Fighting for Asbestos Justice in Brazil
Tony Mazzocchi, Environmental Health and Justice Crusader
Our friend Tony Mazzocchi died this past October.
Tony was a long-time leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, which is now part of the Paper, Allied and Chemical Employees (PACE) union, and spent the last decade of his life working to build the Labor Party.
He was a man of many and diverse accomplishments, with his fingers in various social movements. In his career, however, he was, above all, a union man, with a passionate commitment to advancing working class interests.
He was unique for many reasons, but crucial among them was an early recognition of the health hazards facing workers at their jobs and in their communities ó and, by extension the environmental health threats posed by industrial processes to all of humanity.
His recognition of these hidden injustices spurred savvy and innovative strategizing, campaigning, coalition development, institution building, and visionary plans to protect and empower workers to protect themselves and society.
It is remarkable to look back at the modern history of the worker health and safety and environmental health movements in the United States, and to see how frequently Mazzocchi helped drive cutting-edge initiatives and campaigns.
In the 1950s, he collaborated with Barry Commoner to show the harms of atmospheric nuclear testing. Mazzocchi collected baby teeth from children of members of his Long Island, New York local union. Commoner analyzed the teeth to demonstrate how radioactive strontium 90 was accumulating in bone matter.
Along with Ralph Nader, Tony led the campaign to obtain passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Tony worked with whistleblower Karen Silkwood before her death to publicize the health risks of nuclear power.
He led the way in combating the extreme workplace hazards in petrochemical plants, a story detailed in Deadly Deceit, a book reviewed in this issue. Petrochemical plants remain extremely dangerous, but they are much safer than they were a few decades ago.
There are countless other fights, from the rights of beryllium workers to opposing forced sterilization at American Cyanamid, where Tony made an imprint that left workers safer and more prepared to defend their own interests.
Mazzocchi knew how important it was for workers to obtain and maintain independent sources of scientific knowledge to offset employer's monopoly control on information on hazards in the workplace and environment. He forged new relationships between labor and university scientists, and helped drive academic interest in examining occupational and environmental health. He established internships for medical students to learn about workplace hazards. He founded and published a journal, New Solutions, to debate policy issues related to workplace and environmental health.
He understood the importance of strengthening workers by building new institutions ó from OSHA to the Alice Hamilton College, a school without walls for workers ó and forging new alliances. More than anyone else in the labor movement, Tony worked closely with environmentalists.
He believed most fundamentally in empowering workers. "The cornerstone concept [of OSHA], that the workplace shall be free of all hazards, was never realized," he told us in a 1995 interview. "Workers have to be empowered to inspect their own workplaces and cite the employer for violations rather than waiting for a federal inspector who may never arrive."
A worker right to act wasn't Tony's only visionary proposal for moving workplace health and safety forward. He wanted to do away with company doctors. The companies should pay, he said, but the doctors should be accountable to the workers. He wanted very early retirement, with lifetime benefits and educational opportunities, for workers in nuclear plants and the most hazardous facilities.
Tony saw the injustices of workplace hazards. He imagined solutions and alternatives to what he called the body-in-the-morgue method ó where documented deaths and absolute proof of chemical or industrial causation are necessary before any regulatory or preventative action can be taken. And he saw the potential for a broad worker-environmentalist-community alliance to carry forward the demands to remedy industrial pollution inside and outside the plant.
It must be said that too few ó both in the labor movement and the environmental movement ó have acted to realize this potential, and that the country and world are more toxic for this failure. There is still a crying need to build a vibrant alliance that focuses on the kind of far-reaching proposals Tony put forward.
Tony's creativity and drive was devoted to many issues besides worker health and safety, of course. He spent the last decade of his life working to promote the Labor Party, and its innovative proposals for national healthcare, free college education and a constitutional right to a living-waged job.
In a July 2002 letter to Labor Party supporters, Tony wrote, "I am both afflicted with an incurable disease and blessed with an incurable optimism." He believed that working people, now as in the Great Depression, have "the resilience to organize new institutions and reshape the economy." He hoped and believed that the Labor Party could be positioned for "great deeds."
"While other groups may waffle, let this party serve as the dog at the corporate throat," he wrote During his lifetime, this man did.