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Interview with: Gilbert Mers
Interview by: Jeanette Berger, et al
Date: January 25, 1985
Archive Number: OH 431
JB: (00:02) The Oral History Workshop, January 25, 1985. Gilbert Mers, Interviewee. Jeanette Berger, Interviewer. Would you please speak into the mic?
GM: I’m glad to be here and hope the rest of you will be glad when it’s over. [Laughter] I’m happy to have met you all.
JB: Thank you. We’ll get started. Where were you born?
GM: Ponca City, Oklahoma is my place of birth.
JB: And in what year?
GM: 1908, January 21. It’s just after my birthday.
JB: Did you have brothers and sisters?
GM: A brother and a sister, both deceased, but Marisol later had another brother and sister by my father’s second marriage.
JB: And with the first brothers and sisters, were they older?
GM: Much older. Yes, ma’am.
JB: You mentioned that your father—is this your father’s second marriage or your-?
GM: Well, my father did marry twice in his lifetime. My mother died when I was around five years old, not too long after my birth.
JB: What was your father’s occupation?
GM: It was a farmer and store clerk.
JB: Did he encounter any specific problems as a farmer?
GM: (01:51) Well, the best of my memory, he was working in stores more than farming. I have early memories of being on the farm, but anything that I’d remember that would have maybe more substance, you might say, would be after he mostly was in towns and working either for himself or for someone else in stores.
JB: What type of stores?
GM: From hardware to dry goods to grocery; covered it pretty well.
JB: What was your relationship with your father?
GM: Do you mean did I get alone with him?
JB: Yes, did you get along?
GM: Yes, we got along. I really don’t have the vocabulary to describe or to go into psychology about it, but we got along. I respected him and do.
JB: With your stepmother, did you have a good relationship?
GM: We battled considerably, but she had her certain qualities. That woman hated waste and I’m hoping some of that rubbed off on me.
JB: What do you think was her chief contribution to you as a stepmother?
GM: Just about that. Teaching me what I still consider to be the true value of things. My stepmother, if I may put in, to her, a garment that deserved a compliment was one that began to show a little shine from wearing.
JB: What type of early education did you have?
GM: Well, I got through high school is the sum and substance of it.
JB: Did you enjoy school?
GM: I wouldn’t say I was a good student, but I wasn’t the worst in the class, either.
JB: What was your favorite subject?
GM: (04:14) I suppose you might say English of all things.
JB: Did you belong to any clubs?
GM: They weren’t fashionable at the time. [Laughter] Well, schools were smaller and so on. I was not much into athletics. I was on a debate team and a public speaking team and had something to do with the school paper during the time in high school.
JB: You mentioned that your school was small. Approximately how many people attended your school?
GM: I wish you hadn’t asked me that. I can’t remember the number in our graduating class to be honest about it.
JB: Large? Small? Medium?
GM: By that time, we were in Bisbee, Arizona; Bisbee High School. Mining camp population around 18,000, and of course, we were the only high school and I simply cannot remember the size of my graduating class.
JB: When you go back and you look at your school of yours, your elementary and your high school years, do you consider yourself a leader or a follower?
GM: Both. I had I guess a certain—see, I don’t like that word “leadership” too well, but I was nominated for student body president at one point and got more votes than anybody else, but got wiped out by the school authorities. I had decided not to attend the school one semester and they brought in an eight-semester rule that wiped out all of the political glory right fast.
JB: Do you think politics were important to you at this time in your life during your high school years?
JB: Yes, such as political-?
GM: I was well aware that there were conflicts in our society; cast my last vote later on after my twenty-first birthday when I became eligible for Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party, by the way. But of course, to say that I took any really deep, intelligent interest, I’m afraid not. I went like the rest of the kids. How do I describe that? I don’t know. [Laughter]
JB: What particular person during these formative years had the most influence on your life?
GM: (07:23) A certain Methodist minister and a certain, I guess you’d call him land developer. The Methodist minister was a young minister from Texas named Martin Luther Beck—a very good name for a preacher—and another interest was a fellow named Henry T. Hovlind, whose background, I guess, was more in mining and so on, and he’d been with the old Calumet and Heckler Corporation up in Michigan in the early exploitation of the ores in Michigan. He was a big proponent of public ownership of public utilities, spent a great deal of his own money and a great deal of time in that, and of course some of that had to rub off on me.
JB: Why did your family move to Arizona?
GM: My stepmother had tuberculosis, and in those days, that was the treatment for it, to get them to the high and dry. They’re able to successfully treat the disease right here in this climate nowadays, but in that year and time, they didn’t. So we went there originally for her health.
JB: What was your first job?
GM: My first job?
JB: Uh-hunh (affirmative). Paid job?
GM: Well, I began working when I was 12 in spare school vacations and some after school, perhaps, on what they call a demonstration gardener. Of course, that was an arid country. I managed a certain irrigation from water that came out of the mines and that’s where I met Mr. Hovlind. He was the owner of this enterprise or whatever. Then later, I went to work in the mines. It was a mining community and when I got old enough again, I went to work in the mines.
JB: Thank you Mr. Mers.
TC: (09:30) Mr. Mers, my name is Terry Castaneta and I wanted to talk to you about the period of time that you did spend in Arizona, specifically after high school. I was wondering what your first job after graduation from high school was?
GM: I was working in the mines as a mucker. You shove a shovel under a pile and bring the shovel full back into a car.
