Frances Perkins, as FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, gave her voice to industrial workers and their safety, helping to establish the New Deal in response to the Great Depression. In this episode of Workers’ Comp Matters, host Alan Pierce talks to Chris Breiseth, chair of the Frances Perkins Center, and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, Frances Perkins’ grandson, about the effect she had on worker’s compensation and safety. Also, tune in to hear what made her more than just the Secretary of Labor.
Christopher Breiseth is the board chair of the Frances Perkins Center and the immediate past president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall has worked in publishing and marketing, mostly in the alternative energy field, focusing on hydrogen and clean energy.
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Workers Comp Matters
How Frances Perkins Impacted Workers’ Compensation
Intro: This is Workers Comp Matters hosted by attorney Alan S. Pierce, the only Legal Talk Network program that focuses entirely on the people and the law in workers’ compensation cases. Nationally recognized trial attorney, expert, and author Alan S. Pierce is a leader committed to making a difference when workers’ comp matters.
Alan S. Pierce: Welcome to another edition of Workers Comp Matters here on the Legal Talk Network. I am Alan Pierce. I practice law with the law firm of Pierce, Pierce & Napolitano, in Salem, Massachusetts. And on today’s show we welcome two guests, Dr. Christopher Breiseth and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall. Two gentlemen I met maybe two or three weeks ago in Phoenix, where at the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Induction Dinner we had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Breiseth as our keynote speaker concerning the life and legacy of former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and we also presented an award on behalf of Ms. Perkins to Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, her grandson.
So we are going to spend this show discussing the role that Frances Perkins had in not only the development of the unique law of workers’ compensation, but in the general field of employment rights and worker rights generally.
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I am going to first start with Dr. Christopher Breiseth. He is the immediate past President and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute located at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Christopher received his PhD from Cornell in European History, and while at Cornell he met Frances Perkins. She was living at the Telluride House, where he was in residence and she was a guest there for five years while teaching at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Following her death in 1965, Breiseth wrote an article ‘The Frances Perkins I Knew’, which provides some of the material on Frances Perkins’ life at the Telluride House, and it also served as information for another book ‘The Woman Behind the New Deal’ written by Kirstin Downey.
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall also knew Frances in another fashion. He is and was Frances Perkins’ grandson. Tomlin attended the Middlesex School in Concord, received a BS in Botany and Biology from the University of Maine, and he has been involved in publishing and marketing, mostly in the alternative energy field.
He lives in Newcastle, Maine, Midcoast, at The Brick House, the Perkins homestead and has an affiliation with the Frances Perkins Institute that he will tell us a little bit about.
So gentlemen, welcome to Workers Comp Matters and thank you for agreeing to be a guest this edition.
Dr. Christopher Breiseth: Good to be here.
Alan S. Pierce: Christopher, let’s kind of start with you. For those of you who don’t know terribly much in terms of details, Frances Perkins was appointed by FDR as Secretary of Labor from 1933 and she served his entire terms of office to 1945, being the longest serving cabinet member in that position and equally, if not more notably, the first woman appointed to the US cabinet as Labor Secretary or for that matter anything.
I know you have studied her career, you knew her, what brought Frances Perkins to be the first woman to be appointed by FDR and to serve so long in that capacity, Chris?
Dr. Christopher Breiseth: She served in all of the administrations of Governor Al Smith in New York, which was 1919 until 1929, and she then segued right over to Governor Franklin Roosevelt from 1929 to 1933. So she was known by both Governors and was arguably a critical policy person for each of them in terms of progressive policies that dealt with working conditions, working men and women.
So that when Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, Frances Perkins was the clear preferred candidate to be the Secretary of Labor, at least from the point of view of some of the major women around FDR, including Eleanor Roosevelt. So he asked her to be the Secretary of Labor in February 1933 and she laid out the conditions in which she would accept that august position to be the first woman cabinet member and that list includes basically the entire what we call the domestic New Deal.
Alan S. Pierce: Okay, so she gave some conditions, these were conditions relative to policies that she felt important, not only for her to pursue as Secretary of Labor, but for FDR to pursue in terms of legislative initiatives. And I understand she did that in a unique way. How did she give that list of items to FDR?
Dr. Christopher Breiseth: Well, she told me she had written on an envelope and that she really could argue, and she argued with Roosevelt that she was not the right person, that a woman should not be kind of representing a major labor union titans in the cabinet, but he persuaded her that she was the right person. And she said that if I am going to do this job, I have to have the guarantee of your support for the 40-hour workweek, minimum wage, time-and-a-half, unemployment, compensation, workmen’s compensation, and ultimately she wanted a national healthcare system and Social Security, and those are the major ones.
