Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Uganik Bay Cannery Workers and the Supreme Court

In 1981 two young cannery worker union organizers, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, were gunned down in Seattle by hitmen hired by a corrupt union president in league with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. Viernes and Domingo were part of a uniquely American story involving racism, violence, jobs, and a fight for what’s right. Centered on the salmon canning industry, it is part of Alaska’s story too, and with its origins in Uganik Bay, an intrinsic part of the history of Kodiak Island.  

Gene Viernes, early 1970s. Photo: Ron Chew, 
"Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes," 
WSU Press, 2012
Gene Viernes was originally from eastern Washington, and went to work at the Red Salmon Cannery in Naknek in 1969. Silme Domingo was from Seattle and also in 1969, began working at the New England Fish Company’s cannery in Uganik Bay, where his father, one of the old cannery “manongs,” had worked thirty years before. Like many other young Filipinos in those years, both men found the century old system of separate bunkhouses, mess halls and jobs for Filipinos and Alaska Natives a degrading anachronism in a society that had outlawed “separate but equal,” facilities for African Americans twenty years
Silme Domingo

Photo: Ron Chew, "Remembering 
Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes," 
WSU Press, 2012
Their experiences led eventually to reform of the cannery worker union hiring system, and an end to racial segregation of jobs and living facilities in Alaska’s canneries. The fight to end union corruption cost them their lives. The larger struggle to desegregate the canneries ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Alaskan canned salmon industry began in the 1870s in Southeast Alaska and was immediately lucrative for everyone involved. Like all extraction industries, it required three things: raw material, capital, and people to do the work. Alaska had the salmon, San Francisco businessmen had the money to build the canneries, and at least at first, Chinese immigrants did the work.
The Chinese had come to California in the 1840s to work in the gold placer mines, but as the gold played out, began working in salmon canneries on the Sacramento River, and then the Columbia, and eventually Alaska, including at Karluk, Uyak, and Uganik, on Kodiak Island. In 1882 however, driven by raw racism and fear of a “yellow horde,” of Chinese workers taking white American jobs, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act mostly let the Chinese who were already here remain in the U.S., but it choked off further immigration.
Fortuitously for the salmon industry however, just as the resident Chinese began aging out of the work force in the early 20th century, thousands of young Filipino men, many of them college students, began arriving on the West Coast looking for work. Happy beneficiaries of the U.S. annexation of the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War, these men and their sons and grandsons took the places of the Chinese on the cannery slime lines, eventually becoming known as the “Alaskeros,” sailing north each summer from San Francisco and Portland and Seattle to put salmon into cans. The Alaskeros would dominate the fish processing industry for the next hundred years and their descendants, having moved north to live, are a large part of the social fabric of Alaska today.
San Juan Salmon Packers Packaging Crew, Uganik Bay Cannery, 
Kodiak Island, 1940s. University of Washington Archives.

In 1970, when Silme Domingo, his brother Nemesio, and a group of other young Filipinos tried to enter the white mess hall in Uganik for food not available at the Filipino mess hall, they were told to leave. That winter, apparently based on their challenge of the segregation system, the Domingo brothers received letters from New England Fish Company, which owned the Uganik cannery, informing them they would not be hired for the upcoming season, or indeed, ever again. In 1972, Viernes, by then working at Wards Cove Cannery in Ketchikan, and similarly chafing at the old segregation rules, led a boycott of the Filipino mess hall after being denied entrance to the white mess hall. He too was blacklisted.
Salmon cannery worker, Grimes Cannery,
Kodiak Island, Alaska, 1960s
KMM Salmon Cannery History Collection

With these experiences driving them, Viernes, the Domingo brothers and other cannery workers, including Alaska Natives, formed the Alaska Cannery Workers Association, (ACWA). In 1973 and 1974 ACWA filed lawsuits against three Alaskan salmon packers, alleging discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The first case, Domingo versus New England Fish Company (NEFCO) ended in 1980 when NEFCO filed for bankruptcy. The second case, Carpenter vs NEFCO-Fidalgo Packing Co. was settled out of court in 1985, providing cash settlements for ten plaintiffs. The third case, Atonio vs Wards Cove Packing Co., went to the Supreme Court, which, in a series of decisions, ended the suit and limited the rights of workers to sue their employers for discrimination.
In response to the Supreme Court’s backpedaling on labor and civil rights, Congress wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which explicitly strengthened worker’s rights.
Before it passed however, bowing to pressure from the salmon industry, Alaska’s Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens inserted a clause which exempted Alaskan cannery workers from the protections of the new law. The irony of the cannery workers being exempted from a law explicitly designed to remedy their experience of racist labor practices was not lost on anyone, but the votes of the two Alaskan Senators being necessary for passage, and compromise being the grease of politics, it was voted into law.
Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo did not live to see any of this. In their efforts to enlist the help of Seattle Local 37 of the International Longshore Workers Union in the lawsuits, they had challenged the local union president, Tony Baruso, for control of the union. Baruso ran the union as a corrupt minor fiefdom, charging bribes for cannery job placement, and sending gambling shills north to rake off cannery worker’s pay in their off hours. He was not interested in suing the salmon canneries over segregated mess halls. Baruso was also an ally of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, no friend of unions, at least fair practice unions, and whom Viernes and Domingo had angered while on a labor organizing trip to the Philippines in the spring of 1981.
On June 1, 1981, a few weeks after returning from the Philippines, Viernes and Domingo were shot in the Local 37 union hall near Pioneer Square by two gunmen hired by Tony Dictado, a local gang leader who worked as an enforcer for Tony Baruso. Viernes died at the scene and Domingo died the next day at Harborview Hospital.
Within days of the murders, the union rank and file seized control of the union and eliminated the bribes for jobs system. Dictado, Baruso, and the two shooters were all eventually found guilty of various degrees of murder. Baruso died in prison in 2008.

After evidence was produced that Philippines President Marcos had supplied $15,000 to pay the gunmen, the families of Gene Vierne and Silme Domingo filed a wrongful death civil suit against Marcos’s estate, and in 1990 a Federal jury awarded $15.1 million in damages. Marcos himself died in September, 1989. Later reduced to $2 million, the case stands as the only successful lawsuit against a foreign government for the death of a U.S. citizen.
Seattle Local 37 Union Hall, April 2015
KMM Salmon Cannery History Collection

For more information on the story of Filipino cannery workers and their fight for labor rights, see: “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino Labor Activism,” by Ron Chew,” University of Washington Press, 2012.