Will Tanzman

The Man Who United Labor and the Environment

In the last 10 years, labor-environmental alliances have experienced an upswing. In 1999, thousands of union members and environmentalists came together to fight the World Trade Organization on the streets of Seattle. A coalition of labor unions and environmentalists created the Apollo Alliance in 2004 in order to promote a national program of "green-collar jobs" that will protect the environment and decrease the United States' reliance on imported oil. The Apollo Alliance was joined in early 2007 by the Union Sportsman's Alliance, a coalition of conservationists and unions with members who hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors. In addition to these national efforts, a number of local organizations, coalitions and government agencies have kicked off "green jobs" programs of various sorts.

The work of these alliances is important because it addresses one of the most penetrating criticisms of the environmental movement: the charge that environmentalists ignore human needs. According to this critique, environmentalists are willing to throw thousands of workers out of jobs in order to save an owl that doesn't particularly matter in the grand scheme of things. The fact that many working-class Americans believe that environmental protection is not in their self-interest is a major obstacle for successful environmental regulation. Fortunately for both the environmental movement and workers, economic justice and environmental protection don't have to be mutually exclusive. Every worker deserves a good job, but there is no reason that job shouldn't be in the field of building renewable energy infrastructure, improving energy efficiency in houses and offices or running public transportation. The strength of the green jobs movement is that it is committed to promoting economic justice by creating precisely that set of jobs and ensuring that these jobs provide living wages and decent benefits.

Because of significant clashes between labor and environmental groups in the 1980s and '90s around logging, industrial emissions and auto-efficiency standards, many people are unaware of the long history of labor-environmental partnerships. Fortunately, a book was published last month that reminds us of some important moments in that history. The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: the Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, by Les Leopold, is the inspiring story of a union leader who was a pioneer in labor-environmental coalition-building.

During more than five decades in the labor movement from the 1950s until his death in 2003, Mazzocchi was a key leader in the movement to make industrial production less harmful to workers, residents of the communities surrounding factories and the natural environment.

Leopold chronicles Mazzocchi's organizing in a variety of social movements and describes his personal life in some detail. Mazzocchi's involvement in the environmental movement is only one part of the book, but a part that is particularly relevant to the struggles in today's economy. Through the lens of Mazzocchi's life and work, Leopold provides a fascinating account of some of the early episodes in the history of labor-environmental collaboration, which can teach us useful lessons for the continuation of that work today.

Tony Mazzocchi joined the labor movement in New York in 1950 as an assembly line worker at a unionized cosmetics factory. Within a few years, he had emerged as a leader in the factory's local union, which soon merged into the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). Like many of the progressive unions that organized during the 1930s and 1940s, Mazzocchi's local union fought for improvements in the factory, but the movement did not stop at the factory gates. Mazzocchi led his local to help organize unions in a number of other factories in the surrounding area, and he engaged his membership in a variety of local political issues, including support for the early civil rights movement.

Leopold explains that Mazzocchi and other progressive labor leaders believed that unions had the responsibility to stand up for justice for all workers, which often meant tangling with powerful corporations focused on increasing their bottom line even when that hurt workers and their communities. This analysis would later become a key point of convergence with the environmental movement, which also fought against corporations putting their bottom line above the health of communities and the environment.

After 15 years in his local union, Mazzocchi moved up to a series of national leadership positions in the OCAW. As the union's national legislative director, Mazzocchi started getting calls from OCAW local unions around the country about health problems that were affecting oil, chemical and atomic workers.

In 1962, Leopold reminds us, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that alerted the public to the effects of widespread pesticide use on humans and the environment. The book mentioned the fact that workers in chemical plants received massive doses of substances that were known to be dangerous even in tiny quantities. But Carson was mostly concerned with the affects of minute concentrations of chemicals on the natural environment and on people who had no association with the chemical industry.

Tony Mazzocchi read Silent Spring and realized that if these chemicals were hurting wildlife and people when diluted into the larger ecosystem, they must be wreaking havoc on the workers who came into direct contact with concentrated quantities of pollutants. Workers, Mazzocchi quickly realized, are the canary in the coalmine of the modern industrial economy.

