Big Boss, Little Boss
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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:
- “Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective” by Daniel E. Bender and Richard A. Greenwald
- “The Triangle Fire, Protocols Of Peace: And Industrial Democracy In Progressive” also by Richard A. Greenwald
- The Triangle Fire archive, from Cornell University’s Kheel Center
- “Enforcing Fair Labor Standards in the Modern American Sweatshop: Rediscovering the Statutory Definition of Employment” (PDF) by Bruce Goldstein, Marc Linder and Lawrence E Norton II
- “To Suffer or Permit to Work: Did Congress and State Legislatures Say What They Meant and Mean What They Said?” by James Reif
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This season of “The Uncertain Hour” tells the unheard stories of real people affected by this thing we once knew as “employment.”
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