Labor Department Celebrates Centennial

WASHINGTON—Buried in all the Washington flak over sequestration and budget cuts, the Labor Department celebrated its centennial on March 4.

The event was marked with films, interactive videos, a website history of DOL and congratulations from President Barack Obama – who has yet to nominate a permanent replacement for Secretary Hilda Solis. She retired in January.

And even DOL noted the budget uncertainty it faces.

“I’m a history geek.  So a day like today, the centennial…is a big deal for me,” the department’s public affairs chief, Carl Fillichio, a former Laborers spokesman, wrote on the agency’s centennial website.  “But unfortunately, we mark this special day as the nation faces automatic spending cuts known as ‘sequestration.’  So it should come as no surprise that there isn’t much of a mood to celebrate.

“But in a way, it’s also fitting.  Establishment of the Labor Department came about only after decades of struggle and debate, so hardship and resilience are woven into our DNA.  As a matter of fact, President William Howard Taft reluctantly signed the act that established the Labor Department just moments before he left office.”  Before that statute, the departments of Commerce and Labor had been combined.

The department’s website touts its achievements over the years, including pushing for legislation to help workers, starting with the Fair Labor Standards Act.  It also restates the agency’s commitment to enforcing labor standards and breaking both racial and sexual job discrimination barriers.

And it notes DOL was the first cabinet department with a woman at its head – Frances Perkins, under FDR, in 1933 – and the second with an African-American in its #2 job, J. Ernest Wilkins, in 1954 during the Eisenhower administration.  Ike’s first Labor Secretary, union plumber Martin Durkin, had resigned on principle months before, when Ike undercut Durkin’s campaign against anti-Communist loyalty oaths.

DOL, in 1922, also established the only agency devoted to working women, the Women’s Bureau.  And seven Labor Secretaries have been female, more than in any other Cabinet agency.

A Labor Department history, posted on the website, makes it clear that DOL alternates between periods of activism, almost all under Democratic administrations, and retrenchment under the GOP.

The outstanding example of that was Perkins, who personally witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City.  She became a labor rights activist as a result and a prime advocate for the New Deal legislation that her department helped draft and FDR pushed through.

The website notes one exception to the GOP inactivity rule: Over strenuous business opposition.  President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created OSHA, in 1970. The late and longtime union safety and health activist Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers – now part of the Steelworkers – largely wrote that law and organized labor pushed it through Congress.

As part of the centennial celebration, DOL is inducting Mazzocchi into its Labor Hall of Honor, its renamed Hall of Fame, this year.  Joining him are civil rights crusader Addie Wyatt, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and the late Mark Ayers, who died last year while president of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department.

-PAI