Book fulfills promise to slain union activists
Ron Chew's book, "Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism," tells the story of two young lives sacrificed three decades ago to create a movement.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Thirty years ago, two young activists were murdered in Seattle.
Ron Chew tells their story and that of the causes they fought for in a book just out, "Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism."
At the book's center is the story of two young men who fought for better treatment for cannery workers and who were fatally shot June 1, 1981, in their Pioneer Square office by members of a gang that opposed their work.
People within the union they fought to reform, and the Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, were implicated in the killings.
Chew knew the two men well and was one of the many young Asian Americans inspired by them to act on their own convictions.
Chew was an early editor of the International Examiner, and he made the Wing Luke Asian Museum a world-class institution.
He and Viernes shared a passion for history. Chew told me this book is the fulfillment of his promise to help Viernes turn a series of articles Viernes had written for the Examiner into a book.
"It was always in the back of my mind," he said. "Fourteen months ago, I called Terri Mast (Domingo's widow), and said 'I think it's time." She knew what he meant and was ready to help.
The book has three parts. First, Chew writes the history of the two men, who were 29 when they died, and their movement.
In the second part, 23 friends and relatives of the men remember them and the struggle.
The third part is Viernes' history of the Alaskeros, the Filipino Americans who traveled to Alaska each summer to work in the canneries.
As sons followed fathers, that pattern became a rite of passage and a point of connection between generations of Filipino Americans whose lives were so different otherwise.
The younger men were not immigrants. And they were better educated. Viernes studied history in college, and Domingo had a UW degree in political science.
They and other young workers were appalled that the union dispatching workers to Alaska took bribes to put people on the job list.
In Alaska, Filipino and other minority workers were assigned the worst jobs, and white workers the best ones. Housing was segregated and, like food, was better for white workers.
Chew writes that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Asian Americans were being influenced by the civil-rights movement to press for their rights. They got universities to add Asian studies programs, pressed Seattle to respect the needs of the International District and fought job discrimination.
Afterward, many of those young people would remain engaged, politically and socially.
David Della, who worked in the canneries and as a union activist with Domingo and Viernes, went on to serve a term on the Seattle City Council.
Velma Veloria, who writes in the book about the abuse of women cannery workers, became the first Filipina-American state legislator.
Chew these days is director of the International Community Health Services Foundation.
In November, the names of Viernes and Domingo were added to the Wall of Martyrs in Quezon City in the Philippines. The wall honors people who gave their lives fighting against Marcos.
Four men went to prison for the Seattle killings, and Marcos and his wife were ordered to pay restitution to the Domingo and Viernes families.
Few canneries are left. But the social- and economic-justice work Domingo and Viernes started continues, through a web of organizations and personal connections that grew out of their early activism.
The book is published by the Alaskero Foundation with the University of Washington Press.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37 Building Fund provided financial support.
The book is available at Wing Luke and will be in other bookstores soon.
Chew said, "I want people to have a sense of optimism about the possibilities for changing the world for the better."
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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