- Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism by Ron Chew
On June 1, 1981, two officers of Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) were killed by gunmen in the local’s Seattle headquarters. Secretary-Treasurer Silme Domingo and Dispatcher Gene Viernes headed a reform slate that had recently won all of the local’s offices except president. Local 37’s membership consisted predominantly of Filipino American Alaskeros, who traveled to Alaska each summer to work arduous salmon processing and canning jobs. Themselves Alaskeros, Domingo and Viernes, like the reformers they represented, were critics of Ferdinand Marcos, the ruthless dictator of the Philippines. The reformers also strongly opposed the corrupt practices of Local 37 President Tony Baruso, a Marcos supporter who engaged members of the Tulisans, a Seattle gang, to murder Domingo and Viernes. Relying partly on oral history, the book reviewed here focuses on this tragedy and its long-term repercussions.
The two slain reformers, both 29, and their mostly young colleagues were children of the idealism and political activism of the 1960s and 1970s. They objected to racial discrimination in the segregated Alaskan canning industry, where the best jobs and company-provided food and housing went to white workers, while the Alaskeros labored long hours in unsafe jobs, ate meager fare, and lived in squalid conditions. The reformers brought class action suits against the canners in the 1970s with mixed results. Particularly galling to the reformers were the corrupt practices of Baruso and his associates, who demanded payments from workers for Alaska jobs and ran a gambling racket that targeted Alaskeros. Employing the threat of force, the Tulisans controlled cannery gambling and took much of the winnings.
Since its 1930s West Coast founding, the ILWU has traditionally opposed corruption and discrimination. Its reputation for championing civil rights, social justice, union democracy, and clean governance is legendary. However, on rare occasions the union’s commitment to local autonomy has worked against this legacy. That is partly why Baruso could seize control of Local 37. When the young [End Page 219] reformers became active in the 1970s, many older Alaskeros remained reluctant to directly challenge Baruso, who at least provided jobs. Acknowledging this, the reformers did not run anyone against Baruso in the 1980 elections when they swept the other local offices. Terri Mast, Silme Domingo’s partner, an experienced Alaska worker and a reformer, later called this a mistake.
The killings emotionally devastated the reformers. Mast was left with two young daughters to raise alone. With Baruso and the Tulisans at large, danger threatened. But the reformers rallied. Mast, who had won election to the local executive board in 1980, courageously confronted Baruso in public shortly after the murders. When she also revealed that Baruso had submitted forged ballots in another ILWU election, Baruso was recalled from office in late 1981. Mast was elected local vice-president and then president. Meanwhile, she and the reformers installed a corruption-free job-dispatching system and completely cleaned up the local.
The reformers also formed a Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. They sponsored a series of investigations and legal battles that led to the conviction for murder of Baruso and the guilty Tulisans. When it was revealed, too, that the Marcos regime had been complicit in the murder conspiracy, a successful wrongful death civil suit was brought against Marcos. In 1987, Local 37 merged with the Inland Boatmen’s Union (IBU), an ILWU affiliate. Mast became regional director of the new IBU Region 37. In 1993 she was elected IBU national secretary-treasurer, a position she still holds. Richard Gurtiza, another 1970s reformer, assumed her old post. A third original reformer, John Foz, has also held important IBU offices.
What seems remarkable about this story is the degree to which the reformers and their families have persevered together. Ron Chew, the author of the volume under review, was one of the reformers himself. His volume consists of three...