By Scott Schneider
A new biography by Les Leopold highlights how the movement for worker safety and health got started and the important role played by Tony Mazzocchi, a Vice President of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW).
Tony grew up in the 1930s and 40s in New York and, after the war, quickly became active in his union (then called the Gas Coke Workers Union) at the Helena Rubinstein Cosmetics plant. Ahead of his time, he opposed the testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s because of the effects on the environment as well as on workers. In the 1960s, as the American antiwar and environmental movements emerged, Tony made the connection that toxic workplace chemicals – like the pesticides that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring showed were poisoning us through what we ate – were harming the environment and likely poisoning his members who worked in the chemical plants and atomic industries. He created strong ties between his union and the environmental movement, which were unusual at the time.
In the mid-1960s Tony became legislative director for OCAW and moved to Washington, DC. He wanted to make the case for national legislation to protect worker safety and health. He began by holding meetings at OCAW locals around the country and brought safety and health professionals with him to hear workers’ stories and give them expert advice. Over the years, Tony forged alliances between workers and professionals, and many went to work at union health and safety departments developing worker safety and health training materials or doing plant safety checks. The stories and evidence that Tony collected were instrumental in getting the OSH Act passed in 1970. Tony, in fact, filed the very first OSHA complaint, in 1971, to get an inspection at the Allied Chemical plant in West Virginia.
Tony was perhaps most famous for his involvement in the Karen Silkwood case (which in 1983 was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, one of the few Hollywood movies ever to address issues of workplace safety). In 1974, Silkwood worked at the Kerr-McGee plant in Oklahoma processing uranium and plutonium and acquired evidence that the plant was falsifying quality control information on their welds. She, herself, was getting regularly contaminated with high levels of radioactive materials at work and may have been intentionally poisoned as well. She blew the whistle on the company, but died in a mysterious car crash on November 13, 1974, when she was on her way to a meeting with OCAW officials and a NY Times reporter. Though unproven, her supporters believe she was murdered.
The most difficult part of the book to read was the recounting of Tony’s failure to win the presidency of his union based on his challenge to the labor movement to become more militant and activist. Some of his dreams may now be realized with the renewed emphasis on organizing in the past few years. His final years were spent creating the Labor Party, intended as a vehicle for the labor movement to advance causes such as a single payer health care system and free higher education for all (modeled on his own experience with the GI Bill). The Party failed when the unions pulled their financial support. But for Tony, the struggle was important in and of itself. He was not afraid of failure, only of not trying.
I first met Tony at a 1978 conference that he had organized to explain to physicians the need for taking detailed occupational histories without which they would never learn about workplace exposures that might be making their patients sick. He inspired me, along with many others, to go into occupational health and to work in the labor movement. To a great extent, the progress we have made in occupational health and safety, particularly with regard to health hazards in the workplace, can be attributed to his energy, vision and drive. This book will help educate and inspire a new generation of labor leaders and safety and health professionals. It shows how much one person can accomplish and what a difference he or she can make.
The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor – the Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi