Approximately 700 minority cannery workers employed at five New England Fish Company (Nefco) facilities have been mailed claim forms, following the landmark ruling by a U.S. District Court judge that Nefco discriminated against minorities in allocation of job and housing.
Those workers will each received an as-yet-undetermined amount in damages for the segregated housing, and may receive back pay for higher-paying positions they applied for, were qualified for and did not receive.
Federal Judge Gus Solomon, in a November 21 opinion, ruled in favor of the minority plaintiffs in the first class action lawsuit ever brought on behalf of a seasonal, migratory labor force. The long-awaited decision, which may have far-reaching implications for the Alaska salmon canning industry, followed court testimony which ended November 10, 1976.
Testimony charged that Alaskan Native and Asian workers were relegated to the lowest-paying, menial cannery jobs, dined in segregated mess halls, and slept in segregated bunkhouses.
The minority plaintiffs argued that Nefco, the largest cannery company in North America, engaged in nepotistic hiring practices and that there were separated hiring channels for whites and non-whites, preventing non-whites from getting information about higher-paying skilled and administrative positions.
Solomon agreed with the plaintiffs. His opinion states, “By recruiting cannery workers in native villages in Alaska and hiring Local 37 [of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union] dispatches, Nefco secured a cannery work force that was almost entirely Alaska Native and Filipino.
“For other departments, Nefco relied on informal word-of-mouth recruitment. Almost without exception, the superintendents, foremen, and captains who did the recruiting were white; and the employees they recruited were white.”
Whites constituted 53 per cent of Nefco’s work force, said Solomon in his opinion, and non-whites 47 per cent. “However, four departments had 90 per cent or more whites, and one department had more than 75 per cent non-whites, he said.
“Eight departments are predominantly white: administrative, clerical, tender, machinist, quality control, beach gang, culinary, and miscellaneous. One department is predominately non-white: cannery.”
Those departments dominated by whites get paid significantly higher wages than cannery positions, where the majority of non-whites were concentrated.
Solomon also upheld the plaintiff’s contention that there was discrimination in promotions. “White employees received a substantially greater percentage of transfers to jobs within the higher-paying jobs in the predominately white departments,” said Solomon.
The class action suit, also known as Domingo vs. Nefco, was initiated by Nemesio and Silme Domingo and eight other Filipino and Native American cannery workers in 1973. The Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA), a Seattle-based organization, was formed shortly afterwards to help work on the suit and fight employment discrimination in other canneries as well.
Solomon’s ruling affects minorities employed by Nefco facilities at Chatham, Uganik Bay, Egegik, Pederson Point and Waterfall from January 30, 1971 to November 8, 1976.
The court claim form, sent to the class members in December, must be returned to District Court on or before March 15, 1978. According to the form, “It was not necessary for you to have applied in writing for a better job. Nor was it necessary to have been a member of a particular union or of any union to be entitled to better job.”
“You must file a claim to qualify for back pay, but you need not file a claim to recover for discrimination in housing,” the court claim form states.
Nevertheless, it is uncertain how many class member will actually receive the claim forms, due to the migratory life style of cannery workers. It remains to be seen how many class members will return the claim forms.
The plaintiffs refused to speak to The Examiner about the lawsuit, citing a local gag order which prohibits them from talking about the case with public media. The order also prohibits the plaintiffs from communicating with class members, which, it seems, will make it difficult for class members to be informed about precisely what they have won.
One Filipino cannery worker pointed out that many of the Filipino cannery workers are presently in the Imperial Valley, and will not return to Stockton and Delano until April or May because there will not be work for them until then. They will not receive the claim forms until then, the cannery worker said, and by then it may be too late.
Chuck White, a staff member of Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry who has worked with many Alaskan Native cannery workers, pointed out that many of the Alaskan Natives will not find out about the claims to which they are entitled because, depending on the season, they may be out hunting or fishing and are at a different address from the one claim form is sent to.
There is also a language barrier, said White. Residents of different Alaska villages speak different dialects. Also, said White, when a court form comes through the mail, it is “sometimes difficult for people to get a hold of.”
White was also critical of the local gag order. “It a real impediment to justice,” he said. “If we cannot talk about the case and it’s a matter of public record, then how do you get the word around to the class members about what has happened?”