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This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1920

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One of the thousands who donate their fingers to the Lumber
Trust. The Trust compensated all with poverty and
some with bullets on November 5, 1916.

On June 2, 1920, the Smith-Fess Act, better known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, passed Congress. This law provided federal assistance for disabled workers for the first time in American history. It is also a useful moment to discuss the plight of the thousands of workers disabled on the job in the first century of industrial America.

Before 1920, workers hurt on the job were basically out of luck. With courts from the first days of industrialization ruling that injured workers were on their own because they took on the risk of dangerous work when they agreed by their own free will to labor at a risky trade, injured workers had it very hard. We tend to focus on the mass deaths of the industrial workplace–the young women jumping to their deaths at Triangle, the hundreds of miners dying in accidents in both coal and hard rock mining, etc–but there were lots of survivors of many tragedies. Moreover, many workplaces were not structured in a way where 100 workers would die in a moment. But they were structured as incredibly dangerous workplaces where hundreds of workers might be seriously injured or killed in a single year. That was especially true in the steel mills, where poor protections from accidents in a brutal working environment that included two twenty-four shifts a month led to true horrors. Some workers might die from the scalding they received, but others might only suffer horribly. Some might die when a shoddy piece of scaffolding fell on their head, but others might lose a leg if it fell in a slightly different place.

It was much the same in the timber industry. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Many workers chose self-medication. Joseph Gillis of Seattle lost a leg while working at the McDougal and Jackson logging camp near Buckley, Washington. He sued for $10,000 but overdosed on the laudanum he used for pain the day before he lost his suit.

When this happened, workers might receive a small severance from the company. And then they had better hope they had family members who could work. Too often though, they were injured when they had young children. This could often lead to a childhood of drudgery and toil. Stories abound of women and children taking work as the creation of fake flowers, a brutal piecework industry of the period, when husbands and fathers were hurt on the job. And if the worker had no one, as was often the case, it was begging for meals on the street that was a far too common fate.

This began to change in 1911, with the passage of the first workers’ compensation laws. This happened because survivors of industrial accidents such as Joseph Gillis began to win their lawsuits, as the nation began to realize that a completely unregulated economy that gave corporations state backing to literally do whatever they wanted to citizens and workers was causing havoc, tremendous suffering, and political violence throughout the country.

But this limited help didn’t make much difference to most disabled workers. And the desperation and horrors of disability from the job spurred organizing efforts. Take the image used at the top of this post. That comes from the 1916 Walker C. Smith pamphlet The Everett Massacre: A History of the Class Struggle in the Lumber Industry. This was produced by the Industrial Workers of the World in the weeks after the Everett Massacre and placed the murder of radical loggers in the context of the horrible price capitalism demanded of workers’ bodies. That included the loss of their fingers, such as the worker above, shown with Smith’s text. These visceral images, easily repeatable simply by walking down the street of the late Gilded Age city, engendered a great deal of anger among the working class, who could see themselves in the same position very easily and who often ended up there.

The impetus for doing something about disabled workers came from the problem of disabled veterans in World War I. The Smith-Sears Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1918 created the Federal Board for Vocational Education (FBVE) and gave it responsibility of training disabled soldiers for employment and by 1928, it had worked with 128,000 soldiers. With this precedent, it made sense to extend federal interest to the masses of disabled workers. In 1918, Massachusetts passed the first state-level disabled worker retraining law. 11 other states followed in the next 22 months.

That led to the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act at the federal level, signed into law by Woodrow Wilson in June 1920. It placed responsibility for this also under the FBVE. It was a cost-sharing plan that required buy-in from the states. Federal funds would match state funding. By 1922, nearly 35 states had passed plans, but the last states did not do so until the mid-1930s. There was uncertainty involved with the CVRA because it required frequent congressional reauthorization and Republicans and Dixiecrats were as stingy then as they are now. In fact, real federal responsibility for disabled workers did not get truly established until 1935 with the passage of the Social Security Act. The law was also limited in its impact. As opposed to the masses of veterans it serviced, by 1930, the CVRA had only worked with less than 50,000 people, less than half of the number of veterans. It would take many more struggles to get even basic help for disabled workers and remains a big problem today.

The descriptions of injured loggers comes from my book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, now available for a low, low price. Much of the information about the Civilian Rehabilitation Vocational Act came from Laura Micheletti Puaca, “The Largest Occupational Group of All the Disabled: Homemakers with Disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation in Postwar America,” in Michael Rembis, ed., Disabling Domesticity.

For anyone who is interested, you can read the 1922 Annual Report to Congress of the Federal Board for Vocational Education. Doing so would pretty much make you as in the weeds on this stuff as I am.

This is the 225th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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