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In 1619 — 400 years ago (and before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts) — America experienced its first labor strike. The strike happened in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. The strikers were craftsmen from Poland. They downed tools because their English employers would not give them the right to vote in the colony’s first election. Their lesson on the importance of skilled labor remains relevant today.
Although the stories of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas are well known, less well known is the story of the Poles who worked to make Jamestown a functioning settlement.
Smith - Craftsmen - Commonwealth - Group - Poles
Smith had encountered Polish craftsmen when he traveled in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1603. By 1608, the first group of Poles landed in Jamestown; they were engaged in producing glass, tar, pitch, and ashes for soap-making. Some stories have the Poles teaching the Englishmen how to dig wells and build log cabins.
There is some verisimilitude about this; Smith’s companions likely were landless second or third sons of the English gentry and thus had no practical skills nor interest in learning any. Similarly, their personal servants probably were valets — without practical skills for surviving in a wilderness.
Recruitment - Poland - Waves - Immigrants
Meanwhile recruitment in Poland continued, with two more waves of Polish immigrants landing in 1609 and 1616.
By 1619, the colony was large enough to support a local governing body: the House of Burgesses. However, the right to vote was limited to Englishmen only. The Poles, whose contributions had proved vital to the survival and prosperity of the colony, were excluded.
Men - Statement - Voting - Rights - Labor
These Polish men made a simple and dramatic statement for their voting rights: they stopped working. This was the first labor strike in America; it also was the first civil rights protest.
As the Poles’ glass furnaces cooled, everyone could see how Jamestown would be out of the glassmaking business without the Polish...
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