Mike Parker, a Life Well-Lived on the Left

Mike Parker, who died earlier this month, was far from a celebrity. But in his six decades on the Left and in labor, he was everywhere, from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to auto factory shop floors to independent leftist electoral campaigns and the rebirth of American socialism.

Mike Parker speaking at a Labor Notes conference. (Jim West)

Mike Parker, a lifelong fighter for social justice, died at the age of eighty-one on January 15, 2022. He was not broadly known even in left circles, as he stayed out of the limelight throughout his life to instead promote others. But his contributions to a wide range of social movements, the labor movement, and socialist thinking were enormous.

Mike’s activism began in college in the antiwar movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and continued until his death as a member of the Steering Committee of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Throughout his life, he was a leader of various socialist organizations. He was a rank-and-file autoworker and an early supporter of Labor Notes. Mike was committed, kind, brilliant, and generous with his time and ideas. Countless activists considered him a mentor; he was respected and loved by many. His death is an incalculable loss to the cause of winning a more just and democratic world.

A Radical’s Beginnings

Mike’s parents had been members of the Socialist Party, and growing up, he viewed himself as a socialist in the way children identify with the political party of their parents. In the antiwar movement, he came to understand that socialism required a fundamental restructuring of society. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in 1959.

Mike first became an activist in the antiwar movement, years before the Vietnam War, and was a national leader of the SPU (Student Peace Union), the largest student organization in the country in the early 1960s, headquartered in Chicago. Mike ran the SPU office, often sleeping there. In the small organization’s campaigns, especially around issues of nuclear weapons, Mike did it all, running the mimeograph machine when needed and giving political guidance to the many who called. Kim Moody, a writer on labor issues, founder of Labor Notes, and socialist for many decades, recalls meeting Mike for the first time at an SPU convention in 1960: “Mike was impressive even then.”

In the SPU, Mike began questioning the role of the US arms industry. In an interview about those early years with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activist Jeremy Gong, Mike explained, “You realize that you’re up against these arms contractors and have this crude understanding — why is the US basically building for annihilation of the human race? And why are we spending all of this [money] on that?” He concluded that the arms industry needed war to thrive under capitalism.

Even in these early days, Mike was always drawing activists around him. One of them was Senator Bernie Sanders, who released a statement upon Mike’s passing:

I knew Mike Parker when I was a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. Mike was a brilliant advocate for workers and unions then, and he remained so for the rest of his life. Mike fought tirelessly for human solidarity and a more just and humane world. His life’s work and dedication should serve as an example for us all.

From the beginning, Mike was always involved in both broad social movements and socialist groups. He was deeply affected by the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. YPSL’s anti-Stalinism fit with his developing politics. In the group, Mike discussed the nature of class society, the primacy of the working class in the struggle for socialism, how capitalists use racism to divide the working class, and how workers’ consciousness changes through struggle. These ideas informed Mike’s beliefs for the rest of his life.

In 1964, Mike moved to Berkeley, California, as a graduate student in political science and became part of the political ferment of the moment. Mike was a leader of the campus Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and he was on the Steering Committee of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), one of the wellsprings of the 1960s movement for change. The university had imposed a rule, under pressure from corporate politicians like former US senator William Knowland, banning the recruitment of other students to join the civil rights movement.

The FSM not only won free speech at UC Berkeley but also helped spawn a new generation of activists. It was then that Mike, along with well-known Marxist scholar Hal Draper and other young activists, formed the Independent Socialist Club (ISC). The ISC stood for “socialism from below,” meaning that working people themselves would shape the socialist struggle. It rejected the existing Communist states as another form of class society. The ISC recognized that middle-class students could be an important pool of activists, but that socialists should orient toward the diverse working class.

How an independent party of the working class in the United States would be built was a question that Mike wrestled with his entire political life. Mike told Gong that he understood that

most deeply held political ideas for most people are only changed through experience. People open up to new ideas, and allies and enemies become clearer in the course of struggle. That is why we look for opportunities to engage in electoral struggle while also strengthening the understanding of the need for independent organization and exposing the nature of the Democratic Party.

Mike attempted to put some of these ideas into practice in the development of the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) in California in 1967.

Independent Electoral Politics

The Community for New Politics, an organization Mike and other activists participated in, was convinced to get a new, independent third party on the ballot. The idea was to base this new party on the social movements of the day: the massive movement against the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Starting a new party and getting it on the ballot was not an easy task: voters would have to first cancel their registration with the party they had registered with, then reregister with the PFP.

