A few weeks ago, we wrote about an exciting new book, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold (Chelsea Green 2007). The following is an excerpt from the book, reprinted here with permission of the publisher. For more information, go to www.chelseagreen.com, where you can also watch a short film honoring Tony Mazzocchi.
Mazzocchi’s antiwar organizing did not distract him from his quest for national health and safety legislation.
The workers who had been drawn to Mazzocchi’s road shows across the country had provided poignant congressional testimony in support of the new legislation.
“Our contribution was making the issue public through the conferences we had” and through bringing in workers to testify before Congress, said Mazzocchi. “I said to the labor lobbyists: ‘You guys know Capitol Hill, but in the absence of public pressure, you’re not gonna get anywhere.’”
The lack of public pressure, Mazzocchi believed, had allowed a previous bill proposed by President Johnson to get bottled up in committee in 1968. The war had also pulled Johnson’s attention away from the bill. And the outdated pictures of hazardous workplace conditions that the Department of Labor presented in hearings and booklets didn’t help the cause, either.
After Nixon’s election in 1968, the Democratic-controlled Congress had again pushed forward a bill. This time the combination of intense congressional lobbying and Mazzocchi’s road show and regional congressional hearings kept the bill before the public. “The heavy lobbying,” said Tony, was done by Jack Sheehan, the environmentally aware legislative director of the Steelworkers—as well as George Taylor from the AFL-CIO and Howard McQuiggen from the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department.
Ralph Nader was also involved. “I went over the proposed legislation paragraph by paragraph with Phil Burton [a Democratic congressman from California],” Nader recalled. “The only unions really in play were the Steelworkers, OCAW, the Meatcutters, and the Textile Workers.”
The swirl of public activity made some kind of bill seem inevitable. Nixon proposed an industry-friendly version that would have relied more on self-policing by private industry and state government than on federal enforcement. But Sheehan and other labor lobbyists pushed hard for the Johnson bill, which called for federal standard setting and enforcement by the Department of Labor.
In the end, they compromised: The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) gave the secretary of labor the power to set health and safety standards and to enforce them through workplace inspections. A separate commission would act as a kind of court of appeals. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), lodged in another agency, was charged with conducting workplace health studies, while OSHA focused on regulations and enforcement.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 established the framework used for OSHA, said Sheehan: “Without the Clean Air Act, there would be no OSHA. All the legislative constructs, terminology, and technical expertise required for the OSHA legislation were learned from our work on the Clean Air Act.”
The Steelworkers’ focus on air pollution started in 1948 when a temperature inversion and the fumes from a smelter in Donora, Pennsylvania, combined to kill twenty residents and sicken six thousand. Clearly, the Steelworkers realized, they had to address the problem of fumes both inside and outside the mills. In 1963, it supported the first Clean Air Act; in 1969, with Sheehan’s prompting, it held an unprecedented national union legislative conference on air pollution in steel-producing communities, which helped lead to passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970. (The union convened another national conference on the smelting industries.)
Steelworkers president I. W. Abel made it clear that the union would not shill for the polluters. “We refuse to be the buffer between positive pollution control activity by the community and resistance by industry,” he said.
So the union’s central role in passing OSHA was no aberration. “OSHA was never high on the AFL-CIO priority list, and it was willing to let a weaker bill pass,” said Sheehan. “But we made it a priority and worked hard with Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey and Jacob Javitz of New York to get a much better bill than Nixon had proposed.”
One of Mazzocchi’s contributions to the OSHA effort, according to Sheehan, was his “particular charisma with the press. Mazzocchi, with his abrupt, strong, anti-industrial language, gave them very good quotes.”
During the signing ceremony on December 29, 1970, Secretary of Labor James D. Hodgeson referred to “a new national passion . . . for environmental improvement. And when you think of it, what environment is more important to 80 million working Americans than their workplace?” (He had previously proclaimed at a Steelworker convention that the bill would be passed only over his dead body.)
As Nixon signed the bill, he was flanked by labor and industry heavies: George Meany, I. W. Abel, Frank Fitzsimmons (the president of the Teamsters), as well as the presidents of the chamber of commerce and the National Association of Manufacturing. Mazzocchi was nowhere to be found.
The new law contained several remarkable advances for worker safety. First, it established a “general duty clause,” which required that each employer “shall furnish . . . a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” Second, it gave unions and other interested groups the right to petition the secretary of labor for new or stronger health and safety standards. Third, it allowed unions to call for immediate inspections in the case of “imminent danger.” In addition, it set up a regime of record keeping, unannounced inspections, and federal enforcement. The new law also established the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), an independent federal agency that would determine contested citations or penalties resulting from OSHA inspections. Finally, the act created NIOSH to conduct research and education to promote workplace health and safety.
