Tony Mazzocchi, 76; Workplace Safety Advocate, Political Activist
By ELAINE WOO
TIMES STAFF WRITER
October 8 2002
Tony Mazzocchi, a longtime advocate for workplace safety whose
disenchantment with traditional politics led him to organize the nation's
first labor party in 70 years, died at his home in Washington, D.C., on
Saturday. He was 76 and had pancreatic cancer.
Mazzocchi brought 1,400 union leaders to a Cleveland convention hall in 1996
to form the Labor Party. Labeled a foolhardy idea by union leaders and
political analysts, it was conceived in an era of waning union strength and
has fewer than 14,000 members.
Although disappointed by the fledgling party's slow growth, Mazzocchi
remained committed to its pro-worker agenda, focused on single-payer
national health insurance, free higher education and workers' rights.
His slogan: "The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own!"
An intellectual who never finished high school, he was considered "the Ralph
Nader of industrial safety." Along with Nader and other activists, he was a
key figure behind the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in
1970, often called the most far-reaching pro-labor law of the last
"Over the last 30 years, nobody comes close to him," said Nader, who praised
Mazzocchi's leadership on the drives to pass OSHA, the Natural Gas Pipeline
Safety Act and other major legislation.
"He is an icon," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California
Nurses Assn. "More than anyone, he is the unsung hero of organized labor. I
literally lay in bed at night wondering what we are going to do without Tony
A former secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers
International Union, he advised its most famous member, Oklahoma plutonium
plant worker Karen Silkwood, whose death after struggles to ensure plant
safety inspired the 1983 Oscar-nominated movie "Silkwood."
Mazzocchi grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a unionized garment worker who
lost the family home because of medical bills for his cancer-stricken wife.
She died when Mazzocchi was 6.
A ninth-grade dropout, he served as a combat soldier in the European theater
during World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and other key
campaigns. He was among the first soldiers to reach the Nazi death camps.
After the war, he worked as an auto worker, steelworker and in construction.
He became president of Oil and Chemical's Local 8-149 in 1953. In 1954, he
negotiated for employees of a Helena Rubenstein cosmetics factory what many
believe was the first dental insurance plan in the U.S.
He served as union president until 1965. Through the 1960s and '70s, he was
a behind-the-scenes leader in key legislative battles involving labor. He
was known for forging alliances of unions, scientists and environmentalists
on issues involving nuclear safety, asbestos and other toxic materials that
"Dealing with the dangers that employees face in the workplace--that was a
passion [that] continued throughout his career," said Bob Wages, a former
president of OCAW, now the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy
Workers International Union.
Mazzocchi was based in Washington as director of the union's legislative
office in the early 1970s when Silkwood came to see him.
Silkwood, a technician at the Kerr-McGee nuclear processing facility in
Crescent, Okla., told him she believed Kerr-McGee officials were falsifying
records about the integrity of the plant's plutonium rods.
She was contaminated in a series of unexplained plutonium exposures in the
weeks before her death.
She died in a suspicious car accident in 1974 while on her way to talk to a
reporter about safety violations at the Kerr-McGee plant.
A private investigator hired by the union after her death found evidence
that Silkwood's car might have been forced off the road while she was
allegedly carrying documents confirming her allegations about Kerr-McGee's
safety violations. No documents were ever found.
Mazzocchi pressed for a formal government inquiry into the circumstances
surrounding her death, which was ruled an accident despite unanswered
questions that fed speculation for years. In 1986, 12 years after her fatal
car crash, a civil suit lodged against Kerr-McGee by Silkwood's estate was
settled out of court for $1.3 million. The Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel plants
closed in 1975.
Mazzocchi later established an innovative internship program that exposed
medical and public health students to workplace conditions. He also was
instrumental in the union's commissioning of a play by Denver playwright
Larry Bograd called "The Half-Life of Karen Silkwood," which made its
premiere in 1993 at the Attic Theatre in Detroit.
A firm believer in the power of art to enrich the labor movement, he pressed
for a play to be written about his union's history. It was presented at a
Last year, he organized a film festival in Washington that featured movies
with working-class themes.
During the 1980s, Mazzocchi drew attention to efforts in industry to make
women working around toxic materials undergo sterilization. He was cited by
Ms. magazine in 1982 as one of the "40 Male Heroes of the Decade" for
"exposing exclusionary corporate 'fetal protection policies' " that
restricted the hiring of women of childbearing age.
Mazzocchi had been arguing for a national political party controlled by
working people since at least the early 1980s, when he made it a central
plank of his run for the national presidency of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic
Workers. He lost the election to a more traditional unionist. But, by the
end of the decade, he sensed that conditions had changed.
At a union board meeting in early 1989, Mazzocchi and his colleagues were
discussing what they saw as the moribund state of the American labor
movement and the lack of Democratic Party leadership on workers' issues.
"One thing led to another, and Tony laid out this vision," Wages recalled.
Later that year, a survey was conducted of the union's membership and that
of 90 other local and regional unions. It showed overwhelming support for a
labor party. Mazzocchi saw the results as a mandate.
With his union's backing, he launched Labor Party Advocates to build a
national network of supporters. As chief organizer, he crisscrossed the
country for the next several years, talking up the party at factories,
refineries, foundries--anywhere he could find workers.
The last time unions had thrown their weight behind a labor party was in
1924, when they supported Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette for president
against Calvin Coolidge. LaFollette's defeat--he came in third--was the
death knell for the Progressive Party.
Citing the decline in union membership at the end of the 20th century, labor
analysts and trade union leaders were skeptical of the new attempt to form a
workers party. Lane Kirkland, then AFL-CIO president, dismissed it as "a
formula for wandering in the political wilderness."
Mazzocchi was undeterred.
"Movements grow in desperate times," he told Newsday in 1995. "We are being
By 1995, he had pledges of support from four small national unions and
10,000 individuals. At the founding convention the following year, the
keynote speakers included Nader and Jerry Brown, the former California
governor and future Oakland mayor. The 1,000-plus participants heard fiery
speeches and staged a massive rally around Cleveland's city hall, events
ignored by most of the national media.
Mazzocchi blamed himself for the party's slow growth, saying his cancer,
which he disclosed a few months ago, had prevented him from stumping for the
It irked him that he was forced to slow down at what seemed an opportune
moment: He saw in the Enron and Worldcom scandals that left hundreds out of
work an opening for a robust new assault on big business that could energize
"I am both afflicted with an incurable disease and blessed with an incurable
optimism," he wrote to party members in July.
"For the first time in 20 years, corporate America is losing legitimacy. It
is cracking under the weight of its own greed. No longer can it play the
goose that lays the golden eggs."
He is survived by five daughters: Geraldine Amitin of Atlanta; Carol Irish
of Rochester, N.Y.; Linda Nagle of Houston; Elizabeth Mazzocchi of Boston;
and Kristina Mazzocchi of Washington; a son, Anthony, of Brooklyn; five
grandchildren; and his partner, Katherine Isaac.