In Memoriam, Mike Parker

Bill Resnick interviews Jane Slaughter

Posted February 23, 2022

Mike Parker, 1940-2022 (Photo: Alyssa Kang)

On January 15, 2022 the rank and file labor struggle lost a wonderful, brilliant, selfless comrade, Mike Parker. Born into a socialist family, Mike joined the Young People’s Socialist League at the University of Chicago, then as a grad student at Berkeley got active first in the student peace movement, then in the Free Speech movement that inspired the 1960s student uprising, then with the California Peace and Freedom Party. Co-founding the U.S. International Socialists (IS), Mike joined his other IS comrades taking jobs in U.S. industry. Mike went to Detroit, got a job at Chrysler as an electrician, then moved to Ford, 30 years on the shop floor building rank and file challenge to the auto companies and the UAW hierarchy that had degenerated into a bureaucratic business union. Through his entire adult life he spoke, organized, and wrote, particularly with the monthly journal Labor Notes, including two books with Jane Slaughter, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept and Working Smart: The Union Guide to Participation Programs and Re-Engineering.

Bill Resnick interviewed Jane Slaughter about Mike Parker on the “Old Mole Variety Hour” on KBOO radio, 90.7fm, Portland, OR. This interview is an edited version of the broadcast.

Bill: Jane Slaughter, like Mike Parker, you also went from what’s called “higher ed” to the International Socialists, also got hired at Chrysler and wrote for the UAW Chrysler plant newsletter. Fired by Chrysler, you joined the newly formed monthly journal Labor Notes (LN), the voice of rank and file labor, and began your collaboration with Mike, who was writing and speaking at LN events and conferences. Jane, tell us about the International Socialists, the rank and file strategy they developed, and your work with Mike at Labor Notes. Then later in the interview, we can discuss your books with Mike and the core ideas that informed those books and organizing.

Jane: The International Socialists were a small group of activists who initially had been active mostly in campus struggles. They had a strong vision of socialism from below. They rejected the way the Soviet Union had turned out and knew that that was a top-down system that they were not trying to organize towards.

They could see that socialist ideas were held by only a tiny minority of people in the United States. And they were trying to figure out, how do we help socialist ideas grow in the working class? Because of course, we knew that it’s the working class that has to fight to end capitalism and replace it with socialism. So one of their ideas for organizing the working class was that these young people would get working class jobs.

And they did it in a very strategic way. They tried to figure out which industries were most important and which unions were most important. And therefore people got jobs as auto workers, as steel workers, as Teamsters, as telephone workers, and also some teachers. This was in the 1970s. Their idea was that they would help to organize on the shop floor in those workplaces and help to foment class struggle, to put it in a more leftish way. The idea was that out of those struggles, people could learn, could grow as organizers. We would meet the natural leaders who already existed inside these working class organizations, and struggles would grow. People’s consciousness would grow. And out of that, we could build more of a socialist movement.

Bill: In that struggle you worked with Mike Parker, organizing in the International Socialists and later Solidarity and in Labor Notes, and then began collaborating in writing. What do you see as the highlights of that work together and the core ideas that formed your writing, especially the books Working Smart and Choosing Sides?

Jane: Well, this was where Mike was really brilliant. He was able to identify phenomena that were happening in the unions and in the factories before anybody else really was able to see what was happening. It might be hard for our listeners to really grasp what was happening in the early eighties. First of all, it was a big recession. Lots of plant closings. Unions were asked to cut their wages and open their contracts to do that. But at the same time that the companies were aggressively cutting people’s jobs and cutting their wages, they were also pretending to hold out an olive branch and say, We can work together. We want your ideas. We shouldn’t be antagonists anymore. Shouldn’t the role of unions be to help the company be profitable? Really trying to obscure the fact that the interests of management and workers are opposed. Whatever management gives up is a gain for workers, and whatever workers give up is a gain for management.

