WE WANT TO REDEFINE WHAT SOCIETY IS ALL ABOUT
Sheila Mannix: Tony Mazzocchi has been a leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union since 1953. As a union activist, he has been especially concerned with health and safety issues. He worked closely with Karen Silkwood, the OCAW member whose suspicious death in 1974 when she was about to expose serious safety violations at the Kerr-McGee nuclear facility in Oklahoma was later dramatized in the film, Silkwood. In recent years, he has been a driving force in the campaign to organize a new, union-based political party. His dream became reality last summer in Cleveland when 1400 delegates and several hundred supporters gathered to launch the Labor Party, which envisions itself as an alternative to the big-money politics that we call the two-party system. I think a good place to begin is with the reasons for calling this convention. What is the Labor Party and why do you think the American people need a new political party?
Tony Mazzocchi: Well, the genesis of the Labor Party goes back to 1989 when I, serving as secretary-treasurer of my own union, instituted a poll to really find out the views of our own members in relation to the political system as we know it in this country. I should say first that our members can generally be characterized as rather conservative people, living in many rural areas of this country. For instance, the first day of deer season is a holiday in most of our union contracts. Yet in the polling we conducted, we found that 55 percent of the respondents characterized both political parties–Democrats and Republicans-as representing corporate interests rather than the interests of working people. And 55 percent thought we should explore the possibility of organizing an alternative party–a labor party. Armed with these poll results, we began to consult with other unions, about 90 other groups ranging from regional associations to local associations. What we found were similar results wherever we looked.
Interestingly, the polls also demonstrated that people answered questions in the same manner, regardless of race, gender, or even more important, geography. A worker in a small Utah town, maybe of predominantly Mormon influence, answered the same as a worker in New York City or Los Angeles. So we decided to see if there was a critical mass in this country who shared these views, and in early 1992 set out on an odyssey to determine whether building a labor party was a valid proposition.
In traveling throughout the country, we found there was, in fact, tremendous support. So in late 1995 we issued a call to a convention to be held in Cleveland in June 1996 to create a political party, a non-electoral political party-that’s a very important point-that would express the aspirations of working people.
As I said, it’s non-electoral, we’re not running candidates. We intend to introduce our program into the current political dialogue in this country, which as we see in the political dialogue of the presidential campaign speaks only peripherally to real working concerns. That’s the genesis and the route we traveled to the birth of the party.
M : I understand that the Cleveland convention adopted a Call for Economic Justice. What are some of the issues you’re. talking about?
Mazzocchi: Well, number one, we know that this generation of Americans understands that things are going to be worse for their children than it has been for them. Americans are in a track of downward mobility. Wages have been flat since 1973. People are working two and three jobs. The future doesn’t look too bright, as far as decent working conditions and wages or a real future for our offspring is concerned.
So our first plank is a constitutional guarantee of a job for everyone at a livable wage. That should be a mandate, a national mandate. We’re talking about people capable of working. We’re talking about a social wage concept in this country, similar to Europe, where vacations aren’t left up to the employer. An Italian worker walks into the workplace, they are guaranteed a minimum four weeks vacation.
We think that should be part of a national right. The right to vacation, to sick leave, to paid parental leave, should all be part of a national legislative mandate. We’re opposed to the inequitable distribution of wealth. We want to end corporate welfare. Corporations receive billions and billions of taxpayer moneys and pay very little = in return. They’re the biggest welfare recipients. We think that should end.
We think the wealthy should pay a far share of taxes. Their tax rate has been diminishing. I noticed the other day in The Ne. w York Tim c-s that the president of U.S. Healthcare received a billion dollars in salary last year. We think that’s unconscionable and outrageous and ought to cease. It should be taxed. A CEO should not make multiple times what a worker makes in a particular facility, whether it’s white collar or blue collar or a public service facility.
We’re for a environmentally safe economy and a just transition strategy to achieve it. We need to phase out toxic substances being used but we have to compensate the workers accordingly. It should not be at their expense. We understand, especially in my own union, the nature of what we produce and we’re concerned about it. We’re also concerned about our livelihood. And if these substances have to be removed from the environment, we think those who create pollution should be forced to pay so working people are treated equitably in that transition.
We’re for a single payer health care plan. We think healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. One should be insured from the time they’re born to the time they die, with the guarantee of their reproductive rights. There should be no discrimination for any reason whatsoever toward any American or any resident of this nation.
We have many proposals that speak to the immediate concerns of the residents of this country. In short, we want to redefine what society is all about. Not just for that one-half of one percent who are the richest people in this country. Society should be about taking care of everyone. Everyone wishes they could win the lottery but in reality we all deserve a bit of security. We want the right to a job. We want the right for our children to be educated, which includes the right to free education through college. We want the right to economic security, to retire at an earlier age. The right not to have to work incredible hours to keep a family intact. Life should have a meaning and not be just to serve as a tool to enrich the few.
