Bookslut - January 2011
Pop Quiz: Who Made Asbestos Famous? Answer: Mostly This Guy
If you ever spend a few minutes watching C-SPAN, you may wonder how anything ever gets done in this country. For a clue, hover your magnifying glass over the stories of leaders who helped to create the public pressure for laws to be changed to make life a little better for ordinary folks. Strategic thinking and connecting groups of people to form alliances seem to be big common denominators among such leaders.
There’s a story in The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, Les Leopold’s 2007 biography of labor leader and worker safety advocate Tony Mazzocchi (pronounced miz-AH-key) that rather neatly illustrates the difference between strategy and tactic. In 1968, Mazzocchi got word that a worker had died of carbon monoxide poisoning at a paint company called National Lead in New Jersey. (The shock that comes with learning that they proudly displayed the word “lead” in their company name is a testament to how far we’ve come in understanding toxic chemicals. This broadly shared understanding about common toxins is another part of Mazzocchi’s legacy.)
At the time of the National Lead incident, Mazzocchi was starting to center his strategic thinking vis a vis building the labor movement around worker safety and health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) didn’t exist yet. Over 20,000 chemicals being used and released in manufacturing in the US were still unregulated. Workers were expected to handle chemicals like dioxin, benzene, beryllium, mercury gas, chlorine gas, asbestos, allyl alcohol fumes (which induce coma and death after brief exposure) and even plutonium without any independent agency monitoring their exposure levels. Some of these workers were already members of Mazzocchi’s Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), others worked in plants the union hoped to organize.
Leopold writes that Mazzocchi knew the workers needed more control over their exposure to chemicals, but they lacked the scientific knowledge it would take to know when they were experiencing dangerous levels. (Later, Mazzocchi would tell Nixon’s OSHA administrator, “You know, we’re not that dumbass. We don’t need to call you if something’s gonna explode. We’ll just run. We need you in nonexplosive situations where the exposures are harmful.”) So Mazzocchi came up with the idea of mobilizing left-leaning graduate students from university chemistry departments to join forces with the workers and use their expertise to pressure the companies to negotiate safety rules and worker-represented committees into the union contracts.
Getting the workers to trust the grad students was no easy thing, though. These workers’ main exposure to scientists had been the company-hired doctors who prescribed cough syrup after chemical exposures and told the guys to go back to work. Mazzocchi brought two chemistry grad students, Glenn Paulson and Max Snodderly, into the National Lead plant to tour the facility and meet the workers.
“It was a cold spring day,” [said Paulson]. “We were at the gate, and some of the top management people came out to tell us that we could not go in. Mazzocchi basically put them up against a wall, telling them that if they didn’t let him bring in his experts, ‘I’ll shut the place down right now.’ Management huddled momentarily to consider that threat and then agreed to let us in.”
The tour was an eye-opener. As Paulson recalled,
…They showed us all the monitoring devices and where they were located. At this time, the maximum level was supposed to be fifty parts per million. I’m kind of curious about machines, so I started to look around… and I found one where the alarm was set to go off at 100ppm. They management people got very embarrassed by that and they immediately changed it. Mazzocchi looked around. He found one that was set to go off at 200ppm. And I think it was the safety officer at the time, he started to look around at them. He found one that was set to go off at 400ppm. If somebody breathes that for a few hours, they’ll fall unconscious.
After finding some of the danger zones, Paulson asked to see a blueprint of the plant, which management rolled open for him on a twenty-foot meeting table. He said:
“It was clear that the process started with raw material -- a type of sand -- that was 96 percent titanium, 3 percent vanadium and 1 percent other metal oxides… it was clear as a bell to me that the process left behind very rich vanadium ore, and vanadium used as an additive for steel products is very valuable, much more valuable than titanium. It’s used for shielding of missiles and rockets. Seeing that the process left behind a substance that was 75 percent vanadium, I said something like, “Do you realize that you have left the richest vanadium ore in the world?”
