THE MAN WHO HATED WORK AND LOVED LABOR
by Les Leopold
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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.