Skip to content
Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Washington State’s 1911 Workmen’s Compensation Act:
A Look at the Newspaper Coverage

By Ryan Deibert

Public health professionals are currently making renewed calls for the protection of workers’ health through broad population health measures,[i] and labor leaders are calling for the continued participation of organized labor as a key player in the reshaping of health services policy to remedy the American health care crisis.[ii]  These current efforts draw on a legacy of labor unions’ participation in the creation and protection of health care services for American workers through policy advocacy, collective bargaining with employers, the formation of health insurance collectives and mutual aid societies, and development of workers’ compensation laws.  Leading up to and during the twelfth session of the Washington State Legislature from January through March, 1911, representatives of organized labor in Washington worked with leaders of industry and state political leaders to pass one of the earliest state-level workers’ compensation acts in the United States.  Progressive lawmakers, industry and labor leaders, and social commentators touted the legislation as some of the most progressive state legislation passed during the period.[iii] 

Many of the mainstream and labor newspapers throughout the Puget Sound region of Washington State reported on the events leading to the passage of the legislation, though the coverage and editorial opinions relating to the legislation varied significantly.  I will present a comparative summary of newspaper coverage of the passage and early implementation of Washington State’s 1911 workmen’s compensation law with discussion regarding representations of political and economic interests of the editorial staff, ownership, and intended readership of the newspapers represented. 

Background and General Timeline

Between 1890 and 1910, economic development in Washington State was fueled primarily by extractive industries, particularly the booming lumber industry, which employed in 1910 nearly seventy-five percent of all workers in the state.  Industrial accidents were common among workers in the logging industry, and a general progression of court rulings in employer liability cases shifted from conservative common-law-based rulings that placed heavy burdens on employees to prove employer negligence to more liberal rulings with increasing favor toward injured workers and subsequent awarding of large damage claims.  This movement gave rise to increasing industry concern toward settlement of employee injury claims through established legal processes. 

Though less than ten percent of injured workers chose to sue and only ten percent of claims prosecuted in 1910 were successful, court costs for injury-related suits totaled more than $100,000 annually; half of all court time was spent in damage suits; and insurance rates for employers were rising rapidly.  Even in successful suits, injured workers rarely received large awards, as sixty percent of the damages were retained by insurance companies for administrative costs, and three-quarters of the remaining amount generally went to lawyer’s fees.  The legal process for settling injury claims increasingly drew the ire of industry and workers alike, and by 1910 the governor of Washington, Marion Hay, leaders from the Pacific Coast Lumber Manufacturer’s Association, Washington State Federation of Labor representatives, and representatives of other industrial and labor organizations began working toward compromise-based solutions.

From a large assembly of policy makers, businessmen, and labor leaders, Governor Hay appointed an Employers’ Liability Commission to draft a bill on workmen’s compensation.  This commission consisted of a timber industry representative, Paul Page, a coal miner, Peter Henretty, and a labor-friendly attorney, Harold Preston.  The commission drafted legislation, which was introduced at the beginning of the 1911 Washington legislative session as House Bill 14, “An act relating to the compensation of injured workers in our industries,” by Govnor Teats, a populist representative from Tacoma elected on the Republican ticket.

The Teats bill would establish a state-administered fund to which all employers in hazardous occupations would be mandated to contribute in proportion to the relative hazard posed to the workers of that industry.  The fund would be used to award compensation to any workers injured in industrial accidents regardless of fault or liability.  Proponents argued that, if enacted, the bill would increase awards paid to injured workers, free courts of expensive litigation, make costs to employers predictable, and improve labor relations throughout the state.  Early debate in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives focused on the contentious first aid provision of the bill, which required employers and employees to contribute to a fund for coverage of medical costs incurred following an accidental injury.  The first aid provision was struck from the bill, and the amended bill passed the House on February 22 by a vote of sixty-nine to twenty-four. 

As debate progressed to the Republican-dominated Senate, two substitute bills known as the Metcalf and Collins bills were introduced and later consolidated into the Metcalf bill.  The alternative bills proposed elective rather than mandatory employer participation in the compensation fund by allowing employers to choose payment to the state compensation fund or continued liability coverage through private insurers.  Favored primarily by small employers in urban areas, the Metcalf bill was defeated after aggressive lobbying from organized labor and powerful industry representatives.  The Teats bill was subsequently passed by the Senate and signed into law as the Workmen’s Compensation Law by Governor Hay in March, 1911.

