Big Boss, Little Boss
Mar 10, 2021
Season 5 | Episode 6

Big Boss, Little Boss

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After Jimmy Nicks’ job was subcontracted, he took both companies to court — the subcontractor he worked for, the “little boss,” and its client, the “big boss,” Koch Foods.

This week, a history lesson. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a deadly factory fire that happened more than a century ago galvanized a young social worker named Frances Perkins.

Perkins, who would go on to become the U.S. secretary of labor and the first woman appointed to a cabinet post, helped to craft the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). That’s the law that established the federal minimum wage. It also created overtime laws, prohibited child labor and contained that sweeping definition of employment we’ve been talking about a lot this season: “to suffer or permit to work.” 

Note: This is the second in a two-part series. Listen to part one here.

But this episode is also about former chicken catcher Jimmy Nicks, and the legal case he ultimately brought against poultry producer Koch Foods after the company contracted a third party to handle the work Jimmy was doing — converting him from Koch’s employee to Koch’s nonemployee, virtually overnight

It’s all part of Perkins’ legacy. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she observed how the labor subcontractors that many factories used back then, known as the “sweating system,” often led to poor working conditions, including low wages, long hours and child labor. So she helped craft the Fair Labor Standards Act to, in theory, hold the subcontractors — and the companies that hired them — accountable for those bad conditions. A century later, Jimmy’s case against Koch Foods would hinge on that very law, and his case isn’t the only one. 

Join us for the second part of Jimmy’s story and a trip back in time to the legal origins of his case. We’ll learn more about modern-day sweatshops, and the connections between what some have called “the big boss” and “the little boss,” as we explore this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what this new kind of workforce means for the American dream. 

For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week’s phrase is “sweating system.”

Here’s some additional reading and material we used in our research:

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The team

Krissy Clark Host and Senior Correspondent
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Tony Wagner Digital Producer
Catherine Winter Senior Editor
Chris Julin Producer
Sitara Nieves Executive Director, On Demand
Erica Phillips Writer/Producer
Marque Greene Intern