A Serf’s Journal

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An accident with a propeller like this could be fatal. Pic: Wanagi49/Wikipedia

This short book is the important story of the 2001 week-long wildcat strike at JeffBoat, at one of the US’s oldest shipyards on the Ohio River in Indiana. Terry Tapp, who worked there during this time, describes the build up to the unofficial strike and the strike itself. You can get some sense of the place and barge production from the glossy promotional video on the company website.

The book is a record of a harsh working environment, foremen prepared to push workers to breaking point and beyond, the resistance that this provokes, the organisation of this resistance, the betrayal of the Teamsters union and the strike.

Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers”. In other words the relentless pursuit of profit by the bosses and the impact that it has, can push workers to fight back. A Serf's Journal describes this process very well. On any kind of construction site, accidents can mean death. As anyone who has ever attended a Workers Memorial Day event will attest, these tragic, needless deaths sharpen the mind to questions of union organisation.

Tapp describes the horror of deaths at JeffBoat, and how it engendered fear that you could be next: “The welding cable lassoed his left ankle and Coby swung upside-down like a pendulum halfway down the side of a barge. His hardhat lay on the concrete below and Coby’s brain dangled from the side of his head.”

Searing heat in summer and icy temperatures in winter are not only uncomfortable but dangerous. Tapp tracks the brutal impact on peoples’ working lives. One thing that draws these workers together in the build up to the strike is the development of resistance to welding in rain and lightning for fear of electrocution.

As confidence grows a group of workers walk off a barge in the rain and confront a nasty foreman by whistling the theme to Sesame Street as they walk away to the breakroom. These circumstances are not enough on their own to produce the coming wildcat strike “spontaneously”. Tapp is part of a group of workers on the site who begin to organise when their Teamsters’ union fails to give them the support they need. They produce a rank and file newsletter and smuggle it onto the site in their clothes. It is hugely popular.

When workers start to get a sense of their potential power they can collectively move forward in new ways, even taking their leaders by surprise. Following a big walk-off in the rain Tapp says, “I leaned back and pondered this development, for I hadn’t seen it coming though I suppose I should have. For a moment we seemed to have caved in, but a morning had shown us even stronger than I believed.”

The JeffBoat workers attempt to replace their union leadership, who are in bed with the company. They win the ballot but the “rank and file” victory is retracted due to a “discrepancy”! The workers go on to reject their paltry pay offer. Under the Teamsters rules this automatically triggers a strike but the union tells the workers that they will not be going out, owing to a “clerical error”.

Tapp describes the joy of taking the brave step of striking without the union’s backing as “they headed to the shipyard and there, on the mile and an eighth of street north of the shipyard, they brought out lawn chairs and coolers and tables and posted signs along the fencing. We were ready to do anything but crawl back through those gates.”

Solidarity appears almost as if from nowhere with complete strangers bringing food to the picket line. The strike ends in a victory, the company unable to impose the new contract they want. Tapp chooses to end the story of the strike as they return to work. There is then an epilogue with wider analysis. He says that the atmosphere after the strike and its victory was fantastic, that a new sense of solidarity had developed, both in terms of individuals looking out for each other and in terms of union organisation. He describes how the new networks of solidarity, developed in the strike, start to be used to support another dispute by plumbers.

He goes on to discuss a political aspect which upsets the potential of this moment — the 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks and the US ruling class’s response stops this process dead.

He says that organising against an American company almost came to be seen as an act of terrorism in and of itself. Look back at editions of Socialist Review during that period and you will see a discussion of the same process. The great hope of the anti-capitalist movement was halted as focus shifted toward preventing war. In Britain, similar arguments were used to stop a national strike by firefighters.

The story of this strike is part of that picture. It’s not difficult to imagine a situation where, had things been different, JeffBoat could have been part of the story of a resurgent working class fightback in the belly of the beast. Overall Tapp appears to draw some pessimistic conclusions which veer toward an idea that exploitation is overwhelming and the ideological hold of capitalism too strong.

A better conclusion would be to strongly advocate the necessity of political and industrial organisation that can both draw the lessons of disputes like this and confront the political issues of the day. These lessons for our side are more important now than ever.