Tony Mazzocchi, a working-class hero

Organized labor in the United States has been in decline for decades.  If labor unions are to make a comeback, they should learn from the example of Tony Mazzocchi (1926-2002) who was vice-president and then secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union

Mazzocchi sought an alliance between the labor movement and the environmental movement and the peace movement, which have all too often regarded each other as antagonists.  President Nixon credited him with inspiring the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

He was a friend of Karen Silkwood, the whistle-blower who revealed the toxic working conditions at the Kerr-McGee

He fought for equal rights for African-Americans and pay equity for women before these were headline issues.

He thought the labor movement made a big mistake in its unconditional loyalty to the Democratic Party, whose leadership has taken workers’ support for granted, and in the years prior to his death in 2002 was trying to create institutions to give labor an independent voice.

I confess that I knew nothing about him until my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of THE MAN WHO HATED WORK and Loved Labor: the Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold (2007).

This book is well-written and thoroughly researched.  Although Les Leopold was a friend and protegé of Mazzocchi’s, he depicts his mistakes and failings as well as his successes.

Mazzocchi really did hate work as it is organized in American industry, and he didn’t think anybody ought to have to work under existing conditions.

He believed that no wage-earner need work for more than 20 hours a day, and that workers should have the final say in how work is organized.

I read somewhere that the average chemical worker lives less than 10 years beyond his retirement date.  In contrast, I spent my work life on newspapers, and I have enjoyed 20 years of a pleasant retirement and may well enjoy four or five or even more to come.

This is not because I exercised or ate a healthy diet, but because I had a job that didn’t kill me.  Workers in the oil, chemical and nuclear industries have as much right to live out their natural life span as I do.

Mazzochi was born into an Italian-American family in the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn with strong labor ties.  They remembered Sacco and Vanzetti and admired Congressman Vito Marcantonio.

He lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War Two and fought in the Battle of the Bulge as an artilleryman.  At loose ends after the war, he studied dentistry under the GI Bill.

He got into labor organizing when radical friends asked him to go to work in a Helena Rubinstein cosmetics factory on Long Island.   The work force already was unionized, but the union wasn’t effective.

Les Leopold

Mazzocchi molded the union into becoming a fighting force, while disappointing his radical friends for not following their political agenda.  The story of how he did it, of his rise in the union and in how he persuaded leaders and rank-and-file to follow his policies is a good lesson in how to be a labor or community organizer.

Like Marcantonio, he treated people as individuals and helped them when he could without asking anything in return.  His starting point was always the issues they considered important, not his own agenda.

He was a pioneer in methods of labor campaigning that went beyond work stoppages—publicity campaigns, consumer boycotts, pressuring government to enforce health, safety and environmental regulations.

In the Helena Rubenstein union, he took fellow members on solidarity demonstrations for other unions on strike.  This got them to thinking of going on strike as a real possibility, and also to understand the risk and hardship of going on strike.

He started a book club, but he didn’t start his readers with works on economics, but the novels of Howard Fast—Freedom Road, Spartacus and Citizen Tom Paine.

He never treated his opponents in the union as personal enemies, even when they were.  He always left open the door to reconciliation in the future.

On the other hand he never trusted corporate management.  He always thought that labor should bargain from a position of power and never rely on management’s good will.


The career of Tony Mazzocchi raises important questions about the relationship of American labor unions to (1) Communists and the CIA, (2) the environmental movement and (3) the Democratic Party.  These will be the topics of my next posts.


Remembering Mozzocchi by David Moberg for In These Times.

The Man Who Never Sold Out by Mark Dudzic for Labor Notes.

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One Response to “Tony Mazzocchi, a working-class hero”

  1. Fred Says:

    My father worked in oil fields and then at Dow Chemical. He didn’t die young but I do believe he got an asbestos settlement.


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