America’s first step toward creating the Department of Labor as we know it today took place in 1884 with the passage of Bureau of Labor Act. That law created the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to gather data on labor and employment in the country; BLS still exists today inside the umbrella of the Labor Department, but at the time of its formation, it was under the Department of the Interior. BLS evolved into an independent agency but was quickly subsumed by the new Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903.
However, on March 4, 1913–his last day in office–President William Howard Taft signed a bill into law that established the Department of Labor as a new, independent cabinet agency. This was the culmination of nearly 50 years of lobbying for the creation of such an agency by labor organizations and unions to represent their interests at the federal level.
The first Secretary of the Labor Department, William B. Wilson, was a former congressman as well as a founder and former leader of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He took an active role in preventing and mediating labor disputes and, eventually, managed the War Labor Administration when the U.S. entered World War I. Following Wilson’s time at the helm, the department took more of a hands-off approach to labor arbitration and instead focused on other affairs, like immigration and child labor.
One of the most well-known leaders of the Labor Department took office in 1933: Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet secretary in US history. Under Perkins’ leadership, the Labor Department took steps to alleviate suffering during the Great Depression with the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a program that created jobs in the countryside for unemployed young men in cities, as well as through the enactment of the landmark Social Security Act and other initiatives. She voluntarily resigned shortly after FDR’s death in 1945.
In the days since then, the Labor Department has grown into an important agency with powers allowing them to protect workers’ rights, improve working conditions, provide job training and skills programs, and much, much more. In fact, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez once said, “Boiled down to its essence, the Department of Labor is the department of opportunity.”