WASHINGTON — Tony Mazzocchi, the driving force behind the nation's fledgling
Labor Party, shocked
thousands of the party's members when he recently wrote to them, "I am both afflicted
with an incurable disease and blessed with an incurable optimism."
Mr. Mazzocchi, 76, has pancreatic cancer, and although his doctors give him
only a few weeks or maybe a few months to live, he continues to battle relentlessly
in pursuit of his dream — building a Labor Party that will someday move to center
stage in American politics.
Gaunt from losing 25 pounds this year, he seems especially rueful that
his health is failing at what he sees as an opportune time to reassert workers'
interests and to hack away at corporate power. "For the first time in 20 years,
corporate America is losing legitimacy," he wrote last month to party members,
pointing to the Enron and WorldCom
debacles. "It is cracking under the weight of its own greed. No longer can it
play the goose that lays the golden eggs."
Tony Mazzocchi, who founded the national Labor Party in 1996, at his home on Friday
in Washington. Mr. Mazzocchi has pancreatic cancer. (Stephen Crowley/The New York
The Labor Party has three main issues: single-payer national health insurance,
as in Canada; free tuition for all college and graduate students at public colleges
and universities; and labor law changes to make it easier for workers to join
unions without employer intimidation. Mr. Mazzocchi complained that it was extremely
difficult to unionize workers because trying to do so caused many employers to
threaten to close their plants or move overseas.
Many political analysts say the Labor Party's program is unrealistic, exemplifying
the sort of big-government approach that even Democrats long ago disowned. The
party's proposals, they say, might be embraced in Europe, with its social democratic
traditions, but are not likely to get far in the United States, with its emphasis
on shrinking government and cutting spending.
The Labor Party has even come under heavy fire from some labor leaders, who
say it is undermining the Democratic Party, which they see as the best vehicle
to help workers. Conservatives denounce the Labor Party as a crude advocate of
class warfare and soaking the rich.
But Mr. Mazzocchi (pronounced muh-ZOCK-key) insists that the party's wish
list is not pie in the sky. He says one of the party's mottoes could be "Steal
"We're concentrating on issues that resonate," he said. "Right now the cost
of tuition is so prohibitive, even at many state universities, that it's hurting
many working-class students. Tuition for all these folks is $23 billion. That's
Although he dropped out of school in ninth grade, Mr. Mazzocchi is a seminal
thinker and strategist for what remains of the American left. He spends his days,
often in pain, at his modest town house here, where the second floor has been
turned into a Labor Party office.
Several unusual accomplishments have helped build his reputation. In 1954,
as president of a union local at a Helena Rubenstein cosmetics factory on Long
Island, he was one of the first labor leaders to win dental benefits. From the
1950's through the 1970's, he did more than any other union leader to forge ties
with environmentalists and scientists while working on such issues as fighting
nuclear testing and identifying toxic chemicals that endangered factory workers
and residents nearby.
In 1970, as legislative director of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union,
he played a crucial role in securing passage of the Occupational Safety and Health
Act, which is often called the most important pro-worker legislation of the last
"What's incredible," Mr. Mazzocchi said, "was the guy who was president then
was Richard Nixon, which shows that when you build a big movement from down below,
regardless of who's in the White House, you can bring about change."
In 1974, Mr. Mazzocchi was the union's main adviser to Karen Silkwood, an
atomic plant worker from Oklahoma, before she died in a mysterious car accident
while driving to meet a journalist to publicize safety problems at her plant.
When he speaks, Mr. Mazzocchi often uses the us-against-them, class-tinged
speech of the 1930's. In his view, the main issues facing workers have changed
little since then: they keep getting squeezed while corporations grow more powerful,
and the gap between the rich and everybody else keeps growing.
"Workers are worried today," he said. "They see decent-paying jobs fleeing
overseas. They see that they will get the raw end of the stick whenever it comes
to corporate restructuring. They understand instinctively and more than ever before
that when the economy goes downhill, corporations don't care about their well-being."
Mr. Mazzocchi's childhood in Brooklyn shaped his politics. His father, a unionized
worker at a suit factory, lost the family's home because of steep medical bills
for his wife, who died of cancer when Mr. Mazzocchi was 6.
Mr. Mazzocchi founded the Labor Party in 1996 at a convention in Cleveland
because he was convinced that corporate interests and wealthy donors dominated
the Democratic and Republican parties.
He does not see the party, at least now, electing candidates to office. Rather,
he said, its focus should be pushing worker-friendly issues into the nation's
Asserting that Mr. Mazzocchi and his party have an obsolete leftist vision,
many critics say it is not surprising that the party has grown slowly and gained
Mr. Mazzocchi acknowledges that the party has grown more slowly than he had
hoped and has tailed off some from the 14,000 members it had four years ago. One
reason, he said, is that his illness has sidelined him — the party's main spokesman
and booster. He has concentrated lately on signing up union locals rather than
individual members, and has helped persuade 350 union locals to pay affiliation
fees to show their support. If the party had more money, he said, it could easily
double or triple the number of unions.
"When I get into a union hall and I'm able to talk to the members, our message
resonates," he said. "American workers aren't going to sit still if things continue
to come apart. If you look at the history of American workers, you'd think they're
in a sleepy lagoon, and then all of a sudden there is an explosion."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company