Lecture Connects Union Murders and Worker Rights Legislation

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

A lecture yesterday as part of the Baranov Museum’s History Speaks series detailed the string of events that connects the murder of two cannery workers and legislation about worker rights.

Toby Sullivan, the executive director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum, gave the presentation. In a preview of the event with KMXT, he said the two men who were assassinated – Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo – were Filipino union representatives battling for cannery worker rights in Alaska in the 1970s.

“The management structure at the canneries was a product of when the Chinese first worked there in the late 19th century, and they were very racially structured, so the white folks had the management and the dock jobs and the Filipinos worked in the cannery part of it, and by the late 60s, early 70s, there started being friction over that.”

He said the men’s efforts upset a lot of people.

“There was push back from even within the Filipino community, because these were cannery unions, they were all Filipino and there was heavy politics just like any union, and the people who ran the union were corrupt, and they had all kinds of kickbacks and weird schemes going on, and Gene and Silme were part of the new generation, and they were trying to reform this union.”

He said Viernes and Domingo ran up against a corrupt union boss, who in 1981 hired a Filipino street gang in Seattle to assassinate them. Sullivan said the murder – committed in a union hall in broad daylight – brought the case into the public eye, and a reform group came in and took over the union.

He said the case also had an impact on the union’s class action lawsuits about unfair policies in the canneries. Sullivan said the Supreme Court threw out those lawsuits in the early 1980s on technical grounds. However, Congress came back and addressed the issues through the Civil Rights Act of 1992.

“So, Congress passed this law, but very interestingly, the law was ready to pass, but it needed a couple more votes, and those votes had to come from Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, and those two gentlemen would not give their votes unless a special clause was inserted into the legislation which exempted the Filipino cannery workers from the rights which would be extended by the 1992 Civil Rights Act.”

The next talk in the Baranov Museum’s History Speaks series will be with Anjuli Grantham, the museum’s curator of collections and exhibits. She’ll present her findings on Fort Kodiak, a US Army fort that stood between 1868 and 1870. That event will be on Wednesday, March 30.

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