From the Legislature: Thank you, Frances Perkins

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From the Legislature
Thank you, Frances Perkins
By Senator Chris Johnson
Frances Perkins has been on my
mind lately. A number of things
have reminded me of the positive
impact her life’s work has had on
our lives; a recent article in the
paper marking the 79th anniversary
of the beginning of Social Security;
an event at the Frances Perkins
Center in Damariscotta honoring
people whose work reflects her
ideals and leadership; and a recent
evening discussion of the work still
to be done to help us thrive in place
as we grow older. Then there is the
upcoming Labor Day Holiday. All
these made me think it was time
to write about Frances Perkins and
her contributions to our lives.
Frances Perkins was a truly
amazing woman with strong Maine
roots, including a family homestead
right here by the Damariscotta
River in Newcastle where her
grandmother lived. Frances spent
her summers with her grandmother,
and was buried just down the road.
Born in 1880, she was serving as
head of the New York Consumers
League when she witnessed the
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in
1911. This was an industrial fire in
New York City where 146 garment
workers died, largely because the
exit doors were locked or blocked to
keep workers on the job. This was a
life-changing event for Ms. Perkins,
who dedicated the rest of her life
to improving the lot of American
workers.
She became a skilled advocate
for workers’ rights, and was
appointed New York State’s first
Commissioner for Labor in 1929,
and then Federal Secretary of
Labor in 1933, the first ever female
member of a Presidential cabinet.
In this position she was a driving
force behind such landmark pieces
of legislation as the Social Security
Act, and the Fair Labor Standards
Act. She stayed on as Secretary of
Labor until 1945, the only member
of FDR’s Cabinet to serve his entire
term (and beyond).
Her legacy is still relevant today.
Social Security is the single greatest
protection older Americans have
from poverty. A recent study showed
that 15 percent of Americans over 65
live below the poverty level. While
that means there is still work to do,
that poverty level would be over 50
percent without their earned benefit
of Social Security.
The Fair Labor Standards Act,
implemented after the Great
Depression, provides for a federal
minimum wage, a 40 hour week
and paid overtime; all still critical
today. Now workers’ rights are
under attack by organizations
such as the American Legislative
Exchange Council. Analysis from
the University of Wisconsin shows
that states whose policies are
ranked well by ALEC have slower
rates of economic growth than those
with poor ALEC rankings.
You or a neighbor may be one of
the 135,000 Maine people working
at a minimum wage which has not
increased in five years, while the
cost of living has gone up 9 percent
and gas, eggs, and beef prices
increased over 30 percent. Efforts
in the Maine Legislature and
Congress to increase the minimum
wage recently have met with fierce
opposition.
If Frances Perkins weighed in
on the debate, I’m sure she would
point out that failing to raise the
minimum wage actually reduces
workers’ buying power.
Frances Perkins fought for
establishing a minimum wage
because she believed the economy
would be stronger if workers could
afford to buy more of the things they
made. Today this belief is supported
by data from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, showing that the states
that increased therr minimum wage
in January had stronger patterns of
job growth in the first six months
of 2014.
As we celebrate Labor Day
this year, amidst the cookouts,
weekend outings with family, and
the other end of summer activities,
I encourage you to take a minute
to think of the person who helped
bring you weekends — Frances
Perkins, who worked so tirelessly
for so long to protect and improve
the lives of American workers.
(Senator Christopher Johnson,
D-Somerville, represents Senate
District 20, which includes all
Lincoln County towns except
Dresden, along with Windsor in
Kennebec County, and Washington
and Friendship in Knox County. )