one up her sleeve, she told FDR not to worry about the NRA because she had two bills "locked in the lower left-hand drawer of my desk against an emergency." The one bill was introduced immediately after the Supreme court decision and was enacted a year later as the Walsh Healey Public Contracts Act, to be administered by the Department of Labor. For goods manufactured under government contracts worth at least $10,000, it required an 8-hour day and 40-hour week, it prescribed that the work be done under safe and healthful conditions, and it authorized the Secretary to set minimum wages based on locally prevailing rates.

The Walsh-Healey Act eventually had a major effect on wages and hours for contract workers, but its main immediate impact was to prepare the way for much broader wage and hour legislation. The second bill in Perkins' desk was a "fair labor standards" bill providing for the setting of minimum wages and maximum work hours for most industrial workers. FDR was fearful that the conservative Supreme Court would overturn such a far-reaching bill if enacted, as it had the NRA, and he embarked on his famous attempt to "pack" the Court. The Congress refused to go along, so he had to leave the fair labor standards bill to its fate. The more restricted Walsh-Healey Act had passed fairly easily, but Congress balked at this broader legislation. Both the AFL and the National Association of Manufacturers opposed it.

Finally, after numerous modifications were made and signs of broad public support emerged, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) became law in 1938. Administered by the Department of Labor, the Act set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour and a maximum workweek of 40 hours (to be phased in by 1940) for most workers in manufacturing. The 40-hour week has not changed in 50 years, but the wage level has risen steadily and the coverage has broadened to include most salaried workers.

One of the projects Perkins discussed with Roosevelt before accepting her appointment was to have the Department of Labor help state governments deal with labor problems. In July 1933 she held at the Department a very successful conference of 16 state minimum wage boards (some of the states had minimum wage laws long before the Federal Government). Spurred by this experience, the next year she held a two-day conference on state labor legislation at which 39 states were represented. State officials in attendance were gratified that the U.S. Department of Labor was showing interest in their problems. They called on Perkins to make the labor legislation conferences an annual event. She did so and participated actively in them every year until she left office. The conferences continued under Labor Department auspices for another ten years, by which time they had largely accomplished their goal of improving and standardizing state labor laws and administration.

To institutionalize the work she was trying to accomplish with these conferences, Perkins created the Division of Labor Standards (later redesignated a bureau) in 1934 as a service agency and informational clearinghouse for state governments and other federal agencies. Its goal was to promote, through voluntary means, improved conditions of work. The Division offered many services in addition to helping the states deal with administrative problems. It offered training for factory inspectors. It attracted national attention to the area of workers' health with a series of conferences on silicosis. This wide-spread lung disease had been dramatized by the "Gauley Bridge Disaster" in which hundreds of tunnel workers died from breathing silica-filled air. The Division also worked with unions, whose support was needed in passing labor legislation in the States.

The unions around the country received a tremendous boost from Washington when the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, known as the Wagner Act, gave federal sanction to the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. It established an independent National Labor Relations Board to oversee representation elections and adjudicate labor disputes. Not an architect of the Act, Perkins sought unsuccessfully to have it administered by the Department. Nevertheless, from the start the Department played an important role in making the law work. The Secretary of Labor has usually been consulted about new appointments to the Board. After the Wagner Act labor union membership swelled from 3.8 million in 1935 to 12.6 million by 1945.

A labor union matter that the Department was deeply involved in got completely out of hand and threatened to lead to Perkins' removal from office. Ironically, it also involved the immigration function that had been a problem to Perkins when she first took office. The Bureau of Immigration retained, through this period, the responsibility for deporting undesirable aliens. After a 1934 Longshoremen's strike, pressure was exerted on Perkins to have the Bureau investigate Harry Bridges, the longshoremen's leader, to see if he should be deported. Bridges was an alien and an alleged communist. Perkins reluctantly requested the investigation, but immigration officers found no evidence that he was connected with the communist party. There the matter rested until the fall of 1937 when new evidence was produced against Bridges. The Department scheduled deportation proceedings, but when a related case arose in the federal courts Perkins decided to delay the process until that case was decided.

Perkins saw no danger in this postponement, but the following month the House of Representatives formed an Un-American Activities Committee headed by Martin Dies which condemned her for the delay. Perkins refused to resume the deportation hearings until the court case was decided. Dies threatened to begin impeachment proceedings and mounted a campaign against her around the country. An impeachment resolution was introduced in January 1938 against Perkins and two subordinates.

It was a trying, agonizing period for her. The case, and Dies' campaign, were making headlines in a country jittery about the possibility of communist agitation in a period of social instability. She tried to follow her grandmother's dictum of acting, in such circumstances, as if nothing had happened. She even sent Dies a book when he went into the hospital for a few weeks. In February she appeared voluntarily before the House Judiciary Committee. The members were hostile to her but the hearings were conducted with decorum and the chairman complimented her on a good appearance.

The result of the hearings was not a clear-cut thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The good news was that the committee issued a unanimous report finding no grounds for impeachment. The bad news was that there was attached to the report a section of additional views by several members that called for official disapproval of Perkins' conduct by the committee. This section received a great deal of press attention and left the public with the impression that Perkins had in fact been officially condemned by Congress. She was never able to fully clear her name after this. Almost anti-climactically, that summer deportation hearings were held and it was determined that Bridges could not be deported as an undesirable alien.

As the country mobilized to prepare for the widely expected war with the Axis powers, such affairs receded into the background. Unlike World War I, the Department of Labor played a much smaller role in the World War II effort. It administered none of the special war labor agencies that were created. Still its contributions were notable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics served as the research arm for the Office of Price Administration, the War Labor Board and the Armed Forces. The Conciliation Service made its expertise available to the War Labor Board also. The Division of Labor Standards, the Women's Bureau and the Children's Bureau worked hard to see that labor standards were maintained in the face of labor shortages and enormous production pressures. In large part due to their efforts the nation's labor standards at the end of the war were not significantly impaired.

Perkins left office shortly after Roosevelt died in May 1945. Although harassed by the Dies committee and others because of alleged communist sympathies and publicly hassled for being a woman in a "man's job," in her 12 years as Secretary of Labor her accomplishments both within and outside of the Department were enormous. She established the competence and reputation of the Department at a higher level than ever before and set a standard for it to aspire to in later years.

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