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Fellow Worker John Gilbert Mers (1908 - 1998)

By Fred Chase, General Secretary-Treasurer, IWW (1995-2000), from the Industrial Worker, January 1996.

This column marks the beginning of my second year as IWW General Secretary/Treasurer. I've never worked harder at any job in my life. I get knots in my stomach every time one of my Fellow Workers calls to nudge me about some task I haven't gotten around to. My personal bills are piling up thanks to my modest compensation. I still have a full head of hair; but it's grayer than it was a year ago.

Nonetheless, I've never before gotten nearly so much satisfaction out of a job. When I leave office I'll probably have to cloak the nature of my IWW activities on my resume to get a job which will pay the bills. I suppose I'll put down something innocuous like "office manager." What I'd like to put down is "struggled for justice for the working class with some of the finest malcontents around."

Seeing and hearing of Wobblies risking jail and their necks in struggles on the job and on the line gets me up and raring to go early every morning. I've seldom been associated with such a creative, courageous, committed bunch. I'll be groaning over trying to make the books balance and I'll get a call from someone who holds membership in both the IWW and some AFL-CIO union who's fighting a lonely battle to promote a little more democracy in the union at his or her workplace. It makes it a little easier to go back to the books knowing that even this least favorite task plays a small part in helping to maintain and build the kind of union that encourages working class democracy.

Fellow Worker Gilbert Mers, a Wobbly and organizer for decades and author of Working the Waterfront had a stroke about 6 months back. It has made it difficult for him to choose the right words. He called the other day to make sure he was in good standing with the IWW. When that's a priority for someone with his problems, it makes me appreciate anew the crumpled little red membership card in my breast pocket. In his frustration with his speech problem he told me he was useless. And I'm thinking "Fellow Worker, you're an inspiration. How can an inspiration be useless?"

Obituary by Steve Rossignol, IBEW Local 520

On July 5, 1998, in Houston, John Gilbert Mers passed away quietly in his sleep at the age of 90. So quietly did he pass that I did not get the news of Gilbert's death till a couple of months ago.

Gilbert Mers was the closest thing to a Texas labor legend since the days of Martin Irons and the Great Southwest Strike of 1886, yet he would be the first to deny this. Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, in 1908, Gilbert and his family had moved to Bisbee, Arizona by 1918. Maybe something happened to Gilbert in Bisbee. Maybe it was the water. One may recall that in 1917 Bisbee was the site of a mass deportation of 1200 Industrial Workers of the World copper miners from the Phelps-Dodge copper mines. By 1929 Gilbert and his family had moved to Texas where Gilbert worked the docks as a longshoreman. Though his trade was that of a longshoreman, militant unionism was his career.

During the 1980s Gilbert decided to put some of his life into print. I am proud to say that he confided in me about his autobiography and even sent me advance material from his book. Although Gilbert had hoped that the local Wobbly print collective, Red River Women's Press, would handle the print job, eventually the University of Texas Press published the autobiography in 1988. Entitled Working the Waterfront: The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman, it is not the story of conventions and meetings, but rather the story of blood, sweat, and tears. It is the tale told by a "foot-soldier" in the labor movement, as he often referred to himself. The book spans his labor life from the first days on the docks in Corpus, his days as President of the Maritime Federation of the Gulf Coast, through the attempt to establish an industry-wide union along the Gulf Coast states, and to his days as President of the Corpus Christi Central Labor Council. All the while Gilbert remained a member of the Industrial Workers Of the World.

Mers' story is revealing for many reasons, not only for glimpsing into the lives of the men who moved the mountains of cargo, but also for glimpsing the other aspects of Texas culture. The Texas Rangers are exposed for what they were during the turbulent 1930s and 40s: legalized strike-breaking bullies armed with guns and badges, breaking up the legitimate struggles of labor at the whim of a corporate controlled state.

But the most fascinating aspects of Gilbert's life are those things which specifically do not appear in the book. His gentle warmth, his dedication to the cause of working people, his untiring optimism. Even after he retired, the story is told of how he stood up at one of his senior citizens' meetings and proclaimed how the class struggle was still to be waged. And even while writing his book, the old curmudgeon would mutter to friends how his time could be used more profitably organizing this or that labor project. I once wanted to do an oral history on him to get his life on tape and was curtly told that he "didn't have time for that and would contribute no effort towards it." I now kick myself for not being more insistent.

