Photo caption: Ron Chew, “One Generation’s Time” producer and author of “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes,” film director and producer Shannon Gee and Ed Echtle, associate producer. Photo courtesy of Shannon Gee.
Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo were at the height of their political organizing when their lives were taken. At age 29, had they given thought to the legacy they would leave behind?
In the Seattle Channel documentary “One Generation’s Time: The Legacy of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes” previewed at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (the Wing) in early May, filmmaker and Seattle Channel producer Shannon Gee gives viewers a precious glimpse into these advocates’ lives. As sons of farmworkers and Alaskeros (Alaska cannery workers) and workers themselves, their personal lives and political work were intrinsically connected as they organized other workers to address unjust working conditions at the Alaska canneries. As their work advanced to address the corruption at the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) Local 37, they also gained powerful enemies, such as union president Tony Baruso, a staunch supporter of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ultimately sentenced to life in prison for their 1981 murders.
It’s clear from the documentary and community accounts that their work and impact went far beyond the Local 37, and the tragedy’s lasting effects spanned decades.
Emma Catague, longtime Seattle activist and co-founder of the Asian and Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center, met Domingo and Viernes when she was a recent immigrant organizing the housekeeping staff at Providence Hospital.
“I was surprised because I left the Philippines at a time when the activism was very intense. When I arrived here, I saw the movement continued,” remembers Catague. “In some ways, [Gene and Silme] were able to do more because they had more freedom. They knew more about the Philippine issues than I did because of the media blackout (in the Philippines).”
As leaders of a revolutionary organization, Union of Democratic Filipinos (known by their Tagalog acronym, KDP), they advocated for worker’s rights, affordable housing, and against racial discrimination here in the U.S. while demanding land reform and national sovereignty in the Philippines. They saw themselves as part of the Philippine National Democratic Movement for genuine democracy and social change. As Filipinos in the United States, their politics were rooted in anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. The National KDP formation was founded in 1973, shortly after Marcos declared martial law.
Catague recalls Gene asking her questions about the Philippines before he left for his trip there.
“He was excited, but also scared because of the martial law,” she remembers. “He really wanted to see and understand the conditions of the Philippine people.”
During his visit to the Philippines, Gene Viernes connected with a militant federation of trade unions, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) — “May 1st Movement.” He met with leaders, heard about the suppression of workers and even spoke in front of thousands of Filipinos at the May 1st rally.
Weeks later at the ILWU in Hawaii, Domingo and Viernes called for the union to stand in solidarity with KMU against the Marcos dictatorship. They were successful in their effort, and for the first time, a national labor organization took a stance on the Marcos dictatorship. Marcos’s response was swift and brutal. He plotted with corrupt Union President Tony Baruso assassinate Gene and Silme.
On June 1, 1981, Domingo and Viernes were shot at their meeting quarters Union Hall in Pioneer Square. Although their families filed a civil suit in 1982, it was not until 1989 that Ferdinand Marcos was found guilty of paying Tony Baruso $15,000 to arrange their shooting. This marked the first time a foreign dictator was held responsible for crimes committed in the United States.
Although their death was a painful tragedy, they inspired their comrades to continue working for change. Catague was elected to the Local 37 board at the same time as Domingo and Viernes and continued to be involved in the union until the 1990s.
“When they died, we promised ourselves to continue their work,” says Catague. “Gene and Silme really influenced me. If I wasn’t involved at the time, I wouldn’t be where I am now, advocating for women’s rights, for worker’s rights. They were so focused on creating change. They opened the door for us.”
Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo are martyrs of the National Democratic Movement, and an inspiration to may organizers, like Nicole Ramirez every day. Ramirez, Secretary General of Anakbayan Seattle and Regional Co-Coordinator of Bayan Pacific Northwest has been active in leading Bayan’s efforts to support airport workers, Walmart workers and immigrant rights.
“Gene and Silme understood the connection between the broken Philippine economic system and the struggles of workers and immigrants in the United States,” she says. “The film allowed me to see their organizing work in a new way, and affirmed for me how critical it is for us to continue to fight for workers’ and immigrants’ rights here locally and to link those struggles with Filipinos around the world and in the Philippines.”