Sick and injured war veterans and victims of industrial workplace accidents have a lot in common. Both are treated disgracefully.

The medical treatment of our military veterans is shameful. The Iraq war is the latest example. While the Bush White House was announcing its war in Iraq, it was simultaneously announcing cutbacks in veterans’ benefits. The Republican-controlled Congress actually cut $25 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the same day that the war was announced.

Veterans’ hospitals throughout the country have been either eliminated or have had their services sharply curtailed, a process that started under Reagan. These hospitals are the veterans’ last hope. Ask any veteran who has to rely on these hospitals and VA benefits and you’ll see rage and fear come into their eyes when you mention the cutbacks.

Veterans’ groups have tried to bring these facts to the attention of the mass media and to politicians (including many Democrats), but almost no one has listened.

A similar callousness prevails in employer and government attitudes toward workers who are disabled or killed due to workplace hazards. Workers’ compensation is under relentless attack, and sick and injured workers are constantly being subjected to benefit takeaways.

Each year, in every state of the union, a corporate media blitz takes place to oppose any pro-worker changes in the workers’ compensation laws. The blitz is coordinated through trade associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They demand cutbacks wherever possible, often threatening to move out of state unless they get the their way.

A little history: Workers’ compensation laws in the U.S. were the result of long and difficult struggle led by workers in the early years of the 20th century. Out-of-control industrial growth and workplace injuries, including unprecedented carnage on the railways, led to a surge in worker lawsuits against their employers and popular pressure for reform.

A “great trade-off” was struck: workers would give up their right to sue their employer for negligence following an injury or death, in return for the employers and the government setting up an insurance system providing workers with medical coverage and wage replacement in the event of such a misfortune.

European workers, through mass labor struggles, had won a progressive workers’ compensation plan (linked to their national health care programs) years before.

In the U.S., however, the system that emerged was quite different than Europe’s. Corporate policymakers successfully lobbied for a weak workers’ comp law, where each state would have its own program and where private insurance carriers would be in charge. (It should be noted that there is a federal workers’ comp law that covers federal workers and longshore workers that is far superior to the state programs.) The absence of a national health care program further limited the law’s effectiveness.

From outset employers tried to weaken the law still further. Now, after almost 100 years of cutbacks, experts agree that corporations pay only a small portion of the actual death and disability benefits at their workplaces. This is especially true for occupational diseases such as those related to worker exposure to asbestos, chemicals, lead and other toxic substances. This doesn’t stop corporations from crying about worker fraud and malingering. They aren’t dumb: By keeping up a steady ideology of gloom and doom, and spending millions in payoffs to state-based politicians, they are often in the driver’s seat when it comes to shaping the laws.

The national AFL-CIO is the only body with strength to promote a national coordinated effort to improve the meager medical and wage replacement benefits. Each year they document the cutbacks being sought by corporations in various states. The AFL-CIO is warning that in the upcoming year we will see a major offensive by the Chamber of Commerce and their corporate allies to further undermine workers’ comp.

It would be interesting if war veterans and veterans of industrial accidents came together to help each other out. They are often one and the same person. One thing is for sure; a new strategy is needed to bring energy into both movements. The public would be very receptive.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org


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