Labor Advocate Online
Appreciation Of the Labor Party's 'Founding Brother'
Reviewed by Bill Onasch
We don’t do a lot of book reviews. This is our first of a
biography. There are some good ones of earlier labor/political leaders such as
Eugene Debs, John L Lewis, and a recent release of one about James P Cannon. But
over the last several decades there hasn’t been much material to work with. One
can imagine how exciting and inspiring would be the life story of Lane Kirkland,
Ron Gettelfinger, or Andy Stern. But when I heard a biography of Tony Mazzocchi
was in the works I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I thank the folks at
Chelsea Green Publishers for furnishing me a review copy
My few personal encounters with Tony were within the Labor Party Advocates movement, during the last several years of his life. But I had heard much about him over the years, always associated with important, progressive struggles. I had already pegged Tony as the most far sighted, class conscious American union leader of the post-World War II era. This new book reinforces that conviction
Within the labor movement there are quite a few who recognize the indispensable role Tony Mazzocchi played, while serving as the legislative director of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), in getting OSHA passed. Many know of his involvement with the struggle at Kerr-McGee that claimed the life of Karen Silkwood--immortalized in film by Meryl Streep. He became identified with the ups and downs of the fight for single-payer health care.
Fewer are aware of his probing pioneer work in building labor alliances with the civil rights, environmental, student, antinuclear and antiwar movements. And too few are aware of his final major project, the launching of the Labor Party.
Such a figure presents a real challenge to a biographer. Even the most exceptional men and women who affect history are complex humans like the rest of us. Tony pulled off some amazing victories in his nearly six decades of dedication to the labor movement–he also made his full share of mistakes. Revered by many, respected by most, he was by no means a saint in his personal life. Drawing a fair, rounded picture of this remarkable leader was far from easy--but Les Leopold gets the job done.
“Tony was a big-picture organizer who couldn’t sit still. All the time I knew him, he traveled the country incessantly, crusading for universal health care or a labor party–leaving too little time to spend with his six children from two broken marriages. He would start ten different projects at once, tossing the details around like confetti while others swept up behind.”
The biographer was a major contributor to both the projects and the sweeping up. Leopold was one of a group of young people recruited by Mazzocchi in the Seventies to put their intellectual skills at work in rebuilding a class struggle labor movement. One project was the Labor Institute where Leopold served on the staff, and later as director, for over thirty years. Over those decades he collaborated closely with the subject of his book and got to know him personally as well.
While not exactly an “official” biography, Leopold clearly had the confidence of Tony and this helped him to gain interviews with numerous family, friends, collaborators–and even some adversaries who had to grudgingly respect Mazzocchi. Their comments offer valuable insights into both the thinking and character of Tony Mazzocchi.
But Leopold gives us much more than personal recollections and anecdotes. The reader gets a bonus history lesson as he situates every phase of Tony’s tumultuous life in the broader social, economic, and political context. Among these topics:
●The final battles of World War II, and the liberation of
concentration camps, which a teenage Mazzocchi saw first hand.
●The great post-war strike wave in 1946.
●The 1947 passage of Taft-Hartley, and its passive acceptance by most mainstream labor leaders.
●The Communist Party’s support of the Henry Wallace campaign in the 1948 presidential election.
●The purge of the “red unions” from the CIO.
●The McCarthyite witch-hunt.
●CIA involvement in American unions–including Tony’s.
●The mass civil rights movement of the 50-60s.
●The Vietnam war and the student radicalization of the Sixties.
●The rise of the modern environmental movement.
●The emergence of what’s come to be known as Globalization.
And much more. Living up to his subtitle, Leopold examines not only the life but the times of Tony Mazzocchi.
This book is, of course, not for everybody. It’s not going to be snapped up at airport gift shops. But for anyone committed to the labor movement, or any of the other movements for social change, it is a “must read.” Once you start you’ll continue not because you “must” but because it is both educational and fascinating.
Tony was discharged from his European combat service in the Army in time to see the greatest labor upsurge in American history. All the pent-up demands and grievances suppressed during war time erupted in to massive, militant, and mostly successful strikes.
His initial views of this turbulence were shaped by family and friends who were in or around the Communist Party–which at that time had significant numbers of members, and leadership positions, in much of the union movement Tony was urged to go in to industry to advance the class struggle and he landed a strategic, good paying job at a Ford assembly plant. Tony never adjusted to the hard work and boredom and, after being laid off in a few months, decided that would end his career in auto. While recognizing the value of such work, and respecting those who did it, he never concealed his personal aversion to such drudgery. He had GI benefits to fall back on and he used them.
