At 90, Will Parry carries on the class struggle
From Hoovervilles to national health care
Will Parry was just a boy when the stock market crashed in 1929. But he understood what the Great Depression meant when his father’s business went bankrupt in Seattle: Money was tight, he says, very tight.
The older Parry got, the more he also understood the speeches of the leftist labor organizers and Wobblies that his father took him to see in the 1930s. By the time he was in college, Parry firmly believed in the ideal of communism and, with it, that working people, not bankers, know what’s best for the common welfare.
In his many years as a journalist, labor activist, lobbyist, labor history teacher and advocate for the retired, it’s an ideal Parry has never stopped working toward and did not renounce back in 1947, when the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act demanded that he and other workers sign an anti-communist oath. Nor did his beliefs waver when, a year later, he was summoned to what is now the Seattle Center House to testify before the state version of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He gave the panel a big, fat Fifth Amendment.
Still, it was a “shaky moment,” Parry says, when a cop rapped on his door and handed him the committee’s subpoena with his wife and kids in the house. And it was sad, when he lost his job as a reporter in 1956 as the Red Scare drained advertising from his employer, The People’s World, and he had to find another at a cardboard box plant in Longview, where he worked 21 years. It was just plain annoying, the still spry, devil-may-care Parry says, that a good portion of those years, into the 1960s, he was dogged by the FBI.
But neither red-baiting nor the FBI could hold back Parry. On April 24, the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, where Parry has spent the past 16 years writing newsletter articles on everything from saving Social Security to passing health care reform, threw a 90th birthday party that drew half of progressive Seattle to sing his praises and served to remind Parry just how much times have changed.
In the late 1940s, when he was a reporter for a paper called The New World, the president of what was then Washington Federation of Labor barred him from entering its annual convention. Fifty years later, he points out, he now has a plaque from the state labor council honoring his lifelong service to the labor movement. “Isn’t that great?” Parry says with a snicker.
What was it like living through the Great Depression?
The Depression radicalized my father, who had his own small advertising agency and he, in turn, radicalized me. For example, he took me to hear speakers like William Z. Foster and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, both early-day communist leaders and also activists in the labor movement. Foster organized the first steel strike and Gurly Flynn was involved in the strike of the garment workers that led to the establishment of International Women’s Day. He also took me to hear Woody Guthrie sing and play in the Workers Alliance Hall down in the Skid Road.
What was that worldview?
I became communist. I had gone to [what was then] Washington State College and spent three years over there [in Pullman] and in my final year I hitchhiked over to Seattle and joined the Young Communist League. I had subscribed to the Daily People’s World, which later became the People’s World, a weekly. I was persuaded by its political line that [communists] were on the right track, so I thought I better get into the action.
Why? What was it that drew you to the Communist Party?
It was a period of rapid [labor] organization and major strikes. There was a seething foment among working people at that time in response to the impact of the Depression and
unemployment. In Seattle, the Unemployed Citizens League set up a virtual city on the Duwamish tide flats—it was a Hooverville. They had a mayor and an informal city government and a sanitation department and a security detail, the whole thing. And no money—there was lots of barter. It was a vast sea of shanties and shacks made out of materials of all kinds. My dad wrote an article on it called the “The Republic of the Penniless” [that appeared] in the Atlantic Monthly. He got a generous check that tided us over through much of the Depression. Nobody was making any money, including him.
How would you say people are reacting to today’s Great Recession compared to those days?
My sense is it’s a gathering storm. It’s very early, and similar organizing has to take place, but people are not going to sit around and starve or get kicked out of homes by the millions. They’re just not going to do it ...
What signals that gathering storm?
The formation of very broad coalitions is a good sign. The coalition in this state that advocated for health-care reform had 60 or more organizations that affiliated. They spoke with real power and the same kind of thing was going on in most places in the country and the collective impact was enough to get that bill through. Flawed as it is, it’s historic. And we’ll improve it in the years ahead—I’m sure. We’ve got to ... In some ways, that’s what we’re trying to do with the Puget Sound Alliance of Retired Americans: organize people to defend themselves. In our case, one of our core priorities is to defend Social Security, which is again under very grave attack and in danger of being privatized.
The Obama Administration has set up a commission on deficit reduction and directed it to come with up recommendations to cut the deficit, but the majority of the people appointed to the commission see this as opportunity to eviscerate Social Security. There’s $2.4 trillion in the [Social Security] reserves and Wall Street wants to get its hand on the money. It’s there because workers have paid into the trust fund all these years and it’s there for present and future retirees and Wall Street doesn’t like that. So there’s a real danger they’ll come up with a recommendation to extend the retirement age, to transform the formula which determines benefits so that there are lower benefits—all kinds of things to water down Social Security. They’re after Medicare and Medicaid, too.