At that point, side discussions within the room halted. Like a herd sensing danger, the silence spread from the management side and across the room. “I realized that I had hit upon their trade secret -- the fundamental profitable aspect of the process,” Paulson said. “It was the vanadium… From that point on they got real respectful. Management now realized that Mazzocchi had scientific backing to be reckoned with. They realized they had to address the serious health and safety problems and that they should talk seriously to us about how best to protect these workers. They agreed to fix and maintain the monitors and reduce the… exposures. In exchange, we agreed to maintain their trade secret.”
Mazzocchi’s victory here was both tactical -- winning a serious concession from one company on health and safety -- and strategic, since word got out around the country that Mazzocchi’s experts were trustworthy allies who would help workers learn how to protect themselves on the job.
Leopold’s book reveals how Mazzocchi proceeded in this way, thinking strategically while acting to achieve small tactical victories. But his strategic talents weren’t enough to save Karen Silkwood.
Some readers may remember Silkwood’s name from the 1983 film named for her. Silkwood was a worker at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma, who had discovered that bad welds on the plutonium rods were being covered up, and decided to become a whistleblower with the help of Mazzocchi and his protégé Steve Wodka.
You will have to read Leopold’s book to find out just what happened to Silkwood, and who may have been responsible. I will say this: It ended badly.
Leopold, who devotes too many pages to union election dramas and name-dropping about Mazzocchi’s famous Washington connections, is at his best when he focuses on the stories of the workers whose health and safety were the cause of Mazzocchi’s life.
Mazzocchi, who died in 2002, left behind some very real legacies for working people: passage of the OSH Act and establishment of the OSHA as part of the Labor Department; workers’ health and safety committees that train workers to monitor toxicity in plants and factories around the country; new regulations and enforcement on many toxic substances like asbestos; a partnership between labor unions and the Sierra Club that blossomed in the mid-2000s into the Blue-Green Alliance and continues to expand. There’s no need to wax romantic about the man to recognize the achievements he made against great odds, at the bargaining table and in Washington.
But Leopold is himself a longtime labor activist and scholar, and you can feel his passion for Mazzocchi in passages like this:
Mazzocchi wasn’t just after a redistribution of wealth. He was after human fulfillment. His highest calling was to demand human freedom -- freedom from demeaning and dangerous work, freedom to learn, freedom to live a life full of ideas, engagement, beauty and friends -- and of course excellent food, preferably involving pasta.
Who doesn’t love this kind of idealism? That Leopold allows it to color his writing about a complex, peripatetic labor leader who left behind two broken marriages and who failed to help a whistleblower survive her employer’s wrath is perhaps the most forgivable of a biographer’s sins. Especially a biographer who has devoted much of his own career to teaching and research about the same things his subject championed: worker safety and health, worker empowerment, and environmentalism. Leopold’s broad-ranging yet deeply researched and sensitively written treatment of Mazzocchi’s life shows that you can be an author-activist and still do some serious biography.
Read the original review.
post from TPMCafe on 20 August 2008 09:15:00 AM. © TPMCafe
It's always hard to know what book to recommend to liberal friends looking to understand the labor movement, since you want a book that has frames of reference that non-labor folks can identify with, yet gets to the meat of what unions are about. So my new first choice may be The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, a book that will introduce them to a labor leader they may not understand existed, one who fought for civil rights in the workplace before anyone had heard of Martin Luther King Jr., who as a leader of unions in defense industries actually led labor opposition to nuclear testing and the Vietnam War, who built a labor-environmental alliance with Ralph Nader and others around pollution in the workplace, and whose history within his union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) can give a wonderful sense of the internal life of the best of labor institutions.
His story, from the 1940s when Mazzocchi left the army as a veteran and high-school drop-out to this decade when he finally passed on from terminal disease, still fighting on behalf of workers suffering from post-911 cleanup illnesses, is not necessarily typical, but he was hardly an aberration either, as evidenced by the broader labor and progressive coalitions he built in his lifetime. And what is true is that the history in which he was embedded is often forgotten by even most liberals, whose views of labor are constricted to myths and stereotypes rather than understanding the rich mosaic of union life that Mazzocchi was a vital part. Jump to below the fold for a selection of stories on Mazzocchi, but I urge you to read the book.
