Righting a wrong — Congress seeks to amend Civil Rights Act for benefit of cannery workers

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Cannery workers in Alaska (Photo by Gene Viernes)

By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

Congressman Jim McDermott introduced a bill last week that would right a wrong inflicted upon many Asian American cannery workers more than 30 years ago. The amendment to the 1991 Civil Rights Act would strike language that has prevented cannery workers from seeking legal damages for discrimination.

“When a few Seattle residents of Asian descent are singled out from protection by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, every American is at risk,” said  McDermott. “Either civil rights apply to every American or they don’t apply to any American.”

In 1973, two Seattle Filipino activists, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, led lawsuits on behalf of thousands of Asian American and American Indian cannery workers alleging discrimination. In 1981, they were murdered as a result of an intricate plot traced back to Ferdinand Marcos. The Asian American community lost two of its preeminent leaders in the workers’ rights movement.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Wards Cove workers in 1989 and issued a ruling that broadly scaled back employee rights. The ruling against the Wards Cove workers became a major reason for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which Congress enacted to reinstate protections against workplace discrimination. However, just prior to the bill passing Congress, the Senate adopted an amendment that explicitly exempted the Wards Cove workers from the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act. These were the only workers who were denied these protections.

Although the bill will not retroactively help the affected cannery workers, the bill still carries importance.

“It’s important because people need to think about it,” said  McDermott.  Patience and persistence have together been the key to introduction of this amendment, according to McDermott, as there have been previous efforts to amend the bill to no avail.

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Cannery workers in Alaska (Photo by Gene Viernes)

“We are getting ready for the 2013 session, and we hope that we may pass the bill,” said  McDermott. He is working on gaining support among fellow house members before the end of the year, in hopes that the amendment will be voted on and become law during the 2013 legislative session.

The proposed amendment was revisited in part due to Ron Chew’s recent book on Domingo and Viernes. The book chronicled the struggles of the Alaska cannery workers and the immense discrimination that many Asian Americans faced in the 1970s. “The book helped highlight the issue and bring back memories,” said Chew.

The amendment if adopted, will provide closure and serve as a teaching tool for the future. McDermott noted that he has spoken with Silme Domingo’s sister and other family members about the efforts. “It’s partly closure for the families, but it is also important to remember the people.”

Practically, the amendment would not financially assist any of the cannery workers affected by the discrimination. Also, many of the workers are either advanced in age or have passed away. Chew stated, “I think this is pretty late in the process now because most of the plaintiffs are gone now,” he added.  “It’d be hard to reach the class of people that would directly benefit.” However, Chew identified the symbolism of amending the law. “It’s an important lesson.”

“For myself personally, it will put this behind me,” said Rich Gurtiza of the proposed amendment.  Gurtiza was one of the cannery workers that sued Wards Cove. “If there is a correction, it means something.”

Gurtiza, who is now president and regional director of the Alaskan Cannery Workers Association, recalls the discrimination that took place that led to the lawsuits. “It left a bad taste in your mouth — why it was done,  why it has taken so long,”  said Gurtiza.  “I think either way, as far as a teaching tool, it shows that the system does work. If it doesn’t go through, the system is broken.”

Despite the lack of monetary gain, the symbolism in striking out the language in the amendment would show that the battle against discrimination was not wasted. Gurtiza added. “It certainly allows me to look back and see that I tried to do the right thing.” (end)

Jason Cruz can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

2 Responses to “Righting a wrong — Congress seeks to amend Civil Rights Act for benefit of cannery workers”

  1. Ryan says:

    The paragon of unnnastredidg these issues is right here!

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