Working the Waterfront

[ Texas ]

Working the Waterfront

The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman

By Gilbert Mers

With an introduction by George N. Green and an appreciation by Eugene Nelson

Personal recollections of forty-two years on the Texas waterfront as longshoreman and radical union activist.



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6 x 9 | 308 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72254-5

"Somebody said, 'History is written by the winners. The losers have nothing to say.' This book is by one of the losers, a bit player, not the star of the drama." So begins Gilbert Mers in these personal recollections of forty-two years on the Texas waterfront as longshoreman and radical union activist. But far from having "nothing to say," Mers reveals himself as a thoughtful philosopher of democratic ideals and eloquent agitator for union reform. He challenges the conventional wisdom that the leader is more valuable than the led. He contends that long tenure in positions of power dulls the union officer's working-class instincts. Always one to row against the current, Mers believes the union exists for the benefit of its members!

This is primary material of the best kind, vivid and evocative, and Mers, in his eighties at the time of writing the book, is an unusually vigorous and articulate spokesman for a democratic and humane unionism.

Whether he is describing the sweaty, dangerous and back-breaking work of loading cotton bales into the hold of an outbound ship or the gut-gripping tension of a face-to-face encounter with Texas Rangers bent on "law and order," Mers writes with the voice and conscience of the rank-and-file worker. He paints the waterfront world as it was, and perhaps still is—full of danger, humor, dignity in demoralizing circumstances, frustration, struggle, and sometimes hope—and tells his story with such wry humanity that even those who disagree with his destination will enjoy the ride.


    • Introduction by George N. Green


    • Gilbert Mers: An Appreciation, by Eugene Nelson


    • Preface


    • Acknowledgments


    • 1. The Docks of Corpus Christi, 1929


    • 2. Si Borison and Union Politics


    • 3. Rising Militancy


    • 4. The Great Longshoremens Strike, 1935


    • 5. Dissenters Organize: The Maritime Federation of the Gulf Coast


    • 6. Turmoil among the Seamen


    • 7. Organizing Days in the South and West


    • 8. The War Years and Union Growth


    • 9. Labor on the Defensive


    • Afterword


    • Index


    • Photo section


A member of the International Longshoremen's Association since 1929 and the Industrial Workers of the World since 1947, Gilbert Mers (1908-1998) lived in Houston.

"What Mers is writing about—the day-to-day experiences of men on the docks—is the vital social history that has been missing from so many historical accounts of waterfront unions. It is undoubtedly more important to have these accounts now than to have any more histories about the leadership." —from the introduction