In a number of different situations, OCAW attempted to bargain collectively for safer conditions, but management refused. Chemical corporations seemed to be more interested in lowering production costs than in protecting workers or the environment. Meanwhile, most workers were completely uninformed of the potential harm they could suffer from the chemicals they were handling. In addition, most residents of the communities surrounding factories had no idea that they were next in the line of fire.

Mazzocchi decided that the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers needed to inform workers of the seriousness of the problem and then take the struggle to the general public. Leopold shows how Mazzocchi moved OCAW in the late '60s to push for regulations that would protect both workers and the communities surrounding plants from the hazards of industrial pollutants. In 1969 and 1970, Mazzocchi organized a series of public meetings -- conferences on the "workplace environment" -- with hundreds of union members and leaders from OCAW locals and other unions. Workers and union leaders shared information about the chemicals they were handling and the health problems they were experiencing, and scientists testified about the danger of these pollutants.

Leopold recounts how Mazzocchi connected the health problems workers were facing with the consequences these chemicals would have on the larger environment. Local and even national press covered many of these events, so the conferences were successful in informing the broader public on the harmfulness of industrial toxins in both the workplace and the larger environment. Mazzocchi also used the events as opportunities to spur workers into actions like pressuring their congressional representatives to pass an occupational health and safety bill. When Congress finally enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, with support from environmental as well as labor organizations, it was in no small part a result of the groundswell of support that OCAW organized under Tony Mazzocchi's leadership.

Although Mazzocchi's life and work are the focus of the book, Leopold makes the important point that he was not the only labor leader to work on environmental issues during the 1960s and '70s. The United Steelworkers, for instance, played a key role in passing the Clean Air Act. Together, these efforts led to a sort of heyday for labor-environmental partnerships during the '70s.

All through the decade, Mazzocchi worked tirelessly advocating for environmental responsibility and organizing OCAW efforts to push factories that were making workers sick to clean up their act. In some instances, the OCAW pressured companies to improve practices both inside the plant and in the disposal of waste in the larger community. In 1970, Mazzocchi chaired New York City's first Earth Day celebration, which drew an estimated 100,000 participants. When Shell Oil workers went on strike in 1972 over health and safety issues, including exposure to dangerous chemicals, Mazzocchi mobilized some of the most important organizations in the environmental movement to play a significant role in supporting the strike. In 1974, a woman named Karen Silkwood, an OCAW member who worked at a nuclear fuels plant in Oklahoma, was killed under suspicious circumstances. She had been working with Mazzocchi to expose the falsification of safety tests in her plant, which could have led to a nuclear meltdown. After her death, Mazzocchi worked hard to publicize her story, which was later turned into the popular film starring Meryl Streep. The scandal surrounding Silkwood's revelations and the suspiciousness of her death had a big impact on public consciousness of the dangers of nuclear power.

The cooperative relationship between the labor and environmental movements that Tony Mazzocchi worked to build fell on hard times when American industry declined in the 1980s. Many industrial workers stopped seeing environmental activists as allies who could help protect workers' health and safety and started worrying about plants closing because they could not afford to implement new environmental regulations. Mazzocchi advocated for "just transition" policies that would generously compensate workers whose jobs were eliminated. He argued that some factories were poisoning the planet and should be shut down, but the whole society ought to share the burden rather than focusing it on the workers at those plants. Unfortunately for labor-environmental collaboration, the labor movement largely failed at winning "just transition" policies, and many corporations blamed environmentalists for shutdowns and relocations that happened for other reasons. But Leopold's account of Mazzocchi's work reminds us that the history of the labor and environmental movements are more closely intertwined than many people realize.

Today, labor-environmental collaboration is needed more than ever. In order to mobilize enough people to make the deep-seated changes necessary to prevent ecological disaster, the environmental movement needs to think about all the ways that people are affected by environmental destruction. Working-class people and people of color are especially affected because they are more likely to work in toxic jobs, live in the neighborhoods where toxic waste is disposed, and to not afford sustainably grown, health food. Fortunately, a heroic group of organizations are leading the way, and Tony Mazzocchi's life and work reminds us all that an inclusive movement for environmental protection and economic justice is possible.