M :The convention adopted a demand for a shorter work week with no reduction in pay. That sounds great, but I’m sure a lot of people would dismiss such ideas as impractical or utopian. In fact, the Reader, a supposedly progressive Chicago news weekly, in a brief item on your founding convention, referred sarcastically to these ideas under the heading, "Get your free lunch here."
As I understand it, at one time in our history the kind of ideas you’re talking about were coming to fruition in the struggles and thinking of earlier generations of unionists and others. But at a certain point
this social consciousness began to deteriorate as elite and corporate interests increasingly took over politics. The reality today is that there has been a shift in consciousness or expectations from a time when we could count on the quality of our and our children’s lives improving to a situation where those expectations no longer exist. There has been a propaganda that’s immobilized the mass of the public to make them believe there is nothing we can do about this. This has been a policy of the elite, to create this immobilization, which has lead to the worsening of the quality of our rights.
Mazzocchi: Well, that’s true. One of the purposes of our party is to correct the condition of this historical amnesia. There was a time when these were our goals. I remember them very well. In fact, I was just looking at a campaign speech by Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate for president in 1944, who stated then that "the private sector should be responsible for creating employment, but our experience shows that it’s not possible that they can create work for everyone, therefore the government should be the employer as a last resort. " So here the most conservative of politicians at that time agreed that we needed a full employment society and that was the role of government.
M : I would like to ask you to comment on an article by Ralph Nader that appeared recently in The Nation. Nader wrote, "The two party duopoly—essentially one corporate party with two heads; called Republican and Democratic, each wearing different makeup—presents the citizenry every four years with a choice between the Bad and the Worse And every four years, both the bad and the worse get worse because there is no counter pull to the corporate right-wing pull.
"The Democratic Party is clinging to a dwindling difference from the Republicans….the differences in practice are much smaller than the differences in rhetoric. And the choices for voters are exceedingly narrow and getting narrower; on the fundamental issue of corporate government taking over the political government, the two parties are in a mutual kowtow." What are your thoughts on this? In terms of the average American, is there any real difference between the Democrats and Republicans?
Mazzocchi: We founded our party simply because the people we talked to, average Americans, feel there isn’t much of a difference. It’s one of nuance. As Ralph said, it’s worse and worser. Sixty percent of the American people essentially agree and they don’t vote anymore. Not because they’re stupid or apathetic, but because they feet their lives will not substantially change by virtue of whoever is in power. Perhaps they are frightened into voting this time because they feel the barbarians are at the gate and we ought to keep the gate partially closed.
Americans are sick and fed up with a political process that provides very little choice. They correctly perceive that the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are getting much poorer. You don’t have to be a Harvard graduate to understand that. Earlier this week The !Wall Street Journal ran an article on income inequality that showed that inequality has grown even more under the present administration than previous administrations. That is a constant.
M: The media is also telling the American people that there is noting we can do about it.
Mazzocchi: Well, of course, they want to anaesthetize the population. But there is something we can do about it. There is sufficient wealth around to provide a meaningful life for all the residents of this nation. Yes, that means that the president of U. S. Healthcare can’t enjoy a salary of a billion dollars a year. Most of us could suffer along on a million dollars a year. I don’t think we’d have to resort to food stamps. A billion is outrageous and it’s taking money out of the pockets of those people who earn and create the wealth and deprives them of health care. A billion dollars for a CEO salary means that much more in premiums for health care insurance that all of us have to pay. And it excludes a whole host of people.
Americans are aware of these kinds of injustices. They know that the two-party system, which is essentially a one-party system, provides them with very few options. We’re not saying to people, with the creation of a labor party, vote for us as opposed to them. We’re taking a much more difficult path. We’re saying that we’re not running anyone for office. We think we have to change the nature of the debate in this country. We have to introduce issues that affect the average person who lives in this nation. We have to talk about our security. We have to talk about a decent life for all of us. We have to talk about a decent future for our children. We have to talk about whether the planet will exist, as we know it, in the future. We have to look realistically at all the problems that confront us. We are not willing to be dismissed by those who have power saying, ‘well, that’s just the way things are, there isn’t a society, there are only individuals.’ We reject that attitude and philosophy and we’re prepared for a long-term fight to change these basic assumptions about how society should really work.
M: I’ll admit my education is lacking when it comes to the role that unions have played in history. I’ve been talking to a number of different people recently and they’ve said to me that I need to understand that if unions hadn’t come about, people would be working 16 hours a day instead of 8. People would not have pensions. They could be fired a week before they reached 65 and that would be that. Can you talk about how unions have over the years affected positive change in the historical significance of what you are now doing in forming the Labor Party?
