Historical Markers
Frances Perkins Historical Marker
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Frances Perkins

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Southwest corner, 9th and Amity, Homestead

Dedication Date:
April 10, 2003

Behind the Marker

Pennsylvania Employment Commission, and Dr. A.M. Northrup, secretary of Labor and Industry for the State of Pennsylvania.  Philadelphia, February 17, 1933.
New York's Industrial Labor Commissioner Frances Perkins during a visit to Philadelphia,...
The dustup looked to be a major embarrassment to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. In the old days, when local authorities routinely ran labor sympathizers out of town, or worse, it could have provoked a violent confrontation. At the very least, her visit to Homestead provided a tense moment for Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor. When the town authorities refused to let her talk with a group of steelworkers, her quick thinking saved the day. Her actions, in no uncertain terms, let everyone there know where the federal government stood.

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins shakes hands with Carnegie Steel Workers during the National Recovery Act drive under FDR's administration. 1933
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins shakes hands with Carnegie Steel Workers...
On July 28, 1933, Frances Perkins visited Homestead to assess working conditions there and to build support in the community for the New Deal reforms. The recently passed National Industrial Recovery Act provided for a set of industrial "codes" designed to tackle the economic shambles that still gripped many industries nearly four years after the 1929 Wall Street crash. Industry groups were to set minimum floors on prices, production, and wages to prop up the depressed economy.

For labor, there was also the famous section "7(a)" that guaranteed workers "the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing" and protected them from pressure "to join any company union or to refrain from joining . . . a labor organization of his own choosing." FDR asked Perkins to represent the steel workers in the negotiations.

The chairman of the mighty U.S. Steel Corporation had formally invited Perkins to Homestead, so the town could not very well refuse her. But John Cavanaugh, the town burgess, ran a tight ship. For more than a decade, he had allowed no labor meetings and intimidated any and all union supporters.

In harassing labor activists Homestead was far from unusual, as shown in the marker NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin case. Cavanaugh allowed Perkins meeting space at a town building on Ninth Avenue. After winding up the meeting, she noticed a crowd of several hundred persons who had been pushed out of the building and onto the street. Asked if she might meet also with them, Cavanaugh replied, "No, no, you've had enough. These men are no good. They're undesirable reds. I know them well. They just want to make trouble."

When Perkins began a short speech on the steps outside, Cavanaugh cut her off with the warning that there was a rule against making a speech there. When she offered to move to a nearby public park, Cavanaugh replied that a local ordinance prohibited public meetings in the park.

Finally, Perkins spotted the nearby Post Office. Federal property was one space in the town over which Burgess Cavanaugh had no authority. There she conducted a friendly and constructive meeting with the excluded workers. (In 2003 Homestead designated the intersection at Ninth and Amity as "Free Speech Corner" in honor of markerMother Jones and Frances Perkins' historic activities there.)

Overhead view of the Homestead Steel Works.
Aerial view of the Homestead mills and Carrie Furnace, Homestead, PA, 1950.
On August 15, after the steel code was drafted, Perkins saw firsthand how the leaders of Pennsylvania steel industry dealt with their workers' elected representatives. The occasion was a meeting, held in her office, to affirm that workers' representatives, employers, and the government all agreed to the code and would abide by its provisions. Six important steel executives, including Bethlehem Steel'smarker Eugene Grace and Republic Steel's Tom Girdler, were already in there before William Green, the government's top labor advisor and head of the marker American Federation of Labor, walked into the room.

Just as Perkins called the meeting to order, the steel men recognized Green. A moment later, they stood up together and left the room. Perkins and her staffers were astonished. Outside they begged the steel men to return - but to no avail. As Bethlehem's Grace explained: "If we sit down with Mr. Green, and if we sign a code that he signs, it will be assumed that we are dealing with organized labor. As you know, we have an almost sacred policy that we will never recognize organized labor."

A few days later, after some arm-twisting by FDR, the steel men signed the steel code, including the labor-friendly section 7(a). The new steel code, which took effect on August 29, set up a basic eight-hour day and forty-hour week, made permanent a recent 15 percent pay hike, and paved the way for the organization of the markerSteel Workers Organizing Committee. The code of 1933 was not perfect, but as Perkins noted, "at least it opened the door to a continuing improvement in the lives, the work, and the wages of the people who work in steel."
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