|NY Times, Aug. 25, 2002
Facing Death, Founder Fights for Labor Party's Life
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 -- Tony Mazzocchi, the driving force behind the
nation's fledgling Labor Party, shocked thousands of the party's members
when he recently wrote to them, "I am both afflicted with an incurable
disease and blessed with an incurable optimism."
Mr. Mazzocchi, 76, has pancreatic cancer, and although his doctors give
him only a few weeks or maybe a few months to live, he continues to
battle relentlessly in pursuit of his dream -- building a Labor Party
that will someday move to center stage in American politics.
Gaunt from losing 25 pounds this year, he seems especially rueful that
his health is failing at what he sees as an opportune time to reassert
workers' interests and to hack away at corporate power. "For the first
time in 20 years, corporate America is losing legitimacy," he wrote last
month to party members, pointing to the Enron and WorldCom debacles. "It
is cracking under the weight of its own greed. No longer can it play the
goose that lays the golden eggs."
The Labor Party has three main issues: single-payer national health
insurance, as in Canada; free tuition for all college and graduate
students at public colleges and universities; and labor law changes to
make it easier for workers to join unions without employer intimidation.
Mr. Mazzocchi complained that it was extremely difficult to unionize
workers because trying to do so caused many employers to threaten to
close their plants or move overseas.
Many political analysts say the Labor Party's program is unrealistic,
exemplifying the sort of big-government approach that even Democrats
long ago disowned. The party's proposals, they say, might be embraced in
Europe, with its social democratic traditions, but are not likely to get
far in the United States, with its emphasis on shrinking government and
The Labor Party has even come under heavy fire from some labor leaders,
who say it is undermining the Democratic Party, which they see as the
best vehicle to help workers. Conservatives denounce the Labor Party as
a crude advocate of class warfare and soaking the rich.
But Mr. Mazzocchi (pronounced muh-ZOCK-key) insists that the party's
wish list is not pie in the sky. He says one of the party's mottoes
could be "Steal Our Program."
"We're concentrating on issues that resonate," he said. "Right now the
cost of tuition is so prohibitive, even at many state universities, that
it's hurting many working-class students. Tuition for all these folks is
$23 billion. That's nothing."
Although he dropped out of school in ninth grade, Mr. Mazzocchi is a
seminal thinker and strategist for what remains of the American left. He
spends his days, often in pain, at his modest town house here, where the
second floor has been turned into a Labor Party office.
Several unusual accomplishments have helped build his reputation. In
1954, as president of a union local at a Helena Rubenstein cosmetics
factory on Long Island, he was one of the first labor leaders to win
dental benefits. From the 1950's through the 1970's, he did more than
any other union leader to forge ties with environmentalists and
scientists while working on such issues as fighting nuclear testing and
identifying toxic chemicals that endangered factory workers and
In 1970, as legislative director of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers
Union, he played a crucial role in securing passage of the Occupational
Safety and Health Act, which is often called the most important
pro-worker legislation of the last 50 years.
"What's incredible," Mr. Mazzocchi said, "was the guy who was president
then was Richard Nixon, which shows that when you build a big movement
from down below, regardless of who's in the White House, you can bring
In 1974, Mr. Mazzocchi was the union's main adviser to Karen Silkwood,
an atomic plant worker from Oklahoma, before she died in a mysterious
car accident while driving to meet a journalist to publicize safety
problems at her plant.
When he speaks, Mr. Mazzocchi often uses the us-against-them,
class-tinged speech of the 1930's. In his view, the main issues facing
workers have changed little since then: they keep getting squeezed while
corporations grow more powerful, and the gap between the rich and
everybody else keeps growing.
"Workers are worried today," he said. "They see decent-paying jobs
fleeing overseas. They see that they will get the raw end of the stick
whenever it comes to corporate restructuring. They understand
instinctively and more than ever before that when the economy goes
downhill, corporations don't care about their well-being."
Mr. Mazzocchi's childhood in Brooklyn shaped his politics. His father, a
unionized worker at a suit factory, lost the family's home because of
steep medical bills for his wife, who died of cancer when Mr. Mazzocchi
Mr. Mazzocchi founded the Labor Party in 1996 at a convention in
Cleveland because he was convinced that corporate interests and wealthy
donors dominated the Democratic and Republican parties.
He does not see the party, at least now, electing candidates to office.
Rather, he said, its focus should be pushing worker-friendly issues into
the nation's discourse.
Asserting that Mr. Mazzocchi and his party have an obsolete leftist
vision, many critics say it is not surprising that the party has grown
slowly and gained little traction.
Mr. Mazzocchi acknowledges that the party has grown more slowly than he
had hoped and has tailed off some from the 14,000 members it had four
years ago. One reason, he said, is that his illness has sidelined him --
the party's main spokesman and booster. He has concentrated lately on
signing up union locals rather than individual members, and has helped
persuade 350 union locals to pay affiliation fees to show their support.
If the party had more money, he said, it could easily double or triple
the number of unions.
"When I get into a union hall and I'm able to talk to the members, our
message resonates," he said. "American workers aren't going to sit still
if things continue to come apart. If you look at the history of American
workers, you'd think they're in a sleepy lagoon, and then all of a
sudden there is an explosion."