One PFP member had a bus painted in psychedelic colors that he drove around the Bay Area, exhorting people over a loudspeaker to register PFP. Members of the Black Panther Party approached people in the bus looking for help. Huey P. Newton, the chair of the Black Panther Party, had just been jailed because of a shoot-out in Oakland. The Panthers offered to help register people in the black community if the PFP would make Huey’s plight more broadly known. Mike led the move to ally with the Panthers to unite the antiwar movement with the movement for black political power.

The PFP got on the ballot, but the party did not thrive. Nonetheless, the PFP brought many young people into political activism for the first time and taught them how to organize. As the electoral expression of the antiwar movement and the Black Power movement in 1967 and early 1968, the PFP’s fortunes waned as those movements went in different directions.

Mike Parker in 2014. (Johanna Parker)

When Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the 1968 presidential race on an antiwar agenda, many in the PFP switched course to “Get Clean for Gene” and joined his campaign. The Black Panther Party became increasingly infiltrated by the FBI and went in more dangerous directions. But for a short period, the mainly white antiwar movement and the Panthers joined forces around the radical demands of “Free Huey” and, regarding Vietnam, “Out Now.” Mike led on these issues and on forging an alliance between the two movements.

Following the Berkeley model, other ISCs formed in cities around the country. This federation of local organizations became the International Socialists (IS) in 1969. As the group grew, members took jobs in industry, including auto plants in the Midwest. Mike moved to Detroit in 1975 to join the resident leadership of the IS.

In Detroit, Mike was a mentor to the IS socialist youth group, the Red Tide, which grew among high school students and those recently out of high school. The mostly African-American Red Tide took on local issues at high schools, like stopping the expansion of armed police in schools. A signature national issue was “Free Gary Tyler,” a young student who was sentenced to death in Louisiana after white students attacked black students at a newly integrated school. Tyler’s cause was later taken up by legal advocates, and after many appeals, Tyler was released from prison forty-two years later.

Mike served as a friend and teacher (and occasional car mechanic) for the Red Tide. Larry Bradshaw, a former Red Tider, explains:

Many of us met Mike when we were still in high school. The Red Tide, a fusion of several radical high school collectives, became the IS’s youth group in 1975. Although we didn’t use the term “mentor” in the 1970s, that is what Mike was for so many of us. He respected the organic leadership of youth, allowing us to grapple with a myriad of organizational and political questions on our own, make mistakes, learn from them and grow. His light-hand of leadership was a gift to Red Tide leaders. Mike was there when he needed to be, prodding and challenging us. In turn, we challenged Mike with our brash, youthful revolutionary impatience. Serious Mike also had his fun side, graciously accepting the nickname “The P-Funk” given to him by Red Tiders. Many Red Tiders learned our foundational socialist principles from and with Mike: a radical democratic socialism from below, a fierce anti-racism, an implacable anti-imperialism, understanding the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism, and the insight that the Democratic Party was neither a strategy nor a tool for liberation.

Another former Red Tider, Kyle Hoppy Hopkins, says:

The Red Tide was the youth group of the IS, and Mike was the liaison between the two organizations. But Mike was so much more to us. Mike was teacher and guide to us. A big brother. Mike sat on our executive committee meetings but didn’t vote. He allowed us to work out issues and make mistakes.

We affectionately called him “P-Funk,” because he was pure, uncut funk. The Bomb! I was only seventeen when I was elected as the organizer of the Red Tide. I was quiet and unsure of my ability to lead. He mentored me in organizing skills, teaching me leadership skills and public speaking and conflict resolution. When I became frustrated and wanted to resign my position, it was Mike who convinced me that I could do the job.

As the youth leader of my church, I have used the lessons that I learned from Mike to mentor the young people who I lead. I am forever grateful to have known Mike.

On the Shop Floor

By the end of the 1970s, the American left was in decline, as was the IS. Mike, along with others, argued for “regroupment” with other compatible organizations in some manner. These efforts met with limited success. Many socialist groups had collapsed, and others were too ideologically distant from IS politics.

In 1984, however, the IS merged with several small groups to form a broader socialist organization, Solidarity, which continues to the present. In a time of limited left activity, Mike viewed Solidarity as a vehicle to keep socialist ideas alive. He and others published the magazine Against the Current as well as other educational material.

Among his many skills, Mike was a brilliant electrician, and eventually he was able to get skilled trades jobs in a series of auto plants in Detroit. He worked first at the Chrysler Warren Stamping Plant. After being laid off from Warren, he got a job at the Ford River Rouge Complex. After another layoff at the Rouge Plant, Mike ended up at the Chrysler Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP). His brother Bill was the president of the local union in Sterling Heights, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 1700, for a number of years. (Mike drove an aging Chrysler, made at that plant, until he died.)

