This recently-released volume has been long awaited by people who knew and worked with union leader Tony Mazzocchi. For a man who has had such a great influence on the working life of all Americans, Mazzocchi is not well known outside of labor, health and safety, and environmental circles, and that situation needed to be remedied.* Furthermore, Tony was not your average labor leader. He had an extraordinary vision for society and an uncommon, simple honesty that can provide great lessons and examples in the screwed up and cynical world of today. The author, Les Leopold, has known and worked with Mazzocchi for over thirty years and was thus a perfect candidate to write a biography of Tony. The book he wrote is long, 488 pages plus notes and index, but is all beef with no filler, and is something that one can, and should, sink one’s teeth into.
Mazzocchi’s grandparents and parents immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century, and Tony was raised where the family settled in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York. Much of the large extended family lived in a good-sized house owned by his grandmother and he grew up listening to relatives, who stretched across the political spectrum, hash out the ideas of the day around a long kitchen table. Listening to opinions that came from the Communist left to the pro-Mussolini right taught him tolerance for different ideas. Just as important, hearing them from people he knew and loved showed Tony that one can’t just dismiss a person because of a difference of opinion over a political idea. Many, many people in today’s polarized country could stand learning (or relearning) that concept.
Although he didn’t know about it until much later in life, Tony suffered from a learning disability, now called dyscalculia. It is a difficulty with numbers that prevented him from making any progress with mathematics and caused him trouble when he tried to write. In the ’20s and ’30s, teachers were not trained to recognize problems like that and Tony was tracked into classes with the slow learners (others of whom probably had such disabilities, as well), despite the fact that he was highly intelligent. This situation had its good side, however, as Mazzocchi learned that he had a natural ability as a leader, but a leader among equals, who led without arrogance. Since his disability didn’t effect his ability to read, he did so broadly and avidly. When combined with the wide-ranging conversations around the table at home, this led the 9th-grade drop-out to become a well-educated person, despite his poor school performance and lack of access to advanced courses.
The other key aspect to Mazzocchi’s upbringing that heavily influenced his adult life was an early understanding of and respect for labor unions. His father, Joe Mazzocchi, a tailor trained in Italy before immigrating here, was an active member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and had been involved in the big strikes after World War I. The union, as an organization that helped put food on the table, provided some dignity on the job, and gave people a vehicle to be involved in social change, was a part of Tony’s life from the very beginning.
Leopold spends a lot of time bringing in the context of the times in the U.S. during the years when Mazzocchi grew up in New York. He explains some of the ins and outs of the American left during that fertile period, the founding of the CIO (the Congress of Industrial Organizations), and the economy. He also discusses Tony’s training and service in the U.S. Army and his participation in the Battle of the Bulge. Mazzocchi’s participation was not at all the average for most GI’s, since his training involved a shooting race war in a military camp in the South, and also being with the troops that first entered the German death camps. Both experiences had strong influences on his political and social outlook. Although there are many details, it is well-written and not at all tedious.
After WWII, Tony bounced around for a while, looking for his place in life. Although he got training as a dental technician, he found he preferred industrial work and ended up in a large, unionized cosmetics factory in Queens, doing unskilled labor. The author provides an excellent thumbnail sketch of the reactionary years and how McCarthyism began well before the involvement of the person whose name the period bears. Leopold shows how the political right got things started and how President Truman was an active participant, for his own reasons, Democrat or not. He demonstrates how this had a direct bearing on why and how Mazzocchi got started on his path to union leadership. Tony’s natural abilities and autodidactic education helped him to move swiftly from unskilled shipping worker to full-time union steward in short order.
Mazzocchi displayed a natural talent for unifying and gaining the support of the people he worked with, even to the extent of personally repairing the dentures of some of the older workers. His originality, cleverness and his knack for educating and developing new leadership brought his local union to being the most progressive on Long Island. Leopold recounts clever and imaginative activities that could well be incorporated into a union activist’s training manual today!
After the union with which his local union was affiliated, the United Gas, Coke and Chemical Workers, merged with the Oil Workers International Union in 1955, forming the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), Tony started moving with the union with which he would be permanently identified, and which he himself would later bring to national prominence. He led his local union first into broader union involvement and later into community and political participation. Tony and his fellow workers forced their employer to hire more African Americans well before the laws that required it had been passed. He was also a founder of SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), that opposed nuclear testing and favored nuclear disarmament. And all of that was only in the 1950s!
Two years after the founding of the OCAW, Tony was elected to the rank-an-file Executive Board, a type of governance very rare in U.S. unions, which kept the union officers under the control of the members, instead of the other way around. After this is when his activities really pick up; it is astounding that one person can be involved in such varied and notable activity. Mazzocchi’s union career was so long and fruitful that it can’t even be effectively be summarized in such a short review. Merely a taste can be provided; for more you will have to read the book. Mazzocchi:
uncovered a link to the CIA in the OCAW through which it was funneling money through the union to help suppress independent unionism in Latin America, and induced the union’s President to end it.
became the OCAW’s chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
bridged the gap between unions and the growing environment movement, which by itself was oriented toward ending industries that polluted and costing jobs, instead of viewing workers as the front lines to protect the environment.
got the OCAW to commit to developing a worker health and safety program and followed this up by helping to shepherd the Occupational Safety and Health Act through Congress and getting Nixon to sign it. Mazzocchi then filed the first complaint under the Act leading to the first citation of a company.
brought scientists and doctors to work with the union and its health and safety department, making it the first notable one of any union and the best in the country, really putting the OCAW on the map. He also led the fight to establish a worker’s right to know about the chemicals he or she was using at work.
led the effort to uncover problems at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Oklahoma, that culminated in the murder of Karen Silkwood.
served as Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer of the OCAW and ran for union President two times, narrowly losing both times in nasty campaigns against an old-guard, CIA-oriented official.
