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Going Down the Road | The Nation

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Going Down the Road

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Out in the countryside is where you'll find America's true leaders--the gutsy, scrappy, sometimes scruffy and always ingenious grassroots agitators and organizers who go right into the face of the powerful elite, not merely speaking truth to power but kicking Old Mr. Power right in the butt. It's from such people that the progressive movement gets the innovative strategies that allow We the People to advance our democratic ideals of fairness, justice and equal opportunity for all.

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Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

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This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

Tony Mazzocchi was one of these leaders. He never sought the spotlight, always deferring to someone else to get credit and media attention--"I'm just a labor guy," he'd tell you in his blunt Brooklyn accent. But what a labor guy! Tony's the epitome of what labor can be, the kind of labor guy you wish was in charge of every labor union, from the locals to the internationals. Now Tony is gone--On October 5 he died of cancer at 76. This column, however, is no obituary; it's a rallying cry. To paraphrase the last words supposedly uttered by Joe Hill: Don't Mourn, Emulate! And, yes, organize.

Organize is what Tony did. Wiry and fiery, he was of, by and for the working class--a lifelong dedication that came to him not through intellectual study but experience. Son of immigrants from Naples, he grew up poor. "I didn't discover until after I went to the Army that people don't normally sleep three to a bed," he said. He learned the union gospel from his father, a garment worker who became shop steward and was in several tumultuous strikes.

At 16 Tony dropped out of school and lied about his age to enlist in World War II, fighting three combat campaigns and ending up at Buchenwald just as it was getting liberated, giving his young mind a horrifying lesson in the human capacity for inhumanity.

Back home Mazzocchi went to technical school on the GI Bill, after which he worked several jobs before landing at a Helena Rubenstein plant on Long Island, making cosmetics. Most of the workers there were women, who got less pay than the men and were the first to go in layoffs, regardless of seniority. So in 1953 he ran for president of the local union on a pledge of equal pay and equal treatment. Elected at 26, he not only delivered on that pledge but he built union loyalty by negotiating a health plan, including the first-ever dental insurance coverage in private industry.

While unions at the time focused almost strictly on wages, hours and job security, Tony began to talk about the workers' health and safety. He realized shortly after coming to Helena Rubenstein that it wasn't a cosmetics plant, it was a toxic chemical factory. Day in and day out, workers were handling lead to put in lipstick, breathing asbestos that went into talc and so forth--all without any protections or monitoring of their health. By the mid-1950s, this still-young agitator had helped amalgamate the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, and he led the first-ever strike in the United States over issues of health and safety.

In the late 1950s he learned that some OCAW members and their families were being exposed to strontium 90 from nuclear tests. The industry claimed that no one was getting enough exposure to be hurt, but Tony met with scientists who said the deadly isotope accumulates in bone tissue. So he asked members in various plants to collect the baby teeth of their kids and grandkids. "My union, 85 percent of which was women, really got into it," he said. "Every day they would bring into the shop steward baby teeth. The study became the definitive proof that strontium 90 was being taken up by humans."

Mazzocchi's greatest contribution to the movement was his understanding that none of our groups can win alone--we have to forge coalitions. In the mid-1960s, then serving as OCAW's legislative director in Washington, he reached out to environmentalists and public interest groups, which labor mostly had been treating hostilely. He helped pull them together behind a bill that he and Ralph Nader were cobbling together--the bill that ultimately created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in 1970. As part of that effort, Tony backed Earth Day, serving as chair of the April 1970 rally in New York City. With millions of Americans responding to Earth Day's call for action against toxics, the OSHA bill quickly began to move, even getting sudden support from none other than Richard Nixon, who wanted to appeal to blue-collar workers for his re-election bid. "[It] shows that when you build a big movement from down below," Tony said, "regardless of who's in the White House, you can bring about change."

There's so much more: In 1974 he was the one who worked with Karen Silkwood to expose safety violations and a corporate cover-up at Kerr-McGee's nuclear plant; then, after Silkwood was killed (apparently forced off the road to keep her from providing evidence of the cover-up), Tony kept pushing to bring the truth of her story to the general public. In 1991 he established Alice Hamilton College, specifically designed for union members. Last year, he initiated the wildly successful Labor Film Festival at the Kennedy Center. He also created an innovative medical-student internship so budding healthcare professionals could work on job sites and learn up close and personally about workplace health problems. And he devoted his last decade to founding and building an independent political voice for workers, the Labor Party, created to advance a working-class agenda of universal healthcare and higher education for all (www.thelaborparty.org).

In July, at the Labor Party's convention, Tony said in his opening speech, "I am both afflicted with an incurable disease and blessed with an incurable optimism." That was him to the core--a labor guy who could see the rapacious greed of our society's elites so clearly, which causes many to despair, yet what he saw was the uplifting opportunity to reach more people and build a movement to defeat the greed. Don't send flowers...become flowers, nourished by Tony Mazzocchi's example.

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