TC: But you didn’t begin mining until after you had graduated? Or did you?
GM: Some before.
TC: Some before?
GM: Some before, but I-.
TC: Do you remember what age or general age?
GM: All right. As I do remember, I lied about my age a little bit. A lot of the young men did. You were supposed to be 18 before you were permitted to work underground and so I lied about my age by some months and actually started when I was still 17; hadn’t quite reached 18 yet.
TC: Can you tell me why you decided to work in the mines as opposed to doing anything else?
GM: Well, that was the place to go. How do I put that? A one-industry town and there you go. In Battle Creek, Michigan, you make Post Toasties or something.
TC: So did most of the young men start fairly young, wanting to earn some-?
GM: Most. The great book of the young men had—well, I say their first job. They might have had summertime jobs like I did, but they went into the mines, except those who were perhaps better fixed financially and the parent owned a store or could finance them to college without performing any gainful labor or anything.
TC: Did you enter the mine industry thinking it would be a permanent career or a permanent job? Did you expect to be there long when you started?
GM: I know it’s going to sound cynical, but I just have an idea—no youngster at that time—well, some youngsters at that time do. They’re mostly the ones that have a daddy that can finance the college career, I think, more than—but at that time, all kinds of dreams. I might even study law or write a book or become a clerk in a store like my father had. I didn’t have any great, high ambitions, I’m sure. I didn’t think about being governor and lucked out.
TC: But did most people in the mine expect that they would probably—was it the thinking of getting out of the town-?
GM: (12:13) Probably going to be your career and I could visualize that, too. It might be my career as long as I lived or as long as I worked.
TC: What were you mining in this community?
GM: It’s copper mines in Bisbee. Bisbee’s copper. The copper is about all mined out. Now it’s pretty much of a—except for people moving in and that retirement people and all, it would be kind of a ghost camp, I think.
TC: I was wondering if you could tell me about how many hours a day you spent in the mine or how many on average?
GM: Yeah. State law required eight hours from what you called “collar to collar.” From the time you step on the cage, as you call it—the elevator—and go underground. Eight hours form then, you were back on the surface or either the company paid a fine or furnished a darned good explanation of why you didn’t get out in time. You and eight hours from surface to surface and a 30-minute lunch period below ground.
TC: Below ground. Well, were you single during this period of time that you were first mining?
GM: (13:29) Oh, yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.
TC: Were there many married men having to support families in the mines?
GM: Oh, a great number was. Yes, the pay was I guess pretty good for the times, $5.60 a day or something like that for miners, and that was a good wage back then. I worked a six-day week, by the way.
TC: Six-day week? Well, did this company have to furnish many explanations? Did they keep you down there fast?
GM: No, the companies where I worked—I never worked anywhere but in Bisbee. I never boomed around. The companies there—they complied with the law almost to the letter. I would say considering there was a lot of paternalism; you didn’t go shooting off your mouth, so to speak, about the labor policies, but as long as you didn’t, the working conditions, I’d say, were not bad for the times.
TC: So most of the miners were satisfied with conditions in that mine?
GM: Uh-hunh (affirmative). I think so. I think you could say that.
TC: Was there a fairly broad age range of people in the mine, from young to old?
GM: (14:52) Yes. They had a retirement policy, but they chopped that off. There’s a parallel there, if I may wander a bit. As of right now, any number of corporations have arbitrarily cut off—even though they had millions of dollars in funds to back retirement and they got by with it in quite a number of cases. So there, there was nobody to dispute them and it was a couple of years after I started. I didn’t stay there too long, you understand, and they cut out the pension plan. So I’m sure we had the men working on up toward 70, perhaps. Just whenever it got to be more than they could take, I guess they quit. I don’t know.
TC: Were raises and wages given out on a seniority basis or on a merit basis? Or how were people eligible for increased wages?
GM: Well, all right. It’s not complicated, but variations. A mucker was paid $4.40 a day and the miners; I said $5.60 if I remember correctly; about a dollar and some cents more. Now, they had a bonus system where if you produced more than a certain amount under conditions set by mining engineer and superintendent, what have you, where you could make more money than your $4.40 or your $5.60, but for the most part, that was the wage. There were no merit pay—production pay—for producing more. No merit pay as far as I know, and it ran like that. I think that would describe it just briefly.
TC: Did you feel particularly motivated on most days, or was it a very, very tiring job?
GM: I didn’t find it too bad, and nobody to dispute me, I will say I tried to give them a day’s work. I’ve generally believed in that. I don’t like the way that the wealth I’ve created it spread around or not spread around, but I’ve always felt that as a producer, I should produce, if I may.
TC: Was there camaraderie between the men in the mines even when they were out on weekend or on their one-day leave, I suppose it was?
GM: Yes. There was quite a bit. I noticed it particularly. Of course, I’m not old enough to know these guys who have gone to California, Nevada, Utah—wherever—and then come back, but an old-timer or whatever, a guy who was established, he’d blow into town, to use the expression, and about the first question that one of the guys who knew him would ask is, “Are you packing a pocketbook? Have you got a room to rent? Have you got grocery money?” There was that type of camaraderie that existed, more so than in some of the places I’ve been.
TC: How did the men spend their leisure time? What did the town have to offer as far as-?
