51mradmd9el_aa240_.thumbnail.jpg
(Please welcome author Les Leopold in the comments — jh)

"A compelling personal narrative set against the history of organized post-World War II labor." I can already see people heading under their desks, or deciding now would be the right time to alphabetize those spice racks. Sounds like something good liberals think they should consume, like Castor oil or stewed prunes, for the good of the movement.

Ahem.

Only it’s not.

The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor is the story of Tony Mazzocchi, the visionary labor leader who was way ahead of his time, working with everyone from Karen Silkwood to Ralph Nader to Bruce Springsteen in his attempts to strengthen the labor movement, fight for environmental as well as health and safety standards and bring about progressive change. Along the way his streetwise smarts and personal integrity helped navigate a path that avoided the pitfals of McCarthyism, union corruption, and co-option by the CIA and corporate culture. At the end of his life, he had grown disillusioned with the Democratic party and their fealty to corporate America, and devoted his energies to building a Labor Party. He died in 2002 at the age of 76.

With the three frontrunning Democratic presidential candidates all affirmatively speaking in pro-labor terms after decades of disempowerment, it’s an interesting time for this book to appear and there are many lessons for progressive organizers to to take from it. As Paul Krugmann has argued, a strong union movement means a strong middle class. Mazzocchi’s story is inspirational for many reasons, but for me anyway it was largely due to his vision of working from a bedrock conviction of progressive ideals.

Mazzocchi was born in Bensonhurst in 1926, grew up in a union household with a strongly anti-fascist family. "[In] our family, opposing racism against blacks was a matter of trade union principles," said Tony. "My father made it clear to us that racism was used as a tool to divide working people. I internalized that."

He got a chance to put those principles to the test as President of Local 149 while working at the Helena Rubenstein company in the early 50s. Only two black people worked there at the time — as janitors. Mazzocchi insisted that the company change its hiring practices, but the company balked — feeling, rightly, that he probably didn’t have the support of his own workers:

"One of my big supporters, a steward, came to me and said, ‘Look the people said, if we have to share lockers with them, we’re gonna refuse to do it.’"…But…Mazzocchi stood firm.

"I said, if you don’t like the policy, you can give up your job. It’s a union policy and it’s a union shop and we made the decision because it’s the right thing to do."

In the end, "The company started hiring blacks. No one quit their job and after a while, the whites accepted them. And we crossed that bridge long before the civil rights revolution broke out into the open."

He likewise stepped out on an unpopular limb in 1953 when Operation Upshot-Knothole exploded eleven thermonuclear devices in Nevada, and Mazzocchi wanted to launch a protest. Along with Norman Cousins, Henry Abrams and Linus Pauling he became one of the founders of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). They were red-baited for their efforts by Senator Tom Dodd and the pressure broke the group apart, although they were later credited with the success of the treaty banning atmospheric testing signed by Kennedy in 1963. That he did this from within the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, with which his Local 149 merged in 1955, was no mean feat.

Mazzocchi’s most impressive and memorable achievement, however, was probably spearheading the fight that lead to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). It was his ability to use worker health as a starting point that enabled him to unite forces that might otherwise have found themselves at odds with each other — namely, labor and environmental interests:

Mazzocchi’s conceptual breakthrough was that pollution always starts in the workplace, and then moves into the community and the natural environment. Workplace pollution, therefore was the source of environmental degradation, and only strict workplace controls on pollutants and toxic substances could adequately protect us from hazards. Mazzocchi tied the environment to the workplace by calling his road show "Hazards in the Industrial Environment."

Mazzocchi had a powerful, inclusive frame in his "Precautionary Principle," which stated that "workers’ health, not chemicals, should be given the benefit of the doubt." It was the sentiment that brought environmentalists to the side of OCAW in 1973 for the strike against Shell Oil, as they attempted to hold the company to the union’s standards of workplace safety. One headline read, "Archie Bunker Meets The Sierra Club."

Because Shell’s production line was largely mechanized and could be operated by management, there was no ability to shut them down so the battle had to be fought in the PR sphere. Among other tactics, Mazzocchi commissioned a national ad campaign signed by 29 leading doctors and scientists:

"Workers have long served as unwitting ‘guinea pigs’, providing useful toxicological data which helped to protect the public," read the ad…."The effects of most environmental pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, lead, mercury and also of most human carcinogens were first detected in workmen." The signers concluded, "the success of the OCAW strike is critical to both labor and the public….The demand to participate actively in protecting health and safety of workers is basic and inalienable and cannot be sacrificed to narrow economic interests."

The strike ended when Shell agreed to many though not all of the union’s demands, though Mazzocchi believed that it was a success in that they had "embarrassed the company into a settlement," and helped strengthen the anti-corporate movement. But he was well aware that the relationship between environmentalists and labor was fraught with landmines and could quickly come apart when jobs were at stake if the issue was framed wrong.

When Greenpeace and local mothers joined together to protest the Ciba-Geigy facility in Toms River, New Jersey and their dumping of toxic waste into Ortley Beach, the workers sided with the company and led a counter-demonstration against the mothers. One of the Greenpeace workers told the New Times that her car had been driven off the road and she had been beaten by workers.

This was the stuff of Mazzocchi’s proto-fascism nightmares. He had warned environmentalists again and again that workers would "eat them for lunch" if they failed to address the jobs issue. When fundamentally threatened, he told them, workers could go right or left, depending on how they were organized and how the issues were framed. Without alternative leadership and new ideas, they could even march against mothers and beat up environmentalists.

This is a minor episode in the book, which has many dramatic narratives including Tony’s role in the Karen Silkwood story (his character was played by Ron Silver in the movie) and his heartbreaking defeat as head of the OCAW in 1979. But I bring it up because Mazzocchi wrote this after four years of Jimmy Carter:

When Carter got elected, the AFL-CIO was saying: We’ll make the change we need to make in labor law, health and safety laws, to give us the power we need, by electing a veto-proof Congress. And we elected a veto-proof Congress. We had a Democratic House, Democratic Senate, and a Democratic president. And we couldn’t even get a mild labor reform bill…That’s why I left DC — because this was not the way to go. Lobbying your friends was not enough.

Sound familiar?

Mazzocchi’s fear was that in selling themselves out like whores to corporate money, Democrats risked losing workers to a right-wing working class movement organized around xenophobic issues of race, immigration and nationalism (hence his late-in-life focus on building a Labor Party). It’s no less a threat today than it was 30 years ago, and we’re seeing it happen as we speak in the faux-populist candidacy of Mike Huckabee and the nativist movement inspired by Lou Dobbs and the Minutemen. Rather than seeking to inspire people with the hope of inclusiveness and new ideas, the always-wrong Rahm Emanuel is trying to emulate that within the Democratic Party. And he’s playing with fire.

Todd Gitlin was here a few weeks ago, arguing that the netroots suffer from a "born yesterday" perspective and did not learn the lessons of progressives from the past. And while I’m sure that there are strains of that within a group that includes millions of people, I think that argument is largely horseshit, something that might make Grandpa feel a bit superior but isn’t really rooted in fact.

One of our strengths is actually the ability to synthesize lessons of the past into our evolving counter-narrative of the current political landscape, and we’re well aware of the need to work together with the labor movement both to strengthen it and organize around issues of progressive change. Tony Mazzocchi’s story, his vision and his experiences have many important lessons we can extract in that quest, and Les Leopold has written a strong and compelling book recounting them.

And it’s extremely entertaining. No bitter medicine here.

Please welcome Les Leopold to the book salon.

Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
Subscribe in a reader

109 Comments