Economy

The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor

Long after the Democratic Party abandoned labor interests, Tony Mazzocchi continued to fight for the working class.

American progressives perpetually worry about the limitations of the Democratic Party and the historical rejection of third-party candidates in presidential elections. "Party within the party" approaches have led at times, to breakthroughs, if and when the thrust is part of a mobilized movement. The strategy has been demonstrably most successful in the 40-year takeover of the Republican party by its right-wing constituencies. In those 40 years, the Republican electoral victory has gradually softened Democratic electoral leaders progressivism, creating by now, two corporate parties vying for dominance and agreeing that The New Deal and Great Society overdeveloped wage worker influence on the party and the economy.

Tony Mazzocchi saw this trajectory in development. He had worked effectively within the Great Society ethos to propel worker safety and public health concerns into national policy. Les Leopold's biography of Tony tells the story well. The excerpt from the book which follows is about Tony's evolving electoral focus and his growing commitment to creating a party of and for working people to contest the two corporate parties. Tony recognized the writing on the wall as political discourse transitioned from ridiculing Reagan's voodoo economics (George Bush Sr.'s phrase) to Clintonesque regard for it as "revelation" of free market verities. And this, of course, through the magic dust of false premises, phony data, and seriously diminished active concern for people's lives as a bottom-line evaluation of societal health.

Of course third parties remain problematic. But Tony's conception of his Labor Party Advocates was not simply a political party. Instead it was a political space for teaching and learning, for building a new working-class belief in its own capacity to expect more and do something about getting it. No less, as Tony saw it, because democracy depended on it. Thinned out expectation of decency and dignity at the base of society would eventually topple the whole American experiment.

In pursuit of this political space, Labor Party Advocates was to build membership but run no candidates for at least 10 years. Tony envisaged persistent and wide-scale teaching and learning campaigns among rank-and-file workers, their families and communities. I would see Tony at the Tabard Inn in D.C. talking to advocates across sectors, eating and talking with colleagues with an ever sharp eye on who was coming and going, and who he should catch on their way in or out. In New York he helped conceive the role of the Labor Institute and the Public Health Institute as close partners with union locales to create rank-and-file education programs to break the insidious link festering in the disinformation that claimed healthy environments mean fewer jobs.

To Tony's mind, the worker's mind was a terrible thing to undervalue or to waste. That the neo-laffer curve distracting worker concern for the environment is no longer legitimate in political discourse owes a lot to Tony Mazzocchi's vision and infrastructure intelligence. Furthermore, the far-reaching growth in the last decade of coalitions, alliances and integrated strategizing between community organizers and labor organizers is exactly what Tony had in mind. It may not add up to a third party. In the end, all this could save and recommit this nation's human and capital resources to peaceful, equitable and just uses. From this work have come the local victories (as Laura Flanders reported last year in Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians), for living wages, for community health benefits, for truly progressive candidates winning local and state offices, and against ballot assaults on gays, education and abortion. -- Introduction by Colin Greer

Excerpt: The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi

OCAW secretary-treasurer Tony Mazzocchi, at age sixty-two, was hell-bent on pursuing his backlog of ideas and projects. Bring on the coffee!

Mazzocchi had always wanted OCAW members to have their own college. A decade earlier, he had nearly persuaded the union to buy a campus in Denver. Now he started a university without walls called the Alice Hamilton College (in honor of Alice Hamilton, 1869-1970, the first woman professor at Harvard and a founder of occupational medicine).

Mazzocchi also thought that the health and safety movement badly needed a peer-reviewed professional journal to explore worker-oriented safety, health, and environment issues. He pressed OCAW to start and fund New Solutions, ably edited by Charles Levenstein, then a professor at the Work Environment Department, University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

And how about a workers' radio station? Mazzocchi had learned from a passenger sitting next to him on a plane that subcarrier radio bands allowed for private communications to designated audiences. For the next several years, he explored ways to build a shop stewards' radio network to provide round-the-clock education for shop-floor leaders.

Mazzocchi recognized that for most of the OCAW delegates, the next convention would be their first. Rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars on hospitality suites and booze, Mazzocchi would use the union's treasury to commission and stage at the convention an original play, Keepers of the Dream, on the union's history.

Even as he was packing to return to Denver, Mazzocchi organized the first U.S. union conference on global warming. He then took the show on the road to OCAW districts. He recruited the Institute's Mike Merrill to publish, in 1988, Global Warming Watch, certainly the first publication on the implications of climate change for American workers.