Mazzocchi: Sure. Well, first of all, unions have a lot of problems. I mean, unions are institutions and like most institutions are subject to all the problems that institutions have. But there is also a long history of working people combining to act collectively. Unions have been the only successful mechanism in the history of our country for wealth redistribution. If unions weren’t around, practically all of the wealth would be gathered by just a few people and the rest of us would be serfs. That’s the reality of history.
The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by Congress in 1947 really began to tie a knot around the trade union movement. Our ability to conduct economic struggles was severely hampered. We used to have the right to strike in this country. We still formally have that right, but we’re the only industrial nation in the world where if you strike the employer can replace you with scabs-permanently. That’s not a right to strike. That’s a right to commit suicide.
If you track from the time these restrictive labor laws were imposed, you’ll see that labor was unable to grow, was unable to represent people in a way that would advance the interest of most working people in this country. We began a downward drive. By 1973 wages had flattened out. We’re one of the few industrial countries where we haven’t improved wages in real terms and our conditions have grown worse. And you can track that to the inability of the unions to really represent people in the way they should and in a way that creates somewhat of a level playing field with the employer. We recognize that it’s ultimately an issue of power.
We should at least have the right to withhold our labor and not be replaced by virtue of that act. That was the concept of the Wagner Act when it was passed in the early 1930s. When it was recognized that this disproportionate power had created the Depression in this country, had impoverished the large mass of Americans, Congress acted to give the average person some power to deal with these large corporate interests. Now, as we’ve been weakened as a trade union movement, we have the growth of global corporations moving jobs out of this country. Our jobs are hemorrhaging out of this nation.
In turn, we’re being told, that the future is in services, where we all wash each others’ clothes or serve each other hamburgers. That is not the vision most of us have of what life should be all about. So a strong trade union movement, with the ability to extract for the average person in this country a fair share of the wealth produced by working people, is imperative to a better life, a better future for most Americans.
M: As a psychologist, I am thinking about some of the psychological reasons why our democracy has gone asunder. Noam Chomsky, who was recently on our show, referred to the "real social pathology" of politicians who lack compassion or a sense of genuine connectiveness to the people around them. Instead, it’s the "haves" and the "have-nots." And, by God, I better be a have and, excuse my language, screw everybody else. That’s what I see happening.
But when we look at American history we see cycles in which a mass protest or mass social agitation has redefined the political and social state in really significant and lasting ways. I’m talking about the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the union organizing movement back in the 1930s. Your associate, Bob Wages, who is president of the OCAW, said that there needs to be a recreation of "social consciousness, of working-class consciousness?" Could you speak more to this point?
Mazzocchi: You know I’m old enough to remember when there was such a thing called working-class culture. I grew up in Brooklyn back in the 1930s where there was a working-class culture and consciousness. The thing is, if you scabbed on someone who was striking you didn’t come back to the neighborhood. People understood the meaning of solidarity, that the only way working people could enhance their interest was collectively. It was sacrilegious to replace a striking worker. It was sacrilegious to buy struck goods.
M: Yes, but what do you do when jobs, as you said, are hemorrhaging, being taken outside the country?
Mazzocchi: The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week that described a firm that wanted to build a computer chip facility in the heart of the Malaysian jungle. Our position is, we know we can’t stop the flow of capital, but if you want to send your productive facilities to Malaysia and pay 20 cents an hour, then you can’t import that chip back into this country unless you pay what would amount to a restrictive tariff.
We should have a good housekeeping seal imposed on every product made abroad. It has to meet certain conditions. People have to earn a certain wage. We can’t compete with a 20cent-an-bour wage or we’ll be as poor as those people in the jungle.
M: Then you have American manufacturers, like Nike, paying millions to Michael Jordan to advertise their shoes, more than they pay all the young girls who make those shoes. And these companies respond to criticism by pointing out that they aren’t breaking any laws. Maybe the minimum wages is 20 cents an hour and they’re paying 46 cents an hour.
Mazzocchi: Yes, they make shoes for a buck and a half total labor cost and then bring them here and sell them for $90. 1 think that is unacceptable. We know we can’t compete with prison labor, slave labor, or exploited labor. So we’re saying that if companies want to import their products, they have to meet certain conditions. People should be paid a certain basic minimum wage and benefits and working conditions should be at a certain level.
Look, along the Mexican border, where McCullough-Dora has plants, you could test the water outside those plants and find that they contain toxins that exceed our own laws by a hundred times. The very companies that live here by U.S. laws that have been enacted through public pressure can move there and make the same product and disregard these standards.
We’ve said that we’ve had enough of that. We’re for liberating folks all around the world. People everywhere should work under decent conditions for decent wages. If you want to bring a product in, it has to be made under these conditions. I think Americans are willing to support that. They’re watching their jobs being exported by the millions. We’ve had NAFI’A and GATT, with both political parties telling us that it’s going to be wonderful for Americans. Well, it hasn’t been. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of jobs as a result of NAFTA and GATT.
