Dear Editor: On May 3, 1911 — 100 years ago this week — Wisconsin Gov. Francis E. McGovern signed the first U.S. workers’ compensation law to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The law was the brainchild of University of Wisconsin professor John R. Commons, the scholar whose contributions to state and national labor policies earned him the title of “intellectual father of the New Deal.”
The law Commons wrote provided for a tripartite administrative structure — business, labor, and government leaders would work together to craft safety rules and regulations that learned from the “best practices” of the leading companies in Wisconsin’s industries and work to bring the rest of the state’s employers up to these levels.
What a radical thought! Imagine if Wisconsin leaders could learn from this early 20th century heritage and now, at the 11th hour of litigation over a law that is polarizing citizens across the state, agree to mediate a new beginning for public sector labor relations.
Imagine the possibilities:
• Collaborative initiatives in education reform rather than sledge hammer attacks on the rights of teachers.
• Shared efforts to bring down the cost of health care, not just through more employee cost sharing but perhaps through joint wellness promotion initiatives.
• Joint efforts to engage front-line workers in continuous efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of public services rather than demonizing public employees for being overpaid and underworked.
• Creation of a positive environment and attractive workplace culture capable of attracting the best and brightest graduates into public service rather than turning them off to this calling by attacking public workers’ dignity and destroying future career opportunities.
Most of all, imagine how together public sector managers, workers and their unions, academics, and other state leaders could lead the country in inventing the next generation public sector labor relations system. If only we could learn from our past and build on Wisconsin’s great legacy.
Imagine the possibilities.
Thomas A. Kochan