Lessons Learned from a Century of Workers’ Compensation

Picture, Celebrating History: In September 1961, President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson joined U.S. Postmaster General J.E. Day to memorialize the 50th anniversary of the workers’ compensation system by unveiling a commemorative postage stamp. The Rose Garden ceremony was the outcome of a collaborative campaign initiated by Wausau area community leaders to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to create a commemorative 4-cent stamp.

On September 7, 2011, the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service convened an expert panel to commemorate the centennial of the passage of the nation’s first Workers’ Compensation legislation. This panel, moderated by UWMC Associate Professor of History Brett Barker and comprised of Ron Kent of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, John Jones, retired Sr. Vice President of Wausau Insurance, and Andrew Kersten, Professor of History at UW – Green Bay, explored the history, policy implications, and contemporary impact of workers’ compensation and examined the lessons learned from workers, employers, government, and University of Wisconsin leaders who came together, with civility, in a broad coalition to solve a complex social problem. Labor historians remember the passage of the legislation as “The Great Compromise,” and many millions of American workers have been protected by it ever since.

The 100th anniversary of the issuance of the first insurance policy under the nation’s first constitutional workers’ compensation law (enacted in Wisconsin) was September 1, 2011. Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company of Wisconsin (later known as Wausau Insurance) wrote the first policy for the Wausau Sulphate and Fibre Company (later known as Mosinee Paper Corp., which is now part of Wausau Paper) on September 1, 1911. It was a dramatic recognition of society’s responsibility to the workplace, establishing workers’ compensation as the first form of social insurance in American history. Today, workers’ compensation stands as a pillar within our economic system that benefits all Americans.