GM: (18:34) Picture shows, card games back in the back room, and of course, it was Prohibition times, so maybe-. [Laughter] Radio was just coming in. Television hadn’t been heard of. I don’t know, I did a lot of reading. I got drunk with the boys a few times. It’s a hard question to answer. You stuck me with that one.
TC: I just have two more. One was how many years did you stay in that particular mine?
GM: I worked for two of the different companies during that time, and I must have started about—oh boy, oh boy. About the middle of 1926, I guess, and left about the middle of ’25, and then worked a little bit off and on. I got out of school and worked then from March of ’29, I came to Texas. In 1929, I came to Texas.
TC: Can you tell me the name of the two mine companies?
GM: There was Phelps Dodge Corporation and Calumet and Arizona. Since that time, it all merged into Phelps Dodge, and of course, as I say, the camp is pretty well shut down now; maybe totally shut down for all I know.
TC: Did you leave Arizona because you were through with the job or because you wanted to move on for another reason?
GM: No. My mother’s health—she recovered her health out there and they came to Texas, stayed on the coast here in Texas and her tuberculosis never came back, so it must have been a good cure. It might be worth saying, if there’s time, in 1917, during World War I, the miners—or there was a miner strike in Bisbee sponsored by the IWW. That strike was fully broken—smashed—so there was no particular amount of union activity or either hard criticism about working conditions, probably for that reason, because those people were driven out and never permitted to come back—many of them.
TC: And that happened before you had even moved?
GM: That happened in July 1917, before we had moved there. We moved there between Armistice Day and Christmas of 1918, just after the armistice was signed.
TC: Why, thank you very much. I need to pass this on.
CC: Hello, Mr. Mers. My name is Chris Castaneta, and I’d like to ask you some questions about your life after you moved to Texas. What year was it that you moved to Texas?
GM: (21:35) 1929 in March.
CC: And where in Texas did you move to?
GM: Corpus Christi.
CC: Was there any particular reason that you decided to move there?
GM: Well, my father had come on ahead and he had had a little—I would call it a fruit stand, in those days, somewhat comparable to the convenience store of the present time on North Beach in Corpus Christi, and he thought he could make a businessman out of me, so letters back and forth and I finally said, “Okay, I’ll go see.” But that part didn’t take, but I did stay in Texas.
CC: You did? Did you ever work with your father at all in the fruit stand?
GM: Well, he attempted to establish me on my own, and I think he put me into a situation a little prematurely. I’d done much better to have stayed under his wing for a while. I just—I don’t know—didn’t have the—I was incompatible, I guess. I hate the marketplace, I’ll tell you that. Of course, we’re stuck with it.
CC: Was the fruit stand in Corpus Christi, also?
GM: Yes, sir. Yes. In fact, I was on North Beach, just a few blocks from his place at that time, for a short time.
CC: What did you decide to do for a job since that didn’t work out?
GM: Well, we were right close to the ship channel—to the Fort, the Turning Basin, and these longshoremen would pass by. They have a little hiring location just a block away, you could say, and they would pass by, so one or two of them got to stopping by and talking and the one guy told me, said, “You look like you’re pretty husky, could lift a little bit.” Well, I thought I could, too. I’ve been listing that old muck stick and he said, “This ain’t no place for a man with muscle. Come on down to where you can use it,” and I fell for it. And when the season picked up, at that time, you had a busy season then—an off-season. Cotton was king. We shipped lots and lots and lots of cotton before the synthetics took over, and when the season began to pick up in late July—made my first day on a ship as a longshoreman.
CC: What year was that?
GM: (24:09) Still ’29.
CC: Still ’29? Okay. And mostly you worked with cotton? Loading cotton on ships?
GM: We had a good coast-wise trade, which has been taken over by trucks; you might say now, which was all kinds of general merchandise; whatever the stores stocked on their shelves. But the big export was cotton and lead—some lead from All American Smelting and Refining out of a smelter they had in Mexico shipped across to Corpus Christi and went aboard ship there.
CC: Was there much foreign trade there?
GM: Not a great deal of imports. A lot of export at the time in the cotton trade. Yeah, we shipped on a lot of foreign trips; English, of course; Italian, French, Japanese.
CC: Did you have much contact with some of the foreign sailors or even the other American sailors?
GM: With the sailors?
GM: Didn’t have brains enough to, and it’s always puzzled me as many years as I’ve spent now, or it’s been on the waterfront, that there’s not more fraternity between seaman and longshoremen than there is, but you’ll find in the waterfront hangouts this is a seaman’s hangout. Over here, this is known as a longshoreman’s hangout, and they don’t mingle. We have learned to support one another in union activities or at least to the point we can claim to, but there’s just simply not a close association.
CC: But there is a close association with the longshoremen themselves?
GM: Yes. Yes, I would say longshoremen are, to a point, clannish. Uh-hunh (affirmative).
CC: You worked together. Did you also live together or close by?
GM: (26:17) At that time—of course, it was before everybody had an automobile—why, yes. Longshoremen have lived predominantly in one section of town. Now, they’re scattered. Hey come in from Cleveland, Texas and almost as far as Livingston to drive that distance to come to work in a day—commuters. At that time, you’d find longshoremen pretty well concentrated down in roughly from Wayside up to the end of Harrisburg Boulevard and on down toward the waterfront.
CC: Did a lot of longshoremen have families, or were they mostly single men?
GM: Well, I think the average of any other employed group is probably more of them were married or kept on working and got married as they—I think it would correspond to any typical group in manufacturing or whatever.
