Victory Over the Sun

Postwar America’s greatest environmentalist was a labor leader.

Illustration by Rob Pybus

The greatest environmentalist of postwar America wasn’t a scientist or a wonk. He didn’t even finish high school.

Brooklyn native Tony Mazzocchi, who passed away in 2002, isn’t a household name — yet. But when a future socialist society on the other side of the climate crisis goes looking for statues to build and parks to name, he will be at the top of the list.

Today, the AFL-CIO lobbies Congress to pass the Keystone XL pipeline while noted NASA climate scientist James Hansen, one of the first to link global warming to fossil fuels, is repeatedly arrested for protesting such projects. And while in 2017, the idea that the interests between wonky environmentalists and jobs-focused trade unionists would diverge seems like common sense, it’s only because the bad guys won.

But it wasn’t a preordained victory. For nearly a decade in the 1960s and ’70s, environmentalism seemed to be on the cusp of a popular reckoning against the powers of capital. And it found an ally in the labor movement which, for a few years, looked like it might be able to not only cling to life but find a way back into the heart of American society.

Mazzocchi and his union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International (OCAW), were the primary muscle behind the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), signed into law by Richard Nixon. Looking back on that victory, which mobilized both labor and the burgeoning environmental movement, Mazzocchi said: “We have demonstrated that an unpopular idea can be generated into a powerful political program that’ll reignite the consciousness of the American people.”

When the postwar boom was fizzling out, Mazzocchi — one of the few officials in the labor movement who bought into neither Cold War anticommunism nor business unionism — wanted to push harder: “workers should be ready to learn about the problems of capitalism.” And in the last decades of his life, Mazzocchi cofounded the Labor Party — whose 1996 convention saw Jeremy Corbyn taking the stage in Cleveland to declare it “one of the most hopeful and inspiring events I’ve been to in very many years.” Much like Sanders, Mazzocchi was a survivor of decades of left retreat — a Brooklyn Red from another era who, somehow, managed to stay fighting so that when the Left was ready, he was there. And with the appearance of the environmental movement, Mazzocchi saw an opening.

By the late 1960s, industrial firms in the USA were in panic mode. A combination of a resurgent liberalism, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Great Society legislation had turned the public against industrial polluters like the chemical industry. Industrial trade groups like the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association had to do something to assuage public concerns.

The postwar PR that championed smoke stacks and steel furnaces as unambiguous symbols of progress, wealth, and modernity had lost its ability to convince Americans to look the other way. National media coverage of a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara on January 29, 1969, then a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland — caused by an oil slick — helped drive home the environmental crisis caused by a greedy corporate America.

Public relations consultant Clifford B. Reeves said in 1970 that environmentalism could become “a basis for a broad general attack on the entire industrial system . . . the thing that provides a basis for universal attack against private business institutions.”

Policy analyst Anthony Downs was optimistic about the new environmental movement’s focus on corporate America, which he saw as a political strength in 1972: “much of the ‘blame’ for pollution can be attributed to a small group of ‘villains’ whose wealth and power make them excellent scapegoats. Environmental defenders can therefore ‘courageously’ attack these scapegoats without antagonizing most citizens.” By 1975, a poll found that only 15 percent of Americans had “a great deal of confidence” in America’s business community, down from 55 percent just nine years earlier.

Mazzocchi saw an opportunity. The new environmentalism would be the natural ally of the labor movement.

But even Carson’s massively influential Silent Spring said next to nothing about the workers exposed to the chemicals she wrote about. As Mazzocchi’s biographer Les Leopold put it: “Carson’s prize-winning narrative never mentions the black hole of production, where thousands are sickened or killed by multiple exposures. Carson’s blindness, Mazzocchi recognized, was fundamentally rooted in class.”

And while consumers could boycott and raise awareness, only the workers behind that factory fence — tens of thousands represented by Mazzocchi’s union — could shut it all down.

As Mazzocchi saw it, those chemicals that poisoned his union’s rank and file eventually make their way into communities outside — through the air, soil, and waterways. The factory was therefore the demon core of the environmental crisis. But as a socialist, Mazzocchi also knew the job site was a place in which workers potentially had vast powers even under capitalism. “It was the workers in these industries who taught me that there was a systematic conflict between profits and health.. . . When you start thinking that, when you start to interfere with the forces of production, you’re going to the heart of the beast.”

