Conditions in the fish house were cold, wet, and dangerous. • Photo by Gene Viernes, IBU Region 37 collection
Conditions in the fish house were cold, wet, and dangerous. • Photo by Gene Viernes, IBU Region 37 collection

The history of the Alaska Cannery Workers Union is a classic portrayal of workers overcoming extreme challenges while retaining their dignity and identity.  I have been associated with International Longshore and Warehouse Union /Inlandboatmen’s Union Local 37 since 1977 and have been privy to the many challenges and milestones that have occurred.

The idea of working in an Alaska cannery can bring about a wide array of images. I know that some people may have a more explicit or jaded view of this experience, especially those who’ve had connection with the industry.  Many folks may be indifferent about this narrative on the labor struggle but there is no denying its existence. The focal point to this story is based on Filipino migrants who were the third wave of API Alaska cannery workers. “Alaskeros” is the term used to identify this specific group of Filipino migrant cannery workers. This was an important chapter in Filipino-American history and has been a compilation of classic accounts of this workforce’s journey from the agricultural fields of central California, Washington, and Oregon to the salmon canneries of Alaska.

The thought of working in an Alaska cannery could elicit images of an outdoor adventure or a stimulating retreat, but for many it was more a basic means of survival. I cannot claim to know exactly how the pioneer manongs (e.g. elder Filipino men) felt during their tenure working in the Alaska seafood industry but I do have a good idea of how they managed to endure the difficult and dangerous circumstances of their chosen profession during their time working in the canneries. I worked with many of the manongs in Alaska during the 1970s.  I considered it a privilege to be able to work alongside these men who had so much wisdom and experience from the grueling years of working under an oppressive and toxic system of racism in the fields and canneries. These manongs had to endure the injustices and inequalities in a period of social change that was engulfing the entire nation. The destiny of these proud men had been predetermined by their immigration status and their migratory existence of working in the fields in the lower 48 to the fish house floors of an Alaska cannery. These men suffered the indignities of a system that fostered mistreatment and the exploitation of a class of workers who were incredulously self-determined and dedicated to their craft.  

Throughout the years, the transition of different minority groups has become more commonplace within the Alaska seafood industry, which has become somewhat more of a standardized diverse workforce. The present day number of Filipino workers is well below 50% and may in some plants be non-existent. In most salmon processing plants, Filipinos would typically be found working in the fish house (e.g. department where the fish is headed and gutted). The current generation of cannery workers are a microcosm of today’s society and the changing demographic of an industry.  The manongs have long been gone, but their legacy still lingers in the annals of labor history and with those who know the story of these brave and courageous men. Today the work still remains difficult but safety standards are in place and enforced.  Although the living and dining conditions have been integrated there still remains some latent and discreet practices of favoritism and racial discrimination.   

The future of the Alaska seafood industry is constantly changing and evolving to the point where the sustainability of the resource can lead to positive outcomes for all parties.  The vitality and future of the industry is dependent on our adapting to the effects of global warming. The devastating consequences of our actions to the oceans’ ecosystems, especially the rise in sea level and water temperature, are well known. Government regulators will need to continue the enforcement of National and International Exclusive Economic Zones that establish fishing limits and regulate the excessive harvesting that may occur by overzealous groups looking to game the system. All stakeholders will need to work in collaboration to meet these challenges to ensure the long-term future of the resource. Environmental concerns will continue to be the most tenuous factor in preserving the Alaska seafood industry.

The Union has transitioned through the years from being a very radical militant organization to a more typical rank and file union. This conversion has been predicated on the imminent consolidation of the Alaska seafood industry and the evolving dynamics of the workforce. The current generation of seafood workers and seafood companies will need to work in partnership to determine the fate of the industry. The original pioneer Asian Pacific Islander groups that once dominated the cannery landscape have found its rightful place in the annals of human determination. They will forever be remembered as a group of workers who overcame enormous obstacles in a tremendously corrupt system. The saga of this provocative group of Filipino “manongs” and their unrelenting spirit will never be lost but will forever be remembered as one of the most heralded labor struggles in U.S. history.  

In the words of Local 37’s member and Editor of the 1952 yearbook:

“We do not take democracy for granted. We feel it grow in our working together—many millions of us working toward a common purpose. If it took us several decades of sacrifice to arrive at this faith, it is because it took us that long to know what part of America is ours.”  

—Carlos Bulosan

March 6, 1943 Saturday Evening Post titled, Freedom from Want

 

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