M: I think the average American is so desensitized by the media. It’s beyond me how a company like Nike can put someone on the air and say, "We’re within limits here, we’re paying more than the minimum age. We’re taking care of these people." The reality is that our fellow human beings are being exploited. I’m reminded of a television show I saw on the rights of children around the world which featured an interview with a child from Brazil, a poor, homeless child, who said, "We are not marginal, we are marginalized." I thought that was an incredibly articulate statement.
When you talk about a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to a job for every American, that we could, in fact, shorten the work week, with no cut in pay, and spread the work around, most people, I imagine, would say this guy is off in la la land. In fact, as Chomsky puts it, "we are awash in capital," yet we have some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the industrialized world. How realistic and workable would it be if there were in fact a constitutional amendment that guaranteed a job for everyone?
Mazzocchi: Well, first of all, I think all of us who are involved in this effort are very practical and realistic people. I’ve been in the work force for 50 years and have no illusions about and where power lies. We didn’t enter this wearing rose colored glasses. We understand where power resides and our need to develop a powerful institution that can deal with these global corporations. I think, too, that since we represent average Americans, we know about their aspirations.
We did not just dream -up a program. We ran educational sessions for three years where we didn’t just lecture people but provided a format for people to express their views. Our program grows out of the sentiments of the 4,000 workers who attended our educational programs, ranging from janitors to scientists. And I think we can say that a constitutional guarantee of a job is the hope of many Americans. It is not unreal. It is realizable because there is sufficient wealth in this country to provide for a job. It is also the ethic that’s talked about, that everyone should work who is capable of working. So we’re saying fine, let’s take the ethic out of the realm of the rhetorical and make it real.
There are many ways in which that could be done. In a sense, as I’ve said, we’ve done it before. When I returned home after the end of World War II, this society enacted the most progressive piece of social legislation, saying, in effect, that we’ll redefine what work is all about, since there aren’t jobs for all the returning vets.
M: You’re talking about the GI Bill.
Mazzocchi: Right. You’d be paid two-thirds of the average wage, even if you went to the beach. I was a high school dropout when I joined the army in World War II. I couldn’t go to college. When I got back I wanted to take some time and think about what I was going to do. We had a civil society at the time and I could do that. Eventually I went to a trade school to learn a skill.
That social program, by the way, was in effect at a time when the deficit was four times worse than it is today. The debt exceeded the Gross National Product by 125 percent. But we didn’t worry about the debt and the deficit. We actually borrowed even more money and put it in people’s pockets and reinvigorated the nation. We created the intellectual capital that helped fuel the post-war boom. We learned from that. Work was redefined for the average person and money distributed in such a way that everyone was gainfully employed. And the wheels of progress turned.
You know, the gains made from that progressive legislation were incredible. The U. S. Senate studied the G. I. Bill in 1988 and concluded that it provided the largest return on investment in the public or private sector in the history of this country. So we do have some experience with the use of how to organize capital. And there is a lot of capital around today. There is more wealth today than there was in 1946 and we can reorganize it. That’s why we have a Labor Party. We have to help tip away the veil of historical amnesia and show that we have some experience with similar, transformative situations. Show where the wealth is, this enormous wealth that is being accumulated in too few pockets… .
We recognize that we’re dealing with a media that is controlled by corporations. We don’t expect them to give us any visibility or allow us to express our views. We recognize this going in and we understand the power equation. That’s why we formed this party. That’s why we were blacked out in the media. We are the only alternative party in the post-war period, with a delegation of almost 1,600 people elected by others, representing a very large constituency.
We recognize that this is a very long, difficult road we have to travel. But we’ve come out of an organizing environment. We know that we have to take one step at a time. We’re organizing to create a party that will articulate an alternative view, a vision for the American people that says they don’t have to be impoverished. That they can reject the path of downward mobility. Society is there to represent all of its inhabitants rather than the privileged few. We reject the notion that society is a jungle and the mightiest shall prevail. That’s not in our history.
The greatest shared experience we had in this nation was World War II. I came out of that. I remember how this society pitched in to achieve a social end, to win the war. We learned how to mobilize capital when none existed. We came out of an awful depression and we developed a meaningful transformative policy after the war. We know what we’re capable of doing. We have to restore the memory. We have to reject the notion that greed is the. natural order of things. That’s why we created this party.
Of course, it’s a step at a time. We’re not coming out like lightening and thunder. We know how to organize and we know we have to do a lot of door knocking. We’re used to that. We’re going to build from the grass roots up. Right now we’re non electoral, but we’re a party that will espouse, as I have pointed out, a new vision of what this society is capable of achieving.
For further information on the Labor Party, write PO Box 53 177, Washington, DC 20009, or call 202-234-5194.