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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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  • 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.”

    We’re coming up on the 110th anniversary of the conservative anti-trial-lawyer argument? Cool.

  • Mean Mister Mustard

    The 19th century was terribly dangerous for workers.

    The 21st century isn’t much safer.

    Pritzker’s nomination doesn’t make it any safer.

    • rea

      Pritzker’s nomination doesn’t make it any safer.

      Dept. of Commerce doesn’t deal with workplace safety issues–that would be Dept. of Labor.

    • Bruce Vail

      Indeed, 21st Century will likely be the worst yet.

      Latest news reports have the death toll at the garment factory in Bangladesh at more than 500. Reports are starting to characterize it as the worst garment industry accident in history.

  • The company denied responsibility because the sawyer assumed the risk when he took the job.

    Yep. Not just a bad arguement, a bad, old and discredited argument.

    Looking forward to the book.

    • Barry

      “Yep. Not just a bad arguement, a bad, old and discredited argument.”

      Still being used(*coughYglesia*).

      • Yup. That’s one of the people who enjoys screwing the assumed risk pullet.

        I wouldn’t bet a nickle on the fact he is unaware of this ruling.

      • UserGoogol

        Matt didn’t make that argument you fucking assholes. He said that Bangladesh had the right to collectively determine their preferred amount of workplace risk differently from the United States if they are so inclined.

  • rea

    Worker’s compensation is a no-fault system, which is why it pays less than a tort recovery would. Even without the old pernicious “assumption of risk” doctrine, there are definitely a lot of cases in which an argument could be made that the accident was caused in whole or in part by the injured worker’s own negligence. All no-fault sysstem’s represent this kind of trade-off of certinaly of recovery foramount of recovery.

  • Chris

    Workers’ Compensation laws are, generally, a mixed bag. However, when compared to states where comp. is optional or non-existent in industries (Texas, for example) Workers’ Compensation is a better deal for workers. Prof. Loomis did not include any Northeastern states in the discussion above, probably because he was concentrating on Northwestern industries. Governor Woodrow Wilson signed New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation law a month before Wisconsin’s law was passed. NJ’s law did not take effect until after Wisconsin because at the time, NJ had a mandatory three month waiting time for an effective date for all laws.

  • DrDick

    A nice rebuttal to the idiot libertarians and their insane arguments regarding the benevolence of capital.

  • Bruce Vail

    That workers comp schemes are generally designed as a benefit to employers, not the workers, is well illustrated by the federal Jones Act.

    Among other things, the Jones Act gives sailors the right to sue their employer directly for workplace injuries. The courts are full of cases arguing that one injury or another is under jurisdiction of workers comp law, rather than the Jones Act. The employer always argues for workers comp (because it is less costly to them) and the worker always argues for Jones Act (because the potential payout is much higher).

    I was astonished to see a number of years ago that in the offshore oil patch town of Houma, La., that lawyers who are Jones Act specialists advertise with placards pasted to the inside of telephone booths and on the sides of public buses.

    • That’s interesting. I’ll have to look into the Jones Act.

      • Bruce Vail

        Note that sailors get this special consideration because the Jones Act (1917) predates all state workers comp programs, thus federal law had established this right beforehand.

        Through numerous court cases, the Jones Act compensation provision has been refined to cover some longshoremen, marine construction workers, and oil rig roustabouts.

    • rea

      The thing about the Jones Act, as opposed to worker’s compensation, is that a showing of neglegence (or lack of seaworthiness of the vessel involved) is required for recovery. So, if you are an injured worker, whether or not you want worker’s comp to cover your accident as opposed to the Jones Act depends on the facts of your case. The issue is whether you are better off in a fault-based system that allows for possible bigger recoveries, or in a no-fault system.

      The courts are full of cases arguing that one injury or another is under jurisdiction of workers comp law, rather than the Jones Act. The employer always argues for workers comp (because it is less costly to them) and the worker always argues for Jones Act (because the potential payout is much higher).

      There is a selection problem here. If you are an injured employee, you get to chose your forum. If you decide that worker’s comp is more advantageous to you than a Jones Act action, you don’t sue in court–you make a claim with the comp bureau. Therefore, you don’t ordinarily see cases in court (at least at the trial level) where the injured employee wants comp, and the employer wants the Jones Act–those cases are in another forum.

      • Bruce Vail

        Plaintiffs lawyers have a field day with “seaworthiness” standard.

        I was made aware of a case some years ago where a sailor was murdered by the deranged ships’ cook. The lawyer for the victims family argued that the vessel was unseaworthy because any ship with a deranged murderous cook was obviously unsafe, or unseaworthy. I wish I had the details of the final disposition of that case….

  • UberMitch

    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.”

    I’m amazed that the “ambulance chaser” epithet is over one hundred years old.

  • Glenn

    Given how often Erik cites Farwell, I think it’s worth pointing out for those who have never read it that nothing in that decision suggested that the legislature was not free to institute safety standards or to alter liability rules. It was a common-law decision that said that one employee could not sue the employer for injuries due to a fellow employee’s negligence (though the employer could still be sued for its own negligence). I do agree that the court’s assumptions about the Almighty Freedom of Contract are pretty specious and indicative of the then-pervasive attitude that did lead to a lot of worker misery. But the decision itself was not quite as broad as one might think from reading this post.

  • Workers had a choice back then:

    Dangerous, soul-crushing, low-wage job A
    or
    Dangerous, soul-crushing, low-wage job B
    or
    Dangerous, soul-crushing, low-wage job C

    Because freedom!

    • DrDick

      And that is the same choice Republicans and libertarians, along with the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC, want to offer them now.

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  • Anonymous

    The very first line of “This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1911” says, “On May 3, 1911, Wisconsin created the first workers compensation program, followed almost immediately by Washington and most of the Northwestern states.”

    How could Washington have followed Wisconsin when Washington passed its law on March 14, 1911?

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