The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi
by Les Leopold
This labor day, remember the story of labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, whose legacy lives on in today’s workplaces and ongoing alliances between labor activists and environmentalists.
Here’s an excerpt from Les Leopold’s moving biography of Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union leader Mazzocchi, whose struggle to address the unconscionable toxic exposure of tens of thousands of workers led to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and included work alongside nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood.
The snow drifted thigh-high along the stone walls separating rolling farm fields from dense forest. Encrusted evergreens drooped with exhaustion.
On the ground, patches of red-tinted snow flagged the dead. Curiously, some corpses were not bloodied. These soldiers had been felled by concussions from exploding shells, leaving their bodies—and their greatcoats—whole, seemingly untouched.
You weren’t supposed to do it; it was disrespectful to the dead. But soldiers fighting frostbite occasionally did it anyway: strip a coat from a dead comrade. The bitter chill in the Ardennes Forest excused a great deal. No one could remember a more frigid winter in Belgium than this one in 1944, when German panzer divisions counterattacked ferociously against the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge.
As one soldier wrestled a coat off a limp body, the eighteen-year-old grunt still alive inside it was jolted by a spasm of consciousness: Jesus, they’re stripping me! Holy shit! If they get this jacket off me, it means I’m dead.
But the year wasn’t 1944, it was 1975. And Tony Mazzocchi wasn’t lying on the battlefield in the Ardennes, he was pinned upside down in his car beside a Virginia highway. The paramedics were struggling to get Tony’s coat off to free him from the wreckage.
“I was hallucinating,” Tony told me many years later. “When I came to, I heard this guy say, ‘Take off his coat.'” And Tony’s mind had slipped back to a searing memory from World War II, when he’d pilfered a coat from a dead soldier. He’d always felt bad about it.
Once Tony emerged from his soldier’s flashback, he was puzzled by the pack of medics tending to him. “I was thinking, What are they making all this fuss about?” Tony said. “I felt okay.” Then, as the medics stretchered him to the ambulance, “All of a sudden I turned and I saw the car laying on its side, totaled, the roof smashed down to the steering wheel. Next thing I knew I was in Manassas Hospital. I was bruised and I had a slight concussion. But I was lucky.”
Lucky twice. Tony Mazzocchi had survived the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle ever fought by American troops. And then in 1975, perhaps targeted in another epic American battle—this time against the nuclear industry—he’d cheated death again.
“I have no proof—not one iota of proof—that someone set me up,” Tony said, sitting comfortably in my living room in 2002. He still didn’t know what had caused the accident. He’d been driving home from a church-sponsored meeting on worker health and safety. He’d had two drinks after the meeting. But that didn’t explain what happened as he drove east on Route 66: He blacked out before he hit the shoulder. The driver of an approaching car later said he watched the brand-new, two-tone Chevy coupe hit the grass median, flip into the air, roll, and land on its top. Thanks to the auto safety campaigns of Tony’s friend Ralph Nader, this car wouldn’t start until the seat belt was fastened. Inside the mangled chassis, that belt, along with Tony’s sheepskin coat, had saved his life.
Mazzocchi and his colleagues had gone over it again and again. Yes, he’d been tired, given the breakneck pace of his crusading union work around the country during the previous five years. Was fatigue catching up with him? Or was something else at work?
He couldn’t erase more sinister thoughts from his mind. Just two months before his 1975 accident, a woman working with Tony to expose deadly hazards at an Oklahoma nuclear facility also had suffered a mysterious automobile crash. She had been on her way to deliver damning evidence against her bosses at the Kerr-McGee Corporation to a New York Times reporter when her car went off the road and hit a concrete culvert. Tony Mazzocchi had survived his wreck. But his colleague, Karen Silkwood, had died.
I first met Tony Mazzocchi a few months before he met Karen Silkwood. I was a graduate student who had come to his cramped union office on 16th Street in Washington, DC, hoping to enlist in his radical occupational health and safety movement. Tony had other plans for me and for the movement. His idea was impossibly simple—and perhaps simply impossible. He wanted to build a new working-class economics crusade, and he wanted me to help.
“Look,” he said, “I think the post–World War Two boom is over. Workers should be ready to learn about the problems of capitalism.” All I had to do was follow the same steps Tony had taken to launch the health and safety movement. First we’d design a course. Then we’d write a popular book based on the course. “Just don’t use a lot of Marxist jargon,” Tony said. Presto, a new movement would be born! I tried to believe him.
That fall, David Gordon, the noted radical economist, piloted our new political economy course for members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) at the Rutgers Labor Education Center in New Jersey. No surprise: We did not spark a mass movement. But it did lead in 1975 to the creation of the Labor Institute in New York.
I would work at the institute for the next thirty-plus years, first as a staff member and later as its director, helping Tony with his countless schemes. During his period of exile from OCAW, Tony showed up on the Labor Institute’s doorstep. And after his second marriage collapsed, he even moved in for a while with our family in New Jersey, pasta and canned tomatoes in hand.
