Hazards 103
p35, July-September 2008


A real union leader on safety

If you want to learn about union leadership, you should learn about Tony Mazzocchi. And if you want a pacy, intriguing and immensely readable biography of the US trade unionist’s extraordinary life, you should read ‘The man who hated work and loved labor’.

Author Les Leopold first met Mazzocchi in the early 1970s, “hoping to enlist in his radical health and safety movement.” This tells its own story. At the time, Mazzocchi wasn’t a backroom safety researcher, he was the legislative director of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ union (OCAW). He had, however, come up through the union ranks was still a magnet for grassroots health and safety activists.

Around this time, he was supporting a young nuclear plant union activist, Karen Silkwood. Her employer, Leopold notes, was encouraging workers to think assembling plutonium “fuel rods was little more dangerous than assembling curtain rods.” Silkwood, whose story was recounted in a major movie starring Meryl Streep, was killed in a car smash on her way to deliver evidence of company’s falsified safety inspection records to a New York Times reporter. Two months later, Mazzocchi survived when his new car flipped after he blacked out on his way home from a national union health and safety conference.

Mazzocchi is credited with both leading the charge for the US Occupational Health and Safety Act and kickstarting the US grassroots union safety movement. He knew health and safety was a key organising issue – possibly the key organising issue for trade unions - and he spearheaded this campaign from the workplace to the top of union movement.

Leopold notes that by 1974 Mazzocchi, approaching 50, was an insightful, seasoned union campaigner. “Mazzocchi didn’t believe in good or bad corporations or executives. The logic of capitalism, he was convinced, would force any company, no matter how good or bad, to place profits before worker and public health, and to give in only when their profits or reputation were significantly threatened.”

Tony Mazzocchi died in 2002, but he left an important legacy. The US, unlike the UK, has a strong network of union-sympathetic and prominent scientists, doctors and academics, nurtured and schooled by Mazzocchi. More important, he encouraged a new approach to worker health and safety education and activism, with the ripples felt worldwide.

The man who hated work and loved labor, Les Leopold, Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN 978-1-933392-64-6. $32.