Press coverage of the process

In Seattle and other Washington cities, labor and mainstream press dutifully covered the legislative session in Olympia.  Stories regarding the legislative movement of the workmen’s compensation bill appeared in the Seattle dailies, the Seattle Daily Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The Star, and limited coverage appeared in the Olympia weekly, the Washington Standard (though archival records are missing several issues during the latter portion of the legislative session). The Seattle Central Labor Council’s weekly Seattle Union Record, frequently reported on several important labor bills advanced during the progressive legislative session, including the workmen’s compensation bill and a bill that would establish an eight-hour work day for women. Despite one researchers insistence that the threat of the increasing influence of the Industrial Workers of the World among Northwest lumber workers helped to spur political leaders’ interest in working with the less radical Washington State Federation of Labor to pass workmen’s compensation legislation,3 there is no mention of the Workmen’s Compensation Act and its political preludes in the Spokane-based IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, during the months in which the law is created.

Beginning in early February, 1911, the Union Record was reporting a positive outlook for labor legislation in Olympia.[iv]  One article reports on proceedings of a joint committee of both houses in which Govnor Teats shrewdly elicited support in principle for the workmen’s compensation bill from multiple industry representatives who feared, “that to oppose the principle would give a wrong impression, such as an interest in some insurance agency.”  The article also notes the surprising enthusiastic support of the lawyer testifying on behalf of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  The support of industry was moving into place, and the reporter notes generally, “I believe I can say that we have many friends at this session and that we will secure more labor legislation than at any previous session.”

Later in the month, the debate begins to receive its first coverage in the daily press, with the Post-Intelligencer offering balanced coverage of the debate leading up to and the outcome of the vote against the first aid clause of the Teats bill.[v]  Noting that all members were called to the House for a roll-call vote and “with both sides fighting aggressively,” the reporter records the primary arguments for the clause as argued by Teats (that the fund would create hospitals for workingmen across the state) and against the clause as argued by Representative Beach (that the clause would “enable the governor to build a mammoth political machine, with the thousands of employees of the hospitals, and with the millions of money which would be placed in the hands of a commission of his appointment and subject to his removal.”).

In a front-page article on the same date, editorial comments lay out the decidedly more populist leanings of The Star: “The Star is content and happy to represent that great body of honest, industrious men and women whose interests and whose welfare are either ignored or abused by other newspapers.”[vi] Early coverage of the Teats Bill correspondingly reflects these leanings, reporting that “the house of representatives yesterday was buffaloed by the minority.”[vii] Painting the vote as an underhanded success by Speaker of the House, Howard Taylor, “employer and capitalist,” the article suggests that representatives voting against the clause were fooled by Taylor’s argument that the hospitals established under the clause would care only for the injured and exclude the sick.

Two days later, the PI again reports “spirited conflict” surrounding the bill as it is passed quickly through the lower house.[viii]  The article suggests that opponents of the bill may have moved quickly to pass it in the House to allow more debate against it in the Senate.  No other dailies report on the passage of the bill in the House, but the Union Record notes the progress of the bill in its weekly Saturday edition, with specific coverage regarding the elimination of the first-aid clause after a successful role-call vote for the amendment which followed an unsuccessful first vote with fifteen House members absent.[ix],[x]  The addition of this detail in the Union Record and its exclusion elsewhere is notable, and the coverage presents a more leftist version of the debate, stating, “The first aid clause in the bill was intended to protect those inable [sic] to protect themselves more than to protect men with organizations behind them able to enforce the fulfillment of agreements.”  An editorial in the same edition notes that “While the elimination of the first aid clause . . . will not work a hardship on members of organized labor in hazardous occupations, it will leave the unorganized at the mercy of unscrupulous corporations and physicians who cater to the corporations.”[xi] The PI begins coverage of the Senate debate the same day, reporting a “wordy clash” between representatives of three “badly split” salons within the Senate, including advocates of the Teats bill and supporters of the alternate Collins and Metcalf bills.[xii]

At the end of the following week, the PI, Star, and Union Record all write regarding the progress of the bill in the Senate.  A Star summary article of activities in Olympia describes that the Senate will again take up debate of the three competing proposals for the workmen’s compensation act, noting that the Teats bill would provide compensation without litigation while both competing proposals would make a court trial necessary.[xiii]  The Union Record publishes on its front page an open letter from the Chas. R. Chase, president of the State Federation of Labor and Peter Henretty of the Governor’s Employees Compensation Commission addressed to “All Wage Workers of the State of Washington.”[xiv]  The letter details the history and intent of the Teats bill, noting that opposition to the first aid clause “was grounded on the evils of the present system, of collecting one dollar or more a month as hospital fees from employes [sic] and not giving them care when injured” and urging workers to contact Senators in support of the Teats bill.  Another Union Record article reporting on legislative action in Olympia noted that “lumber, mining, and labor interests are supporting [the Teats bill], and casualty companies, chambers of commerce, and the Metal Trades Association opposing it.”[xv]  The PI continues its decidedly centrist stance regarding the separate versions of Senate legislation, but expresses support for “the very important subject of an employer’s liability law” in a lengthy editorial.[xvi]  The editorial notes that the U.S. lagged behind Europe with respect to worker’s compensation and acknowledges: “That some form of employer’s liability law and workingman’s insurance is needed in this country is admitted on all sides.”  The editors conclude that the competing Teats, Collins, and Metcalf bills all have associated merits and faults and that “If it is possible, the good features of all of the bills should be combined,” though they do not expressly state which features they consider good.