CC: Did the longshoremen generally like their jobs? Did they enjoy that work?
GM: (27:34) Probably so. Of course, they don’t make a job you can’t find something to complain about, but ours is a most peculiar trade. You come to the hiring hall and the boss asks you if you want to work. You don’t step up and ask anybody for a job. And if you don’t feel like working, you just don’t show up to hiring hall, so that kind of freedom can make a bum out of you and don’t ask me which it made me, but I have asked myself that question a time or two. But no other occupation has that kind of freedom. I know a lot of guys who liked the independence and the freedom to come and go and have made it their occupation who probably would be doing something else if it held them to the old five-day week and so on, as other occupations do. Of course, there’s another little thing. A man could work overtime if there was work. Of course, back in the former days, a lot of days there wasn’t any work, either—straight time or overtime—but when the rushes did come and you wanted to work overtime, he could almost do that if he was established long enough on the job. I don’t know, it would take quite a while to explain it all, but roughly, that’s it.
CC: What kind of activities did you do in your free time?
GM: Would you repeat that?
CC: What did you do on your free time?
GM: Well, I don’t have any free time since I retired—smart answer. I was always a little bit active in the union movement, not that that takes up a whole lot of time. Quite frankly, I spent more time in the bar rooms than was good for me or good for other people, probably. I read a lot, or did. I don’t have any attention span left anymore. I never read with any kind of discipline. Just give me a book, I read it, whatever it was, and I hardly ever found a book that did not interest me, so I probably read more trash than I did of the classics, but anyway, I spent a lot of time reading and liking that.
CC: You mentioned the union. How did you become involved with the union?
GM: (30:20) Well, I sort of believed in it. Names escape me, but I was asked by the lady on my right about had I formed any political opinions, and I had begun to form them, so when I found out that they had a union, that’s the biggest thing I wanted to do was get in it. And then, after I got in, it didn’t meet all my expectations, so I became a dissident. But I certainly did and do—in fact, I do believe that one day, organized labor in whatever form we’re under or whatever initials or what—must take charge of the production and particularly the distribution of the product.
CC: In what ways were you dissatisfied with the union?
[End of Audio 1]
CC: Side two of the tape. My name is Chris Castaneta, interviewing Mr. Mers, and I just asked in what ways he was dissatisfied with the union in Corpus Christi.
GM: (00:11) Well, I found that we did just about whatever the boss told us to do and just about at the pace he told us to meet, and it struck me right soon that back in Bisbee under those non-union conditions, we had better working rules than we did on the particular waterfront under the union conditions, so sooner or later, you speak to the guy beside you and then you form a clique or whatever and we began to say these things ought to be changed and gradually, over a period of time, we changed a number of them.
CC: And how were you involved in this group of people that you are talking about?
GM: All right. The first thing, to the best of my memory where I didn’t look like a ninny, we had the—I want to say this without using too many words—they had sometimes, they would do what we’d call “split a gang.” A gang goes to work, goes to work in one hatch or one end of one hatch and it stays there until that part of the cargo is completed and they’re sent as a gang to another hatch or sent home. They had a juicy little habit of taking so many men who might not be desperately needed right at that moment and go up here and open another hatch; stuff like that. So in the union hall--anybody can be militant in the union hall—we decided that that old dog shouldn’t hunt any longer, so I think it was the very next morning, we’d go down and sure enough, said, “Here, take four of these men and go up here and start stripping hatches off that hatch.” And I said, “We said in the union meeting last night we wouldn’t do it.” And I heard a great deal about somebody whose ink wasn’t even dry on his application yet running the union and stuff like that, but it worked, and that was when I got my first notices; he’s willing to stand up to the management. And from there on, I don’t know, I never made any conscious effort to be in the lead, so to speak, but I didn’t dodge any, either, I suppose you could say.
CC: Did you hold a certain position in the union?
GM: (02:45) I later became a vice president, then president of the local there and then business agent for a very short spell when I quit that to edit a labor paper that the Central Labor Union had started. And I made a failure of that, and when I came back to the waterfront, I was not greatly into politics again except to represent them on their contract committee during 1935—during the 1935 strike, which is still well-remembered among waterfront workers here.
CC: I think that’s a good time for me to stop.
GM: All right.
EH: Mr. Mers, my name is Eddie Harris, and I’d like to ask you some more specific questions about you being president of the union and authorities. First of all, what was your term as president? How long were you president of the union?
GM: About—yearly, one year terms.
EH: And how many of those terms did you serve?
GM: All right. I was elected ’31. I served the year of ’32, was elected, and in April or thereabouts in ’33, I took the business agent’s office and held that then until then in ’34 when I quit to take this to be editor of the local labor paper. That was about May—April or May of ’34, so I had served, what? About two years as president and some—the vacancy in the business agent’s office came up about mid-year, so I’d served perhaps eight months as the business agent before I quit and went with the labor paper in mid-’34 or early ’34, perhaps.
EH: You mentioned when Chris was speaking with you that you were a little disenchanted with the workings of the union because they were basically doing whatever management told them to do.
EH: And yet, you went on to become president. What motivated you to do this?
