Since the news yesterday morning out of Wisconsin was a bit depressing for progressives (and Progressives), I thought it was time to mark an important upcoming centennial there. On the first of September in 1911, the first constitutional workers' compensation law took full effect in Wisconsin. The law had been passed on May 3, 1911. By all rights, I should have written about it back then, or waited until September for the anniversary of the law taking effect, but I thought today was a good day to reminisce about when Wisconsin was at the forefront of the Labor movement, instead of where they find themselves today.
Anyone unaware of Wisconsin's role in the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would do well to just skim Wikipedia's history of the Badger State's most famous Progressive, Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette. Here's just a sample sentence from his biographical entry:
As governor, La Follette championed numerous progressive reforms, including the first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct legislation, municipal home rule, open government, the minimum wage, non-partisan elections, the open primary system, direct election of U.S. Senators, women's suffrage, and progressive taxation.
Wisconsin's claim to be the first state to enact workers' compensation is disputed by some, as many states were passing various workers' rights laws at the time (the earliest laws of this nature, passed in the 1800s, merely gave the employee the right to sue an employer for damages if injured on the job). But Wisconsin's claim has something going for it that no other state can claim -- they've got their own stamp:
This "commemorative" stamp was unveiled by President Kennedy in 1961, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Wisconsin's law, and the ceremony included then-governor of Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson:
Seeing as this was 1961, the stamp actually commemorates "workmen's compensation" instead of the gender-neutral "workers' compensation" it has become today. But whatever you call it, it is worth remembering that what all Americans now consider a right in the workplace had to be bitterly fought over for years before it became the law of the land.
Sadly, though (if this article can be believed), the United States Postal Service will not be issuing a centennial stamp to mark the occasion. Back in 2008, the Wisconsin Division of Workers' Compensation tried to convince the Post Office to issue a new stamp -- to update the one issued in 1961. They submitted this proposal three years in advance, because apparently the Post Office takes a while to make up its mind over new stamp designs.
If the U.S.P.S. has indeed turned down the stamp proposal, perhaps this would be a dandy political issue for Democrats to make some hay over, when Congress returns from its lavish month off on vacation. Why is the Postal Service not honoring the history of workers' rights? Why is the centennial of the first workers' compensation not worthy of a stamp, when it was for the semicentennial?
More to the point, why are the following worthy of stamps this year, instead of Wisconsin's landmark achievement?
A random image of a dolphin
A random image of a bighorn sheep
A random image of some redwood trees
Some sort of neo-Art-Deco image which is supposed to represent "Wisdom"
The Indianapolis 500
And, finally -- you just can't make this stuff up -- Owney the Postal Dog
Think about that for a minute. The postman is honoring a dog with a stamp. And they can't issue a workers' compensation centennial stamp? Quick quiz: which has impacted the lives of more Americans -- being able to work safe in the knowledge that workers' comp exists, or a Chippendale chair? It would be funny if it weren't so outrageous. The Sunday funnies, in fact, did make the cut -- they were deemed more worthy of the honor than the workers' compensation milestone. If you think I'm just picking the most outrageous things the Post Office has put on stamps which they are currently selling, I invite you to view them all for yourself and see what other gems I didn't even mention here.
Whether the Wisconsin workers' compensation achievement gets another stamp or not, though, I would like to wish an early happy 100th anniversary to the concept that workers should be taken care of when they get injured. I invite everyone to visit the Workers Comp Centennial website, to learn the history of this right we all take for granted today. Because 100 years ago (next month) Wisconsin was at the center of the Labor battles in quite a different way than they are today. Back then, Progressives were scoring important victories which have made all Americans' lives better ever since.
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