While Sheehan and the Steelworkers deserve much credit for OSHA, the US Department of Labor’s legislative history left little doubt about Mazzocchi’s role. In fact, he was the only labor leader quoted: “Unions felt that strong action was needed to deal with the hazards of the workplace, especially alarming new chemical dangers. As Anthony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union put it: ‘The mad rush of science has propelled us into a strange and uncharted environment. . . . We grope in the dark and can light only a few candles.’”
By organizing under the new law, Mazzocchi hoped he and his allies could shake up labor’s complacent bureaucracies and turn unions once again into leaders of a great cause. Tony wanted to use the fight for a safe workplace to help fuse together the antiwar movement, the young people inspired by Nader, and the growing environmental movement with the millions of workers exposed and injured on the job. He hoped these forged movements would fundamentally challenge corporate power.
But why make workplace health—of all issues—the centerpiece? Mazzocchi believed that corporate capitalism could not contain, let alone solve, the occupational safety and health crisis. In his view there was a fundamental conflict between profits and productivity on one hand, and health on the other. In fact, Mazzocchi believed that cancer and other workplace related diseases were the unavoidable by-products of the drive for profits in the petrochemical industry.
Tony’s not-so-hidden message was, “If we want a healthy society, then we’d better find another way to organize oil and chemical production.” The beauty of workplace health struggles was that once engaged, workers could see for themselves how reckless companies could be in the pursuit of profits and productivity. In worksite after worksite, workers were learning the hard way that their employers’ insatiable drive for profits would kill them unless they challenged the fundamentals of corporate power and control. For Mazzocchi, this contradiction gave health and safety transformative power to change capitalism.
And by linking worker health and safety to the rising “green” movement, the challenge to corporate power would be more potent still.
Unfortunately, the Occupational Safety and Health Act fell far short of Mazzocchi’s dreams. It failed to establish the Precautionary Principle, which would have required that chemicals be tested before they were foisted on workers and society. It didn’t give workers the “right to know” about the ingredients and health effects of the chemicals to which they were exposed. Corporations that violated OSHA regulations incurred only minor fines.
But Mazzocchi’s team jumped on the language that allowed unions and other groups to petition the secretary of labor for new and stricter exposure limits.
“We were vigorous in using every remedy provided by the law,” Mazzocchi said. “OCAW went before the review board more times than all the other unions put together to make sure the government enforced its citations. And we petitioned for new standards.”
As soon as OSHA opened its doors, Mazzocchi filed the first complaint, leading to the first OSHA citation. The employer was the Allied Chemical Corporation in Moundsville, West Virginia. The complaint: unregulated worker exposures to mercury. The struggle to force this company to stop its evident poisoning of workers showed both OSHA’s limits and the union’s determination.
Starting in 1965, the members of OCAW Local 3-586 had sought protection from exposures at the Allied Chemical chlor-alkali facility. The plant produced chlorine through the interaction of mercury in electrolytic cells. The local did what most unions did back then: It asked management to reduce the obvious mercury hazards. And Allied Chemical did what most such companies did: It denied there was a problem and did very little to clean up the mess.
Facing a profit squeeze, the company had cut its maintenance crews. This led to more mercury dripping from many of the 104 cells in the building. On May 26, 1970, after five years of deteriorating conditions, the local union president, Tom Riggle, wrote to Mazzocchi’s office for help.
Mazzocchi’s interns supplied Riggle with details on the dangers of chlorine and mercury. The local again complained to management about exposures in the cell building, citing their new information. This time, management tried job blackmail. According to a detailed report written by Susan Mazzocchi, the workers “were told that business was bad and there was no money to buy the necessary equipment for repairs or to add to the maintenance crews. According to Riggle, on several occasions the workers were warned that their efforts to achieve safe work conditions could result in closing down the plant.”
During this pre-OSHA period, the local union took what it viewed as a very bold step—it wrote another letter. This time it went not only to Mazzocchi (on November 1, 1970) but also to Allied Chemical; the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare; the US Department of Labor; the West Virginia Labor Federation; the West Virginia Department of Labor; the governor of West Virginia; the state’s two senators; and its congressional members. And President Nixon, just to be sure. The letter provided a detailed technical account of the source and extent of workers’ exposures: “The South Plant uses the mercury type cells to produce chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen. There are 104 cells of this type, each cell containing approximately 3600 lbs of raw mercury or a total of around 187 tons. . . . At present there are five employees . . . with high mercury in their urine (500–700 mg/liter). We have several others in the so-called danger point of 500 mg/liter. . . .
“We have exhausted our means of combating these hazards locally,” the letter explained. “In 1965 this company quelled any further investigation by giving twenty-eight employees that work in this cell building a complete physical examination. No one ever heard or received any results of this examination.”
