At the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, three local union organizers who got their start as young activists in the early 1970s recently reflected on the influence of author Carlos Bulosan on their early social justice work.
The officers—Rich Gurtiza, Terri Mast and John Foz—first came to the labor movement as young workers dispatched from Seattle to the Alaska salmon canneries during the Civil Rights era when many young college-age Filipino Americans were making the trek with their friends, brothers, fathers, and uncles to work in the fish processing canneriesup North. They are among the last cannery union officers of that era still connected to the Alaska seafood industry.
At the start of their careers, the young activists found an eerie similarity between the segregation and discrimination they faced in Alaska and the conditions depicted a generation earlier in Bulosan’s 1946 autobiographical novel, America is in the Heart. They were quickly inspired to work for change.
“I can’t remember when I first read the book—it may have been when I was a student at San Francisco State University— but Bulosan’s book was definitely a ‘must-read’ for anyone seeking their identity as a Filipino American,” Foz said. “It was very impactful. As far as Filipino American literature in the 1970s, there is no other book that can compare.”
Foz said he had a paternal uncle, who died of lung cancer in the late 1960s, who hailed from the same generation as Bulosan. “He lived during the Depression and worked as a busboy in San Francisco at St. Francis Hotel on Union Square,” Foz recalled. “He had worked on the sugar plantations in Hawai‘i and has written letters about being attacked by strikebreakers with guns.”
Gurtiza said his father—like many other Filipino immigrants living in the Yakima Valley—had also suffered through the hardship of the Depression, traveling to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California to work in the fields of Stockton and “surviving in labor camps on limited rations of basic food supplies.”
Mast, a Seattle native, said she was fortunate to have known and learned from some of Bulosan’s peers—including union attorney Barry Hatten and his wife Mary Gibson, and Josephine Patrick, Bulosan’s girlfriend—during her early years of activism. “They shared stories about Carlos and passed on books to me like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” she said. “That’s how I got politicized. I also really got a flavor of who Carlos was and how he used the pen as his weapon.”
Inspired by the experience of those who preceded them (and the eloquent prose of Bulosan) Gurtiza, Mast, and Foz came together with other young activists—most prominently Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes—to fight for union and industry reform. The activists filed three landmark class action discrimination lawsuits against the cannery companies in Alaska in the early 1970s, then later captured leadership positions in their union, Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU).
Bulosan was a close friend of former Union President Chris Mensalvas and had been the principal writer and editor of the 1952 edition of the ILWU Yearbook. By the 1970s, Mensalvas had retired and was living in the Downtowner Apartments on the edge of the International District. The budding young union activists reclaimed Mensalvas one of their mentors. Mensalvas’s son, Chris Jr., a cannery worker like his father, worked closely with the activists as well.
In 1977, Gene Viernes wrote a seven-part series on the history of the Alaska salmon canning industry and the cannery union. A key source document which guided his research was the 1952 Yearbook. Viernes and the young activists began writing and printing union organizing leaflets in the spirit of the earlier militant rank-and-file reformers, many of whom were still alive and living in the International District or nearby.
“I think we learned from Carlos and that generation the importance of using the written word and publications to reach out to other workers,” Mast said. “That’s why we started printing out the rank-and-file newsletter. Our members were all spread out and we had to have a strategy to reach them.”
Mast noted that when the earlier group of Local 37 officers, including Mensalvas, were brought up on charges of “un-American activities” and threatened with deportation, one of Bulosan’s poems was used as a fundraiser to support them.
For Gurtiza, who attended Central Washington StateCollege with Viernes, there was a profound local connection. “Gene was the one who introduced me to America is in the Heart,” Gurtiza said. “I realized that part of the book actually takes place in the Yakima Valley.”
Although Domingo and Viernes were gunned down in the cannery union hall in Seattle in 1981 at the height of their organizing efforts, Gurtiza, Mast, and Foz have remained at the forefront of the movement to preserve workers rights and social justice in the 33 years since the murders.
Gurtiza, has served as regional director of Region 37 of the IBU since 1993. Mast, the widow of Domingo, has been secretary-treasurer of the IBU since 1993. Foz also works at the IBU and serves on the board of International Community Health Services.
Are the words of Bulosan—which provided a potent spur to action for the young activists in the 1970s—still as pertinent in today’s changed society?
Mast and Foz believe so.
“If you look at the living and working conditions of farm workers, it really hasn’t changed much from what Carlos wrote about,” said Mast. “In some ways, it’s probably worse. That’s why his book is still relevant.”
Foz agreed: “The book and what it talked about is entirely relevant if you look also at the ongoing organizing work that’s happening on the international level. The stratification of workers by class is something that’s happening on a global scale. It was at the core of what Carlos was writing about. We’re still dealing with that today.”
Author, poet, and worker: The world of Carlos Bulosan
Chris Mensalvas: Daring to dream
Empire is in the Heart: A conference to mark the centennial birth of Carlos Bulosan
Bulosan: A reading guide to the poet and union activist