The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor

THE MOST FAMOUS environmental heroes love the land, sometimes more than they care about people. But there are those who care just as much about preserving the environment, yet do so through the interests of human beings — our safety and health in the workplace, our protection from forces that would exploit us.

The labor movement has its own ecological heroes, yet these great campaigners are not as well known as they should be. Les Leopold’s fast-paced, gripping tale of the life of Tony Mazzocchi is just the sort of book to change that. You may not have heard of Mazzocchi, but America is a much better country because of his efforts. In the sixties he tried to bring workers and conservationists together. As a leader in the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), he represented the interests of the energy workers of America, people doing some of the most hazardous work in this country, who rarely get credit for their efforts.

Mazzocchi is the hero of Paul Brodeur’s famous 1973 New Yorker articles that broke the real danger of asbestos exposure to factory workers, a danger that the Bureau of Occupational Safety and Health had refused to deal with. Mazzocchi was outraged because he “wanted people to know that thousands upon thousands of their fellow citizens were being assaulted daily on the job, and the federal government had done nothing to remedy the situation.” Because of this testimony, Congress eventually passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

This was only one achievement in years of tireless campaigning. It was Mazzocchi who urged Karen Silkwood to testify against the Kerr-McGee Corporation over the cancer-causing hazards of routine work in the nuclear industry. Silkwood died in a car crash just before she was about to reveal damaging facts about her employer, and Mazzocchi was in a similarly suspicious crash around the same time. He was lucky enough to survive and lead the fight to bring Silkwood’s message to all of us.

The workers in Mazzocchi’s union are the people who deal most directly with the darkest aspects of America’s energy economy. When the Bhopal chemical accident exploded across the world’s media, it was Mazzocchi who brought Indian survivors to the U.S. to bolster his case that our plants were really no safer than that one. In 1989, he organized the first U.S. union conference on global warming. He was active in trying to get an American labor party off the ground at the end of the nineties. The OCAW collapsed as an organization in 2000, but Mazzocchi kept fighting for workers’ rights as part of a larger and more inclusive environmentalism. In October 2001, Mazzocchi learned he had an inoperable form of cancer, and less than a year to live. He just kept on going, arguing that workers cleaning up the World Trade Center site after 9/11 should not be on the site more than four hours a day. Six years after Mazzocchi’s death in 2002, Ground Zero workers are still getting sick because no one listened to him.

This book is a detailed account of what it’s like to be an activist fighting for the interests of the people who work most closely with the resources that fuel our society. Mazzocchi believed that both nuclear workers and toxic workers, “because of the dangers of their jobs and their service to this country, should be entitled to full income and benefits for life even if their jobs are eliminated.” Always a defender of the rights of labor, he also knew that work and the environment go hand in hand.

I met Mazzocchi once, in a friend’s cabin deep in the New Hampshire woods, a rather unlikely place for such an urban fighter. But he seemed quite comfortable amid the spruce trees. Over the years I would sometimes call him for advice on strengthening the common ground between the ecology and labor movements. He would always offer some nugget of wisdom about how unions always had the potential to fight for more than workers’ rights: “If the contribution we’re going to make to our children is a society and an environment that’s not worth living in, then we should not be proud. If you think kids are alienated today, you wait until your children are old enough to say, ‘Is this what you left us?'”

David Rothenberg has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years.  He is the author of Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, also published in England, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. It was turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary.  His following book, Thousand Mile Song, is on making music with whales.  It was turned into a film for French television. As a composer and jazz clarinetist, Rothenberg has eleven CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by JazzizMagazine in 1995 and a record on ECM with Marilyn Crispell, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  His latest book on insects and music, along with a companion CD, was published in April 2013 by St. Martins Press under the title Bug Music.  It has been covered in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, on PBS News Hour and on Radiolab.