The letter set in motion a tragicomedy of inspection and enforcement. During the pre-OSHA phase, state inspectors came for a look-see. But in keeping with tradition, they informed the company before they arrived. Of course, Allied cleaned up what it could and cut back production to a meager 10 percent of its normal capacity to minimize the mercury and chlorine releases during the inspection. Even so, state inspectors found excessive exposures and wrote a detailed report on how the company should remedy the situation. They refused to give the union a copy or inform it of their findings and recommendations.
Fortunately, times were changing. Nader’s Raiders had an outpost in West Virginia, where a few brave souls investigated unsavory cases of corporate–government collusion. According to Susan Mazzocchi’s report, one of those Raiders, Willie Osborne, just happened “to see the survey report on the desk of the State Labor Commissioner during a visit to his office. He asked for a copy and the Commissioner complied.”
Once Osborne had the goods, he immediately sent copies to the Moundsville local and to Mazzocchi’s office. With the report in hand, Mazzocchi unleashed Steve Wodka on Allied Chemical. Almost immediately a pissing match ensued—literally. The War of the Urine Samples pitted the company and its testing laboratories against those of the newly formed National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Allied Chemical took urine samples from the Moundsville workers and split each one: Half of each sample was tested by a lab hired by the company, and half was tested in the NIOSH lab. Lo and behold, the company lab detected 275 percent less mercury in the samples than NIOSH did.
Allied Chemical proclaimed to the media and its workers that the government tests were wrong. The company argued that the urine must have been improperly split, leading to the high mercury readings in the NIOSH results. NIOSH responded with a scathing attack on the company. “If we assume that the urine specimens were improperly split (by Allied Chemical staff) so that the NIOSH aliquots were excessively heavy in mercury content, how can one portion be accurate and the other portion be inaccurate? Is it not logical that, if the portions analyzed by NIOSH were excessively high in mercury content, then the other portions, analyzed by Allied Chemical, were excessively low? . . . In our opinion, the significant point is that . . . about 50% of the people in your plant still exhibited absorption of mercury. Therefore, all efforts must continue to be directed toward expediting the reduction of these excessive exposures.”
In short, workers were being poisoned. But Allied continued to deny and obscure that plain fact.
Then Wodka and Mazzocchi deployed another weapon in the form of Dr. Sidney Wolfe, a public-interest physician in Washington who later became director of the Nader-linked Health Research Group. Wolfe wanted to get a definitive study of the workers’ health. He turned to Dr. Fred Hochberg from the Public Health Service Center for Disease Control, who was known for his work on mercury poisoning. Hochberg was interested in conducting the study, but he required a written invitation from West Virginia’s director of health.
State Director of Health Harvey Roberts at first responded: “Mercury poisoning went out in the 1920s with Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter.” But with Wodka applying the screws, Roberts finally relented and issued the invitation. Hochberg then led a medical team to Moundsville to examine workers. It was the first week of May 1971—only days after OSHA had opened its doors. As Hochberg moved forward on his study, the company found its own expert, whose research had been funded by the industry’s Chlorine Institute. This researcher concluded that Allied Chemical was “extremely health and safety conscious.”
A few weeks later, Hochberg’s results came in: The evidence showed “a persistent degree of contamination of individuals working in the cell areas. Blood levels bordering on those at which one would expect to find neurologic signs and symptoms have indeed been seen . . . a chronic exposure pattern.”
The news was so bad, one of the Public Health Service researchers told Wodka “that an imminent danger situation existed in the plant.”
Imminent danger had very specific regulatory meaning in the new OSHA legislation. If such a danger existed, workers and their representatives could petition for an immediate inspection. OSHA was supposed to act quickly. Mazzocchi and Wodka used the Allied Chemical case to test that provision.
Wodka and Sheldon Samuels, director of occupational safety and environmental health for the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, walked a letter of request to the Department of Labor on May 13, 1971—fifteen days after OSHA opened. OSHA officials agreed to investigate. They also agreed not to inform the company before they arrived. But there was a catch: They wouldn’t tell the union, either. Wodka found this outrageous. He argued that “for the inspection to be effective, the knowledgeable local union president had to be present and prepared.”
But the OSHA officials wouldn’t budge. They were clinging to what Mazzocchi believed was a warped notion of impartiality, which insisted that those who were doing the poisoning and those who were being poisoned should be treated equally.
The inspectors certainly did not rush to the scene. “It took them two weeks to get into the goddamn plant,” Wodka said. However, two inspectors from the Department of Labor finally arrived unannounced as promised, to inspect for mercury exposures. As soon as they walked into the cell room, they smelled the heavy odor of chlorine.