And he was going to make absolutely sure the labor movement would be the ones dealing the death blow. For Mazzocchi, worker control over production was environmentalism. Their fates were intertwined. As he said in an Earth Day speech to the OCAW and broadcast on the Today show in 1970, the environmental movement needed the labor movement and vice versa.

You can’t be concerned about the environment unless you’re concerned about the industrial environment because the two are inseparable. After all, we create the pollutants. . . . We’ve got to control the plant environment and we’ve got to tell the truth about what we’re doing to the plant environment.

The owners of those plants had to find a way out — fast. In a fascinating study of corporate America’s shaping of environmentalism, lawyer Joe Conley traced a distinct pattern emerging all the way back to the 1960s: “The goals of these programs ranged from deflecting criticism of environmental impacts and forestalling new environmental laws to promoting voluntary alternatives to regulation and gaining market share among ecologically-conscious consumers.”

In other words, slip off the noose that activists wanted to place on corporate America’s necks and instead loop it around the public’s shoulders in a phony kind of universalism in which everyone is to blame for our environmental ills, particularly consumers.

When the glass recycling movement took off in 1970, it had all the appearances of a grassroots movement, including a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America. But it was in fact a PR campaign. The Glass Container Manufacturers Institute and the firm Carl Byoir & Associates developed it together after years of criticism for switching from returnable bottles to the less expensive no-deposit, one-use-only kind. They launched the campaign a couple of days before Earth Day at a handful of collection centers in Los Angeles, with invitations sent out to local media and journalists to come see the new movement unfolding. Recycling became one of many initiatives to keep the state out of private enterprise: turn a bottom-up reckoning against power into a voluntary, individual project of doing good.

Corporate America was in luck — a nearly identical message of belt-tightening, moralism, and sacrifice was about to be echoed by a Democratic administration. And their new president would respond to the energy crisis that capped off the recession of the 1970s with a message oriented around voluntary cutbacks and involuntary wage caps.

In 1979, President Carter went on television to deliver an outright declaration of austerity, telling the public not to “worship self-indulgence and consumption” and to “take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can . . . to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.” Reflecting on Carter’s inability to pass national health care during this time, his chief speechwriter was even blunter about the ex-president’s obsession with public sacrifice: “he was a moralist, a low-church hard-pew Baptist, a devotee of facing hard truths and postponing gratification . . . pay as you go wasn’t enough for him — he believed in pay before you go.”

If Carter’s intentions were not wholly clear, Paul Volcker — the president’s economic emissary — announced to the public that “the standard of living of the average American has to decline.” He then pursued hawkish anti-inflationary policies at the expense of employment — throwing working Americans overboard to save bondholders.

But when workers heard the ruling class say “tighten your belts,” they correctly understood that such a program was never going to apply to the wealthy. It would always mean: lower your expectations. And accept a worse tomorrow for your children. The entire history of the labor movement was clear: it was the class enemy who told them to do more with less. In 1980, the Democrats’ share of the union-family vote dropped from 63 percent to 50 percent. Reagan won with Morning in America while Carter lost with his Protestant hand-wringing over decadence and materialism.

Volcker and Carter weren’t environmentalists (nor were they anti-environmentalists), but their belt-tightening policies fit all too neatly with an environmentalism increasingly focused on consumer cutbacks. And the corporate drive to make such regulation a matter of voluntary consumer choices quickly made it a middle-class lifestyle, the antithesis of Mazzocchi’s vision. As companies moved jobs over-seas to cut down on labor costs, it was all too easy to blame environmentalists and diffuse the power of the environmental-labor united front.

And as the man who hated work and loved labor well understood, the more jobs that were lost, the more the rank and file would be swayed by management’s argument that costly environmental regulations only risked losing even more. They would then be won over to the reactionary construction trades viewpoint, who Mazzocchi once said, only half in jest, would “pave over the Atlantic Ocean, if given the chance.”

Only a tiny number of Americans in the workforce are in labor unions today, but that destructive cycle — dwindling jobs, management’s cost/benefits line, and a liberal environmentalism that’s agnostic at best on labor — has brought us to this moment. With wages stagnant since Mazzocchi’s heyday and a labor movement almost entirely dead in the private sector, keeping your head down and doing whatever it takes not to antagonize management is, sadly, a rational play by a worker. Anything to keep the rest of the jobs from leaving, anything to stop the bleeding. Just as victory begets victory, losing spawns an endless cycle of losing.

