WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced the “Justice for Wards Cove Workers Act” (H.R. 4275) to correct an injustice against Asian American workers by a Seattle fish processing company over a quarter century ago.
In the 1970s, young minority workers of Filipino, Samoan, Chinese, Japanese and Native American descent traveled north during the summer to work in the fish canneries in Alaska. Management of the Seattle-based Wards Cove Packing Company treated these workers differently from white workers. They were forced to eat in a separate dining hall, and their food was not the same as the meals served to whites. The minority workers also slept in separate bunkhouses and were unable to rise to the top-paying positions.
In 1973, two Seattle Filipino activists Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, both members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37, led lawsuits on behalf of thousands of Asian American and Native American cannery workers alleging discrimination. In 1981 they were murdered and the Asian American community lost two of their leaders in their fight for workers’ rights.
In the end, the Supreme Court ruled against the Wards Cove workers in 1989 and issued a conservative ruling that broadly scaled back employee rights. The ruling against the Wards Cove workers became a major impetus for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which Congress enacted to reinstate protections against workplace discrimination. However, just prior to the bill passing Congress, the Senate adopted an amendment that explicitly exempted the Wards Cove workers from the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act. To date, these are the only workers who have been denied these protections.
McDermott’s legislation would eliminate the discriminatory exemption in the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that targeted the Seattle Asian American workers.
“When a few Seattle residents of Asian descent are singled out from protection by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, every American is at risk,” said Congressman McDermott. “Either civil rights apply to every American or they don’t apply to any American.”
Follow McDermott on Twitter: @RepJimMcDermott.