Civil Rights: Mazzocchi, although not ever a Communist Party member, entered the labor movement embedded in the movements of leftwing activism of the 1940s. And long before the Brando's fictional Terry Malloy faced down mobsters in the East Coast Longshoremen union, Mazzocchi in 1948 was working with Communist activists demanding democratic reforms in the union and the opening up of longshoremen jobs to black workers.
As part of a classic early confrontation with racists and red-baiters, Tony was a guard at a concert in 1949 for the black singer Paul Robeson, whose performance in Peekskill New York was beset by a white mob calling to "string that big nigger up."
When he led his own union local in conservative Long Island, in the early 1950s he and his union forced his employer to hire black workers -- all long before the civil rights movement in the South was getting headlines. His union newspaper would cover the rising civil rights movement and in 1956, the local would financially support the Montgomery bus boycott and led its members to a civil rights rally in Madison Square Garden in support of the bus boycotters.
On women's rights, Mazzocchi started life in a local with majority female membership and would combine the health and safety organizing that became his signature (as detailed below) with demands that employers stop trying to exclude women of child-bearing age from jobs -- instead demanding that they make jobs safe for all workers. In 1982, Ms. Magazine would rank Mazzocchi with Phil Donahue, Norman Lear and other "Ms. Heroes--Men Who've Taken Chances and Made a Difference."
Anti-War Leader: What is remarkable is that as a leader in a union representing defense workers, in 1956 Mazzocchi organized a local symposium on Long Island on the dangers of nuclear fallout from nuclear testing. In 1957, he could become a leader of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). He would continue to promote the issue as he rose in power within the national union, sometimes to the detriment of his own standing but always seeking to expand the education of members on the issues of war and peace.
Even with a conservative membership, Mazzocchi encouraged teach-ins on the Vietnam War within the union. In 1967, Mazzocchi would testify before Congress on the occupational-sickness related illnesses of Navajo uranium miners, condemning the government for its incestuous ties with industry. As Vietnam kept going, Mazzocchi became a key organizer of labor leaders across the nation to come forward and speak out against the war, in defiance of the official pro-war line from AFL-CIO headquarters. He would author a famous ad for the Washington Post in 1970, signed by 110 union leaders from twenty-two unions, labeling Vietnam "A Rich Man's War and Poor Man's Fight."
Read the whole review here.
Download a PDF of the American Prospect review, June 2008.
Library Journal Review
by Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City
Leopold (cofounder & director, Labor Inst. & Public Health Inst.) tells the story of radical unionist Tony Mazzocchi (1926-2002), who grew up in left-wing New York. In 1953, Mazzocchi, a World War II veteran, followed his employer, Helena Rubinstein, from New York City to Long Island and rebuilt his union, Local 149, United Gas, Coke and Chemical Workers, which became the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) International Union in 1955. The author shows how Mazzocchi thus strengthened America's labor movement, not to mention the local Democratic Party, mixing radical politics with union fights for better wages and better work conditions. The result: a militant and popular union local. Mazzocchi used his national position at OCAW to work with scientists and environmentalists to improve workplace safety, environmental laws, and economic equality. His radicalism angered conventional unionists, especially those assisting the CIA abroad. He irritated corporations, and was considered a threat to and by the FBI. Leopold's admiring biography shows Mazzocchi as that rare radical who escaped the Red Scare and continued through old age to weave together leftist politics and strong unionism with the goal of improving life for all Americans. Highly recommended for medium to large public libraries and all academic libraries.
Review: The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor
by Jon Flanders Monthly Review, January 2008
I just finished reading Les Leopold's biography of Tony Mazzocchi, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor. I finished it in about a day. It's that kind of a read, an old-fashioned page turner for anyone interested in the working class and the history of the labor movement in the United States.
Most of the reviews I have seen online dwell on Mazzocchi's environmental accomplishments as the labor leader who opened up lines of communication and cooperation with environmentalists.
That is certainly part of the story, a big part of course. But Mazzocchi was much more than a good occupational health and safety guy at the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW).
Mazzocchi fought to preserve the vision of labor and a better world for workers throughout the long dismal decline of labor in the last half of the twentieth century. He was just old enough to have witnessed the great battles of the CIO as a dyslexic youngster, where he cut his teeth in a working-class culture of struggle in the seething world of New York City radicalism.