Gilbert also wrote a short collection of essays entitled "A Little Working Class Sense." The essays contain words of wisdom, bits of history, and shreds of insight for the average rank and file worker. They are bits of common sense for working people.

Working the Waterfront is a valuable resource for the library of any Texas labor historian. No one can better review one's life than oneself---one reason why I enjoyed re-reading Working the Waterfront. Another reason is that Gilbert's book inspires me to resist being bossed around and to fight for a more just society.

Gilbert once told his sons to always leave a picnic area or campsite "in better shape than when you found it", but chides himself in the preface of his book as having "...failed miserably...as a user of Campsite Earth. It was in much better condition when I began using it than it is as I face leaving it." Such an insight illustrates the life of Gilbert Mers, the human being.

Gilbert is most certainly filling himself with that pie in the sky right now and I am going to miss the old cuss. So long, Fellow Worker.

Police Not on Call to Rescue Working Stiffs' Cats

By Joshua DeVries, from the Working STiff Journal - May & June 1999

Gilbert Mers's Working the Waterfront describes as follows a 1936 Christmas Eve assault on strikers and supporters in Galveston, Texas, during a strike of longshoremen, sailors, and other maritime workers.
indentLieutenant Murray and the waterfront detail put an abrupt end to yuletide that night. The officers started at the foot of 75th Street and worked inland, from bar to bar, smashing heads, furniture, whatever came within range of flailing nightsticks. From an issue of the old Houston Press, no longer in publication: "Police beat 150 in raid on docks," a headline said. A subhead: "Acting Chief Honea goes to scene, restores order—after police use clubs, guns, fists." Ambulances rushed to the scene. "Twice police jerked men from ambulances and resumed beating them," continued the reporter. There is more. A few days later in a follow-up story ambulance drivers and attendants complained to a city council meeting that their attempts to administer first aid to victims sorely needing it were interfered with by police, to the point that they were prevented from rendering such aid at the scene, forcing them to transport victims to hospital emergency rooms in worse shape than they need have been.end indent
Such is the essence of the history of police and unions in Texas. The legislature all but outlaws unions. The courts rule for employers. And the police are there to ensure the domestic tranquility, no matter if it means beating unionists to achieve it. Certainly there are and have been individual officers to whom this does not apply, but as a whole, the police have served on the public payroll as an army for private business. A few examples to demonstrate the nature of the police.

Pecan Sheller's Strike

On Jan. 31, 1938, some 12,000 San Antonio pecan shellers—mostly Latino women—walked off their jobs. A three-month strike followed, in which the pecan shellers confronted both management and San Antonio politics. The strike began because of a pay cut. The wages of shellers who had earned six or seven cents a pound (six cents for pieces, seven cents for halves) were reduced to five and six cents a pound. Wages for crackers were cut from 50 cents to 40 cents for each 100 pounds. San Antonio officials strongly opposed the strike. More than 700 arrests were made. Owen Kilday, chief of police, stated under oath that the strike was part of a "Red plot" to gain control of the West Side of San Antonio. George Phillip Lambert, an activist in the strike, claimed that the political leaders feared the Mexican-Americans would become aware of their own power. Picketing of the 400 factories was complicated by police actions. Kilday claimed that there was no strike and dispersed demonstrators and arrested picketers. In one week in February, 90 male pecan shellers were arrested and imprisoned with 200 other prisoners in a county facility designed to hold 60. The strike received national and international attention because of the mass arrests.

Dallas Auto Plant

In the late 1930s the Texas CIO made an effort to unionize the Ford assembly plant in Dallas, but "outside squads," employed to prevent unionism, roamed the local community, while "inside squads" ferreted out unionism in the factories. In the summer and fall of 1937 the Dallas outside squad committed 18 documented assaults. One victim died and another was tarred and feathered. An AFL organizer lost an eye. Dallas police had tipped off the squad to his presence in town. None of the victims was trying to unionize the plant, and most were not union members. The police, the Open Shop Association, and the Chamber of Commerce were determined to keep Dallas free of unions. NLRB hearings in Dallas in 1940 revealed the ties between the goon squads, the Ford company, and the city police. The workers suffered line speed-up, lay-offs with no reemployment guarantees, a lack of seniority and grievance machinery, and restrictions on break periods.