With his talented Denver crew, and in particular Phyllis Ohlemacher who a decade before had been his administrative assistant, Mazzocchi launched a campaign to familiarize OCAW members with the "single-payer" national health insurance plan designed by Physicians for National Health Program (PNHP). Mazzocchi invited PNHP doctors to brief OCAW officers and staff on the need for an American system modeled on after Canada's universal, government-provided health care insurance. He also arranged for cross-border trips so that rank-and-file leaders could see firsthand how Canada delivered quality health care to all its citizens for a fraction of the cost of the U.S. private insurance system. OCAW members soon endorsed single-payer health care and pressed it forward with the AFL-CIO.

And bouncing between his staff in Denver and at the Labor Institute in New York, Mazzocchi tried to ignite a new labor insurgency through newsletters, educational materials, conferences, and new alliances.

It certainly felt good to be back from exile.

But what mattered most of all to Tony was building a new labor party.

Mazzocchi had been a loyal Democrat forever, it seemed -- an insider. He resurrected the Democratic Party on Long Island, supported its ticket from top to bottom, and even ran for Congress as a Democrat himself. He did it all -- get out the vote, fund-raising, voter registration, issue development, media work. No one could accuse him of not giving the Democratic party a chance. But by the mid-1960s, Mazzocchi's hopes for it had collapsed. He remained a Democrat only to support the party's peace candidates.

Mazzocchi first seriously raised the idea of a new party to OCAW leaders in 1972, after a majority of Democrats supported President Nixon's wage controls. "It's become more and more apparent," Mazzocchi wrote, "that labor will have to recognize the fact that independent political action will be necessary." Four years of Jimmy Carter pushed Mazzocchi into open rebellion.

When Carter got elected, the AFL-CIO was saying: We'll make the change we need to make in labor law, health and safety laws, to give us the power we need, by electing a veto-proof Congress. And we elected a veto-proof Congress. We had a Democratic House, Democratic Senate, and a Democratic president. And we couldn't even get a mild labor reform bill ... That's when I left DC -- because this was not the way to go. Lobbying your friends was not enough.

But what about the access to top officials Mazzocchi had enjoyed during the Carter administration -- like Eula Bingham at OSHA, and his friend Tony Robbins, who headed NIOSH? Mazzocchi was even appointed himself to serve on the Acid Rain Commission (only to be unnappointed when Reagan took over). Weren't these tangible political benefits that made it worth electing Democrats?

"Sure, I'd rather have a friend than an enemy there, for the couple of goodies you can get. But I'm not going to break my back over it." Besides, Mazzocchi noted, Democrats never gave labor its due:

Only Republicans have given us [the labor movement] the secretary of labor. Under Eisenhower, we got Tobin, president of the Teamsters; under Nixon, we got Brennan, from the building trades. There's never been an appointee of labor from a Democratic president -- which I always razzed my fellow unionists about. With all their support for Dems, they can't even get a stinking position that they're entitled to."

Mazzocchi pointed out that labor and environmentalists made their greatest gains under Nixon, who had approved both OSHA and the EPA.

Nixon was anti-labor, going back to the days of Taft-Hartley. He was a stringent corporate rights sort of guy -- he thought workers should listen and be quiet. But we were able to force that administration to do things that they were philosophically opposed to, because the power equation was different.
There was a lot of motion in the streets. There was an antiwar movement. The environmental movement was making a lot of noise, and we were reaching out to them. And we were elevating health and safety into the natural consciousness.

The task, Mazzocchi argued, was to rebuild a movement from below. No amount of politicking for tepid Democrats would help.

But why did rekindling a movement mean jettisoning the Democratic Party? Look at the way labor and the Democrats responded to the air traffic controllers strike, Tony responded. After Reagan fired the eleven thousand PATCO workers on August 5, 1981, the AFL-CIO had reluctantly staged a national rally in Washington. They named it Solidarity Day for the anti-communist union movement in Poland, which AFL-CIO Cold Warriors had strongly supported.

Much to the surprise of labor's top leadership, on September 19, 1981, hundreds of thousands poured into Washington. Many were eager to demonstrate their solidarity by marching to the DC National Airport and shutting it down. But this gesture was unacceptable to AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. He wrote to state and local AFL-CIO affiliates: "I personally do not think that the trade union movement should undertake anything that would represent punishing, injuring, or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or transgressions of the Reagan Administration."

Why not? Because the AFL-CIO feared that a disruptive show of force would hurt the Democrats in the 1982 midterm elections. Instead, Kirkland and the throngs of Democratic Party speakers on the podium put forth their battle cry: "The next Solidarity Day is Election Day!"

Mazzocchi was dumbfounded. How could Kirkland and company let the eleven thousand PATCO workers get fired en masse? They had to know that this would launch an open season on the entire labor movement. How could these leaders be so out of touch with workers' desire to do something to back up the fired strikers?

