Spirit of common struggle

Terry Tapp A serf’s journal Zero Books, 2017, pp144, £9.99

Subtitled “The story of the United States’ longest wildcat strike”, A serf’s journal depicts the months leading up to, as well as the undertaking of, the strike at JeffBoat in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 2001, through the eyes of welder Terry Tapp.

Setting the scene with his initial hiring at the company and going through his life at work, he details how the continued grind and dehumanisation of the JeffBoat workforce leads to a confrontation with both the company and their union, which, rather than fighting for the workers’ interests, largely acts as a middle manager, enforcing the company’s rules except when forced otherwise. At the same time, he intersperses this narrative with vignettes of the JeffBoat workers attempting to maintain some level of humanity and control over their lives, both on and off the job. While formally united in the sense that both stories take place in the context of the JeffBoat shipyard, they do not fully come together until the shipyard workers reject the pittance contract they were offered and are abandoned by their union in the strike that is supposed to follow, forcing them to either knuckle under or take the strike into their own hands. It is a story of hard, dangerous work, the machinations of trade union misleadership, and the ordinary heroics that people are able to undertake when pushed to the limit of their own lives, yet still able to reach out and support others, and makes for inspiring reading.

In some ways, though, the epilogue to the book - written a decade after the strike - is almost as important as the description of the events that came before. Tapp writes of a new spirit of togetherness felt by the workers at JeffBoat in the initial months after the strike, directly stemming from the workers on the site having had to organise not only the picket lines, but also the family and community support that was needed for their action to succeed, especially since they were getting no help from their union. But because of the success of the strikers (in that they got the union to back down on forcing through the contract and were able to return to work with no retaliation), that spirit among the workers survived, and even spread. Indeed, as Tapp writes, “[the] JeffBoat wildcat strike of 2001… inspired a number of actions regionally, nationally and internationally”.

While these actions were largely un- or under-reported in mainstream media, enthusiastic coverage on the relatively new and alternative venue of the internet meant that the strikers “received many emails from people who had heard of what we did and felt stronger about making positive change in their workplaces”. And, when a strike in a nearby city was called that September, JeffBoat workers and their supporters started organising people and resources to support it, so it could be at least as successful as the JeffBoat workers felt theirs was.

Then September 11 happened. In the shock and disorientation that followed, the company struck back against the JeffBoat workers - not through disciplinary action, but through charts, graphs and other propaganda of statistics. Despite having been defeated in its attempt to force though a contract, and theoretically then agreeing that a new one be drafted, the company’s representatives explained that, due to the economic circumstances they found themselves in, it was unable to share out the prosperity it had achieved at all, meaning that striking would be ineffective and pointless.

Furthermore, now that the United States had been attacked, and was (so it was said) under constant threat, striking would not only be pointless, but actively harmful to the well-being of the nation. To strike would be “a form of terrorism ... aiding America’s enemies” in its assault on the nation. While by and large the JeffBoat workers were not fooled by the spiel of “economic terrorism”, it did serve to disrupt the sense of collective power that had been built up over the strike and sustained since. And over the following few years, many workers simply drifted away to other jobs.


Could things have happened differently? Tapp reckons so; he notes that, while they were able to successfully strike for a marginally better contract a year later with some tepid union support, he thinks that, had “those events of September” not taken place, then the energy built up by the wildcat strike would not have been so thoroughly undercut, and any future strikes would have been able to draw from those lessons to force a different outcome. This could easily have been so, but more should be added.

The last lines of A serf’s journal are of one of Tapp’s co-workers saying to him: “We won. What are we going to do now?” It is an important question, which starts to get at the limits of what is achievable within a single action or workplace. On the one hand, when the JeffBoat workers went out on strike, they started to circumvent the limits placed upon them by lack of union support through pooling their own money in strike funds, and organising food and care for both the strikers and their families. Combined with reaching out for (and getting) broader community support, this was the main reason why the strike was able to last as long as it did and end in what the workers felt was a victory. And, as noted above, the JeffBoat workers were starting to spread those lessons to help out strikers in nearby workplaces. But the fact that the company was able to counterattack so effectively, thereby cutting the thread of the lessons learned at JeffBoat (except through long-after-the-fact retellings like this book), points to the lack of an organisation that could absorb those lessons for the long term.

For communists, this organisation - at least in its highest form - would be the Communist Party, which can provide a centralisation of the experiences of the working class in all its forms in order to struggle more effectively for workers’ immediate interests, as well as develop a programme which can politically arm the working class to rule society and offer practical (if partial) experience in that rulership.

But such a party did not exist in the United States during the strike; indeed, it has not existed in a meaningful form in over half a century due to a concerted effort on the part of rightwing labour bureaucrats and the capitalist state to purge the labour movement of socialists, communists and other radicals. Larger and smaller groups attempt to carry on some of the tasks that such a party would need to undertake, but their relative detachment from the workers’ movement as a whole has meant that their successes would be limited, and that even these limited successes would be interpreted through the sectarian blinders of most of these organisations primarily as the success of their particular sect, rather than of the workers’ movement as a whole. Communist politics still exist in the US, but largely do so on the fringes of that movement rather than as an all-pervasive force.

Fortunately, however, the struggle to defend and advance immediate conditions still continues, as A serf’s journal wonderfully illustrates. For that, the book serves to hearten partisans of working class power and communism that the current broad period of defeat and reaction is not absolute, and can be turned around. For a short period of time, and in its own small way, the JeffBoat strike did just that.