HIGHTOWER: No vote, no work | Opinion
The corporate hierarchy has long tried to diminish union activism in the United States by insisting that strikes and other workplace unrest have never had broad support or impact because they are fundamentally anti-American. Corporatists chuckle that from the start, the American cultural spirit was based on reverence for individualism, appreciation of the financial blessings of the corporate order, and rejection of collectivism.
In short: rubbish! And horse feathers! (Okay, two words, just for emphasis). These selfish novelists seem to ignore a momentous working-class event in America’s very early days: the Jamestown Craftsmen’s Strike of 1619. Or they know it, but don’t want you to be. So – shhh – you won’t find it mentioned in textbooks or TV documentaries, or even on any of the many markers at the Jamestown Living History Museum. So, I invite you to take a little trip with me, some 400 years back in America’s past, to witness this daring work stoppage organized in the very first permanent English establishment in North America.
We start in 1606, when King James I granted a royal charter to a private British company to own the land and exploit the resources along a vast strip of coast in the “New World” (which, of course, was the ancient world for thousands of of the Powhatan people and other Native Americans). So, in 1607, the Virginia Company of London sent 120 men on three ships to establish the colony of Jamestown – not as a civil society, but as an operation to extract and export commodities to profit.
Things turned terribly wrong in a hurry, threatening the imminent collapse of the business enterprise. As it turns out, too many settlers were British gentlemen looking for “adventure” and had no practical skills let alone the will to get the job done.
Fortunately, there was Poland.
Captain John Smith, the English mercenary who played a leading role in the new colony, knew that skilled craftsmen could be, as one contemporary writer reported, “wanted … to escape virtual slavery in Poland.” In 1608 and 1609 Smith recruited 11 such craftsmen, skilled in glassblowing, pitch and tar making, turpentine distillation, soap making, woodwork, well digging, and shipbuilding. . The Poles saved the business from the Virginia Company. The necessities they made and the profits from their export stabilized Jamestown’s economy.
In 1619, the colony numbered a few hundred colonists, and the corporation and the crown allowed them to form a legislative 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 be elected, you had to be (1) a landowner, (2) a man and (3) an Englishman. The first and third conditions disqualified the Poles. After all, as competent as they were, they were still just landless outsiders, presumed to have no capacity or interest in the higher art of governance. One can only imagine then, the speechless astonishment of the British gentlemen when they heard a shrill cry from these workers which amounted to: “No vote, no work!”
It was not an empty threat. While details are scarce, historical records from the Virginia Company confirm that the artisans did indeed go on strike – and bigwigs in London and Jamestown realized they were in deep trouble. The owners ‘thirst for profit quickly overcame their ideological disdain for workers’ suffrage. On July 21, 1619, the corporation declared the Poles to be English for voting purposes, officially declaring them “emancipated and made as free as any inhabitant of there.”
Jim Hightower is a columnist, political activist and author who served as the Texas Dept. of Ag.