Following his hiring at Sterling Heights, Mike soon took an active role in the ongoing struggles over safety and control of the shop floor. He was asked by the local to lead skilled trades training in the plant, which he did with his insightful understanding of power — both political and electrical. He was an important element of the local’s “in-plant strategy” and taught others how to fight management on the shop floor.

While at the Sterling Heights plant, Mike published his own newsletter called, tongue in cheek, Meatballs. The name was a middle finger to management who derided some of the workers as “meatballs.” Underneath the masthead, Mike wrote that the title came from a Depression-era song with the lyric “You gets no bread with one meatball.” The newsletter addressed issues that interested Mike, such as democracy, safety, and other plant-wide issues.

Mike’s youngest brother, Bill, says, “Mike was always there for us, a powerful and progressive example of what a life well-lived could be.” Bill, too, was a rank-and-file militant. Because of the ups and downs of the auto industry, he worked at two different auto plants from 1974 to 2018, when he retired; he began work at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant from 1984 until retirement and was president of Local 1700 at the plant from 1998 until 2013. Bill led struggles against the two-tiered wage scheme at Chrysler and successfully won the fight to keep SHAP open after a threatened closure. With Mike, he organized fights over safety issues and control of the shop floor.

Against Lean Production

Mike was on the board of Labor Notes for several decades. In the 1980s, he did pioneering work under its auspices on labor-management cooperation schemes popular at the time. Mike was the first person to analyze the system of “lean production” — a management system that was allegedly designed only to increase efficiency and eliminate waste and that was becoming increasingly popular — from a worker’s point of view, dubbing it “management by stress” and showing how it was designed to force workers to work harder without needing the direct intervention of supervisors. He was also the first to analyze cooperation schemes such as quality circles, quality of work life, and employee involvement, his understanding of which was rooted in his own time as an autoworker at Ford and Chrysler.

His first book for Labor Notes was Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to QWL (1985), followed by (with Jane Slaughter) Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept (1988) and Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering (1995). Because there was no other source of analysis and advice about how unionists should relate to these programs, Labor Notes became a resource for many unionists who knew there was something wrong.

Mike designed and cotaught a dozen “team concept schools” for Labor Notes and some unions, including the Communications Workers of America (CWA), that brought together unionists across unions to learn how to fight these programs. He taught that these employee participation schemes were designed to allow management to gain control over the work process and erode the informal standards set by work groups themselves as to reasonable output and speed, and helped workers strategize about how to resist them.

Mike Parker speaking to attendees at a Labor Notes conference. (Jim West)

Mike coauthored with Martha Gruelle Democracy Is Power, which argued that democracy made unions stronger in fighting the boss and gave concrete advice about how to involve members, run a union democratically, and work to change your union from below. They argued that democracy was far more than formal practices but rather the presence of the union as a living and breathing force in members’ lives — a force they felt was theirs. Gruelle says:

When we worked on Democracy Is Power together, I was honored that Mike invited me to challenge his thinking on the various points. I generally saw that he was right. Mike lived his life helping others learn. If we’ve absorbed some small part of his wisdom, the labor movement will be stronger, and the world will be better.

In remembering Mike, long-term Labor Notes staffer Jane Slaughter said that “Mike was an ideal coauthor and teacher because of his brilliant mind but also because he wanted so much to help workers fight the boss. I learned more from him than from anyone else I’ve known.”

Mike’s commitment to working people was not limited to the United States. Through his work with Labor Notes, Mike met and worked with trade unionists from Brazil, Argentina, Japan, and elsewhere. Yamasaki Seiichi wrote on hearing of Mike’s death:

Mike first came to Japan in 1989 to participate in the Asian Labor Solidarity Conference. Since then, he was involved in the Japanese labor movement primarily through the late Hideo Totsuka and the late Ben Watanabe. . . .  I served as an interpreter for Mike at the 1989 conference. I remember that he did not make fun of me for not knowing the word “deregulation” but explained it to me in detail. I also have fond memories of my first visit to the United States in 1997, when I was invited to stay at his home in Detroit. . . . I imagine he finished his life of struggle with satisfaction that the work of the Labor Notes for over forty years has been passed on to the next generation and is growing.

Valter Sanches, former general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union in Brazil, was also influenced by Mike:

In the beginning of the ’90s, the books Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to QWL and Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept gave me a different perspective that helped me a lot in negotiating the restructuring of Mercedes-Benz in Brazil as a member of the local workers’ council. The exchanges I had with Mike in the following years always brought me new ideas for the role of the union and its members and leaders. I fondly remember Mike’s generous mentorship.”

