American labor and the environmental movement

Down through the years, corporate polluters have told their employees they have a choice of working under toxic conditions or not having any jobs at all.

All too often workers accepted this tradeoff, and treated environmentalists as their enemies.  It is a kind of Stockholm syndrome—hostages identifying with their captors.

Environmentalists for their part have often neglected workers.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Barry Commoner’s Science and Survival (1967) warned the public of the danger of pesticides, but had little to say about the danger to workers who manufactured these pesticides.

Few workers understood the dangers of the chemicals to which they were exposed.  Few environmentalists knew the extent of worker exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The great accomplishment of Tony Mazzocchi, whose life story is told in Les Leopold’s The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Laborwas to bring environmentalists and workers together.

He never criticized environmentalists as being privileged people who failed to understand the realities of workers’ lives.  Instead he tried to bring the environmental movement and the labor movement together.

He had Commoner give eye-opening talks to members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ union on the medical effects of chemicals they worked with.

Mazzocchi helped organize the coalition of labor unions and environmentalists that is credited for enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Act of 1970.

The OSHA law gave the Secretary of Labor the power to set health and safety standards and to enforce them through workplace inspections.  It gave unions and other interested groups the right to petition for new or stronger standards, and the right to call for inspections in the face of “imminent danger.”  It required employers to provide a work environment free from hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

But as he soon found, having these legal rights was one thing, and getting the federal government to enforce them was another.   As I read accounts in the book of how the government tolerated blatant hazards, I remember my experience in reporting on business in the 1980s.  Small business owners complained of being put to great expense to fix problems that seemed picayune both them and to me.

At the same time big corporations continued to endanger the lives and health of their employees in blatant ways, and, as Les Leopold reported, the government inspectors weren’t interested.

Tony Mazzocchi said more is needed—a workers’ “right to know” what chemicals they are being exposed to and their properties, and a “right to act” to protect themselves.  The ultimate goal, he said, should be to eliminate hazardous chemicals altogether.

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Karen Silkwood was a member of the Oil, Gas and Atomic Workers union local at the Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma.  She was part of a delegation who told Mazzocchi that workers were handling fuel rods with plutonium pellets with as little protection as if they were curtain rods.

He was the one who encouraged her to make copies of records showing Kerr-McGee had falsified safety records.  Silkwood was found to have been mysteriously contaminated with plutonium in her home, including a toxic bologna sandwich, and then was killed mysteriously in a highway accident when she was supposedly on her way to bring copies of the falsified records to a New York Times reporter.

Mazzocchi fought to keep her case alive, and he himself was in a near-fatal highway accident after suffering a mysterious and unprecedented blackout behind the wheel.  Later he found a sophisticated bugging device in the woodwork of his home.  None of these facts constitutes legal proof of anything, but I think they indicate what can happen to you if you threaten the national security state.


Crash: the Silkwood Story: excerpt from The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor.

Tony Mazzocchi: ‘It’s Been a Good Run’ by Dave Campbell for Labor Notes.

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

Remembering Mazzocchi by David Moberg for In These Times.

The Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and the Environment.

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