January 2011

Mariya Strauss

Prole Art Threat

Pop Quiz: Who Made Asbestos Famous? Answer: Mostly This Guy

If you ever spend a few minutes watching C-SPAN, you may wonder how anything ever gets done in this country. For a clue, hover your magnifying glass over the stories of leaders who helped to create the public pressure for laws to be changed to make life a little better for ordinary folks. Strategic thinking and connecting groups of people to form alliances seem to be big common denominators among such leaders.

There’s a story in The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, Les Leopold’s 2007 biography of labor leader and worker safety advocate Tony Mazzocchi (pronounced miz-AH-key) that rather neatly illustrates the difference between strategy and tactic. In 1968, Mazzocchi got word that a worker had died of carbon monoxide poisoning at a paint company called National Lead in New Jersey. (The shock that comes with learning that they proudly displayed the word “lead” in their company name is a testament to how far we’ve come in understanding toxic chemicals. This broadly shared understanding about common toxins is another part of Mazzocchi’s legacy.)

At the time of the National Lead incident, Mazzocchi was starting to center his strategic thinking vis a vis building the labor movement around worker safety and health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) didn’t exist yet. Over 20,000 chemicals being used and released in manufacturing in the US were still unregulated. Workers were expected to handle chemicals like dioxin, benzene, beryllium, mercury gas, chlorine gas, asbestos, allyl alcohol fumes (which induce coma and death after brief exposure) and even plutonium without any independent agency monitoring their exposure levels. Some of these workers were already members of Mazzocchi’s Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), others worked in plants the union hoped to organize.

Leopold writes that Mazzocchi knew the workers needed more control over their exposure to chemicals, but they lacked the scientific knowledge it would take to know when they were experiencing dangerous levels. (Later, Mazzocchi would tell Nixon’s OSHA administrator, “You know, we’re not that dumbass. We don’t need to call you if something’s gonna explode. We’ll just run. We need you in nonexplosive situations where the exposures are harmful.”) So Mazzocchi came up with the idea of mobilizing left-leaning graduate students from university chemistry departments to join forces with the workers and use their expertise to pressure the companies to negotiate safety rules and worker-represented committees into the union contracts.

Getting the workers to trust the grad students was no easy thing, though. These workers’ main exposure to scientists had been the company-hired doctors who prescribed cough syrup after chemical exposures and told the guys to go back to work. Mazzocchi brought two chemistry grad students, Glenn Paulson and Max Snodderly, into the National Lead plant to tour the facility and meet the workers.

“It was a cold spring day,” [said Paulson]. “We were at the gate, and some of the top management people came out to tell us that we could not go in. Mazzocchi basically put them up against a wall, telling them that if they didn’t let him bring in his experts, ‘I’ll shut the place down right now.’ Management huddled momentarily to consider that threat and then agreed to let us in.”

The tour was an eye-opener. As Paulson recalled,

…They showed us all the monitoring devices and where they were located. At this time, the maximum level was supposed to be fifty parts per million. I’m kind of curious about machines, so I started to look around… and I found one where the alarm was set to go off at 100ppm. They management people got very embarrassed by that and they immediately changed it. Mazzocchi looked around. He found one that was set to go off at 200ppm. And I think it was the safety officer at the time, he started to look around at them. He found one that was set to go off at 400ppm. If somebody breathes that for a few hours, they’ll fall unconscious.

After finding some of the danger zones, Paulson asked to see a blueprint of the plant, which management rolled open for him on a twenty-foot meeting table. He said:

“It was clear that the process started with raw material -- a type of sand -- that was 96 percent titanium, 3 percent vanadium and 1 percent other metal oxides… it was clear as a bell to me that the process left behind very rich vanadium ore, and vanadium used as an additive for steel products is very valuable, much more valuable than titanium. It’s used for shielding of missiles and rockets. Seeing that the process left behind a substance that was 75 percent vanadium, I said something like, “Do you realize that you have left the richest vanadium ore in the world?”

At that point, side discussions within the room halted. Like a herd sensing danger, the silence spread from the management side and across the room. “I realized that I had hit upon their trade secret -- the fundamental profitable aspect of the process,” Paulson said. “It was the vanadium… From that point on they got real respectful. Management now realized that Mazzocchi had scientific backing to be reckoned with. They realized they had to address the serious health and safety problems and that they should talk seriously to us about how best to protect these workers. They agreed to fix and maintain the monitors and reduce the… exposures. In exchange, we agreed to maintain their trade secret.”

Mazzocchi’s victory here was both tactical -- winning a serious concession from one company on health and safety -- and strategic, since word got out around the country that Mazzocchi’s experts were trustworthy allies who would help workers learn how to protect themselves on the job.

Leopold’s book reveals how Mazzocchi proceeded in this way, thinking strategically while acting to achieve small tactical victories. But his strategic talents weren’t enough to save Karen Silkwood.

Some readers may remember Silkwood’s name from the 1983 film named for her. Silkwood was a worker at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma, who had discovered that bad welds on the plutonium rods were being covered up, and decided to become a whistleblower with the help of Mazzocchi and his protégé Steve Wodka.

You will have to read Leopold’s book to find out just what happened to Silkwood, and who may have been responsible. I will say this: It ended badly.

Leopold, who devotes too many pages to union election dramas and name-dropping about Mazzocchi’s famous Washington connections, is at his best when he focuses on the stories of the workers whose health and safety were the cause of Mazzocchi’s life.

Mazzocchi, who died in 2002, left behind some very real legacies for working people: passage of the OSH Act and establishment of the OSHA as part of the Labor Department; workers’ health and safety committees that train workers to monitor toxicity in plants and factories around the country; new regulations and enforcement on many toxic substances like asbestos; a partnership between labor unions and the Sierra Club that blossomed in the mid-2000s into the Blue-Green Alliance and continues to expand. There’s no need to wax romantic about the man to recognize the achievements he made against great odds, at the bargaining table and in Washington.

But Leopold is himself a longtime labor activist and scholar, and you can feel his passion for Mazzocchi in passages like this:

Mazzocchi wasn’t just after a redistribution of wealth. He was after human fulfillment. His highest calling was to demand human freedom -- freedom from demeaning and dangerous work, freedom to learn, freedom to live a life full of ideas, engagement, beauty and friends -- and of course excellent food, preferably involving pasta.

Who doesn’t love this kind of idealism? That Leopold allows it to color his writing about a complex, peripatetic labor leader who left behind two broken marriages and who failed to help a whistleblower survive her employer’s wrath is perhaps the most forgivable of a biographer’s sins. Especially a biographer who has devoted much of his own career to teaching and research about the same things his subject championed: worker safety and health, worker empowerment, and environmentalism. Leopold’s broad-ranging yet deeply researched and sensitively written treatment of Mazzocchi’s life shows that you can be an author-activist and still do some serious biography.