The next week saw the most active Senate debate around the competing bills, with final defeat of the combined Collins and Metcalf bill and passage of the Teats bill on March 8, 1911.  This activity was accompanied by a flurry of reports detailing the debates and passage.

In front and second-page stories, the PI filed extensive neutral reports detailing the combination of the Metcalf and Collins bills, “hot words exchanged” during lengthy debate and filibuster sessions, and the stated arguments for and against each bill made by Senators during a special night session.[xvii],[xviii]  The majority of the March 8th issue is missing from archival records, but an article two days later provides a list of all legislation passed during the 1911 session and notes as one of the “more important items on the record” that the legislature, “passed a workmen’s compensation act under which the state insures compensation for accidents.”[xix]  The next day’s editorial states: “The legislature which has just adjourned accomplished much good.  It enacted a number of really progressive laws.”[xx]  Though the editors detail several areas in which they assessed failure on the part of the legislators to pass important legislation, they do not specify which “progressive and wholesome laws” they praise the legislature for enacting.  Given their extensive coverage related to the workmen’s compensation bills, it is safe to assume that the editors would have included the Workmen’s Compensation Act in their praise.

The Seattle Daily Times ended its relative silence on coverage of the legislative session --It had not previously reported on the progression of the workmen’s compensation bills -- and printed a series of articles largely critical of the legislature and its discussion of the workmen’s compensation bills beginning March 4th.  While other dailies were reporting the Senate debates relating to the Teats and Metcalf bills, the Times reported that “there is little important legislation at stake in the last four days [of the legislative session].”[xxi]  Though the reporter mentions legislation to establish the eight-hour day for women and workmen’s compensation legislation in passing, most of the article is devoted to discussion of appropriations and roads bills.  A two-paragraph story tucked deep in the next day’s Times notes that discussion of the competing Teats, Metcalf, and Collins bills has been set aside in lieu of discussion of other business.[xxii]  On March 7th, an article titled “Senate Quits Work to Attend Banquet” details some of the debate relative to the competing bills, though the reporter dismisses the work as “a day of indecision and procrastination.”[xxiii]  Apparently more concerned with the Senate’s adjournment for a banquet, the article highlights disagreement over Senate procedure above the content of debate. 

The Times reporting of the passage of the Teats bill decidedly favored coverage of the defeated supporters of the Metcalf and Collins bills.  Under the subheading “Declares Act Means Tax on Industries,” a page-nine article fully reports in lengthy quotations the constitutional and economic arguments offered against the Teats bill.[xxiv]  Quoting opponent Senator Ruth, the article warns that the bill “will drive manufacturing men out of the state and bring about an unprecedented panic in manufacturing circles.”  On March 10, the Times printed the text of the Workmen’s Compensation Act in its entirety,[xxv] and the March 12 editorial by conservative capitalist and Times owner Colonel Blethen was scathing:

“For absolute disregard of duty -- of the best interests of the public -- and for the creation of burdensome laws and the squandering of the public moneys -- the Twelfth Legislature of Washington surpasses all the efforts made along these lines by the preceding eleven legislative bodies which have met since Washington became a state . . . [The Employer’s Liability law] places a burden upon the industries of this Commonwealth that will break many of them -- entirely destroy the profits of others and will prevent new capital entering the state at all.”[xxvi]

Calling the law “the worst the legislature enacted,” Blethen carefully explains his calculations that estimated the total cost of the legislation to be more than four-million dollars to the industries of King County alone, justification, he insisted, for his dire economic predictions. 

