A Working-Class Hero Is Something To Be

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

Steve Early

The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor:
The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi
By Les Leopold
Chelsea Green Press, 490 pages, $24.

AS A 35-YEAR veteran of union activity in America, I can personally attest that Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) was a rare bird, perhaps the last of his kind.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Mazzocchi’s peer group — the labor officialdom — was extremely hostile to the migration of young radicals from college campuses to unionized workplaces. Organized labor had been purged of leftism during the 1950s, leaving the AFL-CIO stodgy and insular — and full of foreign policy hawks.

Labor’s cold warriors got very upset when a new generation of “outsiders” tried to convert workers to radical politics inspired by the civil rights, antiwar, Black Power, environmental, and feminist movements. Only a handful of older working-class organizers welcomed New Leftists to labor. But they provided the kind of direction and encouragement that enabled some ex-students to play key roles in the much heralded, if still insufficient, “union revitalization” of recent years.

Alone among those influential mentors, Tony Mazzocchi developed a far-flung following outside his own union. As his biographer, labor educator Les Leopold explains, “Tony was a kindhearted soul with an earthy, self-deprecating sense of humor. Unlike so many people who rise to union leadership, he did not have an ego you constantly had to tiptoe around.” Those qualities alone made him the premier political mensch of the labor left.

Leopold’s compelling new book on Mazzocchi contains many reminders of the latter’s singular contribution to progressive union activism over five decades. As an OCAW local president and regional leader in New York, legislative director in Washington, and later the national union secretary-treasurer in Colorado, Mazzocchi managed to juggle day-to-day union responsibilities with a tireless commitment to civil rights, labor-based environmentalism, job safety reform, single-payer health care, nuclear disarmament, and union democracy.

He was a leading architect of the fight for a federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1972, warranting Leopold’s description of him as “the Rachel Carson of the American workplace.”

Politics and Workplace Struggle

Tony’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2002, at the age of 76, deprived fellow activists of his catalytic role in myriad labor causes, including his last, seemingly quixotic, campaign for a U.S. Labor Party.

Leopold’s detailed recounting of Mazzocchi’s career not only illuminates a model of “charismatic leadership” that empowered both rank-and-filers and friends of labor alike. This important biography also addresses a question that labor leftists, young and older, still grapple with today: How can a trade unionist with strong anti-capitalist views — usually not shared by the workers he or she represents — make his or her politics relevant to workplace struggles in the absence of a mass-based left-wing party?

Unlike many of his later fans who were middle-class baby boomers, Mazzocchi was shaped by his childhood experience during the Depression, followed by combat duty during World War II. He came from a boisterous, pro-labor Italian-American family in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, a district later known for its working-class conservatism and/or mob connections.

Mazzocchi’s two sisters and a closeted gay uncle were Communists, but while Tony was in that political orbit he was never a member or “organized” supporter of the party. Indeed his own radicalism never turned sectarian or contracted into a private creed. According to Leopold, “formal Marxism and its terminology were far too doctrinaire for Tony.”

He was inspired instead by left-wingers with a popular touch, like East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio, whose American Labor Party campaign for N.Y.C. Mayor Mazzocchi supported. He “watched and learned how Marc carefully serviced his base, while also staking out radical positions. Not only did he care for ‘workers’ as a political category — he cared for his constituents personally.”

Mazzocchi took the same approach when he got a job at a Queens cosmetics factory in 1950 and became a union activist. Local 149 at Helena Rubinstein was then affiliated with the United Gas, Coke and Chemical Workers (which merged with the Oil Workers to became OCAW five years later). As a 149 shop steward, organizer, and eventually president, Mazzocchi tripled the local’s size. He built a strong cadre of shop floor leaders, started a book club and credit union, and sponsored a “vast array of social activities” that “combined to create a remarkable new spirit at work.”

As Leopold recounts: “In stark contrast with much of the labor movement in the mid-1950s, Local 149 championed the rising civil rights movement — even though its membership was 95 percent white.”

Peace, Health and Safety

In 1957, Mazzocchi helped launched the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) to oppose atom bomb testing. His longtime involvement with SANE put him in touch with the “leading scientists, environmentalists, and activists who would later join him building an occupational safety and health movement.”

When the Rubenstein plant left the city, Mazzocchi’s membership became a force in local politics and a reliable source of strike solidarity in the suburbs. By the mid-1960s, Mazzocchi was mobilizing against job cuts at military contractors on Long Island with a union-drafted plan “to use defense workers’ vast skills to build public buses and subway cars.”

Aided by economist and fellow SANE activist Seymour Melman, this early initiative in “economic conversion” won Mazzocchi a White House audience with Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That same year, he almost ran for Congress — a move thwarted by Democratic Party bigwigs who looked askance at his peace activities and didn’t want to be redbaited along with him.

Mazzocchi’s aspirations for higher office were partially fulfilled, instead, within the 200,000-member OCAW. In 1965, he helped elect a new national union president, after a bitter struggle with top OCAW officials linked to the CIA’s subversion of labor overseas. This victory made Tony the union’s legislative/political director.

