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.
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.