A recent Pew poll demonstrated that, contra liberal messaging, climate skeptics aren’t generally “more science illiterate” than most. But, being Americans, they are less likely to be represented by a labor union than the rest of the developed world. This is a country in which workers are uniquely dependent on their jobs for basic rights like health care. Which also means that they’re uniquely dependent on their employer staying in business no matter what the social or environmental costs. Is it any wonder that, in the absence of a strong labor movement and a decent welfare state, we have ourselves taken on that same “cost-benefit” analysis that corporate America developed in order to beat back environmental regulation a half century ago?

Here is the root of climate skepticism in America. It’s not provincialism, stupidity, or Christian apocalypticism. It’s our uniquely weak labor movement and our uniquely powerful capitalist class. And, sadly, our uniquely inept liberal elite, who — without a strong labor movement to keep their eyes on the prize — turned defeat into victory and concocted a “Third Way” environmentalism of austerity — not worker control — right out of corporate America’s playbook.

After Trump’s election, MSNBC aired a town hall in McDowell County, West Virginia, in which one coal miner — sympathetic to much of the Sanders program — summarized why he was so grateful for his job in an industry shedding them: “I love being a coal miner . . . we do it for the money, we do it for the hospitalization, for what it gives us.” When asked if there were other jobs in their county that paid what coal mining paid with the same benefits, would he take them, he and the entire audience responded with a resounding yes.

But when Sanders pointed out that climate change is real and that no coal miner is responsible (“you are not my enemy”) the miner on stage was one of the few who didn’t applaud. Chris Hayes, the host, asked him why. The miner answered: “Climate change? I mean the world’s been changing for billions of years . . . I believe that we could really rebuild America, not just with McDowell County of course but any county and any state that has coal. I think it should go on until there’s no more of it left.” While a popular candidate like Sanders — an independent socialist — was the stuff of Mazzocchi’s lifelong dreams, here was the crisis he saw coming decades ago.

While liberals might scoff at the miner’s climate skepticism, here was someone potentially on board with a radical, redistributive, and expensive project to rebuild America. His insistence that it should be based on coal in the face of climate change is simply because no other project has seriously been on offer.

But the working class must be won to a left environmentalism. To weather the coming climate collapse, we’ll need far more than solar panels and reduced emissions — the only kinds of reform we’ll ever get out of liberalism. We’ll need to do what capital by definition never can and put all of our society’s productive forces to work and say to hell with private property rights. And there’s no way to do any of that without winning the working class over to it all.

The way forward, though, isn’t a politics of fearmongering or austerity, no matter how environmentally justified in either case. In 1913, a Russian futurist opera entitled Victory Over the Sun premiered in Saint Petersburg. The reaction was decidedly negative. But the Bolshevik avant-garde artist Eli Lissitzky saw something else, and a few years after the October Revolution, he adapted the opera with a cast of mechanical puppets. “The sun as the expression of old world energy is torn down from the heavens by modern man,” said Lissitzky, “who by virtue of his technological superiority creates his own energy source.”

In 2017, we tend to be skeptical of that kind of techno-utopianism, even from a Bolshevik like Lissitzky. It sounds more like the “better tomorrow” of Elon Musk or Disney’s Epcot than Sanders or Corbyn.

But why should we let billionaire techno-utopians or climate denialists like Trump be the only ones promising workers a better tomorrow?

That McDowell coal miner might be skeptical about climate change but that’s only because those are the cards (and the economy) capitalism has dealt him. Instead of trying to get him to #FuckingLoveScience, we should be trying to organize him into a socialist program of full employment and democratic control of production to rebuild the country and the world with an eye on radically lowering emissions.

And instead of incentivizing private investment in infrastructure, as Trump has proposed doing, we should use the assets of the wealthy to build genuinely public goods. A recent study put the total amount of wealth sitting in tax shelters at around $21 trillion. Right there is our ticket out of climate collapse — a worldwide mobilization to modernize our infrastructure and redistribute resources to those places farthest behind. Ecstatic expropriation — the opposite of a grim, moralizing austerity.

So let’s grab those bank accounts and print the blank check to do it all and leave the religious doomsaying to the Christians. Mazzocchi didn’t live to see his dream of a strong, revived labor movement leading the charge against climate change. But he knew it was the only way out — both for the planet’s survival and for a world worth saving.