Remembering Al Meyerhoff, champion of the poor and the victimized, foe to bullies of all sizes and stripes.
BILL MOYERS: A final word, on the loss of a friend and patriot who did not go gently into that good night but who faced the dying of the light with courage, humor and outrage.
When Al Meyerhoff was growing up in Connecticut, the bullies in town roughed him up so often he came to loathe the abuse of power. He would carry an awesome indignation into his life's work of standing up to bullies of all stripes, especially those with yellow running down their backs who preyed on people who couldn't defend themselves.
After law school, Al took a job for $60 a week defending farm workers and other poor folk in rural California against the bullies of agribusiness and politics. When I first met him, he was an environmental lawyer battling the big chemical companies over poison in our food. Nothing got his dander up more than when state and corporate power ganged up on the public as they did when the chemical industry bought off Congress to keep workers and consumers from knowing about potentially lethal ingredients in everyday products.
Al fought back, spearheading the campaign for a California law that ordered the chemical companies to stop the cover-ups — and continuing to battle them when they failed to comply.
AL MEYERHOFF: With chemicals, it's shoot first then ask questions later.
BILL MOYERS: Here he is in our documentary Trade Secrets talking about a little-known pesticide, called DBCP. A chemical so toxic that workers manufacturing it were made sterile, a fact the industry had known for decades.
AL MEYERHOFF: DBCP was a reproductive toxicant, a very powerful carcinogen. It was found in drinking water wells throughout the country. It stayed on the market because to ban it, you first had to have an administrative process within a government agency that was under great political pressure from power people on Capitol Hill. If you put enough hurdles up even the best-intentioned government regulator is hamstrung.
BILL MOYERS: Case in point: after it was determined that a class of chemicals known as phthalates, used in common products from shower curtains to children's toys, caused cancer in animals, the Environmental Protection Agency took no action to either ban or limit its use, even after Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act.
AL MEYERHOFF: We refer to it as the Toxic Substances Conversation Act.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
AL MEYERHOFF: They built in obstacle after obstacle and process after process where it is virtually impossible to get a known high-risk chemical off the market. There have been very few chemicals that have been actually banned because of their health risks. That's because chemicals get far more due process than people do.
BILL MOYERS: Chemicals have more rights than people.
AL MEYERHOFF: Far more rights than people.
BILL MOYERS: Because he never stopped fighting for people's rights, Al took on a long and lonely battle for sweatshop workers in the American territory of Saipan.
Immigrant workers — mostly women, mostly Asian — were recruited to the Pacific island where they toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week, under humiliating conditions, and for a pittance. On behalf of 30,000 of them, Al Meyerhoff filed a class action suit against some of America's biggest names in clothing. The companies finally agreed to pay the workers back wages and to improve conditions in the workplace. Those workers had a champion they had never laid eyes on.
Some weeks ago, Al Meyerhoff was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. One day he was having dinner with his friends, the next he was in a hospital bed for Thanksgiving, hoping to stay among the living. To his bemusement, doctors pumped some of the most toxic chemicals known to man into his bloodstream, trying to destroy the cancer. It didn't work, and just before Christmas, Al died. He was age 61. On his deathbed he wrote an op-ed piece about the risks and benefits of chemicals which the Los Angeles Times published posthumously: "Our Champions, Our Killers." Al Meyerhoff was a hero to many and to bullies, an unrelenting foe.
I'm Bill Moyers. Join us again next week.