Veterans Can Help Reinvigorate the Labor Movement

Military veterans like the great labor leader Tony Mazzocchi have played a central role in US labor battles in the past. And if the union movement is to rebuild itself, working-class veterans will have to play an important role today too.

Service members, military veterans, and civilians honor Veterans Day and attend a naturalization ceremony in Triangle, Virginia, 2014. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Like fifteen million other veterans returning from military service after World War II, Brooklyn-born Tony Mazzocchi needed a job. He was a high school dropout, from a union family, who enlisted at age sixteen and then survived the Battle of the Bulge as a combat infantryman.

After his discharge, Mazzocchi worked in construction and in several manufacturing plants. He got hired at a Long Island cosmetics factory, with a local union in need of revitalization. By 1953, he had been elected its president and, over the next twelve years, turned this affiliate of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) into a catalyst for new organizing, progressive political action, and contract victories like winning one of the first union-negotiated dental plans in the country.

Mazzocchi later became one of the best-known labor radicals in the country, but he was not an outlier in the postwar era. In the 1950s and ’60s, tens of thousands of World War II veterans could be found on the front lines of labor battles in auto, steel, electrical equipment manufacturing, mining, trucking, and the telephone industry.

And veterans from working-class backgrounds continue to do so in modern-day campaigns. Today, about 1.3 million former service members work in union jobs, in both the private and public sector.

According to the AFL-CIO, veterans are more likely to join a union than nonveterans. In a half dozen states, 25 percent or more of all working veterans belong to unions. Vermont State Labor Council president David Van Deusen sees veterans as “an underutilized resource for the labor movement,” particularly in high-profile organizing campaigns. No one, he believes, is better positioned to “expose the hypocrisy and duplicity of ‘veteran-friendly’ firms like Amazon and Walmart, who wrap themselves in the flag, while violating the rights of working-class Americans who served in uniform and the many who did not.”

That’s why labor consultant and author Jane McAlevey recommends unions today follow the example of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizers. In the postwar era, she reports, labor better appreciated the “strategic value” that former service members can bring to strike-related PR campaigns, not to mention their “experience with discipline, military formation, and overcoming fear and adversity” — all very useful on militant picket lines.

An OCAW Role Model

Mazzocchi was a leading figure in this postwar generational cohort. When he became his national union’s legislative-political director in Washington, he helped shape the labor movement’s successful campaign for the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, which now provides workplace protections for 130 million Americans. During his five-decade career, Mazzocchi also pushed for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, labor-based environmentalism, single-payer health care, and independent political action.

In the 1990s, Mazzocchi helped found the union-backed Labor Party and popularized the demand that public higher education should be free for all. He was inspired by the liberating experience of veterans from his generation, who were able to attend college as a result of the original GI bill, which he regarded as “one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation in the 20th century.” According to his biographer Les Leopold, Mazzocchi believed that an all-inclusive twenty-first-century version of the GI bill could plant the “seeds of the good life” for millions of poor and working-class Americans today.

Post-9/11 veterans continue to benefit from their hard-earned access to affordable higher education. Will Fischer, a marine who served in Iraq before becoming director of the AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, reports that he was able “to graduate from college and do so without the yoke of student debt.” Fischer now favors universalizing such benefits. He believes all student debt should be canceled and public higher education, including vocational schools, made tuition-free. As Fischer sees it, this would free poor and working-class young people from having to choose between “putting on a uniform and participating in never-ending US wars or taking on crushing debt.”

Veteran and labor organizer Tony Mazzocchi.

Vets have also worked within organized labor to create civilian job opportunities, which don’t require trading one uniform for another. Fischer’s successor at the Veterans Council is Will Attig, a member of United Association Local 160, Plumbers and Pipefitters in southern Illinois. Attig helps fellow Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans find building trades jobs through the Helmets to Hardhats program. He introduced the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to Common Defense, a post 9/11 veterans group, which has helped train members of CWA’s “Veterans for Social Change” network. Unveiled three years ago by CWA president Chris Shelton, a former telephone worker who served in the Air Force, this program seeks to “develop and organize a broad base of union activists who are veterans and/or currently serving in the military.”