After serving in WW2 as an anti-aircraft gunner, he plunged into union politics in the city, allied briefly with Communist Party militants who were trying to hang on as the Cold War bore down on the working class. He learned from them, but was never a pawn. He also learned quickly to hate routine mind-deadening labor, hence the book's title. His attitude toward such work took a little from Utah Philips' wobblies and hobos.
His local at the Helena Rubinstein plant on Long Island defied the conservative trends in labor well into the fifties. The local's newspaper was called "The Militant."
As a political activist he revived the Democratic Party on Long Island and probably could have been elected to Congress. He decided against running for tactical reasons.
His work in his local was a springboard into OCAW's national politics. He was a shrewd, patient infighter in union bureaucratic battles, and finally used his Health and Safety position for two cliff-hanging runs for the Presidency of OCAW. His losses were to some extent due to his refusal to make the kind of "give me a job" deals that usually decided such elections.
His connection with Karen Silkwood sprang from his ground-breaking work in occupational health. He brought a young cadre of medical people into the workplace field, allied with Ralph Nader, and saw the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) be signed by no less than Richard Nixon.
The book is full of gripping horror stories about workplace conditions. Then there is the horror story of the CIA's involvement in the top leadership struggles of OCAW. I'm not going to recount them here, buy the book and read for yourself.
What really gripped me about the book, however, was following Mazzocchi's career as it arced through labor history. Brilliant as he was, Mazzocchi could not overcome the grinding historical forces that brought us to where we are today, with an industrial union sector hollowed out by plant closings, the leadership of complacent business unionism, and the resulting demoralized workforce.
Mazzocchi's last battle, to build a Labor Party, ran head on into these forces. After an enthusiastic start during the disillusioning Clinton years, the Labor Party was set back by the continuation of the unions clinging to the skirts of the Democratic Party, even as it took workers' money and gave nothing in return.
It was Nader and the Green Party that rode the angst with Clintonism into the 2000 elections, bringing down the charges of "spoilers" that Mazzocchi feared for the Labor Party.
He lived long enough to see the 9/11 events and the ensuing right-wing surge. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, still full of fight and ideas right up to the end.
In a different era, Mazzocchi might have been a Debs. Instead it was his fate to "rage against the dying of the light." We can learn from him, however, as I did from my reading of Leopold's book, to never succumb to bitterness after a defeat. Time and again he picked himself up and often won over old enemies in the course of fighting a new battle. If cancer had not taken him in 2002, I am sure he would be out with us today, looking for what could be done in the gathering menace that capitalism confronts us with in 2008.
Jon Flanders is a member and former president of IAM LL 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
Tony Mazzocchi: The Man Who Never Sold Out
by Mark Dudzic
Labor Notes, December 2007
Tony Mazzocchi hated work. Don’t get me wrong. He was the hardest working labor leader I’ve ever met. The work he hated was the coerced, soul-numbing labor performed by untold millions in factories, offices and other hierarchical workplaces. Not only did most workers have their spirits crushed and their humanity demeaned on a daily basis, they were also routinely and knowingly exposed to toxic substances and hazardous conditions.
When I was a young union activist, it was Mazzocchi’s irreverent attitude to work that first endeared him to me. He was a breath of fresh air. “I’m not opposed to layoffs,” I remember him saying; “I just think that they should be done by reverse seniority. With full pay and benefits! It should be just like prison: you put your time in and get out.”
Les Leopold captures this sensibility and places it in a historical context in an important new biography on Mazzocchi’s life. An activist and leader in the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW, now part of the Steelworkers), his career spanned the entire second half of the 20th century.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF LEADER
Along the way Mazzocchi helped build one of the most dynamic and democratic local unions in the country, led the fight to liberate the OCAW from CIA-dominated business unionists, and birthed a powerful grassroots movement that established the legal right to a safe workplace. He linked that movement with the environmental movement, and was the key catalyst in the founding of the Labor Party, which he led until his death in 2002.
