By Jeremy Gruber


Tony MazzocchiThis special issue of GeneWatch magazine is dedicated to the memory of Anthony "Tony" Mazzocchi (1926-2002), a founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics and an incorruptible fighter for worker health and safety. 

The son of a working-class immigrant family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Tony lied about his age and went off to war in 1943 as a 16-year-old. He survived the Battle of the Bulge and was with one of the first units to liberate Buchenwald.  

In 1953, at the age of 26, Tony was elected president of United Gas, Coke, and Chemical Workers' Union Local 149, having run on a pledge of equal pay for women. Within a few years, he had not only won equal pay for equal work for women but also negotiated a health insurance plan-one which included the first dental insurance coverage in the private sector in the U.S. Tony fought against global warming and for free health care, a guaranteed income and free access to higher education. Although Tony never finished high school, he was the prototype of the worker intellectual. He was a voracious reader, an avid student of subjects as diverse as genetics and evolution, history and politics.  He produced plays and organized cultural festivals. He was widely regarded as a visionary big picture thinker who was in the forefront of the labor movement's involvement and bridge-building to the major struggles for social justice in the postwar period-from the civil rights and feminist movements and the struggles against nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War, to the fights for environmental justice and the movement for occupational health and safety, which he spearheaded.  

Long before the environmental movement in the United States had even begun, Tony began integrating environmental concerns into his critique of capitalism and his union work. As he discovered that corporations were exposing workers to toxic, even lethal substances in the rush for profits, he grew to believe that the inherent struggle between capital and the natural environment was the defining struggle of his time.  He regularly questioned why even good paying jobs sentenced workers to so many occupational illnesses. He would thereafter work not just to protect workers against toxic substances but to eliminate such toxins as part of a broader green movement. As his protégé and biographer Les Leopold writes, "Mazzocchi's conceptual breakthrough was that pollution always starts in the workplace, and then moves into the community and the natural environment."

It is not an exaggeration to say that without Tony Mazzocchi, the occupational health and safety movement would not have begun, the environmental health movement would not have begun and a new profession of occupational health would not have begun.  In 1965, Tony was appointed as the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union's Citizenship-Legislative Director. He used his position to push heavily for health and safety language in union contracts as well as for state and federal legislation on the issue.  In 1969 and 1970, he organized a series of public meetings in which OCAW and other union members testified about the chemicals they were handling and the health problems they were experiencing. Scientists also testified at these public hearings about the danger of these chemicals. The public meetings gained widespread press attention. Tony also used the hearings to help educate workers on the legislative process, and trained them to act as lobbyists for federal health and safety legislation. The media attention and pressure from union members provided critical support for congressional attempts to pass comprehensive occupational health and safety legislation. In December 1970, Congress enacted and President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Nixon specifically cited Tony's leadership and grassroots organizing efforts as key in winning passage of the Act.

Even after passage Tony worked incessantly to improve worker health and safety protections, particularly for asbestos related exposure in the workplace which resulted in vastly improved standards. He was an important figure in the "right to know" movement, which advocated for rules, regulations and legislation to give individuals the right to know which chemicals they may be exposed to while on the job.  Tony went on to become Vice President of OCAW and under his leadership, OCAW became the rare union to call major strikes at big companies solely around issues of workplace health. And it was Tony who encouraged a young lab technician on the bargaining committee at the Kerr-McGee nuclear facility in Cimarron, Oklahoma, to pursue her suspicions that X-rays were being doctored to disguise cracks in control rods that leaked plutonium. After David Burnham of The New York Times got on the case, the young nuclear technician, Karen Silkwood, en route to give Burnham a folder of documents, was found dead in a mysterious car accident.

Tony went on to found the Labor Party, but his unwavering dedication to worker health and safety would continue to dominate his work.  He had a seemingly endless optimism to create change and he always viewed his work as a collective endeavor.  Indeed, Tony touched nearly everyone he met, educated them and inspired them and hundreds of organizers cherish Tony as the most personally generous of mentors.  Tony led a life of struggle for something much bigger than himself.  He laid the groundwork for a healthier and fairer America, and for that we are all greatly indebted.

Jeremy Gruber, J.D., is President and Executive Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

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