In that capacity, Mazzocchi linked emerging public concern about environmental pollution to the source of the problem — workplaces where OCAW members were exposed to toxic chemicals at much higher levels than anyone outside. In the era before OSHA and the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), as Leopold points out, “There were no effective standards. There was no enforcement. The corporations ruled as absolute monarchs over chemical production, exposure, and regulation.”

At Mazzocchi’s initiative, labor began to shift its own focus, from a traditional emphasis on job safety (i.e. protection against injuries) to dealing with the long-term health effects of occupational hazards. His method involved rank-and-file consciousness raising and grassroots coalition building, outside the Beltway.

A high-school dropout himself, Mazzocchi recruited a high-powered network of   medical researchers to provide documentation for lawsuits, reports, press releases, hearing testimony and investigative reporting. He regularly dispatched these allies to probe for the causes of job illnesses reported by his membership.

At the same time, he organized non-stop “road shows” that brought workers together with friendly experts and forced lawmakers to listen to both of them. Leopold’s account of the drive for passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1972 is a case study in building effective labor clout, albeit in an era when legislative gains were still possible even under a Republican president.

OCAW’s best-known cause was the case of Karen Silkwood, a whistle-blower from a dangerous nuclear facility operated by Kerr-McGee in Oklahoma. As later dramatized on screen — with Meryl Streep as the star of “Silkwood” — her story did not end happily. She died under suspicious circumstances in a 1974 car crash, while driving to a meeting with a New York Times reporter arranged by Mazzocchi’s close associate Steve Wodka.

As an integral part of what Leopold calls “the atomic-industrial complex,” OCAW nuclear workers ultimately proved to be Mazzocchi’s own Achilles heel. When he decided to run for national union president in 1979 and 1981, conservative opponents — critical of his “anti-nuke” politics and “incessant boat-rocking” — mobilized against him. In both elections he suffered heartbreakingly narrow defeats — the second resulting from disaffiliation of OCAW members in Canada who had been strong Mazzocchi supporters.

Tony confounded his foes, as usual, by making an unexpected political comeback. In the late 1980s he reconciled with Bob Wages, the last president of OCAW before it disappeared, via merger, into the Paper Workers and then the United Steel Workers. He returned to the OCAW leadership as national secretary-treasurer, using that post to promote the Labor Party and other worker education initiatives like the Labor Institute (utilizing the talents of radical economists and trainers like Leopold).

The Labor Party got off to a promising start with its founding convention in 1995. Since then, however, it has successively lost much of the active support, funding and visibility that Mazzocchi generated for the group through years of barnstorming. Leopold recounts the dreary sectarian squabbles that often paralyzed local chapters. A dispute about whether or not — and then how and when — to engage in electoral politics also festered unproductively.

After Tony’s longtime friend and ally Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000, the mainstream union backlash against third party “spoilers” further complicated recruitment efforts. (Nader was endorsed by several key affiliates of the LP, but not the Party itself.) Today the LP operates on a shoestring, concentrating on a brave challenge to two-party hegemony in South Carolina of all places.

Elsewhere, as Leopold notes, Mazzocchi’s life work gets carried on in various ways. One sees his legacy in the single-payer health care campaigns of the California Nurses Association and antiwar agitation by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), a coalition reprising the role played, in the Vietnam era, by the Mazzocchi-backed Labor For Peace.

The Legacy

The network of local coalitions on occupational safety and health (or COSH groups), which Tony helped foster, continues to function in many cities (trying to fill the void left by unions which have shifted resources into organizing at the expense of job safety fights).

The Steelworkers Union — now the home of former OCAW locals — has allied itself with the Sierra Club and embraced a “green unionism” of the sort promoted by Mazzocchi as long ago as the first Earth Day. Unions launching “corporate campaigns” still study the lessons of a Shell Oil strike and boycott that Mazzocchi coordinated 35 years ago.

In its account of Mazzocchi’s personal life, The Man Who Hated Work doesn’t ignore his less well-known shortcomings as a husband. (Two wives left him, taking six kids with them -— due to either his youthful womanizing or life-long workholism.)

As a devoted friend and comrade, however, the OCAW leader never failed to inspire — the author and many others — by “conjuring up a labor movement that didn’t really exist, but just might.” As Leopold describes it:

“This movement would be militant and green. It would bring about radical changes that would stop global warming. It would give workers real control over the quality and pace of work and over corporate investment decisions. It would champion the fight against militarism and for peace and equality. It would win life enhancing social programs such as free health care. It would dare to create a new political party to counter the corporate domination of the two major parties. In short, it would make good on its potential to transform American capitalism into something much more humane.”

Few union leaders today — in a time of shrunken aspirations and dwindling membership — project anything like this expansive vision, which is why Tony Mazzocchi is so greatly missed.

ATC 133, March-April 2008