And they virtually achieved all of them except the national health insurance and that really was the New Deal. A lot of it was contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, but the really heavy artillery of the New Deal was the Social Security and unemployment insurance, a Bill of 1935.
Alan S. Pierce: So let me turn now to Tomlin. She was your grandmother, you have a long and proud family history. Tell us first of all, Frances Perkins was not a lawyer, tell us how she — how did her interest in the plight of American workers, how was that stimulated, what did she do professionally before she was tapped as Secretary of Labor?
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall: Well, it probably starts back at her Mount Holyoke College days, when a woman named Florence Kelley came to speak for the college, and my grandmother met her and they became best friends, and in fact, she became a mentor for my grandmother. And she was the Founder of the National Consumers League, which I think was a fairly extensive organization by the time my grandmother began working with her in New York City in around probably 1910 or so.
But it was an organization that would help consumers understand what type of employment situation a particular article of clothing had been made under. For instance, is this from a sweatshop or from a goods factory. And so my grandmother was working with her when the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire broke out in 1911 on March 25th.
Alan S. Pierce: Yeah. And for those of us, I know — I am sorry to interrupt, I think we — back around the 100th anniversary of the fire, I think we may have done a show on it. Tell us, first of all, that was a turning point, that fire was a turning point in a variety of ways, in terms of worker safety, workers’ rights and workers’ compensation, give us an idea of what happened in New York City on March 25, 1911.
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall: Yes, it was in Greenwich Village, at the time a fairly new building and therefore quite a bit taller than most buildings at the time; it was about 10 storeys tall, and there were sweatshops in the top two floors. And my grandmother happened to be having tea nearby with a friend coincidentally when the fire broke out and all the alarms went off and firemen running.
And so they went over to see what was happening and saw the horrific sight of people having to jump from the eighth and ninth floor, I think it was, and in the end 146 people died, and mostly immigrant women. And the City of New York formed a Committee called the Committee on Safety, I believe, and my grandmother was suggested, supposedly by Theodore Roosevelt, who she probably did know because she had been a Bull Moose Party participant. He suggested that she be on that Committee; in fact, she ended up being the Executive Chair of it.
And as such in such a role she took members of the Committee through all kinds of surprise factory inspections at all hours of the morning, making them climb through narrow doorways and down icy ladders to find the egress that was allowed, fire escape and exit for people. And she became very involved with helping to determine what happened and preventing it from happening.
And out of that Committee came things like exit signs. I think there’s still a rule in place in New York City that all workplace trash baskets have to be emptied at the end of the day, and that was happening, because that was — the cause of the fire was these bins under the sewing machines that would accumulate all of the scraps from the clothing of making these shirtwaists. And they were very flammable, so somebody must have flicked an ash into one of the bins and that caused the fire to start. I believe that’s the theory.
Alan S. Pierce: And for those of you who appreciate the history of workers’ comp, there was no workers’ comp in any state in March of 1911, and one of the ironies of this date of March 25th, that barely 24 hours earlier, specifically on March 24, 1911, the highest court in New York, the New York Court of Appeals struck down the New York Workers’ Compensation Law as being unconstitutional, and barely 24 hours later we had 146 deaths, for which there were no benefits of compensation, and I believe any benefits that may have gone to the survivors of the families came from the owners of the factory that burned, which had very little in the way of assets, hence very little in the way of remuneration for those losses.
And it wasn’t much long after that that the workers’ comp law was reintroduced and this time through Teddy Roosevelt and others, including Frances Perkins, workers’ comp was finally adopted, and of course it was adopted in several other states beginning in April of 1911.
Christopher, tell us about the Frances work in New York before she was appointed. I know you both touched a little bit about her role with Al Smith. She was what, a social worker by occupation or trade?
Dr. Christopher Breiseth: Well, yes, but she was more than that. She was very much a social scientist, as that concept was just beginning to develop. So that when she approached the problems in Chicago at Hull House, with Jane Addams, she was there as a social worker, but she was also there to study poverty and what could be done. And she ended it in Philadelphia, where she worked with immigrant women who were prostitutes before she went to New York, where she got a master’s degree basically in social science, political science, economics.
And her conclusion through this experiencing of the poor and the kind of conditions that contributed to poverty was that government had a role to play in changing the systems that contributed to poverty.
