“It was horrible,” said the woman.
One minute she could see a sanitation worker struggling to climb out of the refuse barrel of a city garbage truck. The next minute mechanical forces pulled him back into the cavernous opening. It looked to her as though the man’s raincoat had snagged on the vehicle, foiling his escape attempt. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out,” said the eyewitness, who had been sitting at her kitchen table in Memphis, Tennessee, when the truck paused in front of her home. Next, she watched the man’s legs vanish as the motion of the truck’s compacting unit swept the worker toward his death. “The big thing just swallowed him,” she reported.
Unbeknownst to Mrs. C. E. Hinson, another man was already trapped inside the vibrating truck body. Before vehicle driver Willie Crain could react, Echol Cole, age 36, and Robert Walker, age 30, would be crushed to death. Nobody ever identified which one came close to escaping.”
The horrific deaths of Cole and Walker on February 1, 1968 set off the Memphis sanitation workers strike where 1,300 mostly African-American public employees struck to protest poor working conditions including the defective garbage truck that crushed Cole and Walker. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis the night before he was assassinated.
Roughly six years ago I wrote a blog about how Dr. King’s support of the Memphis sanitation worker strike shows how the struggle for civil rights and workplace safety are intertwined. Most educated people know King’s role in helping to enact anti-discrimination laws. His support for the Memphis sanitation workers likely also helped enact worker safety laws in the 1970s such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act which created OSHA.
Workers’ compensation laws were and still are state laws. But workers’ compensation laws weren’t adequate to protect Echol Cole and Robert Walker from being crushed to death in a trash compactor on the job. Something else has to be done. The creation of OSHA and the movement towards national standards in workers’ compensation were two steps taken the 1970s. Unfortunately whatever halting progress made by these reforms was more or less reversed by tort and workers’ compensation reform starting in the 1980s.
But at least in the judiciary branch, many states borrowed from civil rights laws and allowed workers to sue their employers for retaliating against them for pursuing workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation retaliation is probably one of the purest combinations of civil rights and workplace safety laws.
Combining workplace safety with civil rights laws in this way lead to decreases in workplace deaths such as the ones that claimed the lives of Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
Nebraska has permitted injured workers to sue their employers for workers’ compensation retaliation since 2003. But, there is a recent case that suggests that allowing workers’ to sue for retaliation and workers’ compensation is the kind of double-recovery not allowed by the so-called exclusive remedy rule of workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation retaliation cases are allowed for now, but who knows what our state Supreme court may say about them in the near-future.
If Nebraska did adopt this rule, Nebraska would be in a minority of one states who would hold an injured worker has to choose between a retaliation claim and workers’ compensation benefits if they get fired after a work injury. It would be a bad decision for Nebraska workers and probably bad for workers overall as the insurance industry and/or anti-worker state governments try to replicate that decision in other states.
One quote frequently attributed to Dr. King is that “the moral arc of the universe is long but bends towards justice.” Right now the moral arc of the universe is jutting sharply towards injustice – it’s time to push the moral arc back in the direction it belongs.