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May 1, 2023

Hampton’s History of Worker Power: What the Past Teaches Us About the Present

The City of Hampton, established in 1610, is one of America’s oldest cities. Known as a vibrant, waterfront community at the center of the East Coast, Hampton offers a wealth of opportunities for tourism and technological advancement.

The City of Hampton is not only at the heart of Hampton Roads but also at the heart of the commonwealth’s labor history. The city bore witness to the foundations of the systems of racism and anti-Blackness that are still in place today across Virginia and the country. By studying the history of African and African American worker organizing and resistance in Hampton, we can better understand the present conditions for the city’s workers and working people in Virginia.

Slavery and Early Labor Organizing in Hampton

According to registrar and historian Beth Austin of the Hampton History Museum, the first recorded Africans forcibly brought to England’s mainland American colonies landed in 1619 at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, aboard the English privateer ship White Lion. They were from advanced societies in West Central Africa, including the kingdom of Ndongo (estimated to be within modern-day Angola). These Africans – and their skilled labor in such technologies as agriculture and ironworking – were traded for supplies and sought for their labor. 

English colonists in Virginia at the time had little experience with agriculture but had large tracts of land they sought to cultivate. To fulfill their labor needs, they turned to exploiting the Ndongos as a vulnerable workforce. There were no labor contracts protecting the laborers from the landowners. Thus, forced to work on tobacco plantations, the Ndongos were not indentured servants. From this race-based bondage of a handful of people, the legalized system of full-blown chattel slavery would unfold over the next several decades and its direct consequences would last several centuries. Virginia’s communities and, ultimately, the nation would be built by the forced labor of Black people.

Much like other contradictions in Virginia’s history, the beginning of American slavery was also the beginning of people joining together in important ways to resist and fight for their well-being. Despite the inhumanity and violence of this era, there were important ways in which enslaved people fought for their own dignity and resisted inhumane working conditions.

Forms [of resistance] varied, but the common denominator in all acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some measure of freedom against an institution that defined people fundamentally as property.

James H. Sweet, “Slave Resistance,” Fellow, National Humanities Center

White slave owners, afraid of the collective power of Black people rising up against their conditions, typically instituted severe punishments to those who resisted. However, some enslaved laborers still retaliated by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotage. Owners who tried to stop these acts of resistance often risked more widespread breaks in production. In this way, by working together, some enslaved people may have been able to influence at least some of their working conditions.

These everyday forms of resistance vexed slave masters…In this way, the enslaved often negotiated the basic terms of their daily routines.

James H. Sweet, “Slave Resistance,” Fellow, National Humanities Center

Many enslaved laborers also took back the goods they produced, planned their escapes, and even formed armed rebellions such as Nat Turner’s 1831 Rebellion in Southampton County. Starting in 1861, enslaved people continued to resist by escaping to Union lines at Fort Monroe (nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress”) during the Civil War. 

Many Black people did not survive the horrific conditions and trauma of race-based chattel slavery. For those who did, worker solidarity was critical to their survival.

The Creation of Ongoing Structural Inequity for Workers in Virginia

Throughout Virginia’s history, white elites have used policy mechanisms to deny Black workers rights, divide workers by race, and provide themselves with a lower-paid labor force. A central element to this strategy has been the creation of racial hierarchies to maintain the exploitation of Black workers. These hierarchies were initially formed through such mechanisms as Jim Crow laws, sharecropping systems, and vagrancy laws that criminalized Black freedom. Racial hierarchies in Virginia (as well as across the United States) continued through exclusionary housing and employment practices, racist violence against Black organizers, the systematic underfunding of education, mass incarceration, and more. Many of these practices still exist in the present day.

Economic elites in Virginia have also sought to suppress the workplace organizing of those seeking to raise their wages and improve their working conditions. Threatened by the ways worker solidarity empowers employees, business leaders and politicians have historically used both laws and ideological campaigns to effectively suppress unionization in Virginia and prevent working people in Virginia from collectively bargaining the terms of their employment. The result is a workforce that is easier to exploit and is often made up of workers of color. Today, the City of Hampton is 50% Black, 6% Hispanic/Latino, and 37% white. The median income for white households in Hampton is $73,900 a year while the median household income for Black and Hispanic/Latino households is $50,700 and $53,400 a year, respectively. Yet a single adult with no children must make $40,000 a year to live in Hampton, and those with just one child must make at least $60,100 a year.  Hampton’s Black and Hispanic families struggle to make a decent living though they make up the majority of the city’s population.

The Fight for Worker Power in Hampton Continues Today

As a result of both the city’s labor origins and Virginia’s resistance to the empowerment of working people, the workers who provide the most essential community services in Hampton are often still underpaid and undervalued. But city workers continue the tradition of working together to fight for a voice on the job.

In July 2021, fixed route workers at Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) fought for higher base pay and increases in tool and uniform allowances. Bus operators, maintenance workers, and light rail workers saw substantial pay increases due to this worker organizing. A year later, 129 Hampton-based paratransit operators also formed the first-ever union at microtransit company Via Transportation in the United States.

Via thought they could come to HRT and make these paratransit workers some of the lowest people in their profession nationwide. We weren’t going to stand by and let that happen. We’re facing a big shortage of workers, and it’s partly because corporations like Via think they can work you 12 hours a day without a break for a paycheck that won’t cover groceries.

John Reid, ATU Local 1177 President/Business Agent, Amalgamated Transit Union

Other city workers in Hampton are also organizing together for better working conditions. In September 2020, workers united outside the Hampton Veterans Affairs building to demand more personal protective equipment (PPE), actions to address mold and water issues, and hazard pay. Hampton’s public educators and school staff continue to organize for the right to collectively bargain in the face of a high-pressure, low-pay, post-pandemic environment that is driving teachers out of the workforce. And, despite an intense anti-union campaign waged by their employer, 87 Hampton drivers for Sysco voted to unionize in 2019. The workers were motivated by stagnant wages and a lack of respect from management.

We wanted change. We were tired of being walked on. We want a voice on the job.

Joe Whitlock, Sysco driver (Quoted in The Virginian-pilot)

What Hampton’s Labor History Can Teach Us About Worker Power in Virginia

The systematic devaluation of Black people – and by extension the labor of working people as a whole – is at the core of Virginia’s labor landscape. The City of Hampton is one of the commonwealth’s very first examples of this. The City can trace its labor origins to the first arrival of Africans in Virginia, where white landowners simultaneously depended on and devalued the work of the African people they enslaved. Under extremely brutal conditions, these enslaved people performed key job functions that served both landowners and the community. But many of these enslaved people still managed to organize despite the barriers they faced. By working together to sabotage production, escape to freedom, and even rise up in armed rebellion against enslavers, many of the enslaved reclaimed a small part of their agency as both workers and people. Resistance by African and African American people is fundamental to what built the commonwealth and the nation.

Though race-based slavery no longer formally exists in the United States, many of the racist legal structures that impact education, housing, and workplace segregation continue today. One of the many consequences of this continuity is that working people who perform the most critical job functions in their communities are often the lowest paid and least protected on the job. Workers of color are also overrepresented in low-wage work in the 757 region, which exacerbates existing racial inequities. The City of Hampton is no different. Workers who get up every day to help the City of Hampton run – whether it be through transit services, public service, truck driving, teaching, and more – continue to struggle to make living wages and have a say over their working conditions. But through all of this, Hampton’s working people still organize and resist. Through the power of unions, they are fighting for the future that they – and all working people in Virginia – deserve.

Economic Opportunity

Mel Borja

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