The Class Struggle with Tommy and Gina

Bon Jovi’s hit “Livin’ on a Prayer” is an anthem about working class survival. But it also contains a deeper message about class struggle.

Eric Dirnbach
9 min readMar 23, 2023

The 1986 Bon Jovi hit song Livin’ on a Prayer from their Slippery When Wet album was a favorite of mine growing up. You probably hear it several times a year in stores, cafes, and bars, from its recognizable talk box “oowa oowa ooh ooh oowa” intro, to the soaring chorus we all sing. If it’s been a while, see the official video and a great live Bon Jovi — Rihanna performance from 2010 in Madrid!

I still love the song, and here’s me singing it (poorly) at live-band karaoke five years ago.

Livin’ on a Prayer is often seen as a working class anthem about the struggles of Tommy and Gina, the main characters. But I have often thought that the song told a deeper story about class struggle in late 20th century America. When I heard it again recently, I decided to take a deep dive into the song, and we’ll have some fun with it too. Let’s look at the lyrics.

The Story of Tommy and Gina

Once upon a time not so long ago

Tommy used to work on the docks, union’s been on strike
He’s down on his luck, it’s tough, so tough

The song opens by introducing Tommy as a union dockworker, presumably in northern New Jersey where Bon Jovi is based. Tommy likely worked at the Port of Newark docks, which has had union workers with the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) since the early 20th century. From the lyrics, it seems that Tommy is either on strike or has quit the job during the strike. What’s absolutely clear is that Tommy is not a scab.

In fact Jon Bon Jovi has been asked about this, and his interpretation is that Tommy lost his job in an industry that left town. This scenario references a somewhat familiar scene of the 1980s, with labor disputes and factories shutting down and moving overseas. But the language “union’s been on strike” indicates an ongoing labor dispute, and perhaps a long one. With some creative reinterpretation, I think it’s more likely that Tommy is still on strike. He would be getting strike pay, but that’s only a fraction of his usual wages, and it’s tough.

Could this song be referring to a real strike? The ILA struck the east coast ports multiple times over the 20th century. The most likely inspiration would be the 44-day strike in 1977, which was “not so long ago” when the song came out, and may have loomed large in the memory of Jon Bon Jovi, who was 15 years old then. His home town of Sayreville, about 25 miles south of the Newark port, probably had longshoremen living there. And in a great coincidence that I love, the ILA again went on strike in October 1986, when Livin’ on a Prayer was released.

Now let’s turn to Gina.

Gina works the diner all day, working for her man
She brings home her pay, for love, for love

Gina is working a diner job to support herself and Tommy, since he has been out of work during the strike. This inverts the traditional gender dynamic, with Gina as the provider who “brings home her pay, for love.” This is also part of a long historical tradition of partners supporting strikers, with wives and “Women’s Auxiliaries” organizing fundraisers and strike support events.

Notably, song co-writer Desmond Child had a girlfriend who worked at a diner called Once Upon a Stove, so let’s call it that. We can imagine that the diner is near the port where the strike is happening, just off the Jersey Turnpike, and there’s a “We Support the ILA” sign in the window. It’s probably a place the strikers like to hang out. They get coffee and a donut there before their picket shifts. They stop by after late hours on the picket line to have dinner and a beer on the way home, and to warm up since the 1977 strike was in October and November. You can smell the sea air in the parking lot and spot seagulls overhead. And no scabs are allowed.

She says, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love
We’ll give it a shot

Here Gina reassures Tommy in this difficult time, and the most important thing is that they have each other. But perhaps Gina is teaching a larger lesson. The “We’ve got each other and that’s a lot, for love” could refer to the necessary solidarity, even comradely love, that’s needed for workers to “hold on to what we’ve got.” In the 1986 strike, A. C. Johnson, a member of ILA Local 1233 in Newark, stated, “‘We’re just trying to protect what we got…They want to take back what they once gave us and we can’t stand for that…”

It may be surprising that Gina feels that “it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not,” but this nihilistic philosophy is no doubt born of a lifetime of working class family struggle, with few wins and many losses. It could also mean that while individuals may struggle and fail, the working class will “give it a shot” and fight on.

Now we turn to the famous chorus.

Woah, we’re halfway there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer

This chorus refers to Tommy and Gina’s personal struggle for survival, and their attempts to hold on to their faith amidst difficulties. But it also invokes the workers’ struggles on the docks. “Halfway there” could mean that the strike is likely to win, if the workers clasp hands (“take my hand”) in solidarity, and have faith in the struggle. To strike in the hopes of winning against the power of capital is perhaps “livin’ on a prayer.”

The next verse brings the story back to Tommy.

