Put another Frances Perkins on the Obama Team
By Jerome Grossman
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor in 1932, she said she would accept only if he would support her social justice agenda: Federal relief and large-scale public works programs to help victims of the Depression, federal minimum wage and maximum hour’s law, a ban on child labor, and unemployment and old age insurance. The New Deal was born. These were revolutionary goals for the time, but Roosevelt agreed. “I suppose you are going to nag me about this forever”, he said. And she did, acting as his conscience when Roosevelt faced difficult political problems with his progressive agenda.
Perkins, born in Boston, raised in Worcester, Massachusetts in a middle-class Republican family, attended Mount Holyoke, majored in chemistry and physics, but a course in political economy changed her life. Sent into local mills to report on the lives of the workers, she was so moved by the experience that she became a social worker and reformer. She helped Jane Adams in Chicago's Hull House; worked with immigrants in Philadelphia, studied sociology and economics at Columbia before working for the Consumer’s League. Heavily influenced by the fatal fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, she became a key reformer for worker safety, was appointed by New York Governor Alfred E. Smith to the powerful State Labor Board. When FDR succeeded Smith in 1929, he named her head of the entire department...
Her role in the famous first 100 days of the FDR presidency has been under appreciated. She was the strongest advocate for a federal relief program, led the development of the plan that was implemented, persuaded FDR to support large-scale public works despite his skepticism, fought for the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Allied with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was effective in pushing her very political president to live up to his liberal reputation. Her imprint was so large that political opponents took to calling the FDR administration the Perkins New Deal. And she accomplished all this while being harassed as a liberal and the first woman Secretary of Labor.
President Barack Obama assumes office at a similar time of crisis: instability is in the air, large segments of the population are hurting, relief is needed at every level, unemployment is rising, banks are failing, and Wall Street has lost the confidence of the public. Relief and change are required, especially new approaches to rescue the workers at the sustenance level from the Hoover-like policies of George W. Bush.
But personnel defines policy and Obama’s liberal instincts cannot be implemented by appointees from the center, by definition. To achieve a national consensus, Obama’s selected helpers come from the center of U.S. politics, few from labor, almost none from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, some from the Republicans, most of them veterans of the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Obama needs advisers and appointees like Frances Perkins, people committed to rescuing the masses of Americans, whose horizons are not limited by corporate bailouts, who are willing to take approaches outside the conventional wisdom, ideas that will find ways to extend the benefits of the richest country in the world to all Americans. Obama understands this approach, the Perkins approach to social and political problems. He has repeatedly said that if he were constructing a health-care system for America from scratch, it would be single payer. Yet his multiple advisers are not even considering a single payer plan, not even putting a single proponent on the health care team.
Louis Gerstner, the former chief of IBM, praises Obama but criticized the way the White House handled restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler. “Who did we pick to figure out how to fix the automobile industry? We picked two investment bankers. It’s sort of like asking the arsonist to run the fire department.”
If Obama had Frances Perkins on his team, the president's proposals would be quite different.