A discussion with Michael Zweig about OWS

A discussion with social democrat Michael Zweig, friend to those who lead organized labor

by Alan L. Maki on Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 11:24am

This article written by Michael Zweig was published in the Huffington Post and Michael Zweig e-mailed me the article seeking my comment. My comments are in italics bold… I would also like to point out, based upon my limited interaction with Michael Zweig, that he strives to stifle discussion rather than encourage debate.


Alan L. Maki

Director of Organizing,

Midwest Casino Workers Organizing Council



OWS Has Lessons to Learn From Past Movements

Posted: 10/28/11 07:19 PM ET


Michael Zweig

Professor of Economics, Stony Brook University


The Occupy Wall Street action in lower Manhattan has unleashed the energies of hundreds of thousands of people across the country and changed the national conversation. The heart of its appeal lies in the formulation: “We are the 99%.” For the first time in years, the finger of responsibility for our country’s troubles is pointing up at the 1%, rather than down at the ordinary people who do the work of business and government.


This is true; but, the question needs to be asked: Why haven’t Michael Zweig and the union “leaders” he runs with  like Leo Gerard and Richard Trumka taken up these struggles before? Obviously they have the resources and “lead” organized labor. Why did Michael Zweig and his friends who lead labor support, and continue to support, Wall Street’s chosen one— Barack Obama? Why haven’t Zweig and his friends who “lead” organized labor asked those workers who pay the dues which pay their big fat salaries: How is Barack Obama’s Wall Street war economy working for you? To Zweig’s credit he has made some feeble attempts to question the war in Afghanistan which his friends who lead organized labor have finally come to call for an end of so we can focus on creating jobs in our own country although both Zweig and his friends who “lead” organized labor have failed to condemn, denounce and encourage a fight-back against Obama’s Wall Street imperialist agenda of wars abroad financed with austerity measures here at home which is where responsibility for all of our problems clearly lies.


In challenging the 1%, OWS has taken the moral high ground at a time when our country seems to have lost its moral compass. The growing movement holds corporate elites and their political representatives responsible for the moral failings exposed by the great and growing inequalities between the 1% and the 99%, and the widespread suffering of mass unemployment and home foreclosures in the midst of highly concentrated personal wealth and political power. OWS challenges the deep immorality and total unacceptability of the economic and political arrangements that generate and secure this inequality.


Again, all true; but, there is no discussion of the even greater inequalities being imposed on people of color, women and the handicapped nor is there any suggestion that Affirmative Action (Executive Order #11246) needs to be enforced to “level the playing field” for all working people. It is fine and good that Zweig points out the immoral  inequalities between the rich and the poor even though he fails to make clear from where these inequalities stem in the first place with a capitalist system that is in its twilight stage of barbaric, cannibalistic imperialism where Wall Street coupon clippers exploit labor and rape Mother Nature here at home and all over the world which gives rise to wars for occupation that Wall Street tries to impose the cost for on working people where racism and inequalities are intentionally intensified to keep the working class divided.


This challenge is reminiscent of the moral foundations of the mid-20th century civil rights, women’s liberation, and peace movements, as well as the great labor battles of the 1930s and 1940s that brought unions and shared prosperity broadly to the working class. Despite the complex difficulties these movements faced, they carried the day on the basis of their clear moral vision.


First of all, there has never been this “shared prosperity” that Zweig alludes to. The labor struggles of the 1930’s and 1940’s primary accomplishment was challenging the power of monopoly at the point of production while achieving a better standard of living for many workers— but, at no time was the wealth created by the working class ever “shared” with workers by Wall Street; in fact, the Wall Street coupon clippers were the only ones to “prosper.” For most workering class families, there has been a constant struggle just to survive. I don’t know what kind of world Michael Zweig lives in but the working people and working class families I have ever known from the 1950’s until present have always been engaged in a struggle to survive and for most of these working people fortunate to have had a decent job for at most two-decades, the struggle to survive was one of paycheck-to-paycheck and for most of the working class the struggle to survive has been from week-to-week if not day-to-day. Where Zweig gets this “shared prosperity” bullshit from beats me.I would note that the labor, civil rights and peace movements had very clear objectives. Occupy Wall Street still doesn’t and Michael Zweig seems to be content with this as are his friends who lead organized labor.

There was a “moral vision” but that moral vision included goals and objectives together with the need to educate, organize and unite people in struggle.


In fact, the OWS protest parallels earlier movements in several ways. I was a minor figure in the founding of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 but knew many of the leaders and participated actively in its development, plunging first into civil rights, then into opposition to the Vietnam War and support for women’s liberation. As with OWS, in SDS and the overall civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, women’s and labor movements, leaders were articulate and politically astute as well as morally grounded. Then, as now, the movement aspired to “participatory democracy” through broad engagement in decision-making and subsequent action. Then, as now, the movement thrived on imaginative tactics that engaged a wide audience. Then, as now, the crusade often grew spontaneously and without coordination as people around the country took up the issues and built the movement in their own ways.


Michael Zweig places far to much emphasis on these movements having been “spontaneous.” I too worked in all these movements, including in SDS. And it all took a heck of a lot of organizing— there was no reliance on spontaneity.


