Remembering Mazzocchi

David Moberg

A streetwise high school dropout, a fierce protagonist of workers against corporate power and a down-to-earth visionary, Tony Mazzocchi was the type of American labor leader who was all too rare over the last half of the 20th century. If he had been less rare, both the labor movement and progressive politics would be in far better shape than they are today.

Mazzocchi made his name as an advocate for workers’ health – a leading figure in the passage of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act and a key partner in exposing nuclear industry hazards with Karen Silkwood, who died in a mysterious accident as she was on her way to blow the whistle on her nuclear fuel-making employer. 

Mazzocchi was also one of the earliest union leaders to ally with environmentalists and to raise their awareness that workers are typically the first ones at risk to environmental dangers – a perspective that important green pioneers like Rachel Carson lacked. And he was one of the few union leaders to speak out in the 50s against nuclear arms testing.

Despite his environmental credentials, Mazzocchi was above all a trade unionist. For most of his life he worked for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), or its predecessors. But despite two close tries, he never became president of the union, partly because he was unwilling to play the conventional games of promising personal favors to other officials, and partly because he believed in running on radical principles that exposed him to Red-baiting and other fear-mongering.

A tough negotiator and strike leader, Mazzocchi used innovative tactics, like leading the first environmental strike” against Shell Oil, and pioneering some of the methods – such as using regulatory pressures and mobilizing non-union groups to support workers – that are now part of labor’s comprehensive campaign” arsenal. But he also espoused a vision for the labor movement that was politically broad, economically profound and radically democratic.

In The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi (Chelsea Green, 2007), Les Leopold admirably pulls together the many strands of Mazzocchi’s life in a sympathetic narrative that also raises some criticisms and reveals personal foibles. 

Leopold, a longtime friend of Mazzocchi’s and director of the Labor Institute – a Mazzocchi-inspired research and education organization – roots the labor leader’s career in both the New York Italian working-class family and neighborhood in which he grew up and the progressive, Depression-era politics on the fringes of Communist Party influence. And Leopold deftly links Mazzocchi’s personal biography to the contours of labor and political history, especially the debilitating Cold War influences on union strategy.

Mazzocchi’s undogmatic socialist vision drew inspiration from the left, but rather than rely on leaders and ideologists to dictate strategy, he trusted workers, once they had the opportunity to educate themselves about issues, to make decisions about political goals. And he was pragmatic even as he pushed new ideas: While spending the last decades of his life proselytizing for a Labor Party, he argued that the party should mainly educate workers, develop political programs and give workers a new voice – rather than run candidates – until it could do so with a serious chance of winning.

For Mazzocchi, creating a book club for rank-and-file leaders in the Helena Rubenstein cosmetics local where he got his start as a leader was as important as fighting over grievances. And it was natural for him to build working relationships with community groups, environmentalists, scientists (such as environmental biologist Barry Commoner), doctors and prominent activists (such as Ralph Nader) because he recognized that they could strengthen workers’ efforts and that labor’s goals should go beyond simply improving pay and benefits.

Often, Mazzocchi’s union opponents would attack his safety and environmental crusades as a threat to jobs. Mazzocchi argued that dangerous jobs that produce products that threaten community health and the environment should not be preserved. Workers, he believed, could be protected through what he first called a Workers Superfund – playing on the funds used to clean up toxic waste sites – and later, more appropriately, a Just Transition. Rather than extended unemployment benefits and short-term training, he proposed that displaced workers be paid to go to college (and that all workers should be entitled to paid sabbaticals). 

As Leopold’s title indicates, Mazzocchi – a hard worker at the union cause – disliked normal work and thought people deserved to engage in what he called redefined work,” using their creativity to promote social change.

Ultimately, Mazzocchi thought that such fundamental change would come only by creating a working-class culture and awareness that could lead to political action on many fronts, including, but not limited to, elections. An enlightened worker consciousness, including the ability to make key decisions about strategy and goals, was the key to progressive power. 

Unlike a Mazzocchi rival for the OCAW presidency, who saw power as his ability to pick up a phone and call any oil company executive and have a conversation,” Mazzocchi said, I believe in building a strong fighting organization so that when you do call an oil company executive, you’re there as an equal.”

Unfortunately, Mazzocchi never got the chance to show what he could have done as a union president. Leopold vividly and engagingly details the inside stories of OCAW politics, where, although Mazzocchi eventually served as the union’s secretary-treasurer, he ultimately fell short. 

It’s impressive how far Mazzocchi came in a union where many influences – members’ well-paid jobs, a rural and/​or Southern culture – pushed them in a conservative direction. But the stories of internal politics provide insight into the obstacles to progressive leadership in even more democratic unions.

For several decades until his death in 2002, Mazzocchi crusaded for his unorthodox vision of a Labor Party that would educate first, run candidates much later. But despite the support he initially mobilized, the Labor Party ran aground: Even supportive unions felt drawn toward Democratic politics for practical reasons, leftist factionalism enfeebled organizing efforts, and the Labor Party never found a way to play the non-electoral political role he envisioned.

But Mazzocchi was right when he argued – and organized – throughout his life for the idea that workers still need some way to express more forcefully their immediate political demands and to formulate a broad vision of a better society.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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