GM: (05:24) Well, as I already said, I didn’t consciously place myself out there, but I didn’t turn down anything, either. How did old Ben Franklin say it? “Never seek an office. Never decline an office. Never resign an office.” He was pretty smooth. He wasn’t saying that—oh, well, anyhow, one little incident that I already related, that gave the initial boost. They were simply—we were making working rules in our meetings and the employers were nullifying them on the job, you might say.
EH: What sorts of things did you try to accomplish while you were president of the union?
GM: Well, we had a lot of speed-up, a lot of unseemly language, and this and that and we gradually came out from under, you might say. That was the main thing. A whole lot of driving going on. We got that off our backs in the course of time.
EH: Was it a difficult position to hold?
GM: (06:43) Oh, I didn’t find it so then. I don’t know. No, if you have the backing of the labor force, I wouldn’t say that you could be imperious about it, yet some of them are, aren’t they? But when you have that kind of backing, you don’t have to be a hero on your own.
EH: Tell me a little bit about being editor of the local labor paper and why you decided to do that.
GM: That’s a chapter I’d like to forget. Well, the Central Labor Union had voted to put out a labor paper, and what we—several of us didn’t know—we thought that some groundwork had been laid. I wouldn’t want to say how many merchants, but I started to use the expression, “One after another assured us that they would like to advertise in the labor paper.” The daily—it was just one newspaper town; maybe somebody would start a little weekly like our labor paper was, but that it was a one-newspaper town, and they would just like to throw a little advertising to somebody else just on the equity of it. So we went in with the understanding, but we hadn’t signed them on the line, and it was an election year, so of course, all the politicians came, and we collected most of those advertising fees. But when the smoke had cleared in the general election, we were without income. Our merchants had—I think we did. I think we did make the daily paper, give them a little better deals than what they’d had, but don’t tell me anything about a merchant’s goodwill and good name. He’ll rook you if it’s possible for him to do it, and I say that and perhaps I shouldn’t. I might have to eat some of those words, but I haven’t met him. [Laughter]
EH: Let me follow that thought up a minute. Why do you feel the merchants “rooked” you, as you say? Why do you think they backed out?
GM: Well, if I make you a promise, if I say, “I’ll pay you a quarter to quit asking me questions,” I’m supposed to pull out the quarter and lay it down. Or, “I’ll pay you a quarter next week,” and I’m supposed to meet you next week and pay it, and they sure as hell didn’t meet us next week. You savvy to what I’m talking about?
EH: Yes, I do. Tell me a little bit about what you tried to accomplish while you were editor of the labor paper. Can you give a specific plan in mind there?
GM: (09:45) Oh, yeah, man. I tried to reform the world. Came close to it, too. [Laughter] I got off on a money kick, and may I say now, it is my considerate opinion that until the word “money” is lost to the language, you will have a poverty class and whatever else. But at that time, I got off on money reform and oh, I made a heck of a campaign, not only in the paper, but I would go to the union meetings and try to tell them what ought to be done. Of course, Congressman Wright Patman from Texas here spent a lifetime—a life career trying to tell them what ought to be done and as far as I know, he lost almost every round of every fight. But I tried to work up solidarity between the unions, which is difficult in the American Federation of Labor and CIO is no better. It’s everyone for himself--well, capitalism—and they mimic capitalism, which means that you get out and get everything you can at it don’t matter whose expense, and the unions, of course, have done that—just sold one another out.
But we have improved that. It comes and it goes. It has never been a true solidarity. Of course, anytime there is, why, the unions would operate and say what we would produce and what we would not produce, but that is what I tried to foster as best as I understood it. Let me throw this in: Officership in a trade union is the only occupation that I know of that a person can—that is a job that a man or a woman can take and hold onto and not know the first blooming thing about the requirements of the job. In any other job, you’d learn a little bit. Even if you’re the boss’s nephew, you’d learn a little bit before you are promoted up the line, and the union officer doesn’t have to know thing one, except, “I’ve got more books than you’ve got.” That’s all they’ve got to know.
EH: How long were you editor of the labor paper?
GM: About five months; six. Until the general election in November. May, June, July, August, September—yeah, six months.
EH: And how large was the distribution of the paper?
GM: I beg your pardon?
EH: How large was the distribution of the paper? How many copies did you print each time?
GM: Sir, I have forgotten. It wasn’t a whole lot. We didn’t match The New York Times.
EH: Was it distributed mainly among workers or among the local community?
GM: (13:06) To the workers; supposed to be for the consumption. Of course, it was supposed to be for the public, but principally for the consumption of the union members, yeah.
EH: Let me ask you—you mentioned a while ago the strike of 1935, and as I understand it, there were strikes also in ’34 and ’36 to ’37. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to work as a longshoreman at that time and about those strikes?
GM: Well, when I joined the union in 1929, the only union management contracts in the Gulf of Mexico was Galveston, Texas City, Houston, and Corpus Christi. Brownsville was not yet a port. From Beaumont and Port Arthur, eastward around the tip of Florida and up to North or South Carolina, there wasn’t a single union shop or union management contract, so we were all by ourselves. Of course, it’s no real wonder that the conditions were a little bit on the poor side. It didn’t have the muscle to enforce. But then in ’34, we had managed to organize or reorganize—they had been union, of course, years before—so being a district, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Lake Charles, and Orange—and we brought them under contract with a short strike in 1934. Then in ’35, we attempted to extend that all the way to Pensacola, Florida, and we failed after a long strike, so it was expanding our territory was what got us into it, you might say.
