They were called Alaskeros: young Filipino men who, in the 1970s, traveled north during the summer to work in the fish canneries of Alaska, often removing fish guts and putting lids on cans. Each season a worker could make more than $1,000, sometimes twice that, depending on his position in the cannery.
Management treated Alaskeros differently from white workers. Filipinos would eat their meals in a separate dining hall, and their food, mostly fish and rice, was inferior to the steak and other meals served to whites. Filipinos slept in separate bunkhouses and were unable to rise to the top-paying positions.
When two Filipino reformists, both members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37, sought an end to such discrimination, they paid for their changes with their lives.
In 1981 the labor leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were gunned down in a drive-by shooting that was ultimately revealed to be part of a conspiracy ordered by the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, former president of the Phillipines.
The outrageous story known as the Cannery Murders is a true-crime tale of political intrigue and racial injustice with a cast of characters that includes President Marcos, the FBI and the CIA.
It's a story that still resonates today.
"Silme and Gene were just ordinary people who became part of an extraordinary movement of young people in the Union of Democratic Filipinos that took on very powerful interests in order to lead in the reform of the Alaska cannery workers' union and to contribute to the overthrow of the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship," Cindy Domingo, sister of Silme, wrote in an email to Real Change.
To be a reformist in Local 37 during the 1970s and early 1980s meant addressing the discrimination and segregation towards Filipinos that had been going on for decades in the Alaskan seafood industry. But to do that, they needed proof.
Domingo and a partner posed as students from the University of Washington's School of Fisheries and requested to document the canneries for a project. Instead, they gathered evidence of discrimination, and on Nov. 28, 1973, the Alaska Cannery Workers' Association (ACWA, a group Domingo and Viernes founded) filed a class action lawsuit against several Alaskan fish companies, including one of the largest, the New England Fish Co. (NEFCO).
It was the first time such an enormous seasonal migratory labor force was represented in a significant way, over 700 plaintiffs in all. ACWA won a multi-million dollar settlement, and as a result NEFCO filed for bankruptcy.
Not everyone was celebrating the victory over NEFCO. Powerful union members, particularly the dispatchers, had stakes in other things besides cannery working conditions. A union dispatcher controls who works the season and who doesn't. Often times the system is based on seniority. Older workers get priority; younger ones need to have a few seasons under their belts.
This was not the case in Local 37. In his memoir, "Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs," Bob Santos claims that a cannery worker could gamble away his entire season's earnings before a single fish arrived. Beyond jeopardizing the security, economic or otherwise, of the Filipino workers, the gambling racket inside the canneries was a lucrative enterprise for union dispatchers. Rather than seniority, the dispatch system inside Local 37 ran on bribery and gambling.
The Tulisians, a Filipino gang that worked the gambling dens in the International District, were in on this trick. Their leader, Fortunado "Tony" Dictado, would bribe dispatchers inside Local 37 in order to get his Tulisians in the canneries, and thus, running the gambling tables, according to historical accounts.
In 1980, Constantine "Tony" Baruso was elected president of Local 37, a highly respected position within the Filipino community. Baruso was a part of the old guard in Local 37 that opposed reformers like Domingo and Viernes. But in that same election, three reformers took the three most powerful positions under Baruso. David Della became vice president, Silme Domingo was elected secretary treasurer and Gene Viernes took office as union dispatcher. Anyone looking to bribe his way into the fisheries now had to go through Viernes, whose goal was to wrestle the power away from the old guard and do away with the gambling-based system of dispatching.
In the months leading up to the 1981 season, Tony Baruso approached Viernes with a list of Tulisians he wanted sent to the canneries. Viernes said no.
The Marcos connection
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Seattle's Filipino community was split between supporters and detractors of then Filipino President Marcos. Marcos's government was cited with various human rights violations and political suppression, and in 1972 Marcos declared martial law, inflaming the rising opposition to Marcos in Seattle.
The Seattle chapter of the Union of Democratic Filipinos was the first group in Seattle to openly protest President Marcos. Domingo and Viernes, the founders of the chapter, had long opposed Marcos, but in 1980, after being elected to office in Local 37, their opposition to Marcos created another conflict between them and their new boss, Local 37 President Tony Baruso.
Baruso, like many Filipinos in Seattle, hailed from the province of Ilocos Norte. He had long supported Marcos, who also came from the same province. In fact, the two were friends.
"Provincial ties are very strong in the Philippines and the U.S. Filipino-American community," Cindy Domingo explained. "They are so often the basis for social organizations and extended familial bonds that become more important than political viewpoints and ideology."
It was later alleged that, leading up to the cannery season in summer of 1981, Viernes and Domingo were being shadowed by Marcos spies, and that those spies had help in the U.S. -- someone inside Local 37 or, perhaps, the U.S. government, which itself supported and covertly aided the Marcos regime.
A car approached Local 37's Pioneer Square headquarters just as Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo were leaving. Tony Dictado was driving, and two other Tulisians, Ben Guloy and Jimmy Ramil, were with him. "Boy"