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This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1911

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On May 3, 1911, Wisconsin created the first workers compensation program, followed almost immediately by Washington and most of the Northwestern states. This was the beginning of a system, albeit quite limited even now, to compensate workers properly when they are injured or killed on the job.

The 19th century was terribly dangerous for workers. The 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Company codified the doctrine of risk for workers on the job, saying that employers had no responsibility for workplace injuries or death because workers agreed to take on the risk when they took the job. This decision comes out of the growth of northern free labor ideology, which essentially held that each individual had the right and responsibility to control one’s own labor and contract it out if they wished. But after the Civil War, with the rapid growth of industrialization, the reality of the American workplace meant gruesome injuries and horrible deaths spun out of control in steel mills, on railroads, in meatpacking plants, in coal mines, and really everywhere through the workforce.

As a scholar of logging, let’s look at how a couple of loggers died. On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from the saw he worked when he fell into it, killing him. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” Perhaps Koski’s engagement in his own work did not allow him to hear the fallers. Or perhaps he had a poor knowledge of the English language and could not understand the shout. He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him almost beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Anderson & Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson died the following day, leaving behind a wife and child.

Shingleweaver in timber mill with his remaining fingers, circa 1910s

Workers began fighting back though through the courts. Although most courts stood by Farwell, after 1900, judge and juries began loosening the restrictions and granting payouts to workers. Again, let’s look at logging in the Pacific Northwest. Timber executives breathed a sigh of relief in 1901 when a Lewis County, Washington judge dismissed a case filed by a mill sawyer who sued for $6000 over the loss of three fingers. The company denied responsibility because the sawyer assumed the risk when he took the job. But in 1904, a Washington court granted a worker who lost both legs in a mill accident $50,000, leading George Cornwall, the publisher of the timber magazine The Timberman, to complain about personal injury laws “causing a flood of litigation of a very questionable character.” Moreover, beginning with the 1898 case Holden v. Hardy, when the Supreme Court upheld a Utah court decision which upheld a law limiting smelter workers hours due to the toxic nature of fumes, courts began slowly, though inconsistently, moving toward a doctrine of state regulation of workplace health and safety.

Washington first introduced a bill for workers compensation in 1909; Cornwall announced his support to protect the industry from the growing number of lawsuits filed by “ambulance chaser lawyers.” Ralph Clement Bryant, professor of forestry at Yale University, summed up the industry’s desire for a new system, noting that lawsuits “usually proved expensive to all concerned, often resulting….in granting heavy damages to those who were not entitled to them.”

Thus, soon after Wisconsin passed its law, the Pacific Northwest states followed, with Washington leading the way and seven additional states by the end of 1911. Angry employers who resented any responsibility for workplace conditions immediately sued in Wisconsin, but the state Supreme Court upheld the law in November 1911. Oregon paid out its first death claim in July 1914, after Julian Mason died while working for the Nibley-Mimnaugh Lumber Company of Wallowa, Oregon. His widow received $30 a month until remarriage, when she would receive a $300 lump sum. The final state to pass a workers’ comp law? Mississippi (big surprise!) in 1948. Until 1917, these laws were participatory for employers, but after the Supreme Court ruled the laws constitutional in that year, states changed the laws to make workers compensation required for most workers.

Interestingly, much of organized labor was quite suspicious of workers’ compensation laws because the AFL and other relatively conservative elements in the labor movement thought social welfare programs would undermine the independence of the American worker to control his (and they meant his) own labor. This despite the obvious changes in the American economy that made American workers almost helpless in the face of modern corporate capitalism. They didn’t like that employees could no longer sue corporations for damages. Labor leaders were also not convinced that employers would take advantage of lower premium rates by making workplaces safer. But Samuel Gompers convinced the AFL to reverse its opposition to these laws in 1909.

What the workers compensation laws did ultimately was to limit liability for employers. Washington’s workers compensation law only provided minimal compensation, leading to questioning the humane side of the law. One worker missed twenty-four days after an injury. He lost $108 in wages and his medical expenses came to $19.50. His state compensation amounted to $27.65. Another missed fifty-five days. He lost $192.50 in wages and had medical expenses of $55.50. He received $63.45 from the state. Although better than no compensation, workers arguably had a better chance for a fair financial settlement through the courts than the state systems.

The American workers compensation system has never properly compensated people suffering from workplace injuries or the families of those killed on the job. Yet at least it is a sign that the government felt some responsibility for the care of injured workers.

Note as well that this is also a taste of my theoretically forthcoming book (someday!) on timber unions and the environment, as most of this post is drawn directly out of that project.

This is the 58th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

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