These programs were very sophisticated. They were called quality circles or Quality of Work Life or employee involvement. They involved workers meeting together and brainstorming ideas that often could lead to cutting jobs, because the whole idea was more productivity and efficiency and getting people to work harder. Mike was able to analyze these programs in a really sophisticated way that we could get across to workers, why these programs were no good. A lot of people instinctively knew the programs were no good, but they didn’t really know how to make the arguments the way Mike did. And so he wrote this first book, Inside the Circle, a Union Guide to Quality of Work Life, which I edited, as I was on the staff of Labor Notes. It was a huge success, because people were looking for answers. They wanted to know, what’s going on here and how can we fight these programs? Or how can we take them over? How can we undermine them? Mike was really a pioneer in that regard.

Bill: I recall that in the 80s and early 90s the media fostered a fear of a Japanese industrialization, that our enemies in WWII were on the way to wiping out much of U.S. industry, citing their efficiency and low wages. And U.S. capital played on those themes by declaring an economic war with the Japanese. We have to get more efficient. We have to meet their quality standards. Your job depends on supporting the company in that struggle.

Jane: Yes, the Japan phobia was very strong at that point, and some of the unions, at least the Auto Workers, were totally buying into that and trying to blame things on the Japanese, which in Mike’s view was very wrongheaded. It’s your own employer, it’s GM, it’s Ford, it’s Chrysler who’s trying to do these things to you. It’s not Japanese workers or even Japanese management. So Mike was able to analyze what was sometimes called the Japanese production system or the Toyota production system, also called lean production, and analyze what that was like. He said, your own company is adopting this, it’s not the Japanese that are imposing this on you.

And then we were all very proud that when we held our schools for union workers — we called them team concept schools — we invited a Japanese unionist from the left wing of the Japanese labor movement. His name was Ben Watanabe, and he lived in Detroit for a year and was one of Mike’s best friends. Ben spoke at all our team concept schools and really broke down the idea that the Japanese are our enemy, because here was a strong Japanese unionist who had the same union ideas as the American unionists at our school. We were very proud of how we were able to fight back against that anti-Japanese sentiment.

Bill: Jane, I recall a chapter in your book Working Smart. You suggested when possible, don’t just say no or reject the proposal to enter a quality circle or a work team. Instead, you and Mike suggested that workers love the quality circle to death by bringing real needs to the table, by suggesting how they could make a better product, like by using higher quality steel, or slowing the line by having breaks and quiet rooms where you could decompress. I recall reading when the Lucas Aerospace Company in England was shutting down, the workers organized to keep that factory open. Not to make airplanes, but itemized and demonstrated designs for a whole set of useful products that could be made at the existing plant with a few equipment modifications. Well, of course the owners rejected that, but in those meetings, the workers realized that they could rebuild and run that plant, that in the Wobbly proverb, “The bosses brains, they’re under the workers’ hats.” Those workers would never think that their knowledge and skills were somehow deficient, that they deserved no voice in industry.

Jane: The lure of these programs was that management was saying to workers, We want your bright ideas. We’re sorry we were so mean to you in the past and ignored your ideas. Now we recognize that you do have a brain, and we want to get your ideas. But of course the ideas they wanted were for how to cut jobs. How can we reduce this team from six people to five people?

But what we advised, as you said, Bill, was that the union come in with their own ideas for improving work. Well, let’s see, how could we improve work on this team? Maybe it would be by increasing it to seven people or longer breaks or anything that would improve life for workers.

However, we were very insistent that the union people on the team had to meet separately to come up with those ideas and reinforce each other and be united when they went to the mixed team that was workers and management and the foreman. And of course management was completely against that. They said, oh, We’re all the same here. You’re not supposed to be able to tell union from management. They were completely against any kind of separate meetings. And that’s where things would often break down: management would refuse the union’s request to have the right to meet separately. That exposed management for what they were really trying to do.

Bill: I suppose in those separate meetings, some visionary workers might say, Yeah, how can we really change the working conditions and make better products? I think that the workers knew how to make better products. They would just cost more, and the companies would rather make a cheap product that broke down quickly, planned obsolescence.