Dramatically contrasting Times coverage, The Star published front-page stories framing the Senate debate as a “war” between labor and the “selfish interest” of casualty companies and other “enemies of labor.”[xxvii] The story suggests that differences between the Collins and Metcalf bills were minimal, with the competing bills being introduced solely as means to defeat the Teats bill.  The passage of the Teats bill brought another front-page story summarizing the key points of the legislation, and garnering explicit editorial praise: “Washington stands today as the leader of all sovereign states in the world in the matter of providing just compensation for its vast army of workingmen.”[xxviii]  The following day, the paper reported: “From the standpoint of results, the [12th legislative] session will go down in the annals of the state as the most progressive yet held.”[xxix]

The Union Record drew coverage of the passage of the act out over the next month. Though the weekly edition on March 11 notes the passage of a workmen’s compensation bill through legislative committee in Ohio,[xxx] there is only brief mention of the passage of the Washington State bill.[xxxi]  A March 18th review of labor legislation passed in Olympia contains an editorial note apologizing for this lack of coverage due to “the pressure of business during the closing days of the Legislature.”[xxxii]  The article provides a basic summary of the act and praises it roundly: “From every standpoint this is undoubtedly the most advanced piece of legislation ever enacted in our country.”  A two-column front-page article in the April 1 edition provides an extensive summary of the new act written by Peter Henretty of the Governor’s Compensation Commission[xxxiii], and an editorial voices support for the governor’s leadership:

“Governor M.E. Hay will be remembered by members of organized labor as a man who stood by his guns . . .  Governor Hay gave [the matters of the women’s eight-hour law and workmen’s compensation] careful consideration during the formative period, listened to the arguments for and against after their passage, and like a man, signed the bills because they would benefit humanity, thus placing that on a higher standard than the dollar.”[xxxiv]

By the sounds of it, the principle organ of organized labor in King County could not have been happier.

Limited coverage of news relating to the Workmen’s Compensation Act and broader national and international concerns around workmen’s compensation continued in the Union Record and The Star in the following months,[xxxv] but there is no subsequent mention of the act in the Seattle dailies until the implementation of the law on October 1, 1911.  The Times blandly reported the implementation of the law in a short, page-eight article that focused primarily on payment exemptions granted by the new State Industrial Insurance Commission to specific industries such as contractors and lumber mills that plan to close soon.[xxxvi] Higher billing was given to two short articles detailing damages that were being pursued by injured workers in the federal circuit courts.[xxxvii]

The PI, on the other hand, ran an article summarizing the successful defense of the law through legal challenges before the State Supreme Court and future anticipated challenges to the law.[xxxviii]  The article touted Washington State as “the pioneer state in attempting to solve the problem of compensating injured workingmen and their dependents without the great cost and numerous delays that are now features of such actions.” An accompanying editorial in the same edition offered the “novel” legislation measured praise, stating that it was “aimed to meet and to do away with a large number of evils,” including exploitative insurance companies and “ambulance chaser” attorneys.[xxxix]  The editors concluded: “If the law proves a success, there is no question that it will be taken up in all other progressive states.”  The Star and the Union Record provided no direct coverage of the implementation of the law.

Press coverage of the development and implementation of Washington State’s 1911 Workmen’s Compensation Act varied significantly from newspaper to newspaper.  Particularly among Seattle newspapers, amount and slant of coverage and editorial opinion seemed to reflect the fundamental political and economic interests of the newspaper publishers and their intended audiences.  While scholars have contended that passage of the Washington Workmen’s Compensation Act resulted from a unique partnership in compromise between the state’s industry and labor intrests, the variable press coverage of the political struggle that brought it to fruition likely affected and reflected public sentiment toward the struggle.

Bibliography of Reviewed Literature

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January - October 1911
Seattle Daily Times, January - October 1911
The Star (Seattle), January - October 1911
Seattle Union Record, January - October 1911
Industrial Worker (Spokane), January - October 1911
Washington Standard (Olympia), January - October 1911 

Articles and Journal Publications:
Tripp, J. An instance of labor and business cooperation: Workmen’s compensation in Washington State (1911). Labor History, 1976; 531-550.
Medline ( review of recent public health literature with search phrases including “workers compensation,” “unions health,” “unions public health,” “organized labor health,” and “organized labor public heath.”

Morgan, M. Skid Road: Seattle - Her First Hundred Years. New York: Ballantine Books. 1960. pp. 164-193.
Derickson, A. Workers’ Health, Workers’ Democracy: The Western Miners’ Struggle, 1891-1925. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1988. pp. 251.

Works Cited:

[i] Quinn, M. Occupational health, public health, workers health. American Journal of Public Health, 2003; 93:526.

[ii] Stern, A. Labor rekindles reform. American Journal of Public Health, 2003; 93:95-98.

