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Friday, March 13, 2015

Private Tyranny, Property Rights and Workman's compensation

Before Workman's compensation

[100 yrs article]

The Story

The story I heard a long time ago, is one I'm still in the process of verifying. The story I was told is that my Great Grandfather was an Iron worker. One of the jobs he had, I heard was building an Iron Dome in the Minnesota State Capital. I thought I heard the Iron dome was on the capital, but I looked it but the Minnesota State capital building is made of Marble, so that part of the story I must have heard wrong. Maybe it was a bank or some other building. I need to dig. Or he was doing other work than just Iron work. Or perhaps Iron helped support the Marble. I don't know. But the story I heard, I think from my Grandfather is that after a number of years as a pretty good Iron worker he hurt his back while working. At that point he was fired. His pay was docked for lost time and the cost of the Medical Doctor and he was sent home. He spent the rest of his life barely making a living with a small farm.

The story of Workman's Compensation in brief

He raised my Grandmother under incredibly difficult circumstances. According to the story she would skate to work in the winter and walk three miles to school around a lake the rest of the year. I know this is true. His daughter, my Grandmother, was a tiny, delicate, fearful, yet tough and determined woman, though obviously she'd suffered privation and it had marked her. She became a School teacher and helped my Grandfather get his degree so he could teach high school and coach sports. My Late wife always made me think of her.

Also according to the story my Grandfather was a bit of a socialist/progressive after that, though much of my family tends to be hyper-patriotic and even Right Wing. I do know he was in pain for the rest of his life and eeking out a living running a small farm he bought with his savings. I never met my Great Grandfather La Ducre, and my time with my Grandfather and Grandmother was brief, so my memory could be faulty on this. But the essential story is pretty typical of the days before Workman's compensation, which we only got because of labor agitation for fairness. It was typical for employers to treat workers as a cost and for employers to treat their common employees like dirt. If the story is not true, it is still typical of the days before Workmen's compensation.

Fairness in the United States has two different definitions. For those who have land and capital property it involves an absolute right to use their property as they see fit. That attitude is alive and well, as demonstrated by the recent demonstrations at the Mall of America. The Mall of America corporation regards their malls as private property. Even if they seem like public places, the notion of a "commons" is something they resist. They hired police, FBI and Homeland Security to enforce that notion. It is the same notion that informed the Aristocrats of old. Prior to the passage of workmans compensation laws, employers were the same way. Employees were an expense only. The land they worked on was private property. If they were unfortunate enough to live on the Corporation private property, they had no rights. That is why we developed a Union movement. The notion of "commons" went out the window when we created corporations. The reality that the commons has always applied to property claimed as "private" doesn't occur to modern "economic royalists" (FDR's term) anymore than it applied to the Nobles and Kings who declared they had a divine right of kings to rule arbitrarily and discard the detritus; (old, sick, infirm, hurt). For that reason it took years of agitating to get our Workman's compensation laws.

....And now they are under attack again!

This article explains the Workers Compensation System:

"Today's workers compensation system can trace its original heritage back to a German system put in place in 1881; however, 1911 is recognized as when Wisconsin adopted the first statewide constitutional workers compensation law. It was a simple program that removed worker injuries from the court system, offering both employers and employees more certainty about compensation for lost wages, disabilities and medical care." []

The article softpedals the harsh reality of the previous system. Unless the Employer did something egregious and the courts were not corrupt (courts were notoriously biased against workers and for employers), workers not only were unlikely to get any help for being injured at work, they were likely to be sued for the financial damage their injury did to their employer and successfully!

"When it was first introduced a century ago, workers compensation insurance was a relatively radical idea for American workplaces." [100 yrs article]

Radical is code for "No effing way I'm going to compensate my employees for being lazy shiftless morons who get themselves hurt" was a typical (still is) attitude of employers! It took the Union movement and labor agitating to get this done! It was fiendishly difficult to sue an employer. And even if one won the case it was rare that a worker was well compensated!

"As the American economy moved increasingly from agriculture-based to industry-based, it became increasingly necessary to find a comprehensive method for dealing with the costs of on-the-job injuries. States realized that employees could not be expected to have to sue their employers for compensation. And employers needed to have a means for protecting themselves from the unknown costs of such lawsuits." [100 yrs article]

Pirate Model

More importantly workers realized that employers were not going to compensate workers unless a system was demanded that the employers could live with. The system they came up with was modeled on the system worked out by pirates back in the days when privateers and pirates hunted for prizes and fought wars on the open ocean. In those days a no-fault system was setup for compensating injured crew on pirate ships. This no-fault system was eventually adopted by the elitist Navies, but only after labor agitation by sailors. The threat of mutiny eventually worked, but only after generations of sailors were hung.

And it took til 1948 to get Workman's Compensation laws passed in every state!


Sources and Further Reading

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