By Carol McCracken (Post # 739)
It was thanks to the advocacy of Frances Perkins that workers and buildings both are protected by fire codes today said Mike Williams, a career officer in the South Portland Fire Department. Williams and others addressed an overflow crowd of at least 500 at a noontime press conference in Augusta at the Department of Labor.
The press conference was in response to Governor LePage’s plan to remove an 11 panel wall mural that depicts the history of labor in Maine. In one of those panels, Frances Perkins is featured. Today also marks the 100th anniversary of the historic fire in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. As Williams pointed out: “One witness to the tragedy was a 30-year-old social worker named Frances Perkins. She vowed to take up labor reform…..”
However, Perkins is best known as the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position – that of U.S. Labor Secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt – from 1933 to 1945 – a time of great labor turmoil because of the Great Depression. Perkins “contributed to the large and intricate body of social-insurance legislation promulgated under the New Deal,” said her obiturary in “The New York Times,” dated May 15, 1965. She’s considered a giant in labor reform to protect the rights of women and children. In her day, Perkins was demonized by her critics, although she serves as a role model for many women today. Her accomplishments were of such significance that the U. S. Department of Labor Building in Washington, D.C. was named for her.
Born in Boston, on April 10, 1882, Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in chemistry and biology, although her heart was always in the humanities. She inherited, from her father, a well-to-do conservative businessman, her passion for Maine – more specifically the family homestead – located on the River Road, Newcastle. (The River Road connects Damariscotta to Boothbay Harbor.) Several years ago, it was turned into the Frances Perkins Center by her grandson who also lives there. Perkins and her husband are buried in a nearby cemetery. Please visit the website for more information on the Center.
“I believe in unions. I know we wouldn’t have dignity and rights without people like Frances Perkins. A lot of people have died for the right of workers to have voice and dignity at work. We did it all in the
worst depression in history. And now LePage is trying to undo it,” said Steve Knight, who teaches at the Kennebec Valley Community College and turned out for the press conference. A woman said: “LePage’s blunder sends the wrong message to the young women of Maine. You are discredited for standing up and making something of your life. We need more women like Frances Perkins and Ida Tarbell – not fewer of them,” she said. “At least this incident raises awareness of who Frances Perkins is and her ties to Maine.”
Adam Fisher, communications director, for the Labor Department, said that the mural will be placed in a location with the most visibility possible. It will not be removed until that location has been determined. There has been interest expressed by several non-profit organizations, including the Frances Perkins Center, in displaying the mural. No final decision has been made, however.