Jim Ellenberger, Retired AFL-CIO: You are Not Alone – Get out there and Organize!

Just a few months ago there were demonstrations in a state where cuts in workers’ compensation were enacted by the legislature. Thousands of workers protested in several locations. In one city, seven thousand turned out in a driving rain storm. The state: New South Wales. The city: Sydney. Try to imagine something similar happening in this country.

If you are reading this, welcome to one of the few positive developments for injured workers and their allies in recent memory. Congratulations to all those who collaborated to make this happen.

If you were injured or made ill from work, chances are that you’ve had a string of terrible issues to deal with.

• Your employer and/or insurer has either denied your claim or made the process of getting treatment and benefits so convoluted and difficult that you have been further injured by the very system that is supposed to help you.

• Your support system has either vanished or is under attack. Unions that have fought for injured workers are fighting now for their own survival; politicians have kowtowed to business and insurer interests and have enacted laws to make it more difficult for injured workers to find good legal assistance; one candidate for President has essentially consigned injured workers to the classification of “moochers”; and sometimes co-workers (and occasionally even family members) have fallen for the campaign by insurers to stigmatize injured workers as frauds, cheats and malingerers.

• If your injury is bad enough for you to miss work for more than a few weeks, your chances of returning to your job with your pre-injury employer are slim. Combine this fact with the scourge of high unemployment and fewer jobs (many of which have been shipped permanently overseas), and a job injury may be a sure ticket to poverty and possible destitution.

Earlier in our history, injured workers faced similar harsh treatment. Just forty years ago, as a result of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a national commission on workers’ compensation issued an amazing and unanimous report that urged states to act to improve their systems or face federal action to establish mandatory standards. Initially states rushed to make significant improvements in their laws and employers and insurers supported that action. Since the 80s there has been an enormous retrenchment – so bad that some scholars and a few members of Congress are calling for a new national commission to address these shortcomings. Others, including this writer, believe that in today’s political climate it would be impossible to convene a commission that could hope to be fractionally as successful as the 1972 effort.

Among the serious problems we face today is a culture of greed that knows no bounds. One of the nation’s largest workers’ comp insurers (Liberty Mutual) paid its CEO Ted Kelly $50 million each year for the past four years (as one wag wrote, that’s way more than is paid to the entire 100-member U.S. Senate). Liberty also has a fleet of five corporate jets, worth about $150 million, so that Ted Kelly and other over-paid insurance executives at that company don’t have to rub shoulders with the public.

Policy makers and their corporate sponsors have been engaged in a “race to the bottom,” pitting one state against another to see who can make their location the most “business-friendly” by cutting workers comp and unemployment protections for workers, passing anti-union laws, and providing taxpayer subsidies, environmental waivers, and tax holidays for wealthy companies. Insurers have opened their treasuries to make huge campaign contributions to both federal and state legislators and have hired legions of lobbyists to help their political friends write laws that ensure them even greater profits and lenient treatment by regulators.

If you are tired of this treatment and manipulation of our political process, there are some things that you can do:

• Make sure that you share this website and the valuable information it contains with your friends, co-workers, unions, advocates for injured workers and others.

• Don’t assume that you are powerless. Reach out to others in your situation. Contact unions to get them engaged in the fight.

• If you need a good attorney, find out from other injured workers which ones to call or use this website and its network or others to find one.

• Contact your state legislator and inform them of how you have been treated and how the law is failing to protect injured workers.

• Call or write to your local newspaper or television station and let them know how the law doesn’t work and how injured workers are being mistreated.

• Get out there and organize: for yourself, for your family, for your colleagues and for truth and justice.