Now, we were offered—in those days, we striked for a nickel an hour raise. Now they go for two or three dollars. My God, I can’t—it boggles my mind. But we were offered our demands for Texas and Texas ports and Lake Charles, and we refused to accept it until they would deal with the East Gulf ports—New Orleans and Mobile and so on; Pensacola. So I’ll say in mid-December, we dropped them, decided that from all the information we had, the strike was going badly. They were getting enough scabs to do all the necessary work and so on, so we dropped them and as my best memory, I think it was the thirteenth of December that we did settle for the ports from Lake Charles to Brownsville.
EH: This is in 1935?
GM: This is ’35. But the strike in the East Gulf was lost, but they did regroup and by a few years later—I’m hazy on it—they came into the ILA and they did successfully bargain for labor contracts.
EH: Give me some specifics on what you were asking for in the contracts. Was it basically higher pay, or were you asking for changes in improvements in working conditions, or something of that nature?
GM: (17:06) Oh, it’s vague after all these years. We asked for a raise from 80 to 85 cents per hour, if I’m not mistaken. At that time, I don’t remember that we asked any gang-size guarantees. It was mostly over expanding the territory. That was what the ruckus was all about.
EH: As I understand it, Texas Rangers were set in to protect the strike breakers—scabs, as you call them.
GM: They were sent into Corpus Christi and it worked, believe me. Not having been reared in Texas, I didn’t have that—what did you say? There’s a word that won’t come to me. The awe—I didn’t stand in awe of the Rangers like a good Texas boy did and does, I guess, but I saw that happen. We had practically put the police department on notice. How far they would go and where their stopping point was, and the Rangers came in and I saw a bunch of men turn from a great militancy to a bunch of scaredy-cats, you might say. And of course, I found out later the Rangers did and I suppose do have an enormous power. They can interpret the law at their own convenience, their own will, and get by with it. So yeah, we had Rangers stayed, at least a couple, and up to as many as five stayed in Corpus Christi for the duration of that strike. They didn’t go into the other ports or not in any numbers except in Orange, Texas, where a carload of scabs on the way to work got shot into—shot up pretty badly—and Governor Allred ordered a number of Rangers in there. That was in Orange. But as far as the best of my memory goes, they might be in and out, but they didn’t station them as they did in Corpus Christi.
EH: Were there any sorts of clashes or anything between longshoremen and Rangers at the time?
GM: (19:39) We didn’t clash with the Rangers, that’s for sure. As I say, they put the fear of God, as the expression goes, in the strikers. Of course, we did things behind their backs, cursed them.
EH: What was the general outcome of the strikes then, after the Rangers were sent in? Did you accomplish what you wanted?
GM: Well, of course the whole situation caused the strike to drag a long time, that it was a long strike. A lot of them say 72 days. Actually, we had a ten-day boycott of ships from the East Gulf to start with and make it actually just 62 days we were technically on strike. Then we had an agreement with the North Atlantic, with the international president that any ships sailing from the Gulf with hot cargo—with scab-loaded cargo—and into any North Atlantic port would not be touched. Well, he kept threatening and threatening and threatening the employers with that boycott, but he never did put it on until perhaps the eighth of December or something like that, so we were very, very much disappointed and unhappy with that situation. So it made for a long strike. Times were hard—very hard—and scabs were not that hard to recruit,and in Corpus, they recruited them downtown at one of the office buildings and then brought them out under Ranger escort to the docks and there kept them—well, you might as well say in captivity, because the Ranger would make them a little speech. We sent in one or two of our people to see what kind of dope they could pick up, and the Rangers would escort, say, 20 of them in, and then they made them a speech. So now here you are, you asked for this job, and they were foul-mouthed rascals, too. I won’t say it, what they said or what I heard they said, but they said, “You asked for it. Here you are, and you’re damned well going to stay until the company releases you. The longshoremen are out there waiting to break your damned bones and we will not protect you on the way out.” So it was pretty effective. [Laughter] They had a lot of—I will say this: A couple of days after the strike was over, walking down the docks to work, walked through the shed where these scabs had been quartered, and they hadn’t yet got it all cleaned up—a terrible stench there—but the conditions they lived under must have been inhuman. But they asked for it, like the Rangers said.
EH: Mr. Mers, I’d love to ask you some more questions, but unfortunately, my time is up, so I’m going to turn it over to somebody else.
KH: Mr. Mers, my name is Kat Halworth(??) and I’d like to talk to you some about your Army life. It probably might be interesting.
GM: I’d really like to leave that out. [Laughter]
KH: What year did you go into the Army? Did you volunteer or were you drafted?
GM: I was drafted in late March, again, of 1941, in the peacetime draft. Incidentally, at that time, I was trying to organize a Teamsters Local down in Corpus, and I accused the employment officer—the officer in charge of employment down on the naval base where they were operating pretty much a union schedule, didn’t want any disruptions in their defense program—I accused him of maneuvering so they picked my pea out of that pod early, but I’m sure it just happened that way. But I was in for—somewhat in the peacetime project.
KH: At that time, did you do your basic training in Corpus?
GM: (24:08) At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Dodd Field.
KH: At this time, were you still single?
GM: Oh, I was between marriages. I was single. I had all the credentials for the draft. I had been divorced by that time, I’m sorry to say.
KH: Oh. Where did you go after you finished your basic training at Fort Sam Houston?