Tommy’s got his six-string in hock
Now he’s holding in what he used to make it talk
So tough, it’s tough

Tommy had to pawn his guitar during the strike because he and Gina were running out of money. Without the guitar he finds it difficult to express himself. He is “holding in” his exhaustion and rage at his boss and capitalism. It’s a shame, because with that guitar Tommy could play some epic strike songs on the picket line. It’s so tough.

Back to Gina.

Gina dreams of running away
When she cries in the night, Tommy whispers
Baby, it’s okay, someday

Gina has had it, and who can blame her. Her job is underpaid and unfulfilling, and she longs to escape. A lifetime of anxiety and restlessness builds up until “she cries in the night.” Tommy shows his tender side and comforts her that the strike will soon be over, and that maybe they can leave “someday,” probably when they save up enough money after he goes back to work. Folks often want to escape New Jersey, as with Bruce Springsteen’s “We gotta get out while we’re young” in Born to Run, but Jersey is a hard place to leave.

We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love
We’ll give it a shot

Woah, we’re half way there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Livin’ on a prayer

This repeats the earlier lines, adding the last “Livin’ on a prayer” to take us into Richie Sambora’s guitar solo, which still kicks ass. And before the final choruses, two significant lines appear in the bridge.

Oh, we’ve got to hold on, ready or not
You live for the fight when it’s all that you’ve got

Again this can refer to the personal relationship between Tommy and Gina, that “they’ve got to hold on” and continue to work together to get ahead. And certainly the union has to hold on during the strike. But the second line is fascinating in the context of the union struggle. The longshoremen are militant, take-no-shit union guys. Early morning shifts, long hours on the docks in all weather, physical labor, and supervisors constantly on their ass have produced a workforce that is willing to fight the boss. In fact they “live for the fight.” And because the job eventually becomes routine and alienating, the fight is “all that you’ve got.” Labor’s struggle within capitalism never ends, and we fight on to create the better world we want.

The longshore workers are a great example of this long fight. Through their struggle, they transformed their industry from one of dangerous, precarious, sweatshop labor at the beginning of the 20th century to safer, highly paid jobs with health and retirement benefits today. And along the way they negotiated through the major port transition to cargo containers, which dramatically changed longshore work. The ILA Master Contract, which covers the east coast and gulf coast ports, has current top wages of $38.00/hour. And the more militant and politically progressive west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has top wages in its Pacific Coast contract, as of last year of $46.23/hour.

The final chorus has a key change and repeats three times to bring the story to a powerful and satisfying end. You are definitely singing at the top of your lungs at this point.

Woah, we’re halfway there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer

What ever happened to Tommy and Gina? Well true Bon Jovi fans know that we hear about them again in the 2000 song It’s My Life.

Yeah, this is for the ones who stood their ground
For Tommy and Gina, who never backed down

I hope Tommy ended up back on the docks after that strike and kept his union job for a long time. And hopefully Gina no longer cries in the night and has found happiness, even in New Jersey.

Is This Really a Class Struggle Song?

I have taken some creative license here, perhaps veering into Bon Jovi fan fiction. I’m also well aware that this is a 2,000 word essay about a 296 word song. Livin’ on a Prayer is clearly about the daily struggles of a working class couple fallen on hard times and trying to make ends meet. But I like to see this song as intertwined with the history of a major labor conflict on the docks, and the way the tough fight for better working conditions can impact union workers and their partners in an era of increasing working class precarity.

The timing of the song is also interesting. It appeared in the Reagan era of the 1980s during the period of neoliberal ascendancy and union decline in the U.S. At the time of the dock strike in 1977, U.S. union membership was near its 1979 peak of 21 million workers, or 24% of the workforce. The number of strikes was routinely over 5,000 per year throughout the 1970s, involving millions of workers.

But ever since Reagan busted the 1981 PATCO strike, unions have really been on the defensive. Union membership has declined to about 14 million workers, only 10% of the workforce today. Studies show that wages for all workers would be higher if the union membership rate was at 1970s levels. This makes the story in Livin’ on a Prayer all the more relevant today, vividly describing the increasing insecurity of working class families with continuing union decline.

Though Bon Jovi may not have intended to explicitly foreground class struggle issues in this song, the union strike at the beginning sets a clear context. Formally, it may just be a device to set the stage for the difficulties of the central couple. But starting with a strike, rather than an individual firing or workplace layoff is a critical choice. The societal labor context and chronic labor conflict of that era is a meaningful background for the personal struggles of Tommy and Gina.

I have fun analyzing songs and finding the perhaps hidden radical content in them. Livin’ on a Prayer is a great song to study and fun to sing. Hopefully you’ll hear it a little differently now. I’d love to hear it on a strike picket line.



Eric Dirnbach

Labor Movement Researcher, Activist, Campaigner, Organizer, Educator, Writer & Socialist, based in New York City. @EricDirnbach