As CWA notes, veterans, active-duty service members, and military families “are constantly exploited by politicians and others who seek to loot our economy, attack our communities, and divide our nation with racism and bigotry so they can consolidate more power amongst themselves.” CWA hopes to counter this ongoing right-wing threat by encouraging veterans in its own ranks to engage in bottom-up campaigns with community allies.

Public Sector Defenders

That includes fighting privatization of two federal agencies that employ many former soldiers: the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which serves nine million patients in the nation’s largest public health care system, and the US Postal Service (USPS), which delivers mail to 163 million homes and businesses. Both have long been the target of corporate-backed efforts to reduce their staff, downsize operations, and outsource functions to private firms.

During the Trump administration, right-wing political appointees at the VA launched a major assault on the workplace rights of three hundred thousand workers represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), National Nurses United (NNU), and other unions. A White House advisory panel on the future of the postal service called for the elimination of collective bargaining to help pave the way for privatization and job cuts that would hit more than a hundred thousand veterans.

Like privatization foes at the VA, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) have tried to fend off outsourcing threats with a campaign that declares, “The US Mail is Not for Sale!” As part of their collective opposition to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee still on the job under Joe Biden, postal unions and their allies are fighting for better utilization of public infrastructure, rather than its dismantling and sale to the highest bidder. And among the leaders of that effort is Keith Combs, a former marine who is leader of a Detroit-based APWU local with fifteen hundred members.

Other participants in these labor-community campaigns are also veterans. NNU member Mildred Manning-Joy is a VA nurse in Durham, North Carolina, and, like one-third of the VA’s caregiving workforce, a veteran herself. She’s also the mother of a VA patient. Multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq left her son with “the invisible scars of his time in combat.” Last spring, Manning-Joy was among the many unionized VA caregivers around the country who enlisted patients and their families, veterans’ groups, and other labor organizations in a successful fight to block President Joe Biden’s proposed closing of many VA facilities.

Community-Labor Coalition Builders

Similarly, thirty-eight-year-old Iraq war veteran Adam Pelletier transitioned from the Marine Corps to public sector union work — first becoming a shop steward, AFGE local president, and then labor council leader in Troy, New York. After using the GI bill to finish college, Pelletier joined the Social Security Administration, where he and his coworkers assisted retired and disabled Americans who depend on federal benefits. As a VA patient himself, he was active in AFGE’s campaign to “Save the VA” from would-be privatizers.

In upstate New York, Pelletier has confronted members of Congress who favor VA outsourcing and has become a valued advisor to the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, a Bay Area–based research group that works closely with AFGE and Veterans for Peace (which Pelletier has joined, along with Democratic Socialists of America). “Congress continually votes to outsource VA services, pushing people into more expensive and less effective care,” Pelletier said, in a message to fellow Labor Council members last year. “They do this instead of adequately funding the VA and looking at it as the model by which we could all, someday, enjoy universal health care. We must mobilize to stop this!”

Just as Mazzocchi was a key builder of late-twentieth-century alliances between labor and environmental groups, one military veteran who spent twenty-nine years in Mazzocchi’s union (which is now part of the United Steelworkers) has followed closely in his footsteps. As vice president of USW Local 5, B. K. White helped lead a ten-week strike against Chevron in Richmond, California, last year, the longest walkout by refinery workers there in forty years.

A local contract negotiator and longtime advocate of stronger oil industry safety enforcement, White faced post-strike retaliation by management and was fired, along with four other USW members. While continuing to contest his dismissal, White has taken a new job as public policy director for newly elected Richmond mayor Eduardo Martinez, a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and frequent critic of Chevron misbehavior.

According to Shiva Mishek, chief of staff for Martinez, White’s role will be “to help us lead ‘just transition’ work and support union labor and workforce development in Richmond,” two top priorities for the new mayor. On April 8, in Oakland, White will also be attending a daylong conference, sponsored by Labor Notes. There, hundreds of Bay Area labor activists will participate in workshops on shop-floor organizing, recent strike activity, and “Blue-Green” alliance-building to create job opportunities less dependent on fossil fuel extraction, transportation, refining, or use.

Many of the other causes long championed by Mazzocchi will be showcased at the gathering, like stronger workplace safety enforcement. And thanks to White’s participation, a veteran in labor will be among the older activists sharing their own experiences with a new generation of union radicals.