More than 40 years later, minority workers fighting for civil rights at the Wards Cove Packing Co. will earn their piece of mind.
On March 28th, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced the Justice for Wards Cove Worker’s Act to the House of Representatives. The new legislation would correct a prior ruling and venerate those who suffered civil rights abuses from the Wards Cove Packing Co.
“This is to remind people of what’s going on in this country,” Congressman McDermott said. “We can’t just forget our history.
“Things have happened to a lot of groups in the country that are wrong and are outrageous civil rights abuses, and they need to be corrected and remembered, because we’ll do it again if we don’t. People who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.”
Back then, migrant workers from the Wards Cove Packing Co. travelled north during the summer to work in the fish canneries.
At this point, years had passed since the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that started the disbanding of state-supported segregation. Yet even so, the cannery continued to use discriminatory practices to hire employees. While white workers were hired for the skilled noncannery jobs, the majority of the unskilled cannery laborers were nonwhite: Samoans, Chinese, Japanese, but mainly Filipinos and Native Americans.
And when these unskilled workers were done for the day, they were forced to eat different food in a separate dining hall and sleep in different bunkhouses. On top of that, these workers were unable to rise to the top-paying positions.
“There was nobody in the Filipino community who could ever get a management job,” Congressman McDermott said. “Even though they worked there for three, four, five years, they were still a basic worker in the process. It wasn’t fair.”
In response, in 1973, Filipino labor activitsts Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes led a number of class-action lawsuits on behalf of the marginalized workers. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled against the Wards Cove workers in an appeal in 1989.
This case was a huge factor to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Yet even so, exemptions inserted in the final hours before the passing of the bill prevented workers from the cannery to receive protections.
The Justice for Wards Cove Workers Act would change those exemptions in the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to include the workers. Since the bill’s passing, McDermott has fought for the Justice for Wards Cove Workers Act.
“Well, I was here in congress when the original bill was passed, and it was wrong in my view,” Congressman McDermott said. “The decision not to give the benefit to people or actually the complainants of the case didn’t make sense to me. So, I’ve always thought they ought to be given credit to.”
Even President Bill Clinton in 1993 supported Congressman McDermott’s bill, stating that, “It is contrary to all of our ideas to exclude any American from the protection of our civil-rights laws.”
All in all, the congressman has introduced the bill on five separate occasions. With the confidence of it passing this time, he put a marker on the uncomplicated bill for next session.
But with the passing of time, who it will effect remains a question.
“People who worked in the canneries were farm labor who went up to Alaska for the season and came right back and worked at odd jobs,” prominent community organizer Ron Chew said. “So, they’re all scattered.”
This means the lack of information of where any of the workers are, and if they’re still even alive today.
“I’m pretty sure all the plaintiffs are gone now,” Chew said, adding that given the era, the older workers are most probably deceased and even the younger ones may be too.
Yet on the same stream of thought as Congressman McDermott, Chew believes that taking corrective action and establishing that record of such a past — as he has in his recently published book “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism” about the aforementioned activists — prevents these kinds of abuses in the future.
“Other people that had been present [during that era] want to take action to right the wrong that happened during that time period,” Chew said. “On a symbolic level, it’s very meaningful.”
Ron Chew’s book, “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism” is available at The Wing and through UW Press.