“Retiring” to Richmond

After he retired from Chrysler in 2007, Mike and Margaret Jordan, his wife and partner and an activist in her own right, moved to Richmond, California, after Margaret inherited her parents’ house. Richmond is home to the largest oil refinery in the West, and Chevron dominated Richmond politics. A community movement, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, was challenging that domination. Mike and Margaret soon joined the RPA, becoming deeply involved in its work.

The RPA has fought for many issues on behalf of ordinary people: support for public schools and not charter schools, rent control, a $15 minimum wage, and other social justice issues. Mike worked on a campaign to reimagine policing, which was able to transfer money from the police budget to support needed social services such as mental health crisis intervention and services for unhoused residents. He cowrote an article for Jacobin about this campaign, writing, “Richmond is leading the way on shifting public resources away from more and more policing and toward social programs that can achieve real public safety.”

In 2018, Mike advised Jovanka Beckles’s campaign for California State Assembly. Although Beckles, a member of the RPA and former city council member, did not win, she came close. In their 2020 book, Bigger than Bernie, Jacobin’s Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht wrote that the campaign

offers a case study in how to wage class struggle on the campaign trail, and how socialists can use those campaigns — even when they’re not successful in winning office — to strengthen their own skillsets and relationships and apply to workers’ struggles on the ground.

Beckles went on to win her DSA-backed race for the regional transit board in 2020.

About Mike, Beckles says,

Words cannot express the sadness and loss I feel. Mike was a mentor, a comrade, and a dear friend to me. When I first met him fifteen years ago, I had no idea what a legend and a legendary mentor he was. I quickly came to discover just how much he had done for so many causes and individuals. Mike was generous and gracious. In addition to the patience he had with my countless political and labor questions, he was truly a friend whom I could count on to pick up his phone to provide political guidance. I sought him out because of his brilliant strategic mind. I wouldn’t be where I am without his astute guidance. Mike helped the RPA become the organizing machine that it is today. He was the strategic mastermind behind many of our campaigns for environmental, racial, social, and economic justice, and elected office and labor struggles.

Democracy Is Power

In 2017, young socialists in the East Bay branch of DSA found Mike and Martha Gruelle’s book, Democracy is Power. Learning that Mike lived nearby in Richmond, they reached out to him. Soon after, Mike joined the branch; he was also a founding member of the Bread and Roses caucus of DSA. Although Mike never had the time to play a leadership role in DSA, he was frequently asked for advice, which he willingly gave. He also played a role in involving DSA members in Jovanka Beckles’s campaigns for state assembly and for the transit board.

Jeremy Gong, a former member of DSA’s National Political Committee and leader in DSA’s Bread and Roses caucus who interviewed Mike extensively before his death, viewed Mike as a friend and mentor:

Since 2017, in the heady days of the rebirth of US socialism among a new generation, Mike became a mentor to me and others who had no idea what we were doing. After a life of building socialist organizations and building union and movement struggles, Mike always had excellent and concise advice for us on almost every topic. He always pushed us to go beyond “already converted” socialists and learn how to build movements and organizations with broader layers of activists. Mike’s support of young socialists and his faith in the goodness and power of ordinary people will continue to give us confidence in our mission to transform the world.

(Gong has amassed a list of Mike’s writings, which can be found here.)

In his last year, Mike joined with Ken Paff, a friend and fellow labor organizer of more than fifty years who was a longtime organizer with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), to form a foundation to help fund and carry on his life’s work, the Social Justice and Solidarity Fund.

“Mike was my guide and sometimes my patient critic, as he has been to hundreds of other activists,” Paff wrote in his own tribute to Mike:

He followed the work of our TDU movement and was always ready with generous solidarity and helpful ideas for me and other TDU leaders. Just over a year ago, Mike’s oncologist told him he had about a year to live. Unlike most of us, he had no bucket list. His goal was to keep doing what he loved: working to make a better community and more just world. On the day he died, he was weak and didn’t talk much, but asked to hear about the announcement of the mayoral candidacy in Richmond, California by Mike’s friend, Eduardo Martinez. He smiled when I told him it went very well.

Mike’s partner and wife, Margaret Jordan, died two years ago. She was a fighter for social justice as well and recognized by many for her key role in the activist community. Mike and Margaret are survived by their beloved daughter, Johanna Parker, and her partner, Matt Sylvester. Mike has three brothers, Bob, Bill, and Jerry, all activists, and numerous nieces and nephews. Mike Parker was caring, thoughtful, creative, and inspirational. His loss is felt by many.

He was also my friend for fifty years. I echo everything everyone has said about him. We also had fun together and laughed a lot. He is simply irreplaceable.