GM: I was in a cavalry that was sent to an MP company in Brownwood, Camp Bowie. We were known as 208th Military Police Company. I served for the 8th Corps, if that makes any sense to anybody.
KH: How did you feel about Army life as compared to being a union longshoreman and president?
GM: (25:04) Oh, I hated it. I always had this specter haunting me that if I had any real guts. As much as I hated war, I’d have been a conscientious objector, so lack of principle or something—lack of—well, I said the word “guts.” I went and answered the draft and I hated—I made it pretty good in Army life as far as that goes. What always did bug me, though, was that the man just above you had the power of God over you, and that—I don’t know if that’s changed any now, but I doubt it. For example, my CO War Department directive that seemed to my way of reasoning made sense, and to see some officer just wipe it out and you do exactly the opposite, and you don’t go complaining, either, I don’t think.
KH: How many years did you stay in the Army?
GM: I got out in December—I guess November, technically, of 1945. Almost five years.
KH: What rank did you obtain while you were there?
GM: Well, I got overseas and I deserted and came back to OCS, Officer Candidate School, and I got—I was a shave tail, second Louie. When I got out, I’d been commissioned in January of ’45 and got out, separation of service, in November.
KH: Where were you stationed overseas?
GM: New Caledonia, where the natives are kicking up a big ruckus now, at Noumea, the port there, and then I went on to Bougainville and that was the extent of it. I know this sounds kind of phony, but had I to do it over again, I would not have put in for that OCS. I’d have stayed there and more than likely gone on to Japan, Philippines or somewhere, but I didn’t do it. I came back stateside.
KH: While you were there, did you have a chance to compare longshoreman type of living as compared to Corpus?
GM: (27:40) Yes, ma’am. When I got in New Caledonia, we were given the job of guarding the docks and I was by then a staff sergeant. I was platoon sergeant in the MPs, so first—I hadn’t been there but a few shifts til I’m face-to-face with an old boy I used to longshore with in Corpus Christi, and he said, “What in the hell are you doing with that damned pistol on your hip?” I said, “Well-.” [Laughter] So through his maneuvering and a couple of others, they had these civilians were working under some program, Army—it won’t come to mind right at the moment, but they were civilians employed by the Army Transportation Corps and they maneuvered me then a transfer into the dock department and I then acted as what in civilian life would be a walking foreman’s kind of capacity. And that’s what I went to Bougainville as also, although we stevedored on the beach.
KH: What were conditions like as far as living quarters or entertainment?
GM: Well, the living quarters were perimetal tents, which is all you need in that climate. We floored them. We did all that. Of course, back stateside, they had more permanent structures. Anyway, more regular construction. There, as I say, we were in the perimetal tents overseas, and I didn’t find the living conditions bad. Now, how did you spend your time? That was one of the problems. There wasn’t much to do but read. That’s about all you could do.
KH: Would you consider your Army life an asset to your return to the States?
GM: I’m sorry, but I hated the Army almost every minute I was in it. I just didn’t conform to that life in a way, and yet, I got along well. It’s hard to say. There was always this thing that it’s not right for you and me to try to murder one another and it’s not right for me to try to murder somebody halfway around the world, either. So that was always there, but I don’t know.
KH: Okay, Mr. Mers. That’s about all I have to ask you and I’ll turn it over to someone else.
[Audio 2 end]
F: So what did you do after leaving the Army?
GM: (00:27) Well, I went back to Corpus Christi briefly and then I came here to Houston and went to work here on the Houston waterfront in January of ’46, and I stayed here until late 1948, then went back to Corpus Christi for some years. But I worked as a longshoreman.
F: Okay. How would you compare the docks here at Houston to Corpus Christi?
GM: (00:53) Oh, very much the same, if you mean—I’m thinking working conditions.
F: Just conditions and what the kind of—what did you load, the same?
GM: Very much the same. Yeah, certain local variations, but within a pattern. The same.
F: Okay. And how had conditions changed when you left, 1941, and then by the time you came back in ’48? Union conditions and-?
GM: Well, people were a little lazier after the war than they were before. [Laughter] The port of Houston began to have a kind of a boom. We had lots of new men coming in for quite some while there and those less of the harsh language that I think I mentioned to another interviewer a while ago, just a little less rambunctious all the way around.
F: Had the technology changed and affected the trade?
GM: It was beginning to. The finger lift—or it might be called the fork truck—was being introduced, and that made a whole lot of difference. You didn’t drag your flatbed truck across the dock anymore nor either use the two-wheel truck as much, although we still did for cotton. It’s only been in more recent years that they got what they call “the squeezer,” a thing they’ve attached to the finger lift that brings--transport the bales. We still truck the cotton by hand and a whole lot of the other for quite some few years.
F: How did the union react to this mechanization? Did it accept it?
GM: For the most part, the fellows were glad to see it because it made it easier on the back. It’s a hard question to say. When the first finger lift came into the port of Corpus Christi-- only one—and they only had one guy they would allow to get on it and run it, I said then there’s a clause in the contract that says any new methods of work introduced on both sides shall meet and agree on it. I demanded a meeting and I was laughed at, and I still think that I was right. But anyhow, as the machinery could be introduced, it was, of course, and we have not stood in the way of it except for asking for guaranteed gang sizes in some instances. Now, on the west coast, it’s my understanding they give the employer carte blanche, you might say, to cut out any labor anywhere he could with the proviso that the job should not become onerous. But then, what’s onerous? I’m up here in the dock office looking down and it doesn’t look onerous to me. I’m down there with my back bent without time to look up, and I think it’s onerous. You think I’d make a good labor agitator?
