And what did it become?

Trying to collect my thoughts…

The accident crisis in the late 19th century had multiple parts and multiple phases. It was a crisis for workers and their families in at least two ways – tied to the damage to workers’ bodies and tied to the financial effects of injuries. For elites, there were two or three needs in response. One was to maintain the supply of labor. Another was to limit the effects on businesses. A third was to limit the effects on the state and the social order in terms of legitimacy.

Responses had multiple phases. First there was a transition in what the crisis was about: was the issue safety, or was the issue compensation for injuries? There is a striking change in official attitudes toward injury. In the 1880s or so, at the level of ideology work was basically safe, as long as workers were competent enough (man enough). Those worth of freedom had the ability to work safely. Injury might happen but it was mostly the result of individual and inherent failures on the part of workers. By 1900 or so the story was very different. Work was inherently, inevitably dangerous and it was no one’s fault. Elites wrung their hands over the unfortunate but unavoidable need for some people to die or lose limbs in industrial work.

Elided in both stories were workplace power relations. Workers routinely cited not machinery itself but the speed of production — a decision by employers and one that could be changed. Both ideologies helped avoid the issue of workplace power relations.

So first there was a need to prevent the accident crisis from being a crisis contingent power relations at work. That made the accident crisis into a crisis of response to injury, rather than a crisis of work — it made the issue primarily one of redress rather than prevention (and prevention efforts that did happen largely moved against workers’ control). The problem to be solved became how to deal with the great many injured people. It became a matter of the reproduction of labor power, rather than the consumption of labor power at the point of production.

Injuries had become (again, at the level of ideology) inevitable but they were still a major problem. After the accident crisis was made into a crisis primarily about responding to injuries, the crisis continued because institutions at the time were not adequate. Some elites worried that the rate of injury threatened the continued reproduction of labor power as such, because the loss of wages and the damage to families as a result of injuries to adult workers would erode the ability to have predictable supplies of children turning into workers, unless something could be done to provide a fix. The large numbers of workers treated as disposable to some extent – because of loss or reduction in access to wages, without adequate subsidiary systems (welfare, sort of) in place to provide alternate access to means of subsistence – meant that the crisis for workers continued; the ideological fix didn’t help. It may have made things worse temporarily: if capitalism inevitably required such sacrifices of/by workers, then capitalism should be abolished. This also fed divisions among elites and loyalties tied to institutions: were courts adequate? what about insurance companies? did the system need other, newer institutions, perhaps ones based on models imported from abroad? Displacing the crisis from an issue of workplace control deferred but did not resolve the crisis. Worry about antagonism may have fed some employers and others’ concerns about the adversarial nature of the common law system.

The eventual fix was workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation secured the reproduction of labor power and restored systemic legitimacy in the eyes of enough constituencies. The legitimation crisis and the social reproduction crisis both were resolved. Injuries didn’t go away but they became less of a problem or a different sort of problem under the new institutions of managing injury (or, to use Eric Tucker’s phase, administering danger).

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