Jane: One of Mike’s really major insights was into what management calls “quality.” What management would call quality was getting the widget that you were producing right 99% of the time instead of 95%. That was their definition of quality. So how can we make things more standardized? Probably use more robots, so that we’re getting it right 99% of the time. But what Mike pointed out is that that did not change the actual quality of the widget in any way. It was the same widget that they’d been producing all along. They just wanted to make sure there were no mistakes that resulted in scrap, which is waste and therefore costs something. But the quality of the product was no better at all. Mike was really good about teasing out management’s definition of quality, different from the consumer’s notion of quality.

Bill: Both of you had a gift for making ideas accessible to workers and accessible to the larger left, including academic and intellectual circles. Tell us about Mike’s talks, his holding the audience and getting the audience engaged and thinking. That’s because he used examples and parables, he invited listeners to think, which is the advantage of that kind of pedagogy.

Jane: The common thread running through everything that Mike did was his insistence that people had to run their own organization and learn how to do that. And that was the only way that people were going to learn how to run society eventually, under socialism. If you look at the participation programs, he was totally against fake participation and only for real participation, when workers were really running things. If you look at his later book, Democracy Is Power, which he co-authored with Martha Gruelle, that book was about how unions need to be democratic. It was not just an argument for that, showing that a union is stronger if the members are involved, but giving very practical advice on how to do that. How do you run a meeting democratically, for example, how do you get people to want to be involved in their union?

And finally, Mike’s work with the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). Mike’s view was that it doesn’t matter if you win elections, if you haven’t organized people on their own behalf, in the process. He threw himself into electoral work in the last 15 years of his life, but he was always very clear that that electoral work was not going to matter if we didn’t have a strong labor movement. So that’s why he kept his ties to Labor Notes. He was always writing for LN, giving money to LN, and speaking for LN. He wanted to see a strong labor movement with the members actually in charge and in his electoral work, he insisted “We have to have an organization here. We’re not just out to win a vote. We have to have a membership, a rank and file base that democratically controls the Richmond Progressive Alliance, organized people.” So that thread — bottom-up worker democracy — was part of everything that he did.

Bill: Jane, let’s wind up. Mike’s achievements, they live on: Mike Parker, presente.

Jane: I can count three, hopefully four organizations that Mike left behind that were really important. First, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which has had electoral success in winning control of the city council, and then actually doing things: shifting money from the police budget to other parts of the budget and huge victories against Chevron, which has a refinery in Richmond. The RPA was thinking about climate change in 2014. Mike and the RPA were leading a fight against Chevron, which was trying to control their town. It was a fantastic example of how a giant corporation can be beaten by rank and file shoe leather. That’s number one.

Number two, of course, is Labor Notes, which for 43 years now has been the voice of the people who want to put the movement back in the labor movement. And Mike’s contributions to that through the four books that he wrote and countless articles that he wrote and all the speaking he did, including in Brazil, Argentina, Japan. His contributions were invaluable to making Labor Notes a very valuable organization for people who are trying to revitalize the labor movement.

He was also a big supporter and promoter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, although he, of course, was not a Teamster himself. In 1997 the Teamsters adopted a plan against UPS’s version of team concept, educating members on that in the lead-up to their historic strike.

And now there’s a new organization in Mike’s union, the United Auto Workers, called Unite All Workers for Democracy, UAWD. And Mike asked that if people wanted to make any donations on his behalf, one of the organizations he picked out was UAWD, as it challenges the UAW leadership. They won the right to elect top officials, rather than having convention delegates do it. It’s now going be a vote of the entire rank and file of the UAW, and UAWD will be running candidates. Mike was extremely heartened to see that at the end of his life.

So yes, he’s left behind a big legacy, both in how do we make the labor movement stronger and smarter, and how do we do electoral politics smarter as well.

Bill: Jane Slaughter, thanks so much for talking to us today.

Jane: I could talk about Mike all day long, so I’m happy to do it. Thank you.

Jane Slaughter is a long-time writer and retired editor for Labor Notes, and author of several books, most recently co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer with Alexandra Bradbury and Mark Brenner. She’s now active in the Democratic Socialists of America.

Bill Resnick cofounded the “Old Mole Variety Hour,” a weekly public affairs show on KBOO, 90.7fm, Portland Oregon. He has published in Socialist Review, Against the Current, the Portland Oregonian, and for many years as an editor and writer for the Portland Alliance until its untimely demise.