The smell of chlorine? The inspectors were no dummies. They knew that if you could smell it, the amount of chlorine in the air was at least three and a half times the level then considered safe.
Should they sound the alarms? Evacuate the plant? Demand that the company immediately provide respirators to each worker—and to themselves?
One of the inspectors, Charles Benjamin, whipped out his own respirator (which he had wisely brought along, just in case), donned it quickly, and hurried through the plant with his partner, hoping not to cause a stampede for the exits.
It was quite a picture: a federal inspector walking through the plant in a full-faced respirator, while all around him every worker continued to labor (as they’d been doing for countless hours) with no protection at all.
“Our workers were saying, ‘What are you guys doing with a self-breathing apparatus?’” Mazzocchi said. “The inspectors said there was a chlorine problem there—but we hadn’t even put a complaint in on chlorine, or mentioned that the chlorine atmosphere was dangerous.”
Would OSHA actually do something about the mercury poisoning and chlorine exposure? Under threat of a lawsuit, Nixon’s assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, George Guenther, agreed to meet with Mazzocchi, Wodka, Samuels, and Dr. Wolfe to review the case. Guenther’s subsequent ruling: There was no imminent danger, because the case did not involve an acute hazard like an explosion or a building collapse.
Of course this flew in the face of the imminent danger section of the OSH Act, which was “intended to include the restraining of specific industrial operation in which lethal substances or conditions are present and exposure to these will cause irreversible harm, even though the resulting physical disability may not manifest itself at once” (emphasis added).
Mazzocchi recalled telling Guenther, “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 when the exposures are harmful.”
Sidney Wolfe then conducted a symptom survey of twenty-two employees, finding that “sixty-seven percent experienced numbness and tingling, positive signs of mercury poisoning. Seventy-six percent had memory difficulty . . .” and so on right down the list of the symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Two weeks later, OSHA—after receiving air samples from the plant—cited the company for a “serious” violation—the very first OSHA citation.
So new was OSHA that this citation was written on a makeshift fill-in-the-blank form—Citation # 1, Date Issued May 28th 1971, with lines and boxes created by hand and ruler.
In its “description of violation,” OSHA validated OCAW’s complaint:
Visible pools and droplets of mercury have been allowed to accumulate and remain on the cell room floor, in the basement, and in other working areas and working surfaces, contributing to airborne concentrations of mercury which significantly exceed levels generally accepted to be safe levels of such concentrations. Employees are being exposed to such concentrations. Instances of excessive airborne concentrations of mercury had been made known to the employer on occasions prior to the date of this inspection. This condition constitutes a recognized hazard that is causing or is likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.
The order called for the problems to be corrected by June 2, but the company appealed the ruling. Eventually, OSHA rapped Allied Chemical lightly on the knuckles with a thousand-dollar fine. Allied wrote the check and hoped to moved on.
But the three-way confrontation continued. OCAW would report to OSHA that the company had not adequately cleaned up the plant. OSHA would conduct a surprise inspection (although sometimes the company would find out and do a quick cleanup). Test results would show excessive exposures. OSHA would tell the company to remediate. The company would make cosmetic changes. The exposures would continue, and the cycle would start all over.
Mazzocchi and Steve Wodka believed they had scored an important victory by forcing OSHA to act on a chronic exposure case. However, they had no illusions that OSHA would ever solve the problem on its own. At best, the agency was another tool in the struggle to force companies to protect worker health and safety. Most importantly, OSHA established basic rights for workers: The company had a duty to provide a safe workplace, and it was the job of government to enforce those rights, however feebly.
But it would take years for significant change to reach the shop floor. In 1976, five years after OSHA’s first contact with Allied Chemical and despite incessant OCAW pressure, the workers still suffered from “poor ventilation due to inoperative basement cell fans and roof vents, caustic header and cell casing leaks throughout the basement area, lack of rapid cleanup of mercury droplets, escape of mercury vapors from disconnected degasser lines, and escape of hydrogen and mercury vapors from leaking hydrogen cooler jumper lines.”
It was better than before—but still bad.
Mazzocchi knew that if workers wanted to live healthfully—or in some cases at all—they had to fight back on a larger scale. They would have to call for new principles and ideas like the “right to know” about the chemicals that poisoned them and the “right to act” to protect themselves at the workplace. They would even have to consider the ultimate protection: getting rid of the dangerous chemicals entirely.
None of this could succeed local by local or through OSHA. It would take a much larger movement, powerful enough to buckle the knees of the world’s largest industries—starting with Big Oil.
— From The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, by Les Leopold (Chelsea Green, 2007). Leopold is the co-founder and director of two non-profit educational organizations: The Labor Institute and the Public Health Institute. For more information about the book, go to www.chelseagreen.com, where you can also watch a short film honoring Tony Mazzocchi.