Mike Parker Was a Political and Moral Compass for the Left and Labor

Over many years, when the labor movement and socialism were at their weakest in decades, Mike Parker helped train a new generation of rigorous thinkers and activists in management’s latest schemes and how to fight back.

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

Mike Parker’s death leaves a gaping hole on the Left. We on the Left and in the socialist movement have lost a giant, albeit one who never sought the spotlight for himself. Many activists and organizers of his generation are far better known than him, but few were as active and involved for as long as he was. Unlike some New Left leaders who were content to trade on the legacy of their exploits from the glory days of the 1960s for decades, Mike continued to be an organizer, strategist, and theoretician across many movements up to the very end.

Other remembrances of Mike that have come out since his death recount the depth and breadth of his organizing far better than I could, and I encourage readers to consult those pieces to get a sense of just how incredible a person he was, and how much he did. For my part, I want to offer a more personal recollection of what Mike meant to me, knowing that he played a similar role in the lives of many others.

I was privileged to count Mike as a friend, comrade, and political mentor for the past twenty-five years. I first met him soon after graduating from college, when I started work as an intern at Labor Notes in Detroit. It was an organization he helped found in 1979 and helped build and guide for the rest of his life. As he did with so many before and after me, he took me under his wing, at a point when I was still learning my way around the labor movement and the Left.

One of the best parts of being a Labor Notes intern at the time was the educational component. Every few weeks, I got to take a break from my usual intern duties — stuffing envelopes, fulfilling merchandise orders, and researching and writing the “Resources” column — and find senior staff in their offices. There was some assigned reading, but mainly it was an opportunity for me to listen and learn from who I now know are some of the greatest minds on the labor left: Kim Moody on the nature and origins of business unionism, and race and labor in the United States; Jane Slaughter on concession bargaining and the false promises of top-down union reform efforts; Martha Gruelle on union democracy (she was writing a book with Mike on the topic at the time); Ken Paff on the Teamsters and the history of Teamster reform.

And then there was Mike. Unlike the others, he wasn’t on staff. He had an engineering gig at the time while he was between jobs as a skilled electrician in the auto plants around Detroit. But he was a constant presence at the Labor Notes/Teamsters for a Democratic Union office (affectionately dubbed the “Plywood Palace,” in contradistinction to the lavish Teamsters headquarters, the “Marble Palace”). Usually, it was for an editorial meeting or strategy session of some kind, but it could also be to fix the electrical wiring in the aging building or to troubleshoot staff computers, since he served as the resident handyman/IT guy.

Mike came to the office to teach me about lean production, management control, and workplace power. His seminars were based on his deep reading and understanding of Marxist theory and management scholarship, but also his lived experience on the shop floor in the auto plants. He emphasized the strategic importance of skill for building power in the workplace. It was skilled workers who were hardest for management to replace, which gave them more leverage. In a factory setting, they also were less subject to constant supervision and had more freedom to move around the plant. This made them critically important for organizing the entire workplace.

Mike’s strategic approach to organizing and social change was a revelation to me. Later, through our mutual involvement in the socialist organization Solidarity, Mike taught me more about how these theories of building power in the workplace connected to a broader socialist strategy. He tied them to a “socialism from below” tradition he inherited from one of his own mentors from his graduate student days at the University of California, Berkeley, Hal Draper. It is a tradition that takes seriously the first rule of the First International, written by Karl Marx, that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Our talks in those early days were formative for me and continue to shape my political and academic thinking to this day. I would not be who and where I am today without Mike.

Mike was a model for me of what it meant to be both a serious organizer and a serious intellectual. He refused to dumb down his analysis, while also having little patience for pretentious jargon and terminological disputes. His intellectual work was informed by his practice, and vice versa. This made his research and writing invaluable for workers organizing against management’s constant efforts to expand its control of the workplace. It’s what made the Labor Notes Team Concept Schools of the 1990s, in which he taught rank-and-file union members about management’s latest schemes to wring more productivity out of workers, so electrifying, and continues to inform Labor Notes’ education work, including its local Troublemakers’ Schools and its biannual conference.

But as I learned later when I began my academic training, it also meant that his work was taken seriously by academic researchers. As I immersed myself in the scholarly literature on work and labor, I noticed the same citation popping up everywhere: “(Parker and Slaughter 1994).” This is the in-text citation that academics use to reference Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter’s Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering, published in 1994.

In it, they lay out their argument against the “team concept,” “lean production,” and other forms of employee participation programs — and propose strategies for fighting back. Dubbing them “management by stress,” Parker and Slaughter show how, far from giving workers more say in the production process (as management claimed they did), these programs provide management with yet another way to appropriate workers’ skill and speed up production.

Whatever their own thoughts on employee participation programs, academic scholars of work and labor had to take Parker and Slaughter seriously, because they recognized that their arguments were based on solid research. In my fields of expertise, I am not aware of many other nonacademic books that have achieved this level of academic influence.

Upon Mike’s death, the distinguished labor and United Auto Workers (UAW) historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote on Twitter, “I never wrote anything about the UAW or the latest management tactic without thinking, what would Mike make of it all?”

Beyond his work as an educator, author, and strategist, Mike was my political and moral compass. Whenever I was confronted with a thorny political question, my instinct was to check and see what Mike thought of the situation. Without fail, he would be able to cut through the fog, identify the critical questions at stake, and articulate a practical yet principled course of action.

Going forward, I won’t stop having that instinctive response to difficult political questions. I’ll just have to trust that what Mike taught me will be enough to guide me.