Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare

FOR APT/PBS | In Production

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We are currently in the support and production stage for a new APT/PBS film on the life and legacy of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, entitled Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare.


Rationale and Relevancy

Frances Perkins began her political life before she had the legal right to vote, and with the support of Franklin Roosevelt, she became the first woman cabinet member in a male-dominated world of labor. But she went far beyond labor to become a major inspiration and driving force behind the creation of Social Security and the programs of the New Deal. Perkins helped to transform the role of government and changed the basic social contract with its citizens – a contract which many contemporary Americans do not understand or appreciate. It is the number one goal of this project to increase that understanding and awareness.

This story is as important today as it was a century ago, because without the context of Frances Perkins and the times in which she lived, the current debate over the entire range of current labor and social welfare issues becomes diminished. And by ignoring this history, we run the risk of returning to a darker time. It is important to never forget the origins of the American Social Safety Net and the woman who was responsible for it.

At this stage of production, we have completed ten interviews with those who knew her, or knew about her, including Leader Nancy Pelosi, Journalist David Brooks, Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC and Senator George Mitchell of Maine.

We are currently in an on-going fundraising campaign to complete this film and contributions of any size are accepted and appreciated. We plan to use newly secured funds to finish editing and broadcast, and conduct several more interviews including activist, Gloria Steinem.

Interested in helping us complete this film? Click here.

The Story

frances-perkins-photo-2Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare is the story of the first woman cabinet member and the force behind the American Social Safety Net. The fundamental rights, which she championed, are now woven in to the fabric of every American life, yet when a sign at a recent campaign rally read “Keep government out of my Medicare” it is clear that many Americans do not understand the origins of these rights or their justification. There is no better way to explore their meaning and rationale than by examining the life of a woman who made them possible. Combining her own voice (from archival tapes) with those of biographers and those who knew her personally, the intent of this one hour film is to provide historical context for the debate over the myriad of labor and social welfare issues that are pervasive in our contemporary conversation.

In June of 2012 Chief Justice John Roberts declared that the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, is constitutional, because at its core it is a “tax”. What most Americans didn’t know was that his opinion was based on principles found to be constitutional 75 years earlier in the Social Security act of 1935. What they also didn’t know was that the inspiration for those principles came from a woman, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.

In October 2009 the unemployment rate rose to 10% with over 3000 mass layoffs and nearly 12 million Americans out of work. In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression millions of people were protected from hunger and homelessness through unemployment compensation — an idea also furthered by Perkins. Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the very standard by which unemployment is determined became more viable and valuable through the work of Frances Perkins

Today there is constant debate over the rise of the federal minimum wage. In 1938 the idea was considered radical and anti-business, yet Frances Perkins was able to overcame bitter opposition and lead the fight to include it in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 – an act that also established a maximum 40-hour workweek.

Fire codes in the workplace that save thousands of lives every year rose from the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. In 1913, Frances Perkins, supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, became a founding member of the New York Factory Investigating Committee, creating 30 laws that set workplace fire standards that are now recognized worldwide.

When she saw ten-year-old girls working in sweatshops and boys working in the mines, Frances Perkins worked tirelessly to create laws making child labor illegal. And when she saw a worker lose a hand in an industrial accident without being compensated, she fought to create a safer workplace and the enactment of Federal Workman’s Compensation legislation.

Now Social Security and its descendant Medicare, are providing an aging population with a sense of dignity and security that extends far beyond their working years — a protection that would not be the law of the land without the will and persistence of Frances Perkins.

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