The Injured Workers Movement

A massive economic boom in Toronto following World War Two led to a substantial increase in workplace injuries. Construction workers suffered a disproportionate amount of these injuries. Many of them were immigrants, with limited English-language skills, who had trouble accessing the Workman’s Compensation Board (the Ontario agency that determined eligibility for benefit payments). These workers were increasingly upset about the high rates of injuries they suffered and the modest compensation available to them.

So injured workers began to form their own organizations. They were helped by left-wing students and community organizers who wanted these workers to get the support they deserved. But political disagreements, like whether activists should spend more time helping individual workers or advocating for changes to workers compensation, caused divisions. Some of the activists who wanted a more militant and comprehensive approach formed an organization called Injured Worker Consultants, which is still around today (2019).

In 1974, a wide range of injured worker activists founded the Union of Injured Workers (UIW), which became the largest and most important of the different injured workers groups. Members of this new organization agreed to focus on a handful of demands: (1) That injured workers be given the same wages they had received prior to their injuries – instead of just 2/3rds – with regular increases to keep up with inflation; (2) Better and health & safety laws and enforcement; (3) to have the freedom to choose their own doctor (at this time, people on workers’ compensation could only see a small number of doctors approved by Workman’s Compensation Board).

The UIW helped injured workers learn their legal rights and appeal unfavourable workers compensation rulings. Members organized lots of demonstrations – some were attended by thousands of injured workers and their families – and lobbied politicians to give injured workers added benefits. The UIW won many improvements, including higher disability payments, better health & safety legislation, and the right for injured workers to see their workers compensation files.

Allan Baldwin became disabled after falling from a crane. He found it hard to pay his bills from the meagre compensation payments he received and wanted better physical rehabilitation and job training programs. During the opening of the Ontario Legislature in 1970, Allan flung himself from the upstairs visitors’ gallery, onto the floor of the Legislature. Wearing a neck-to-waist plaster cast, he shouted: “Workmen’s Compensation, this is the way they treat you!” His action helped publicize the plight of injured workers and encouraged the formation of injured worker organizations. Allan later said, “I didn’t like making a damn fool of myself, but it had to be done.”

Marion Endicott was a member of a few different injured workers groups, but is best known for her work with Injured Workers’ Consultants. She served as the organization’s community legal worker for 40 years. Marion helped bring attention to the plight of injured female workers, who had often been ignored. It was because of the feminist sensibility of activists like her that “Workman’s Compensation” became “Workers’ Compensation” in 1982 and a regulation that branded some of the widows of men killed on the job “common prostitutes” for having subsequent romantic relationships (causing them to lose their survivor benefits) was abolished in 1984.

- Peter Graham

Related Topics: Immigrants to CanadaIndustrial AccidentsInjured WorkersOccupational Health & SafetyWorkers’ CompensationWorkers’ Compensation BoardsWorkers’ Health & SafetyWorkers’ InjuriesWorking ClassWorkplace Death & Injury

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