[iii] Much of the background and timeline of events for this paper is drawn exclusively from: Tripp, J. An instance of labor and business cooperation: Workmen’s compensation in Washington State (1911). Labor History, 1976; 531-550.  I will refer frequently to Tripp’s research to provide broader context for more specific analysis.

[iv] “Labor Legislation at Olympia,” Seattle Union Record. February 4, 1911. p. 1.

[v] “First Aid Scheme Cut Out of Bill,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 22, 1911. p. 4.

[vi] “The People Win,” The Star. February 22, 1911. p. 1.

[vii] “Draw Teeth From Compensation Act,” The Star. February 22, 1911. p. 6.

[viii] “Liability Bill, As Amended, Passed By Lower House,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 24, 1911. p. 7.

[ix] “First Aid Clause Eliminated,” Seattle Union Record, February 25, 1911. p. 8.

[x] “The Week’s End at Olympia,” Seattle Union Record, February 25, 1911. p. 8.

[xi] Untitled editorial, Seattle Union Record, February 25, 1911. p. 4.

[xii] “Senate is Split on Liability Bill,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 25, 1911. p. 10.

[xiii] “Two Houses Clash Over Appropriations,” The Star. March 3, 1911. p. 1.

[xiv] “State Federation on House Bill 14,” Seattle Union Record. March 4, 1911. p. 1.

[xv] “The Week’s End at Olympia,” Seattle Union Record. March 4, 1911. p. 1.

[xvi] “The Employer’s Liability Law,” Editorial, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 4, 1911. p. 5.

[xvii] “Tired and Cross Solons Stumped by Liability Bill.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 5, 1911. p. 1.

[xviii] “Senate Studies Liability Bills,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 7, 1991. p. 2.

[xix] “Long List of Bills Pass Both Houses,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 10, 1911. p. 2.

[xx] “The Work of the Legislature,” Editorial, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 11, 1911. p. 6.

[xxi] “Legislature facing last days of life,” Seattle Daily Times. March 5, 1911. p. 1.

[xxii] “Workingmen’s Bill Sidetracked in Senate,” Seattle Daily Times, March 6, 1911. p. 9.

[xxiii] “Senate Quits Work to Attend Banquet,” Seattle Daily Times, March 7, 1911. p. 10.

[xxiv] “Upper House Passes Workingmen’s Bill,” Seattle Daily Times, March 8, 1911. p. 9.

[xxv] “Employer’s Liability Act As Amended,” Seattle Daily Times, March 10. p. 12.

[xxvi] “A Legislative Body That Will Go Down in History as the Most Vicious in the Annals of Washington,” Editorial, Seattle Daily Times, March 12, 1911. p. 6.

[xxvii] “War On Labor Bill,” The Star, March 4, 1911. p. 1.

[xxviii] “Compensation Bill Passes Both Houses,” The Star. March 8, 1911. p. 1.

[xxix] “At the Legislature,” The Star. March 9, 1911.

[xxx] “Ohio Liability Bill O.K.’d,” Seattle Union Record. March 11, 1911. p. 3.

[xxxi] A brief editorial states: “The commission compensation bill, with several amendments, has passed both houses of the legislature,” and a note in the printed Union Proceedings of the King County Labor Council reads: “Delegate P.K. Mohr stated the compensation bill had passed the Senate” (Seattle Union Record. March 11. p. 4 & 6).

[xxxii] “A Review of Labor Legislation at Olympia,” Seattle Union Record. March 18, 1911. p. 1.

[xxxiii] “Synopsis of Workmen’s Compensation Act,” Seattle Union Record. April 1, 1911. p. 1.

[xxxiv] Untitled Editorial, Seattle Union Record. April 1, 1911. p. 4.

[xxxv] See: “Compensation Paid In Installments,” Seattle Union Record. May 6, 1911. p. 1; “Fight Compensation,” The Star, March 15, 1911. p. 3; “National Workmen’s Compensation Commission,” Seattle Union Record. June 24, 1911. p.1; “Peru’s Liability Law,” Seattle Union Record. July 1, 1911. p.1; and “The Workmen’s Compensation Commission,” Seattle Union Record. November 18, 1911. p. 1.

[xxxvi] “Compensation Act In Effect Tomorrow,” Seattle Daily Times. October 1, 1911. p. 8.

[xxxvii] “Injured Laborer Gets $12,000 for Lost Arm” and “Two Ask Damages,” Seattle Daily Times. October 1, 1911. p.4

[xxxviii] “Compensation Act Is Now Effective,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. October 2, 1911. p. 3.

[xxxix] “Compensation Law In Effect,” Editorial,  Seattle Post-Intelligencer. October 2, 1911. p. 6.

©2003 Ryan Deibert