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Obituaries

Tony Mazzocchi, 76; Workplace Safety Advocate, Political Activist

October 08, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 half-century.

"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 Mazzocchi."

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 threaten workers.

"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 national convention.

Last year, he organized a film festival in Washington that featured movies with working-class themes.

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