No Vote, No Work: The First American Labor Strike Was in 1619!

Workers in America have a long history of standing up for themselves: The first labor strike was by Jamestown artisans in 1619. 

The corporate hierarchy has long tried to diminish worker activism in the U.S. by insisting that the labor strike and other workplace agitations have never had broad support or impact because they are fundamentally un-American. The corporatists cluck that from the get-go America’s cultural zeitgeist has been grounded in veneration of individualism, appreciation for the financial blessings of the corporate order and rejection of collectivism.

In a word: Hogwash! And horsefeathers! (Okay, two words, just for emphasis). These self-serving fictionalizers seem unaware of a momentous labor event at America’s very start: The Jamestown artisans strike of 1619. Or they are aware, but don’t want you to be. Thus — shhhh — you won’t find it mentioned in college textbooks or TV documentaries, nor even on any of the many markers at the Jamestown living history museum. So, I invite you to take a quick trip with me, back some 400 years to America’s past, to witness this bold work stoppage organized in the very first permanent English settlement in North America.

We start in 1606, when King James I awarded a royal charter to a private British corporation to possess the land and exploit the resources along a vast swath of coast in the “New World” (which, of course, was the old world to thousands of Powhatan people and other Native Americans). Thus, in 1607, the Virginia Company of London sent 120 men on three ships to establish the Jamestown settlement — not as a civil society, but as a for-profit commodity extraction and export operation.

Things went horribly awry in a hurry, threatening the imminent collapse of the business venture. It turns out that too many of the settlers were British gentlemen seeking “adventure” and had no practical skills and even less willingness to do the labor.

Luckily, there was Poland.

Captain John Smith, the English mercenary who wrangled a leadership role in the new settlement, knew that skilled craftsmen could be, as a contemporary writer reported, “fetched … for small wages” to work as free men in the colony and so escape near-slavery in Poland. In 1608 and 1609, Smith recruited 11 of these artisans, skilled in glass blowing, pitch and tar making, turpentine distillation, soap making, timbering, well-digging and shipbuilding. The Poles saved the Virginia Company’s venture. The necessities they made and profits from exporting them stabilized the Jamestown economy.

By 1619, the settlement had grown to a few hundred colonists, and the corporation and crown allowed them to form a lawmaking assembly of “freely elected” representatives. The resulting Virginia House of Burgesses was the first elected government in British America. Democracy! Well … sort of.

To vote or to be elected, you had to be (1) a landowner, (2) male, and (3) an Englishman. The first and third conditions disqualified the Poles. After all, skilled as they were, they were still just landless foreigners, presumed to have no ability or interest in the higher art of governance. One can only imagine then, the open-mouthed astonishment of the British gentlemen when they heard a sharp outcry from these laborers that amounted to: “No vote, no work!”

It was no idle threat. While details are scarce, historic records of the Virginia Company confirm that the artisans did indeed go on strike — and the bigwigs in London and Jamestown realized they were in a pinch. The owners’ lust for profits quickly overcame their ideological disdain for worker suffrage. On July 21, 1619, the corporation declared the Poles to be Englishmen for purposes of voting, officially decreeing them “enfranchised, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever.”

Jim Hightower