OWS carries forward another feature of early SDS — close connections with labor. The Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the student movement of the 1960s, was hammered out in June 1962 at a camp outside Port Huron, Michigan, used as a retreat by the United Auto Workers. The connection with labor remained strong in the early civil rights movement but became strained at the 1964 Democratic national convention when the UAW and other unions, in deference to President Lyndon Johnson’s political agenda, blocked the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation. SDS went from mild support of Johnson in the 1964 election — “Part of the Way with LBJ” — to outright hostility, and nearly total estrangement from labor, as the Vietnam War escalated.

Today, Michael Zweig and his friends who lead organized labor are sticking with Barack Obama who is far worse than Lyndon Johnson. At least with Lyndon Johnson he was smart enough and somewhgat compassionate enough but with the common sense that Franklin D. Roosevelt had to “bend towards justice” with his support for Civil Rights and an array of progressive social programs.


Today, national labor leaders have spoken in defense of OWS, and many New York City locals are providing material support. We do not know how long this friendly alliance will last as the movement seeks to grow in the turmoil of the presidential campaigns.


Why are Zweig and his friends who lead organized labor still supporting Obama since we learned that it was wrong for organized labor not to have supported George McGovern? This continued support for Obama by Zweig and his friends who lead organized labor is dividing the  peoples’ movements; including organized labor and the working class.


We can, however, draw lessons from the earlier mass undertakings that are relevant today. By holding to its principle of non-violence, OWS will secure its moral high ground. The current movement, still in its infancy, has not developed a key feature of earlier ones, central to their success: disruption of the institutions they challenge with words, as with strikes or sit-ins. If Occupy grows into a movement that seriously challenges the 1% for power, it will inevitably face ferocious opposition, as did all its predecessors.

Agreed; the opposition will become furious and ferocious if organized labor joins with Occupy Wall Street and occupies closing plants to save them; engages in a general strike; and withdraws from the Democratic Party in support of founding a progressive working class based people’s party along the lines of the socialist oriented New Democratic Party in Canada or the old socialist Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.


We look back on the successes of the civil rights, anti-war, labor, and women’s struggles with pride. But to prevail, many participants suffered arrests, blacklisting, and other forms of intimidation, including killings, as they continued on the path to victory. Still, as the appearance of over a thousand New York City allies at Zuccotti Park at 6 a.m. on October 14 showed, police repression can be forestalled when the 99% make clear they will not accept or tolerate it, but will instead join in and support a movement that is in their own interests.


Michael Zweig would like us to believe that history can be sanitized. The fact is, that while President Lyndon Johnson was signing Executive Order #11246 (Affirmative Action) every major city in this country was, literally, burning. We are fast approaching the “tipping point” in this country with arrogant politicians like Obama bringing forward phony “jobs” and “student loan”  legislation playing us all for fools and suckers. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out to Robert Kennedy when  Kennedy tried to draw King into condemning the rioting; King told Robert Kennedy: “Riots result when governments don’t listen to the legitimate grievances of the people by coming forward with real solutions to their problems.”Instead of focusing on Occupy Wall Street being non-violent, Michael Zweig and his friends who lead organized labor might want to point out to Barack Obama what Martin Luther Jr. King pointed out to Robert Kennedy. Michael Zweig and his friends who lead organized labor might want to begin seriously pondering how they are going to organize a General Strike to serve notice on Barack Obama and his Wall Street friends just what working people want:


Peace so we can put people to work creating the kind of universal social programs people want and need like a National Public Health Care System and a National Public Child Care System. Struggling for this kind of agenda that is an alternative to Wall Street’s agenda is what will  assure the unity Zweig claims he desires:

A people’s program for real change…

* Peaceend the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and shutdown the 800 U.S. military bases on foreign soil protecting Wall Street’s interests.

* A National Public Health Care Systemten million new jobs; free health care for all.

* A National Public Child Care Systemthree to five million new jobs; free child care for all working families.
* Works Progress Administrationthree million new jobs; repair, restore and build new infrastructure.
* Civilian Conservation Corpstwo million new jobs protecting and restoring to health our ecosystems.
* Public Ownership of the 58,000 mines, mills and factories closed by Wall Street – twenty-five million good paying, decent union jobs.

* Tax the hell out of the rich and cut the military budget by ending the wars to pay for it all which will create full employment.

* Enforce Affirmative Action; end discrimination.
* Raise the minimum wage to a real living wage.
* What tax-payers subsidize in the way of businesses, tax-payers should own and reap the profits from.

* Moratorium on home foreclosures and evictions.

* Defend democracy by defending workers’ rights including the right to collective bargaining for improving the lives and livelihoods of working people.
* Roll-back and freeze the price of food, electricity, gas and heating fuels; not wages, benefits or pensions.

* Defend and expand Social Security.

* Wall Street is our enemy.

Let’s talk about the politics and economics of livelihood for a real change.

The time has come for working people to break free from Wall Street’s “two-party trap.” We need a working class-based progressive people’s party.

Peace + tax the rich = millions of new jobs at real living wages putting people to work solving our social problems which will solve our economic problems… Redistribute the wealth. Put people before Wall Street profits.

How is Barack Obama’s Wall Street war economy working for you?

– In invite Michael Zweig’s response.




Michael Zweig is a professor of economics and director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at Stony Brook University. The second edition of  his book The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret will be published in December.

Alan L. Maki
Director of Organizing,
Midwest Casino Workers Organizing Council
58891 County Road 13
Warroad, Minnesota 56763
Phone: 218-386-2432
Cell: 651-587-5541
Primary E-mail:
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