I was drawn to Tony’s intelligence and his unwavering commitment (as well as his anchovy sauces). Tony didn’t just preach about the need for great social changes: He acted each day to create them. But as fiercely as Tony fought for his ideas, as tenaciously as he held on to his principles, he was a kindhearted soul with an earthy, self-deprecating sense of humor. Unlike so many people who rise to leadership, Tony did not have an ego you constantly had to tiptoe around. He almost never got angry, or blamed anyone, or felt slighted. He was brilliant but referred to himself as a “hoople-head” who got things done because he had just enough brains to surround himself with smart people.
Tony was a big-picture organizer who couldn’t sit still. All the time I knew him, he traveled the country incessantly, crusading for universal health care or a labor party—leaving too little time to spend with his six children from two broken marriages. He would start ten projects at once, tossing the details around like confetti while others swept up behind.
Yet he could be meticulous when it came to cooking, woodworking, home repairs, or cement work. He once spent three days taking apart a broken dishwasher piece by piece rather than call in a pro. And kids from all over (including mine) still have three-foot-long wooden fish he carefully cut out for them to paint at birthday parties.
Tony’s method for radical social change was joyous and communal, involving stimulating conversation and lots of raucous meals with friends. Hopelessness and resignation were not in his repertoire. For inspiration he loved to read history, and his most forward-looking notions often owed a debt to the past. As an autodidact, Tony never recognized (or even noticed) the boundaries between different occupations and different fields of study. He eagerly collected information from everywhere. Then it all bumbled around in his unconventional mind, often producing ideas that catapulted him decades ahead of the curve.
As early as the 1950s, when the term environment was nowhere on the political radar, Tony learned about nuclear fallout and began integrating environmental concerns into his critique of capitalism and his union work. His environmental radicalism grew in the 1960s and ’70s when he realized that corporations were willingly exposing workers to toxic, even lethal, substances to increase productivity and profits. In the late 1980s, Tony was arguing that global warming might force us to fundamentally alter capitalism. He believed that the struggle of capital against nature was the irreconcilable contradiction that would force systemic change.
For me, Tony conjured up a labor movement that didn’t really exist, but just might. This movement would be militant and green. It wouldn’t just fight to protect the workforce from toxic substances—it would eliminate them. 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 justice 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.
When Tony talked about broad social programs, there were no sectarian overtones and no ’60s hype. He poked through the accepted wisdom that our inequitable, unsustainable economy was the best system that had ever been and could ever be. He would continually ask why millions of people were stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs—and why even good-paying jobs sentenced workers to so many occupational illnesses. He wanted every worker to have paid sabbaticals from work, a guaranteed income, and free access to higher education.
Tony’s big ideas led to Tony’s big actions—and both differentiated him from nearly every other modern labor leader. He built bridges from the often insular labor movement to all the other major movements of his time—feminism, environmentalism, antiwar, civil rights. He was instrumental in building the occupational health and safety movement, the environmental health movement, and labor–environmental alliances, as well as in creating a new generation of worker-oriented occupational health professionals. Thousands of workers’ lives were spared as a result.
He was anti-corporate to the core. He thought that the drive for ever-increasing profits was in fundamental conflict with public health, worker health and safety, and a sound environment. He feared that growing corporate power could lead to authoritarianism. The antidote was growing democratic unions with an active rank and file. Most of all, he thought we had it all backward: The purpose of life was not to toil until we dropped to enrich someone else. Rather it was to live life to its fullest by working less, not more.
Then why didn’t Tony Mazzocchi become a household name? Why didn’t he succeed in turning the labor movement upside down? Maybe he was blocked by his fearsome enemies—including CIA operatives in his own union. The nation’s most powerful corporate interests, from Big Oil to the nuclear industry, didn’t like Tony very much, either.
Or maybe he was just too principled. His friends worried that he was too idealistic and pure to grab power when it was there for the grabbing.
But if Tony didn’t reach the pinnacles of power because of his principles, perhaps he got as far as he did for the same reason. He was, as labor leader Ed Ott said, “the man who never sold out”—and many of us found this deeply inspiring. For Tony, the struggle for victory was also about how you got there.
When Tony was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002, I knew it would fall on me to tell his story. He agreed. But he really didn’t want me to describe him as a “great man of history.” He didn’t believe he was a great man, and he didn’t believe in the great-man (or -woman) theory of history anyway. Nevertheless, for the next nine months Tony allowed me to record countless interviews with him. He was very patient, knowing that he had an amateur at work. After he died on October 5, 2002, I was in shock. I was taken aback by the giant hole he left not only in my life, but in my labor movement. Without him to point the way, the pathway toward big-picture social change started to blur, at least for me. That’s when the purpose of this book became clear. Maybe I could write Tony’s story so that the catalyst within him could shine through. If I succeeded, then perhaps Tony could continue to inspire more of us to think big.
Tony viewed all of his work, especially his successes, as collective endeavors. So as much as this book focuses on his life, it is meant as a tribute to all those workers and allies who shared his fight for social justice, and who continue to carry it on.
Tony Mazzocchi hoped to lay out the stepping-stones to lead future generations to a healthier and more equitable society. I hope this book will help those generations, as they move along those uneven stones, to take courage from the audacious dreamer who put them in place.
—Les Leopold, May 2007