A Historic Opportunity: Hilda Solis and the Financial Crisis
The many privileges that we take for granted today such as social security, civil rights, workers rights (Wagner Act), the clean air and clean water acts, minimum wage etc. weren't just handed down to us by a benevolent leadership in either the executive branch or the congress. All the rights, privileges, and benefits worth having were fought for and won in America through grassroots mobilization that both pressured leadership and created a buffer for sympathetic constituencies in our government to get the courage, will, and vision to implement those progressive policies. Today, we find ourselves facing an economic crisis that is similar in magnitude to the Great Depression. With any severe economic crisis comes not only social turmoil, fear, and hardship, but also opportunity. Which social or political forces seize that opportunity, and exercise power in the time of crisis, is up to a few people in positions of power and the mobilized citizenry that holds them accountable. New Deal legislation passed during the Great Depression is a testament to what can happen when working class Americans take advantage of a major opportunity and hold their leaders accountable to their interests. The welfare state that was constructed in the financial ruins of the Great Depression through the New Deal has forever changed our lives for the better. Unfortunately, Frances Perkins, the woman who deserves most of the credit for expanding America's social contract has been wiped into the dustbin of irrelevance.
With the economic crisis becoming more dire every day, and President Obama's having recently appointed Hilda Solis as Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins is more relevant than ever. Both Hilda Solis and Frances Perkins were appointed to serve as Secretary of Labor during a time of economic crisis at critical moments in American History and share similar qualities in their character, background, and politics. The opportunity, as well as the peril, that this economic crisis presents the working men and women of America with is significant and must be recognized by all of us, most importantly, Hilda Solis. As a people's advocate in the new cabinet, Solis could seize the moment and aggressively push for bold, progressive responses to the mounting crisis. However, before we look towards the future, it's worth taking a look back to the past to Frances Perkins and the lessons we can learn from her time as Secretary of Labor.
Frances Perkins was appointed to Secretary of Labor in 1933 by President Roosevelt, becoming the first woman to hold a cabinet level position in American history. Perkin's came to the position of Secretary of Labor with an impressive record of protecting workers rights, women's rights, and fighting to eradicate poverty. Her work on behalf of women and the working class of America began in 1910 when she moved to New York City and became the head of the National Consumers League, an NGO whose mission is to "protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad." In 1911 she witnessed the Triangle Factory Fire, a seminal moment in her political development. Working conditions in the Triangle Factory were deplorable, resulting in a fire which took the lives of 146 young immigrant women, many jumping to their deaths trying to escape the fire because the exits were locked and there were no fire escapes. The factory fire had a profound effect on Frances Perkins and cemented her commitment to women's and workers rights. She explained that the fire "seared on my mind as well as my heart-a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy." Perkins served on the subsequent commissions assigned to investigate the fire and make sure similar incidents never happened again. She was instrumental in instituting reforms such as the use of fire alarms, fire drills, and fire escapes. In her pursuit of reform, Perkins was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission in 1918, by Governor Al Smith, becoming the first woman ever to serve on the commission. She went on to become chairman of the commission in 1926.
After Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected as the governor of New York in 1929, he promoted Frances Perkins to be the Industrial Commissioner of New York, the chief post in the state labor department. Her appointment by FDR to commissioner began the relationship between the two that would become critical during FDR's presidency and especially during his first hundred days in getting progressive New Deal legislation written and passed. She gained the respect of FDR during his time as governor, and was constantly at his side calling for public works projects, social security, and the need to protect the poor. Perkins said that, "poverty was preventable, destructive, wasteful and demoralizing. In the midst of potential plenty, it is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society. Because the 'poor' are people, with hopes, fears, virtues, vices and are fellow citizens." As Industrial Commissioner she helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform, increased working conditions, factory investigations, and reduced the workweek to 48 hours for women. In 1933, amidst the Great Depression, Perkins was tapped by Franklin Roosevelt, the newly elected President of the United States, to be the Secretary of Labor.
During her tenure as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins turned the traditional role of the Labor Department on its head. As Adam Cohen, author of Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America explained, "It was the last [appointment] that FDR made. And even in Frances Perkins's time, labor was a backwater. It was the last department created. She was the last person sworn in, because it was the lowliest department. But she turned it into something very powerful. And she was a huge voice at these cabinet meetings for public works and for caring for poor people." Perkins was the longest serving Secretary of Labor in history and accomplished an incredible amount for working-class Americans while holding the cabinet position. As secretary, she played a key role in writing New Deal legislation. She immediately proposed federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, unemployment and old-age insurance (Social Security Act), abolition of child labor, the establishment by federal law of minimum wages and maximum hours, and the creation of a federal employment service. Because of her diligence and vision, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act, 1935) was passed which gave workers the right to collective bargaining and created the National Labor Relations Board.
In July 1933 as the Secretary of Labor, Perkins famously visited Homestead, P.A. to look into working conditions at the steel mills and to talk to the workers about their rights to organize and collective bargaining guaranteed under the National Industrial Recovery Act. When she arrived, the town authorities refused to let her talk with a group of steelworkers. The mayor and local police refused her entry into the town meeting hall, but she defied the mayor and local authorities and found an alternative site where she informed the workers directly about their rights. Frances Perkins' devotion to the poor and to the working-class of America wasn't popular among many people in high places in and out of government. In fact, Perkins' work brought her directly into the cross hairs of red-baiting conservatives in the Congress. In 1939 the House Un-American Activities Committee brought an impeachment resolution against her after she refused to deport Harry Bridges, the head of the West Coast longshore union; but the impeachment proceedings were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
It's important to recognize that all the achievements, progressive policies, and precedents Frances Perkins helped institutionalize throughout her life were not the work of her alone, even though she was a major force behind the many successes. Without the militancy of organized labor and everyday working women and men who organized themselves around the various initiatives she brought into government, things would have been quite different, and her power not nearly as substantial as it was. As Hilda Solis takes the helm as Labor Secretary, her role in determining whether this economic crisis bears any fruit for the working class of America is critical, and should not be underestimated.
Like Frances Perkins, Hilda Solis is also a very passionate, serious, and courageous leader and also happens to be the most progressive appointee in the cabinet of the new administration. She has deep ties to organized labor, the immigrant community, and movements for environmental justice. With the right amount of grassroots support and pressure, Solis could make a serious contribution to the formulation of progressive legislation that would greatly impact and improve the daily lives of the majority of Americans long into the future. The financial crisis the Obama administration has inherited is the greatest of our time. It presents the same opportunities that were there in 1933 when Frances Perkins and FDR took over the White House and created the modern welfare state, bringing the US out of the Great Depression and into the 20th century socially and economically. It is our duty to make sure Hilda Solis understands the power of her position and the immense opportunity sitting before her during this critical moment in American history. As Howard Zinn, one of this country's most celebrated historians put it, "The innovations of the New Deal were fueled by the militant demands for change that swept the country as FDR began his presidency: the tenants' groups; the Unemployed Councils; the millions on strike on the West Coast, in the Midwest and the South; the disruptive actions of desperate people seeking food, housing, jobs--the turmoil threatening the foundations of American capitalism. We will need a similar mobilization of citizens today, to unmoor from corporate control whoever becomes President. To match the New Deal, to go beyond it, is an idea whose time has come." We need Hilda Solis to have the courage to stand up for the average working American and once again make the cabinet position of Secretary of Labor one of the most powerful positions in the United States government. At this critical juncture in American history, let's not hope Hilda Solis is the Frances Perkins of our time; let's make her the Frances Perkins of our time.