Tony Mazzocchi’s final major effort was to establish a labor party in the United States. He understood that neither of the two major political parties was a friend to the working person, and that any substantive good coming from those parties was in the past. His view was that working people needed a party of their own, but the question of how to set it up so that it would work was a difficult one. His plans were in the thinking stage for a decade or two and, with other supporters whom he had gathered to work on the idea, in the planning stage for more years.
People on the political left have been talking about a labor party for a hundred years, as part of their various ideologies. But Tony knew that if the organization were not set up carefully, radicals would move in, take over and debate it to death with their self-righteous bickering. Any unions or not-yet-unionized workers involved would throw up their hands and leave. Tony said,
“We aren’t organizing around a ‘progressive’ agenda. We’re trying to organize the working class around their economic interests, and many of them are opposed to a ‘progressive’ agenda. If we don’t fill this political void, something much uglier could take over. This is a dangerous moment”
The organization began with a bang in 1996, with three times the number of attendees than expected at the founding convention. There was excitement in many unions and the new Labor Party got a lot of organizational and financial support from unions. Despite the organizers’ best efforts at defining a suitable structure, some chapters were destroyed by sectarian squabbling and the format of local organizations had to be reconsidered.
Unfortunately, the upturn in union enthusiasm of the ’90s turned down again and most unions cut back on their support. They went back to old habits of supporting Democratic Party candidates. Although the organization’s activities have been scaled back, the Labor Party is still there, waiting in the wings until more people wake up to the fact that it, or something very like it, is the only way that major social change will occur to improve the lives of working people.
Les Leopold hasn’t just written a biography of a fascinating and important person. He’s given the reader, by example, everything necessary to understand why so much could be accomplished by one person, and why so many others fail to change the world to the same degree. The reader need only provide a little brain power to see it all. Mazzocchi had a vision for how the world should be, and he kept true to it. He didn’t allow himself to be seduced by methods and tools — socialism, communism, capitalism — nor confuse them with his vision for the kind of world he wanted to see develop. Tony also knew that he had to inspire, educate, train and lead other people, lots of them, to actually make the changes that would move the world slowly toward his vision for it.
By using Mazzocchi’s life as a measure, we can see clearly why American unions have failed and now represent only a fraction of the numbers that they used to. Union leaders like to blame their corporate adversaries, the political right, the Taft-Hartley law, the economy, other union leaders who don’t organize enough, etc., anyone but themselves, for the decline of unions’ fortunes. Leopold describes how unions made the transition from organizations built from the bottom up, substantially by people of the left, to highly bureaucratized organizations mostly purged of their progressive elements with the help of their leaderships.
Tony’s union, the OCAW, held onto more scraps of member control of the top leadership than most and didn’t have leaders who voted themselves the big salaries that had them living lives more like their corporate adversaries than the members. But the difference was relatively minor — the OCAW’s leaders, as well, thought that they knew best. Even after Mazzocchi’s efforts made a big name for the union in the area of industrial health and safety, OCAW leaders still tried to squash Tony and his supporters in their efforts to reform the union. This demonstrated that, in essence, they were just like the Cold War dinosaurs in control of most other American unions.
The author doesn’t say it explicitly, but the book shows that labor’s so-called leaders haven’t really changed since the 1950s. They are still divorced from their members and still playing footsie with the political party that continues to stab workers and their unions in the back. While many leaders now claim to be “progressive,” that only means that they will commit their unions to “progressive” measures that the members haven’t approved, instead of reactionary ones. The top leadership of unions, progressive or not, have never broken with the McCarthyite past that put and kept their predecessors, and ultimately themselves, in power. Each generation of union leaders grows up under the not-so-gentle hands of the previous generation and, with the rarest of exceptions, would never make it to the top unless they carried on the same traditions. Oh yes, a tactical move left or right here or there, as necessary, but never release the reins of control.
The difference between the typical union leader and Mazzocchi was that the former accepted the status quo and stumbled from one difficulty to the next, while Tony stuck to his vision and to the members, trying to educate and inspire them and gain their agreement before making commitments in their name. For all he did for unions and for American workers, Mazzocchi received much praise from the leaders of the labor movement. However, surely most of them were heartily glad that he was a member of some other union so that they didn’t have to deal with him after the speechmaking was done. Tony Mazzocchi was, after all, truly a different breed.
|*||A few years ago, I was working for a
local union in the Los Angeles area. Among my varied duties was to
maintain the local’s web site, which I had initially created a few years
earlier. After Tony died from cancer on October 5, 2002, I created a
memorial page for him on the web site. I searched the Internet for
obituaries and articles about him and put links to them on the web page. I
also wrote a section of personal reminiscences and scanned a couple of
Mazzocchi for President (of the OCAW) buttons and added
them, as well.
A couple of months later, the phone at my desk rang. You can imagine my shock, for a second at least, when the voice at the other end of the line said “This is Anthony Mazzocchi.” I quickly remembered that Tony had a son with the same name, whom I think I met long years ago. In the course of our conversation, Anthony told me that he had stumbled across the local’s web site and had been reading the articles linked to by the web page. He then told me that prior to this, he had never really understood the very high regard that so many people had for his father. This not only speaks to the great modesty of Tony, but also this: if even his son was not familiar with the vision and accomplishments of his dad, what a job we have to show to Americans at large what this important life should mean to them and how Tony Mazzocchi ought to be an everyday name instantly recognized by all Americans!