Historical Perspective

By Russ Haugen

We had the pleasure of recently attending and presenting at a local Union Summit put on by the AFL-CIO. We talked about the many changes in the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and how it has impacted the rights of injured workers across the State of Illinois. One of the other speakers provided a historical look at the rise of Unions in Illinois brought on by the horrendous working conditions that so many people faced in the absence of workers’ compensation laws. These horrendous working conditions not only brought on the rise of Unions, it also prompted the implementation of one of the first workers’ compensation systems in the United States.

Here is a look at a few examples of the dangers faced by workers in Illinois prior to the rise of Unions and a workers’ compensation system:

  • On November 13, 1909, a mining fire known as the “Cherry Mine Disaster” resulted in the death of 259 men and boys. The miners, some as young as 11-years-old, were required to use kerosene lanterns and torches to provide light for the mines after an electrical outage. At some point during the day, a coal car filled with hay caught on fire from one of the nearby kerosene lanterns. The wooden escape ladders and timbers supporting the mine quickly ignited after a mine fan was reversed in an attempt to blow out the fire causing a death trap for hundreds.
  • In the early 1920’s, a large group of young women acquired radium poisoning as a result of their occupation as a dial painter in Ottawa, IL. The women were instructed to lick the ends of their paint brush to ensure accurate brush strokes. The women were unaware that the radium used to make their paint glow was a very dangerous radioactive substance. As a result of ingesting the radium, many of these woman developed tumors, bone fractures, and terminal cancer.

Prior to the implementation of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, employees had to file a civil lawsuit against their employers to recover damages from a work injury. In most instances, it was difficult to prove that the employer was liable. However, once liability was proved, the damages and benefits were unlimited.

Today, proving liability is no longer an issue. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act is a “no fault” system which means that you don’t have to prove that your employer was at fault or negligent to cause your injuries. Instead, you must show that your injuries occurred in the course of and in the scope of your employment. However, the benefits an injured worker can recover is now limited under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. Now, the basic benefits that an injured worker is entitled to is payment of lost wages, payment of medical bills, and permanent partial disability benefits.

Thanks to unionized labor and the implementation of the workers’ compensation laws, the work environment in Illinois has become a lot safer over the past 100 years.

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Historical Perspective