And so her first success was the 54 Hour Act that limited the number of hours a woman could work any one week to 54 hours. And that was a huge triumph for women laborers and it was a breakthrough for her in seeing the importance of public laws to effect the conditions by which people worked.
She actually through Al Smith, who is not yet Governor, but was counseling her, she worked with Tammany Hall and she was part of Tammany Hall, which is the group that really organized the Democratic Party in those days. And she learned how to deal with Tammany leaders and they respected her.
And one of things that Tomlin could tell you more about than I is that she discovered that if they followed her as their mother, she was not an intimidating factor, so she began dressing in a very matronly way for a young woman who was extraordinarily attractive. And she wore a tricorn hat, which again made her matronly.
And from that relationship with Smith and with Robert Wagner, who were the Co-Chairs of the Factory Investigating Commission, over a three-year period, they basically developed the legal framework that would be at the heart of Al Smith’s governorship, and it was the most progressive governorship in the country, which is part of how he became the Democratic nominee in 1928; he tried in 1924, but he actually got the nomination in 1928.
Alan S. Pierce: And he was a first also, he was the first Roman Catholic to have had a ticket.
Dr. Christopher Breiseth: That’s right, which is part of why he lost, vicious anti-Catholicism in the 1920s. Frances Perkins by the way campaigned for him. She even at one rally a tomato came hurling and smashed on her white blouse as she was campaigning for Al Smith in the west. She at that point by the way remembered her grandmother and said if something happens, you just carry on as if nothing has happened. And by the way, I watched that quality in her. Nothing rattled her. She knew how to work through any problem.
And then of course when she became Secretary of Labor, being the only woman on the cabinet, she had to learn how to work with all these high-powered men heading up the major cabinet positions and the new agencies that were formed by the New Deal. And the skills that she developed during the 20s under Smith were really why she could succeed in the role at the national level.
Alan S. Pierce: At this point we are going to take a quick break and when we come back we will continue our conversation about Frances Perkins. We will be right back.
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Alan S. Pierce: Welcome back to Workers Comp Matters, where we are talking about the life and legacy of Frances Perkins.
Tomlin, I would like to bring you back into the conversation. Your grandmother was working and living in New York, it was the middle or well into the Great Depression by the time of 1932, and Franklin Roosevelt taps her to not only be in his administration, but to take on the role of cabinet member and first woman cabinet member. She had some difficult decisions to make about moving from New York, is that correct?
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall: Right, right, yes, she did. Chris Breiseth earlier enumerated the conditions that she kind of put forward before she would accept FDR’s offer to become Secretary of Labor. And it was also hard to her, and I think that that list in a way was kind of a shooting for the moon, if you will.
She didn’t want necessarily to go to Washington at all. She had her life set up in New York City and a fairly reasonable commute to Albany for work, and I think she spent some evenings and nights up in Albany with the Roosevelts actually when he was Governor. And she had her husband, my grandfather, who had what today would be called bipolar disorder, and he was all kind of set up in New York, and my mother, her daughter, was going to school there. So she would have been uprooting a lot of established comfortable routines and somewhat necessary too, because she was the sole breadwinner in the family.
But she decided when — her grandmother had a number of aphorisms that she would share with my grandmother, and one of them was, if a door is open for you, my dear, you must walk through and do your best on the other side. And so she heard that voice I think and figured, all right, if I am going to do this, we are going to do everything that needs to be done, and that’s when she made that list.
And I believe that the story goes that Roosevelt’s response to after she had said pretty much, you don’t want me for your Secretary of Labor if you don’t want to work on these things Franklin, and he said, Frances, I won’t try to stop you. That was his way of giving her affirmation.
And so the rest, they went ahead and did it, and she would have found nannies to take care of my mother and other people who could take care of her husband, and so it all worked out obviously.
Alan S. Pierce: Did they move with her to Washington or did they stay in New York?
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall: No, they stayed in New York most of the time. In fact, my grandfather, she kind of just asked permission, I believe, of Paul Wilson, her husband, and he said, all right, you know, if you think you should, but please come visit me as much as you can. And so they kind of agreed that she would try to make a trip up every weekend, which she did. She really stuck to it and came back every weekend to visit.
Alan S. Pierce: She was born in 1880, which meant she was 53 when she joined the cabinet or thereabouts. I believe she died in the mid-60s, 1965 or so, so she would have been in her mid-80s. Here we are in 2017 and we are talking to two people who knew her.
