What Would Frances Perkins Do? 2018

What Would Frances Perkins Do? 2018


Stream video of the event.

April 10, 2018
Harvard Law School


What would Frances Perkins do?  That was the question debated by a distinguished panel of labor and new economy thought leaders in a lively symposium hosted by the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program and the Frances Perkins Center.  The two organizations joined forces to celebrate the April 10th birthday and extraordinary legacy of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in a U.S. cabinet, and the principle architect of New Deal worker protections.

Symposium panelists included:  Maureen Conway, Vice President for Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute, Executive Director of the Economic Opportunities Program, and Founder of the Workforce Strategies Initiative; Erin Johansson, Research Director, Jobs With Justice; Tom Kochan, George M. Bunker Professor of Work and Employment Relations, MIT Sloan School of Management and Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research; Jess Kutch, Co-Director of Coworker.org; and Heidi Shierholz, Senior Economist, Director of Policy and the Perkins Project on Worker Rights at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Sharon Block, Executive Director of the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program framed the discussion, starkly observing that “the basic nature and continuing viability of the American middle class is under extreme stress.”  Intergenerational economic mobility, equality, economic security, work as a path out of poverty, and optimism – all iconic attributes of the middle class – are deeply threatened.  The key driver of these profound failures in our economic and political national life, according to Sharon, is the decline of the American labor movement.  Many factors have contributed to this decline, especially economic and labor market conditions like workplace fissuring, globalization, the gig economy, deindustrialization, barriers to competition (monopsony), automation, and the “significant long-term deficiencies in our basic labor and employment laws.”

Frances Perkins crafted a set of far-reaching and, for the time, truly radical solutions for the profound economic and political failures of the Great Depression.  Federally mandated minimum wages and hours of work, overtime pay, unemployment compensation, health and safety standards, collective bargaining, and retirement security formed the social safety net for 20th century workers.  With Perkins’ bold vision as a guide, panelists offered both near and long-term proposals for adapting New Deal worker protections to the 21st century economy.

Technologically enhanced worker voice and collective action, better job quality, state ballot initiatives, and comprehensive labor law reform were the broad themes of the two-hour symposium. First up, “we need to listen to workers,” said Tom Kochan.  Surveys show that despite the steep decline in union density, workers want a voice in their workplaces.  We need to give them tools for collective action while we plan for comprehensive labor law reform.  One such tool could be an app to track day-to-day workplace conditions that, unlike the Glassdoor website, would go beyond anonymous reviews and provide an interactive vehicle for worker mobilization and collective action.

More than half a million workers are already demonstrating the power of technology to advance worker voice in the modern, decentralized economy, according to Jess Kutch.  Using Coworker.org’s global, peer-based platform, workers create their own campaigns to successfully change specific workplace practices.  “There is enormous potential in pairing data and technology with workers’ knowledge and experience in their own companies and workplaces,” according to Jess.

We also must improve job quality and “surface the true costs of bad jobs to taxpayers and our economy,” said Maureen Conway.  The Aspen Institute’s Good Companies/Good Jobs initiative is making the case for jobs that offer livable wages, opportunities for advancement, and allow companies to “do well by doing good.”  Information and tools now help companies, investors, and lenders design, implement, and track the impact of “good job” strategies.  Some investors and lenders have started to factor “good jobs” into their investment and lending decisions, giving companies additional incentives to prioritize good jobs.

One immediate way to improve job quality, according to Heidi Shierholz, is to ban forced arbitration agreements and class action waivers.  Under these so-called agreements, often buried in new hire paperwork, workers who experience unlawful workplace practices give up their rights to go to court and to join together with similarly impacted workers.  A recent EPI study found that more than 60 million American workers have given up their rights from their first day on the job.  While acknowledging that a permanent ban may require legislative action, Heidi urged a coordinated campaign to raise awareness about this increasingly common employer practice.

Finally, Erin Johansson described a proactive, near-term solution that Jobs With Justice is piloting with its sister organization, Caring Across Generations.  A state ballot initiative, Home Care for All, will ensure that Maine residents can access the care they need, improve care jobs, and support family caregivers.   “Ballot initiatives build community and demonstrate, in real time, the value of collective action,” said Erin.  And, they are precisely the kind of bold, state level experiment in social change long advocated by Frances Perkins.

Over the long-term, panelists agreed that it will take major legislative fixes to adapt New Deal worker protections to the 21st century economy.  Erin called for “harnessing the energy” of recent teachers strikes in West Virginia to build power for significant reform.  Heidi ticked off a list of specific fixes needed to conform worker protections to the new economy, such as, increasing in the minimum wage; eliminating the tipped minimum wage; increasing the overtime salary threshold; enhancing paycheck transparency and reducing worker misclassification; and developing a joint employer standard that reflects the realities of the fissured workplace.

