Filipino American workers in the Alaskan salmon canneries
Since its earliest days in the late 1800s, the salmon industry in Alaska has depended on an abundant supply of cheap labor from China, Japan and later the Philippines. The Filipino Americans found themselves caught in a segregated plantation economy similar to that of the antebellum South. The Filipino workers were housed in decrepit wooden barracks; the white workers had modern housing. Filipinos and whites ate at different mess halls, with different menus. The cooks made chocolate cake for white workers and refused to serve any to Filipinos. Stuck in the most tedious and lower-paying jobs in the canneries, the Filipinos had no chance of getting promoted out into non-cannery jobs. White workers earned more than twice the pay and received the opportunities for better jobs. For decades, immigrant Filipino American workers accepted the unequal conditions. In 1973, the Filipino Americans began a lawsuit against Alaskan salmon canneries. The workers' fight would take them all the way to the US Supreme Court, and then to a massive pan-Asian and multiracial effort in Congress that would enhance the civil rights of all Americans. The Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA) filed three class action lawsuits under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, citing discriminatory treatment in working conditions and denial of higher-paying jobs, against some of Alaska's largest salmon canneries: New England Fishing Company, NEFCO-Fidalgo Packing Company; Wards Cove Packing Company; and Castle & Cooke (Dole). The first case was decided in 1977, when a federal district court judge ruled that the New England Fishing Company was guilty of racial discrimination in housing and employment. In 1981, the second suit was decided when another federal judge ruled that the NEFCO-Fidalgo Packing Company also discriminated in housing and hiring. But the last case, involving the Wards Cove Packing Company dragged on. By the time the Wards Cove Packing Company v Antonio case was decided by the Supreme Court in 1989, the majority of justices had been appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. In a five-four split, the Court handed down a ruling that shifted the burden of proof from the employers to the employees, barring the use of company workforce comparisons and requiring proof of discrimination for each employment practice at issue. It became clear that the courts could no longer be relied on to remedy racial injustice. Instead the workers turned to Congress and the political arena for a solution. Within months after the Supreme Court's Wards Cove ruling, Democrats in Congress. led by Senator Kennedy, proposed a new, comprehensive civil rights law. The bill aimed to stop the steady erosion of civil rights law. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed after nearly two years of wrangling in the Congress. The new law removed the onerous changes that the Supreme Court had made in its 1989 Wards Cove Packing Company v. Antonio ruling.
(**Due to the strong objections of two Alaska Senators, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, a stealth provision was added in the language of the new law which exempt cases that was filed before March 1, 1975. In another word, the only case in the nation that would not be covered by the new law was the very case that inspired it, the lawsuit initiated by the Filipino American salmon cannery workers. The is like saying everyone can sit in the front of the bus except for Rosa Parks. We hope some day this injustice can be redressed and the Filipino American salmon cannery workers will enjoy the hard earned benefits won by this new law.)