Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of one of the nation’s fastest growing unions — the 45,000-member California Nurses Association — called him “the greatest labor leader I have ever known.” She was referring to Anthony Mazzocchi, a mentor and strategist to thousands of labor activists over the past 50 years. He lost his struggle with cancer on October 5, 2002 at age 76.
For over thirty of those years I knew and worked with Tony on labor health and safety matters, environmental toxins, gas pipe-line safety legislation and various corporate abuses. These concerns were only a few of the many injustices where this unsung labor giant was leading the way.
Although he never attained any higher post than being the secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), Mazzocchi’s influence spread in all directions. At a time when union membership was declining and union leaders were largely moribund, he broke new ground in one area after another.
He pioneered the collaboration of scientists with organized labor on matters ranging from the asbestos epidemic to the radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests. While in his mid-Twenties, as president of his union local in a Long Island cosmetics plant he negotiated equal pay for women workers in the factory, ending the two-tier wage system there in 1952.
Another bridge he built was between labor and environmentalists who were often at odds. His winning argument was that toxics in the workplace and toxics in the environment were both forms of deadly silent violence which had to be stopped. For his tireless efforts, he was chosen to chair New York City’s first Earth Day rally in April 1970.
A wide-ranging reader, Mazzocchi saw the devastation early of the corporate globalization juggernaut on industrial jobs, the lowering of worker and environmental standards and the stripping of union bargaining power.
After travelling hundreds of thousands of miles meeting with groups of blue-collar workers in our country–what labor leader does that year after year? — Mazzocchi founded and organized the Labor Party at a huge convention in Cleveland, Ohio six years ago. Delegates from hundreds of union locals and some national unions forged a labor agenda with strong emphasis on national health insurance, living wages and a free college education for students.
Sound utopian? Not after you listened to Tony show how a change of priorities and a jettisoning of corporate bureaucratic rakeoffs in the health industry can comfortably pay for these services. Tony always would refer doubters to how our country passed and implemented the GI Bill of Rights right after World War II to its dazzling successes at a time when the national debt was a much higher percentage of the gross national product than today.
The Labor Party to date has run no candidates; it keeps building support and membership and presses its pro-labor agenda for the day when it can run competitive candidates for various offices.
Mazzocchi had the courage of speaking the truth to his own union members. He opposed atomic energy’s hazards and wanted it replaced with labor-intensive solar energy, even though his own union — the OCAW — had members working at atomic power plants. His stance cost him the Presidency of his union in a close contest.
Watching workers getting beaten down with employers’ threats to move their jobs to third world countries, Mazzocchi said “The very existence of the World Trade Organization, with all its ramifications, is the reason we need a Labor Party. I am consistently amazed that my brothers and sisters in the American labor movement, after all that has been done to them, continue to support the very politicians who have brought this about.”
With the exception of a few major unions, such as the United Mine Workers, the Labor Party has received little support from organized labor. One would think that the conscience of the labor movement would have been treated with more grace and recognition.
Tony Mazzocchi returned to his country after seeing combat in Europe during World War II with a vision of more than economic justice for working people. He wanted them to have time to educate themselves throughout their lives, spend more time with their families and communities and engage their own culture of music, plays and other arts.
Would Tony have had an even bigger impact on the America he loved so much and worked so hard to make more lovable if the mass media people covered his achievements and proposals? Of course the answer has to be yes. Instead, they squandered their sense of news and integrity with massive repetitive coverage of the O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky type stories.
Before he died, both ABC’s Nightline and PBS’s Bill Moyers were prepared to do a feature on his life and activities for millions of their viewers. But they waited too long. Pancreatic cancer got there before they did. (For more information about the Labor Party, see www.thelaborparty.org or call 202-234-5190).