Major Protests. Strikes and work stoppages. Business and labor diametrically opposed. A conservative governor dealing with progressive, even socialist elements in the legislature.
Right state, wrong date. It is Wisconsin, but the year is 1911.
In an extremely unique, very innovative program the IAIABC, in the opening presentation of it’s 97th Annual Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, "recreated" the story that led to the successful passage of the nations first constitutionally upheld workers’ compensation legislation.
In a 30 minute original play entitled "Justice In The Workplace: A Story For All Time", written by Greg Krohm, a group of actors recreated the actions and discussions that surrounded the successful creation of this landmark legislation. It was an excellent effort, which truly made that seminal moment in history "come alive" for the more than two hundred attendees gathered in the room.
A central theme of this years conference is the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of workers’ compensation within the United States. The days events included the opening theatrical performance; a "Point – Counter Point" discussion on workers’ comp today, featuring IAIABC Director Greg Krohm and well known comp expert John Burton; and a session looking forward, enacting what a new 2015 "Burton" style federal commission may encounter.
What struck me immediately in the opening session performance was the extreme similarity to conditions and issues that we continue to deal with today. The story of deep mistrust between business, labor and the government that represents them could have easily been written for the current time. The struggle for a proper balance, the meeting of basic needs on both sides of the equation, is also a contemporary concern. While we have traveled a tremendous distance over the last hundred years, in some ways we are still right where we started, discussing, negotiating and compromising over the very same issues that brought us here in the first place.
With one glaring exception.
The establishment of the workers’ comp system in the US, while far from perfect, brings an "expected consistency" to the equation that had not existed prior. Before workers’ comp became the law of the land, rancor and confusion reigned supreme. Occupational injuries prior to 1911 were in a "no mans land" that was ruinous to the injured worker and his family, and businesses faced constant threat from unknown expenses and increasing litigation resulting from workplace accidents. The implementation of workers’ compensation placed those risks on a level, predictable platform. That platform may not have eliminated the same cost vs. benefit issues we debate today, but it certainly made the discussion more palatable.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We are still on the high rope, performing our multi-person pyramid, but it is comforting to know that a safety net is now below us.