What was it like having the FBI follow you around?
I’ll give you one example. They had a stool pigeon named Traynor Hansen who worked for the Seattle P-I who was an FBI agent ... He came to our office at the People’s World one time and he must have been wired. He asked me incriminating questions like: What would you do if you stumbled across some military secrets? Would you turn them over to the Russians? I’m putting it crudely. I told him I didn’t care about military secrets. I cared about the welfare of people. He started the conversation by flattering me about my coverage of the Smith Act trial. I knew that was bullshit because I was very green at covering legal proceedings and I was not at all satisfied with my own coverage, so he was fluffing me up ... He subsequently came out publicly as an FBI agent.
They recruited throughout the labor movement. They had a twofold attack. From within they recruited stool pigeons and people to [be] disruptive and divisive. It still goes on today. There are people in the labor movement for whom the leadership never does anything right, they’re never radical enough ... I’m often critical of leadership, but not that way.
[Then] there was this nationwide campaign to get the reds out of the labor movement. They got rid of the communists and all the militancy, all the left-wingers. It took the starch out of the labor movement. It took out the people who’d done most of the organizing and led the strikes and done the work of the labor movement. That was a tragedy for the country, and we’re still trying to repair that.
It was a concerted campaign by employers and Congress. It had its legislative focus on the Taft-Hartley Act and others like it and it had an on-the-job focus with stool pigeons and a media focus on “exposing” the reds in the labor movement. [It] took the guts of the labor movement.
What was the Smith Act trial?
The Smith Act was another repressive law aimed at the Communist Party. Eight leaders of the Communist Party in Seattle and Washington were hauled into court and charged not with conspiring to overthrow the government, but with conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government. It was several steps removed from any action to overthrow the government. It’s against the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to outlaw teaching and advocacy of anything. It was just a very repressive time.
What happened after you moved to the box plant? Did the FBI still follow you?
When I got the job at Longview Fibre, for the first few weeks, I went to work by different routes and watched for tails. But they caught up with me eventually, the FBI did. After I’d worked there four or five months, the superintendent calls me into his office and asks if I’m a communist and of course I denied it. I had to hold a damn job. Fortunately the superintendent was a nice guy and he had gone to Washington State College at the same time I did and he let me stay. Otherwise, I would have been out on my can. There were a lot of people who got fired for being reds. I was the only lefty there.
One year, some forces within the union red-baited me, so I wasn’t re-elected to the standing committee—I was defeated, badly. I just ignored it and kept going to the meetings and did my best to play a constructive role. The next year, they re-elected me. [After becoming a legislative lobbyist for the union] I had the same thing happen later with the area council of the Western Paper and Pulp Workers. They red-baited me there, too [because] Louise, my wife, had chaired a committee for a candidate who [in 1975] was an open communist running for the Legislature—Elmer Kistler. So my union brothers and sisters asked me about that. They were not happy about it at all. [But] I told them if we had a half-dozen people like Elmer Kistler in the Legislature, my job as lobbyist would be one hell of a lot easier.
Can the labor movement ever regain its strength?
I wouldn’t underestimate its remaining strength. It’s all connected with things like NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and the export of jobs to low-wage countries and the destruction of our manufacturing base, which was the base of strength of the labor movement. Look, here are the garbage workers—there are still people on strike fighting for the best contract. The UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] at the grocery stores are in the middle of negotiations and the employers are trying to water down their health care and increase deductibles and take away some of their benefits, and the workers are not going to stand for it. If necessary, there’ll be a strike ... They’re not horsing around. They mean business about protecting what they’ve won.
What keeps you so optimistic?
What keeps me so optimistic is, among other things, my 21 years [with the workers] at the Longview Fibre Company. I know firsthand all their shortcomings, defects, misunderstandings, lack of sophistication, [but] my God, they’re strong and I believe in workers. ... No matter how they transform the economy, the work has to be done and capitalism creates workers. It has to—You can’t have any profits without workers. You can have all the bankers in the world, but if you don’t have someone cleaning the toilets, you don’t have a society ... When I was young, I thought by now we’d have socialism in America. But I go by the advice of the rabbi of two millennia ago: “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.” None of us finish the work. It goes on, but we have a responsibility while we’re above ground to do something about it.
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