GM: Thank you.
F: So why did you join IWW? Explain the method program?
GM: (04:37) Oh. I’m embarrassed. You hit on a spot. From the time that I first learned anything about the IWW, I was for it in principle, but I felt that the way they were looking at things might be a little clumsy. I guess I was pretty much taken. I thought I’d get a political solution and I’m sorry; I don’t say this to offend anybody, just a matter of my opinion—that after I looked for a period of years at the political solution they had come to in specifically Russia, I was well disappointed with what we’d been taught to call—or I had—a political solution. So in 1947--I waited until I was already an old man—and I finally said, “I need to belong to something that I can believe in and I can believe in it in principle,” and I don’t say I’ve done a whole lot to help it, but I’ve remained. So that’s just a matter of clearing my conscience, if you please. It was something I could believe in and something I do believe in, and we’re at a very low point in history as far as radical movements go right now in my best judgment, but something might still come of it one day. It takes a long time for the wheels of history to get spun.
F: Can you explain something about the organization and its goals towards our education?
GM: Yes. The IWW believes that capitalism must be destroyed or returned, that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common and they foresee industrial democracy is a valid expression, I think. An industrial democracy where the people who create the product will determine what happens. Of course, it goes more than that. I think in any society that comes out and says that we’ll do away—we’ll have a class of society, I think first, you’ve got to plan, and I don’t mean like a trilateral commission, either, but you have to plan on what does everybody need? What does it take to make everybody comfortable? And then you see if you have the machinery to do that. We certainly would to make a contrast—certainly would stop the guy from dreaming up some Boob McNutt gadget that we can make—draw a pretty picture of, put out in a fancy brochure, and sell to the public that hasn’t been ever needed by God, man, or any animal.
F: What do you see the effect of high technology on the union movement?
GM: (07:57) I think we’re going to create—well, it has hit the union movement hard. I believe they show figures of AFL-CIO to be the lowest since the wars; 1945 or thereabouts was the high point, within a year or two after maybe ’46 or ’47. There was the high point, and now we’re at a very low point and I haven’t kept up. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to plead ignorance, but it is certainly, I believe, the lowest point since that time, and I’m not sure what the figures show, but they are pretty sad from the standpoint of a union backer. And I look for that more and more. Of course, they’re all telling us that the fellow who’s displaced from International Harvester can get a job buttering sandwiches in McDonald’s, but it isn’t necessarily so.
I look for us to have a terribly large unemployed class. The difference between the Depression that those of my age weathered and what’s going to happen is that back then, most people had a job and all of the sudden got laid off. We’re running into a situation now where millions of people have never had a productive job in their lifetime; young guys and girls, 18 to 26 or something. And more and more of that’s going to happen. Now, what provisions they’re going to make as many people have said, the machine is not going to consume the product, so who are you going to sell it to? And I’m sure there are smart people on the opposite side—believe me, totally different from what I do—who are putting their minds to some kind of a distribution that’s going to keep the lumpenproletariat from revolt. But I see it getting into a very crucial, shall I say, situation in not too many years because the robotization has just now scratched the surface. Wait til it digs deep.
F: I want to go back just a minute to ’47. What was the reaction once you joined the IWW and the advent of the Cold War in the early ‘50s? How did that affect-?
GM: (11:02) Oh. All right. The sharpest memory I have is of the McCarthy years, the so-called McCarthy Era. He wasn’t by himself, believe me. There was McCarron out in Nevada and I’m not good at names, but he merely took a thing that was already in motion and kind of made it his. Of course, he had a different delivery than anybody else, pulling the sheet out and saying, “I have here the names,” and nobody has ever seen that sheet yet but Senator McCarthy. But it was scary. I think it was more scary in the intellectual community than it was for us guys down working because many and many a teacher and what else lost jobs. I don’t know what they did to survive, but it had to be—you had to be living, I’m sure—we didn’t feel it so much, and they never did--I think I would know—they never did attack the IWW. Of course, the IWW was attacked back in the 1920s, brutally, but McCarthy—I think he deliberately laid it on the intellectuals more than others. Politicians and scholars and teachers. It was a scary time for them.
F: All right. I’ll just say if there’s any last comments that you would like to make, sort of rounding out or if there’s something you would like to comment on? Last words of wisdom?
GM: In sticking around—staying around those years—in 1947 was the passage of the so-called Taft-Hartley Act, which was an amendment to the old Wagner Act of 1935, and there was a whole lot of talk in organized labor about a general strike, and I’ll tell you, I think down here along the waterfront among the workers I was closest to, I believe they would have answered a call. Of course, there you go. You’re challenging Constitutional government, and what’s that? Revolution of a type. Got to be. And William Green, who was then President of the American Federation of Labor, he made several speeches in which he threatened to pull out labor in a general strike. But when the President Truman incidentally vetoed the bill and it was passed over his veto—when that happened, Green then reversed himself and said, “We are law-abiding. We will organize politically.” So we got disorganized economically—I don’t know—and we had never shown any muscles politically. You’ve got to show it to me. I haven’t seen it.
F: (14:25) Okay. I think that’s it then. I appreciate this conversation.
GM: Thank you for listening to me.