Tony Mazzocchi proposed an anti-corporate, alliance-building alternative to the mainstream post-war unionism that relied on cooperation between labor, management and government. “What Reuther was to building centralized bureaucratic unionism,” said long-time labor activist and sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, “Mazzocchi was to democratic unionism.”
In his two heartbreaking campaigns for OCAW president in 1979 and 1981 (he lost both races by less than 3 percent of the vote), Mazzocchi called for a mass labor mobilization to resist the growing global attacks on working people at a time when labor arguably still had the power to do something about it. When Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, Mazzocchi wanted to seize National Airport.
After being fired by the International, Mazzocchi helped mobilize the “lost battalions” of the labor movement to fight concessions and build solidarity throughout the 1980s. He later returned from political obscurity to win election as secretary-treasurer of the OCAW and used that position as a bully pulpit to pull together a national movement for independent labor politics.
SAFETY AND HEALTH PIONEER
Tony Mazzocchi is best known for his pioneering work around occupational safety and health, and Leopold’s book tells the stories of the uranium miners, asbestos millers, and chemical workers whose experiences gave rise to this movement. His chilling chapter on the Karen Silkwood case is the most succinct summary of her story yet written.
Mazzocchi drew on his experiences in the movement against nuclear testing to assemble a cadre of young scientists and doctors to provide validation and technical expertise for rank-and-file activists confronting the dangerous conditions under which they worked. Turning the top-down model on its head, these recruits empowered union activists and leaders to wage the fight on their own terms.
Mazzocchi also understood that the growing environmental movement was a natural ally. He pointed out that toxic exposures did not stop at the plant fence line and that the exposures suffered by workers were usually many times greater than those suffered in the community.
Mazzocchi insisted that unionists learn to take this alliance seriously and told environmentalists that their programs were doomed if they didn’t respond to the legitimate job concerns of those working in polluting industries. “There is a Superfund for dirt,” he would say, “There ought to be one for workers.”
The fight to establish the right to a safe job, according to Mazzocchi, would not be won by lobbying Congress, but would require a broad mobilization. In fact, he saw in this mobilization a powerful new lever that could revitalize a class-based movement of working people.
“A PARTY OF OUR OWN”
The nurturing and support of this movement was Mazzocchi’s life work and legacy. He thought a movement of this scope could only be built by “setting the terms of the debate”. Like all militant unionists, he understood that if you let the boss control what issues came to the bargaining table, you were bargaining against yourself.
Mazzocchi began calling for a labor party in the 1970s. In the late 1980s he was joined by the OCAW and many other unions and activists battered by the unrelenting corporate offensive. In 1996, the founding convention of the Labor Party attracted more than 1,500 delegates and the endorsement of six national and hundreds of local and regional unions.
Understanding how difficult it would be to build a labor party within the shell of the two-party system, Mazzocchi knew that a viable labor party had to be built upon the institutional support of organized labor. This would require finding ways to build the party’s strength while the unions continued to work for “lesser of two evil” Democrats. The party, he realized, must be provocative without being marginalized. And it would have to avoid both the narcissism of spoiler candidacies and the compromises of fusion parties.
Most of all, Mazzocchi understood that the fate of a labor party was entwined in the prospects for a dynamic, revitalized labor movement. Much as he predicted, the Labor Party grew during the brief labor upsurge of the mid-1990s and declined in the face of the defeats and demoralizations of the Bush years.
New York City labor leader Ed Ott recently called Mazzocchi “the man who never sold out.” Tony Mazzocchi’s life story has the capacity to inspire a new generation of activists. Mazzocchi would have looked at today’s crisis-ridden and divided labor movement as a passing phenomenon. He would have taken heart from the slow and steady progress of activists in South Carolina who are building a labor party in the heart of the right-to-work South and he would see the potential in the growing movement for national health care.
Mazzocchi would argue that, given the utter failure of the mainstream model, his alternative vision was bound to prevail. “They call me a dreamer,” he would say. “They call me impractical. But look at the mess that they’ve made of things. Isn’t it about time that we tried something different?”
Mark Dudzic is the national organizer of the Labor Party and former president of OCAW Local 149 and OCAW District 8 Council.