Memoir of a maverick union man

WORKING THE WATERFRONT: THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A REBEL LONGSHOREMAN by Gilbert Mers, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 274 pp., $19.95 `WORKING the Waterfront,'' Gilbert Mers's autobiography, is a chronicle of the working life of a maverick labor leader and ``true believer.'' From the time he began working as a stevedore on the Corpus Christi docks in 1929, Mers held fast to the conviction that labor and management are implacable enemies. In the face of widespread opposition from the top as well as the bottom of the union movement, he preached labor solidarity and the need for collective action through industrywide unionism. He deplored what he perceived to be the lack of class consciousness of leaders and laborers alike.

Some of Mers's harshest criticism is leveled at ``responsible'' unions that abided by their contracts and stayed on the job while other workers in their industry were on strike. Once, after describing how a work gang in Galveston compromised on safety standards to set a record for moving bales of cotton, he gloomily concludes, ``It's a phenomenon of working class history ... how the American worker has so willingly swapped favorable working conditions for money.'' To Mers, the real heroes of the labor movement are the unemployed workers during the depths of the depression who, regardless of the plight of their families, refused to become scabs.

Part of the problem of Mers's white-hat, black-hat vision of labor relations is that it doesn't allow for much analysis of complex problems. For example, as part of the settlement of the Gulf Coast longshoremen's strike of 1935, the leadership of the International Longshoremen's Association agreed to give a union charter to a group of strikebreakers in Houston. At a contract committee meeting, Mers and a handful of dissidents took a hard line and argued to keep the scabs out. The leadership carried the day by an overwhelming margin, arguing that granting a charter to the strikebreakers would be a way of teaching them ``good union behavior'' and would benefit the union in the long run. Mers still looks at it as a sellout of basic working-class principles. Maybe. But it's just grandstanding to preach ideology without speculating on its consequences.

Should (or could) the leadership have pushed to continue the two-month strike, with the rank and file prepared to accept (as they did) the wage package that management offered at the start of negotiations? Was the issue worth the risk of alienating Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, a proven friend of labor, whose personal emissary hammered out the agreement? If the strikebreakers continued on the job, was it in management's or labor's interest to freeze them out of the union? These questions are never addressed.

This is not to say that Mers does not come honestly by his view of labor-management relations. Some of the most graphic and harrowing sections of the book deal with the goon-squad tactics of the Texas Rangers, who not only brutalized and intimidated strikers but also did the same to scabs, holding them prisoners as forced labor to break strikes.

A fledgling author, Mers has been ill-served by the editorial staff of the University of Texas Press. Though the raw material of a far more interesting work is clearly there, the author hasn't quite decided what kind of book he wants to write - an autobiography or a meditation on his particular union principles. The result is a rambling, often superficial narrative with many loose ends.

But at the end, Mers's views seem frozen in the brawling '30s. Writing in 1988, he offers the preamble to the constitution of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies) as a guide to American labor, an ideal ``battered but intact.'' While workers' ``paradises'' behind the Iron Curtain struggle to get out from under the deadening impact of centralized economics and grope toward freedom and individual initiative, Mers still believes labor's role - and destiny - is to destroy capitalism.

When it is in the mutual interest of labor and management to have their industries survive and flourish in this fiercely competitive global economy, which means give-and-take and a new set of relationships, Mers still believes that ``the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.'' And, after decades of gulags, mass murders, and wars of liberation in the name of a transcendent Utopian vision, Mers still believes that ``the land begs to be taken back by the people for the people.'' Battered ideals for sure, but intact?

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