Tomlin, what do you remember of her as your grandmother, was her role in history and in putting together the New Deal and everything she did before and after, was that how you thought of her, or did she talk about it with you; I know you were a very young boy when she passed?
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall: Yeah, right, I was 11 when she died, and no, she really didn’t talk much about her career at all, but the main things were church, she wanted me to go to church every Sunday that we could. And if I didn’t fidget in the pew too much we might have a milkshake afterwards. But church really was the first thing I think of really for her, because it was — I didn’t realize at the time, but it turns out that it really was a strong motivating factor for her and a guiding set of principles, basically the Commandment, love thy neighbor as thyself and help your fellow man is what she operated on and all that goes with it.
And in recognition of that, in 2009 the Episcopal Church made her what’s called a Holy Woman or Saint, synonymous of Saint, and added her to the Calendar of Lesser Feasts & Fasts in the Episcopal Calendar.
She accomplished so much good for so many in her period of working as Secretary of Labor and of course before that working as Commissioner of Labor; she was I believe New York’s first Commissioner of Labor and also of course the first woman. Under Al Smith she was made a Commissioner of about six other guys. By the time Al Smith ran for President and she was on the Commission, she had become Chair of that Commission, and then FDR inherited her as the Chair. And it was under his administration that it became a Commissioner, not a Commission, not a Labor Commission but a Commissioner, and FDR must have said, well, why don’t you be the Commissioner, Frances?
Everything I have learned about her career has come later in life for me, because somehow you sort of took her for granted. And her daughter, my mother, didn’t like to talk about her much, so I didn’t pick up much there. It wasn’t until later in life, perhaps in 1981, the Labor Building in Washington DC was named the Frances Perkins Labor Building is pretty much the beginning of my sort of dawning of, wow, my grandmother was quite an amazing woman, you know.
Alan S. Pierce: And it’s not difficult to sit here and think of current events and what’s happening politically today, which today being early into Donald Trump’s term as President, and one of the issues that has come up recently has been the veracity of statistics for unemployment. And when the statistics were favorable to President Obama they were fake and when they were favorable at the beginning of this year, of course now they are not fake.
And I think Christopher was just telling me off break that there’s a recent article in one of our major publications references Frances in this regard. Why don’t we close with that story Christopher?
Dr. Christopher Breiseth: Adam Davidson in the current New Yorker has got an article on the issue of the validity of governmental statistics as seen by the Obama administration and as seen by Trump administration and by Donald Trump during the campaign when he questioned their accuracy and validity.
And the story starts with Frances Perkins in 1930 challenging the accuracy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics under Herbert Hoover, which she determined from the New York experience was overly rosy; it was much too encouraging of what was happening. This is now January 1930, the stock market crashed the previous October, and in New York the unemployment was soaring.
So she without asking the Governor, she called the press and said that the President’s statistics were inaccurate, things are much worse, and she had checked with other state statistical bureaus and the unemployment rate was going up all over the country. And she then called Roosevelt, the Governor, and said, I have done something very bad, what mood are you in? And he assured her he was in a good mood and then she told him was she had done. And he said, bully, but acknowledged that had she asked him he probably would have said no.
But the result of it was that Perkins as the Commissioner of Labor in New York and Roosevelt as the Governor became known as the real authorities on unemployment as the Depression deepened, and as the two of them and others in the administration, but particularly the two of them, began extending the progressive policies of Smith to deal with unemployment and to honor the workmen’s compensation laws that were now developed in New York State.
They became the kind of couple that had national stature to deal with the Depression, and she got Roosevelt to convene a meeting of Governors to deal with the unemployment issue, which of course was the central issue as the Depression deepened. And that became part of why he was the odds-on favor to get the Democratic nomination in 1930 and to take on Hoover. So she was an odds-on choice to be Secretary of Labor after that kind of supportive role she played for Governor Roosevelt.
Alan S. Pierce: Well, with that, I think we will conclude our show. I want to say personally that Frances Perkins has always been a hero of mine and it’s a particular delight to learn more, and even more importantly, to actually speak to and get to know two people who knew her in various capacities. I want to thank you both for carrying on her legacy and being a guest on Workers Comp Matters.
So on behalf of Legal Talk Network, this is Alan Pierce, go out and make it a day that
Outro: Thanks for listening to Workers Comp Matters today on the Legal Talk Network, hosted by attorney Alan S. Pierce, where we try to make a difference in workers’ comp legal cases for people injured at work. Be sure to listen to other Workers Comp Matters shows on the Legal Talk Network, your only choice for legal talk.