For Mazzocchi, this was mass suicide. In a speech to OCAW members seven years later, he said:

I along with many of you in late 1981 joined 850,000 people and marched on Washington for social justice. We were called there by the leadership of the AFL-CIO. It was the first time in years where we reached out to our rank and file. And although we characterized them as being apathetic, they responded -- 850,000 working people marched to Washington. We stared at Ronald Reagan in the eye, and the leadership of our trade union movement blinked. We went in with a bang and left with a whimper. Had we marched to the National Airport, 850,000 strong and joined the picket lines of the PATCO workers, the union movement would have been in different shape today.

Just as disturbing, Mazzocchi saw the Democratic Party stand helpless before the massive corporate restructuring of the 1980s as mergers, acquisitions, and runaway plants scurrying to all corners of the globe slashed millions of manufacturing jobs. No industrial union could possibly bargain effectively under the threat of plant closures. Clearly, America needed to control capital mobility and provide income support for dislocated workers to ameliorate the domestic ravages of globalization. Instead, Mazzocchi watched liberal Democrats like Ted Kennedy call for more deregulation, betting workers' security on even greater corporate freedom.

Tony truly wanted to be wrong. But he had predicted the impending catastrophe with uncanny accuracy. In a few short years, the industrial heartland hollowed out -- and so did unions. As union leaders clung more desperately to the corporate-oriented Democrats, Mazzocchi watched legions of workers give up on unions. As Mazzocchi said, "They don't need us to negotiate the terms of their funeral."

But Mazzocchi also offered a more hopeful prophecy: that the rank and file would enthusiastically welcome an anti-corporate political party with the guts to defy the establishment -- assuming unions had the guts to build one. This new labor party had to reignite the kind of solidarity Tony had witnessed at the Rubinstein local, where "nobody dared cross a picket line for fear of being ostracized from your neighborhood." And the new class-based party had to help workers see the big picture: There was such a thing as capitalism, and if unchallenged, bosses and politicians would collude against them. It would help workers understand how the problems they faced were connected -- from job insecurity, to inadequate health care, to declining public services, to low-wage jobs, to toxic exposures. Because the Democrats wouldn't dare make such anti-corporate connections, working people needed a party of their own.

But what planet was Mazzocchi on? Wasn't it blatantly obvious that by the 1980s workers no longer had class-consciousness -- that for most the entire idea of class had become vacuous?

Mazzocchi wasn't a Pollyanna. Workers, he understood, had multiple personas: They also referred to themselves as middle class and consumers and patriots, with religious, race, and gender identities mixed in. But Mazzocchi still believed that working people -- meaning those who worked for a boss under strict hierarchies -- still had a sense, however ill defined, that they were getting screwed. Mazzocchi believed that class institutions such as unions and political parties could, if they wanted to, rekindle class awareness. He had seen the CIO do it in the 1930s and the '40s. He'd done so at the Rubinstein local. In the supposedly silent 1950s, he'd developed a militant cadre and combated racism. It wasn't mysterious. It took education. It took acts of solidarity. It took more education. Working-class consciousness was a construction, not an act of God.

For Mazzocchi, this was not mushy sloganeering. He'd already pulled off an astonishing national shift in consciousness on occupational health and safety. It didn't fall from the sky -- he and a cast of thousands created it, and it's still with us. By setting in motion an army of doctors, technicians, environmentalists, journalists, and local union activists, a new movement changed the way the entire country views the workplace environment. And because of mass education and dramatic anti-corporate campaigns to protect endangered workers and communities, workplaces continue to be policed and cleaned up today -- albeit insufficiently. Mazzocchi had learned that a new consciousness could be developed if the conditions were right and if enough people could be impelled to work toward it.

With the collapse of the trade union movement, the rise of globalization, the stalling of workers' wages, the redistribution of wealth to the super-rich, and the implosion of industrial America, the conditions, Mazzocchi believed, were ripe for an anti-corporate workers' movement. History had done its part. The rest was up to the thousands of activists in and around the labor movement. Mazzocchi would try again to be their catalyst.

In a 1995 interview with Terry Gross on the public radio show Fresh Air, Mazzocchi laid out his project:

What this effort is all about is the re-creation of a new movement and the rejuvenation of a working-class culture that once existed in this country. Part of this task is creating a party, a class party -- we make no bones about it, this is going to be a party of the working class. We'll break down the nonsense that we're the middle class. We are working class ... when I grew up, working class meant anyone who worked for a wage and wasn't a manager or a small business person, whether you're a white-collar or a blue-collar person. In a culture that existed when I came into this workforce, you understand the value or organization, or unions. You supported unions. In those days, if you lived in a neighborhood, in was a working-class neighborhood and if you scabbed on a strike, you probably could not come back to that neighborhood. Scabs had to be imported. People understood the nature of their class, and they know the nature of those who were benefiting at their expense.

Colin Greer is President of the New World Foundation. Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).

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