Battery manufacturer Frederick C. Perkins
He just ran a small, struggling battery manufacturing plant that he had started from scratch ten years before. Why then was Fred Perkins of West York in the national spotlight, the subject of lengthy sympathetic articles in magazines and newspapers, such as Time and the Philadelphia Inquirer? Why were leading attorneys, allegedly including Clarence Darrow, interested in representing him?
Perkins attracted national attention, even being featured in the one of the first March of Time episodes because he stood up to the national government. (The March of Time was the forerunner of documentary films.) Click here for a 1935 Time magazine article describing the Perkins segment. Click here for some actual video clips of Perkins from the March of Time.
Perkins West York factory.
The Perkins case was narrowly beaten to the Supreme Court as a test to the constitutionality of the U. S. president being able to dictate hours, wages, unionization and working conditions to factory owners. Still, Fred Perkins has gone down in history as an example of what can be accomplished by an individual standing up for their principles.
See below for my recent York Sunday News column telling the Perkins story.
York Manufacturer Stands up for the “Little Man”
York battery manufacturer Fred Perkins was in the national spotlight in 1934. It looked like his case was going to be the one to test the constitutionality of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which set up the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The act’s aim was stabilization of prices and production through government regulation of wages and working conditions, thereby helping the country recover from the Great Depression.
Perkins didn’t set out to fight the Roosevelt administration. He just knew that he couldn’t keep his small battery manufacturing business going if he had to pay the 40 cents an hour mandated under the NIRA’s Electric Storage and Wet Primary Battery Code. His workers earned an average of 20 cents an hour, which Perkins upped to 25 cents, but that was as far as he could go.
Fearing a complaint, he conferred with members of the local NRA compliance board, who thought he could get a small business exemption. They even told him that he should be taking $3,000 a year himself, as a very conservative salary, which he hadn’t done. Even with only taking as little as necessary to sustain his family of four, Perkins profit in 1933 had only been $2,531. The Philadelphia office agreed with the York men and told him how to apply to Washington for the exemption.
When considering the legislation, Congress seemed to feel 25 employees and under constituted a small business; Perkins had about 10 year-round, with a peak of 20 in the winter. His request, however, was turned down as unfair to competitors. Without naming names, the national secretary of the wet battery code authority told Perkins one complainant was one of the largest battery manufacturers in the country, and that no small competitors had complained.
A bench warrant charging Perkins with violating the NRA code was issued June 27, 1934. Since he couldn’t raise the $5,000 pre-trial bail, his good friend, U.S. Commissioner Horace G. Ports, had no alternative but to send him to jail. For over two weeks, Perkins dictated letters and gave instructions to his son and his secretary from his prison cell. Near the end of Perkins’ 18th day in jail, on a Saturday evening, local businessman Mahlon Haines showed up with a deed for property to secure bail for Perkins. The two men hadn’t known each other beforehand. Haines had been following Perkins’ story and thought the bail was excessive. His only regret was waiting so long.
Perkins was to go to trial before the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in October. The government held it up until December, perhaps to wait until after elections.
National attention was drawn to the case, even before it started. Perkins had a local attorney, George Love, but well-known attorneys were also interested, advising on a volunteer basis or possibly being funded by unknown sources.
The trial opened in Harrisburg on December 4, with the government concentrating on proving that Perkins had bought materials and sold batteries in other states. A manufacturer’s participation in interstate commerce meant that he was obligated to abide by the NRA code for that industry.
After several days of testimony by freight companies and customers from other states, Perkins was found guilty on December 8 of 10 counts of violating the National Recovery Act. His lead attorney, Harold Beitler of Philadelphia, a former president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, had offered neither an opening statement nor presented any witnesses in his defense. It seemed pretty clear that this trial was lost so that an appeal could be filed in a higher court, where the concentration could be on the constitutionality of the government’s fixing of minimum wages.
The codes themselves had been written by manufacturers in that particular business. One thing that Beitler had objected to during the trial was the long statement by Edward Martin, chairman of code authority for the wet battery industry, that the NRA was doing a good job safeguarding small manufacturers with the battery code. In turn, government counsel Turin objected to questioning “concerning the operations of Emark battery division of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. of which Dr. Martin is vice president and general manager.”
Perkins was accessed a fine of $1,500. It was figured that it could have been over a million and a half if the possible $500 per day per count was applied, but speculation was that the judge also saw this as a test case.
After sentencing, Beitler immediately filed notice of an appeal to the U. S. Circuit of Appeals on Perkins’ behalf. Bail was set at $2,000, which was posted the next day through Owen and Brother, a York real estate and insurance firm.
Perkins appeal was set to be heard by the higher court in early June 1935. Before that could happen the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the government on a similar case on May 27, 1935–Schecter Poultry Corp. v. United States., striking down NIRA codes as unconstitutional.
Upon appeal of Perkins that the NIRA was determined by Supreme Court to be unconstitutional in case of Schecter v. U.S., Judge Buffington officially reversed the previous judgment of the U.S. District Court against Perkins on June 6, 1935.
Perkins went back to making batteries. The product on which he had built his business, batteries as a power source of farms, faded into obsolescence with the rural electrification of America. The company, however, continued to prosper for many years by specializing in making batteries for industrial trucks (forklifts), a product the foresightful Perkins had already started producing in 1933.