Gulf Coast Docks

While police everywhere cracked down on strikers, no other force can equal the Texas Rangers in determination and brutality. In labor's heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, they led the charge against unions.

This passage from Gilbert Mers's book describes as a bus full of scabs during a longshore strike in 1935 attempts to cross a picket line. Mers describes how he:

through the group of pickets on the bus's right side, who were, indeed hanging back, to walk up—I don't know how close, much too close for comfort—right into, it seemed, the business end of what looked like a tommy gun pointed straight at my belly button, held by a man wearing a ten-gallon hat and a pair of cowboy boots. What our highway spotters didn't know was that two Texas Rangers had boarded the bus up the line somewhere.

"Stand back, you sonofabitch!" said the figure holding the weapon, "or I'll cut you in two right across your goddamn navel!" I stood back.

"We have a legal right right to talk to these men here at the picket line and tell our side of the strike. I represent these pickets here."

"I got your legal rights right here in my hands, goddamn you. These men came here to work, and they're going to work, or I'll shoot the shit out of all you bastards. Back off!"

The next day, someone yelled "scabherders" as a Rangers' car passed by the union hall:

The car stopped across the street, driver's side to us. The driver stepped out, stood by the car, drew his pistol. From the passenger side stepped Ranger Allee [the Ranger with the tommy gun in the above passage]. The guards in the tin shack took the cue. They stepped toward the railroad and street, pistols drawn. There were perhaps ten of our men in three small clusters along the curb. Allee crossed the street, weapon in hand, a long-barrelled revolver, a .45 caliber, I'd guess. He singled out Sam Wilds, walked him several steps away from the rest. Two or three of us had come out of the hall onto a walkway that led up a low embankment to street level. The Ranger at the car called out, "Don't anybody move!" We didn't.

Allee then proceeded to give Sam a pistol whipping. Through it all he kept his thumb on the hammer of that pistol, as if ready to cock it. He began with a couple of whacks to the side of Sam's head. Sam raised his arms to protect his head. Allee let him have it hard in the ribs. That sequence was repeated, I don't know how many times—several. The blows were not bone-shattering, but they cut the skin and left sam bleeding, plus bruises that would turn purplish later. To say that Sam didn't feel like a well man when it was over would describe his condition fairly, I think.
With the usual verbal description of our ancestry and a warning about behavior, Allee walked back across the street. He and the driver entered the car and sat there a long minute before driving away.

Conclusion

It seems unusual that the agency generally seen as protection for the citizenry should take such action against a large number of the people (the workers in an industry) when they are struggling to defend themselves against a small number of people (those who own and control that industry). But the very history of the municipal police forces in the United States provides an indication of why the police commit these types of actions.

The latter part of the nineteenth century saw great upheaval in labor as unions fought to reduce a 70- or 80-hour work week, improve working conditions and wages, and gain control over their jobs. Industrialists fought back fiercely with bodies of hired armed men—the most famous of which was the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But even the terror spread through infiltration, harrassment, and attacks of labor organizations was not enough to prevent the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and other major strikes.

State militias, and even the national guard, were often called out to end the strikes. But militias were often irregular organizations, and militia members would sometimes refuse to fire on their friends and relatives, and occassionally would support the strikers. There was some political difficulty in regularly sending in the army or even the national guard to gun down U.S. citizens. It was this period in history that led to the creation of professional municipal police and local armories.

By regularization of the police into a formal organization to maintain law and order, strikers could be characterized as lawbreakers. The police themselves could be distanced socially from their neighbors by the nature of their job, unlike militia members, who were often in the same economic situation as the strikers. By defining police as a local, nonmilitary body, all parties were spared the embarassment of the federal government's having to explain why its armed forces were used against its citizens. Furthermore, police in a given city developed experience with dealing with the populace in that city and could keep tabs on local issues.

Thus, one of the early forces behind the creation of the police was the need to put-down organized workers. The forces controlling the government then, as now, were predominantly wealthy. That the police continue to serve their original function of maintaining order at the expense of workers is no surprise at all.