As we consider reforms, we also must “open our labor laws” to new models of worker voice, like worker centers and works councils, said Tom.  New models of worker voice are stronger when powered and driven by data and technology, added Jess.  Maureen emphasized that building a narrative around the true costs to society of bad jobs must be coupled with real data that tracks the success of good job companies.  Only then can we truly address the economic dissatisfaction and disruption too many Americans are experiencing.

Frances Perkins Center board member Kirstin Downey offered final thoughts.  Downey, the author of the definitive biography on Frances Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal, recalled that what Perkins proposed to FDR before accepting the job of Labor Secretary was nothing short of a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society.  As we experience another perilous time in our nation’s political and economic history — when the very fabric of the New Deal’s social contract with America’s working families is being shredded — we must channel Perkins’ vision and her fortitude.  So, what would Frances Perkins do?  I think she would remind us that “there is always a large horizon … there is much to be done …  it is up to [each of us] to contribute in some small part to a program of human betterment for all time.”  Let’s get started.


Greetings from the Frances Perkins Center. Thank you to Sharon Block and her staff for hosting this program. Recognize FPC staff Michael Chaney, Chris Cash, Bridget Alexander.

Astounding amount of wisdom in this room. Not just on the panel. I want to make sure to recognize several people….. Downey, Wysanski, Beaudry, Rotundo, Beck (FPC board members) Mossaides and Mount Holyoke alumnae.

In this time of great anxiety and even despair, we’re reminded that what Frances Perkins and the New Dealers faced was far more grim. With massive unemployment, a national economy that seemed to have ground to a halt, migrants fleeing the dust bowl and bread lines in major cities.

Undaunted, Perkins convened the Committee on Economic Security (with FDR’s support) to shape the Social Security act– creating what has been termed “the most important anti-poverty program in US history. A committee with 100 members!

The panel biographies are highlighted in your programs, but there are many among us who bring wisdom and perseverance to the overall purpose of the Frances Perkins Center — which is to keep alive Perkins’ legacy and to make sure that our government puts its people first and helps all of them to have, in her words, “the best possible life.”

Our discussions today will be grounded in the worker protections Perkins proposed to FDR in her meeting with him.  Her list of policy prescriptions she wanted to tackle she were to join his administration as Secretary of Labor — she called them “practical possibilities” — became the basis of what we know as the the New Deal’s domestic social policy.

On her list — and accomplished through legislation starting in 1933 were laws like the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Her list included:

  • a federal relief system via states
  • large-scale public works
  • unemployment insurance
  • old age insurance
  • minimum wage & maximum hours
  • abolition of child labor
  • a federal employment service

All of these were accomplished during the FDR administration.

This morning you will hear about a number of measures that could be advanced to adapt these policies through the concerted efforts of people in this room.

I’d like to add one suggestion to the list, and that is to ask that you join our effort to establish a place where Frances Perkins’ hopeful legacy may take root and grow — at her beloved Brick House — the Perkins family homestead in Newcastle, Maine that we seek to buy and make a lively living memorial to her perseverence and effectiveness.  We think it’s high time that we recognize this amazing self-made woman who tackled the most pressing of problems with intelligence and courage.  Her legacy extends far beyond her role as the first female cabinet secretary.

As a private nonprofit educational organization, we share her story to inspire current and future leaders continue her work, reminding them that this middle-class child, born in Boston, educated in the public schools of Worcester, MA and at Mount Holyoke college and Columbia University — but grounded in her deep Maine roots where she spent summers throughout her life and which she considered her one true home.

Please ask me more about the Center and how you can help!



The Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and the Frances Perkins Center are pleased to co-host a symposium commemorating the birthday and legacy of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and principal architect of the New Deal’s groundbreaking worker protections.

A distinguished panel of labor experts and new economy thought leaders will discuss how the global economy, technology, and the fissured workplace are eroding the legal regime Frances Perkins designed for 20th century workplaces: minimum wages and overtime pay, the 40-hour work week, unemployment insurance, safety standards, and retirement security. And, in the bold and action-oriented tradition of Frances Perkins, panelists will explore innovative solutions to the immediate challenges facing 21st century workers.


  • Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School
  • Maureen Conway, Vice President for Policy Programs and Executive Director of the Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute
  • Sarita Gupta, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice, Co-Director, Caring Across Generations
  • Tom Kochan, George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management and Co-Director, MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research
  • Jess Kutch, Co-Founder and Co-Director, coworker.org; Keith Mestrich, President and CEO, Amalgamated Bank
  • Palak Shah, Social Innovations Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance; Heidi Shierholz, Senior Economist and Director of Policy, Economic Policy Institute
  • Moderator: Allison Beck, Board Member, Frances Perkins Center, former Director, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service


Tuesday, April 10, 2018
10:00 AM to 12:00 PM EDT


Harvard Law School
1585 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138

Tickets are free, but space is very limited.