Tony, in fact, didn’t hold down a truly steady job until 1950 when, again at the urging of CP friends, he went to work at the Helena Rubinstein cosmetic plant, then located in New York City, soon to move to suburban Long Island. That proved to be a long gig indeed as Tony rose quickly in the union there.
There’s no doubt his Brooklyn CP friends and family circle were helpful in launching Tony in to what blossomed in to a promising situation at Rubinstein. Their best attributes of pursuing militant trade unionism, and unflinching opposition to racism, helped shape Tony’s long view. But Tony never joined the party and soon diverged from the party line on many strategic and tactical questions. He staunchly opposed red-baiting but he kept his own counsel as an independent socialist. Over the years he collaborated with a wide range of political allies.
Tony’s first major project in local union leadership was something quite relevant to today’s sorry state of collective bargaining--a successful campaign to eliminate a previously imposed two-tier wage structure. This was the first of numerous victories that strengthened union solidarity, put more money in members pockets–and made Tony a very popular guy.
Local 149 was to be his base through thick and thin throughout his career. Tony organized this modest sized local of initially 500 members into a dynamo within the New York labor movement and the international union. They provided militant solidarity pickets to other unions on strike. Their mobilized membership resurrected a dormant Democrat Party on the Island and became acknowledged “players” in politics both in the city and the suburbs. Leopold’s detailed documentation of these varied struggles makes compelling reading.
Tony’s early outlook on electoral politics also flowed from CP influence. The 1948 Henry Wallace campaign that the CP, and some unions they influenced, had been so prominent in, proved to be a dud and serious retribution was meted out by the union bureaucrats that had helped Truman to survive challenges from both left and right. Since then the CP has always supported Democrats and aims to build a progressive wing within that Establishment party.
At one point in the Sixties, after playing a major role in rejuvenating the local Democrats, Tony was on the verge of running for congress--but then Democrat leaders explained the facts of life to him. He could be a “player” but was too radical to represent the Democrats in a major office. His campaign might jeopardize the whole ticket. To the great disappointment of his followers, he backed away from a confrontation with the Democrat machine. It was to be another twenty years before he initiated a serious campaign for a Labor Party.
But what a twenty years those were. He helped found SANE–the dominant peace group in America before the student radicalization around Vietnam. He hooked up with consumer crusader Ralph Nader on numerous projects in a close relationship that would last for his life. He embraced the early environmental movement and sought to both advance it within the union and to bring worker concerns to scientist/activists such as Barry Commoner. He took on the nuclear power industry–which included OCAW employers. And, of course, there was the victory in establishing OSHA.
Many radicals and militant unionists, in the course of bumping up against the class collaborationist policies of most mainstream union officials, adopt an anti-leadership outlook. Many shout “we are all leaders” which translates in to no leaders. This approach has kept once promising opposition movements in unions disorganized, with a blurred focus of the real forces at work. Over time they become less promising.
Tony often mockingly introduced himself at gatherings frequented by such radicals as a “union bureaucrat.” He demonstrated that it didn’t hurt democracy or militancy one bit if class struggle fighters held leadership positions. From 1965 on Tony, except for one short period of “exile,” held various national posts in the OCAW–legislative director, health & safety director, vice-president, one term as secretary-treasurer. He twice ran for president, losing narrowly both times. His last position was “special assistant to the president,”which he held until OCAW’s painful absorption by the Paperworkers in the thankfully short-lived PACE.
During all this time Tony made some mistakes–but never sold out and never tried to disguise his class struggle perspective. If any thing, he seemed to become more radical and impatient in his final years. He recognized as few others did that the unions would not survive without a broader social and political movement. He chose as his last big task to try to jump start a Labor Party that could pull together and give leadership to the many battered fronts of American class struggle today.
Tony didn’t live to see this project through to victory. The Labor Party was already falling on hard times when he lost out to an untreatable cancer a few months after the party’s 2002 convention. It remains to be seen whether this initiative can become the mass workers party so sorely needed by American workers. But the vision of such a party is the crowning achievement of Tony Mazzocchi’s legacy to the labor he so loved.
Click here to order this book through the KC Labor link to Amazon
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched and represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.
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