The Wards Cove Case: Separate and Unequal

Thirty-Seven of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union successfully demanded an end to some exploitative labor practices, but the fight to end racial discrimination still continues. (Photo by Skip Kerr)

In 1972, at the age of 16, David Della entered a new stage in his rites of passage. Like his father and six brothers, Della journeyed to Alaska and joined other Filipinos to can salmon in a plant owned by Wards Cove Packing Company. Narciso Della, David’s father, paid $100 to the dispatcher of the cannery workers’ union to get his underaged son one of the prized jobs in the cannery. The job, catching cans, consisted of lining up the cans for the retorts, the machine that cooked the salmon.

“In the Filipino community at that time, working in the canneries was a way of life,” David Della remembers. “Everyone I knew went to work in Alaska. We were called Alaskeros.” However, for many young Filipinos like Della, their experiences in Alaska left an indelible mark. 

“I knew about the civil rights movement, and I knew about discrimination,” says Della. “I grew up in a neighborhood in Seattle, Washington where the police would harass you. But when I got to Alaska, I was really flabbergasted at the blatant discrimination that I witnessed there. There was an unspoken border in the cannery and grounds where you could and could not go.

“The jobs in the cannery were very much segregated. The Filipinos were mainly in the fish part of the operation, which was continuously wet, with very long working hours. Upper mobility for us was getting out of the fish house and onto the boats. They made a lot more money there. We were never given the opportunity for those jobs. Even the higher skilled jobs in the fish house, such as machinists and inspectors, were beyond our grasp. Those jobs were reserved for the white people.”

Wards Cove became one of six decisions that a conservative Supreme Court used to narrowly interpret federal civil rights laws and reverse the gains that the civil rights movement had made with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Nemesio Domingo, Jr., another Filipino who worked his way through college by going to the canneries in the summer, recalls the “Filipino bunkhouse,” where eight Filipinos were crammed into one room and the cold wind blew through the cracks in the floor and walls. Their sheets were placed in laundry bags stamped with the words “Filipino bunkhouse,” so as not to mix them with the linens from the white bunkhouse. The building had not been painted for 40 years. Meanwhile, the white workers were sleeping two to a room in modern housing.

The mess halls were also segregated, with the white mess halls serving fresh vegetables, fruits and steak, food not found in the Filipino mess halls.

Like Their Fathers’ Experiences

Unfortunately, Della and Domingo’s experiences only mirrored their fathers’. Filipinos became the main labor force in the Alaska canneries in the late 1920’s after U.S. immigration laws excluded Japanese and Chinese laborers from entering the country. Continuing the decades-old practice of hiring immigrants, cannery owners paid these workers the lowest possible wages and exposed them to substandard working and living conditions for the purpose of maximizing profits.

But Filipinos proved to be a formidable work force, organizing themselves into the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Union, which eventually affiliated with the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), Local 37. While the union was successful in destroying the exploitative contractor system where the cannery owners depended on Filipino contractors to recruit, supervise, feed and pay Filipino workers, little changed in terms of the segregation of the employment, housing and messing practices. Cannery owners maintained that the Filipinos liked the segregation because they wanted to eat their own food and work and live amongst their own.

The Alaskeros faced blatant discrimination and segregation. They were never given the opportunity for better jobs. (Source: Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans by Dr. Fred Cordova, photo by Sinfor Ordoña)

Little changed until the 1970’s, when a new generation of Filipino activists embodied in people like Della and Domingo emerged and linked up with a group of black construction workers from an organization called the United Construction Workers Association (UCWA). UCWA was successfully utilizing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and civil litigation to fight discrimination practiced by the employers and unions in the construction trades, and to open up those jobs to workers of color and women. 

Learning from UCWA’s experiences, in 1973 a group of cannery workers led by Domingo met in Seattle at the close of the salmon canning season to form the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Association (ACWA). Also, in the leadership of ACWA were Nemesio’s brother, Silme, and Gene Viernes. Silme Domingo and Viernes would eventually take over the leadership of the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Union. They would be murdered in 1981 by henchmen of the Marcos dictatorship as a result of their work to reform the union and support the struggles of workers and unions in the Philippines.

Class Action Suits

Together, in a unique multiracial formation, the UCWA, ACWA and Latino workers from the Washington State United Farm Workers formed the N.W. Labor and Employment Law Office (LELO) as their legal arm. Shortly after, on March 20, 1974, the ACWA and LELO, representing three dozen cannery workers of Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Samoan and Native Alaskan descent, filed a massive class action lawsuit that was eventually broken into three different cases by the courts: Domingo v. New England Fish Company, Carpenter v. NEFCO-Fidalgo and Atonio v. Wards Cove Packing Company. All three cases alleged stark patterns of racial segregation in jobs, housing and messing in the Alaskan salmon canning industry.

By 1984, Federal District Court had ruled in favor of the workers in Carpenter v. NEFCO-Fidalgo and Domingo v. New England Fish Co. Nemesio Domingo, lead plaintiff in Domingo v. New England Fish Co., proudly remembers that these lawsuits resulted in some of the largest cash settlements for migratory, seasonal workers. Since the awards were based on years of work in the affected canneries, many of the older Alaskeros received the largest settlements, a result that the younger Alaskeros were very satisfied with.

“We didn’t take on the employers for ourselves. We did it for our fathers and uncles that had toiled in the canneries for decades. All we wanted was justice for them,” Domingo stated. But while the two lawsuits were victorious, Atonio v. Wards Cove suffered a different fate.

Hostile Judge

In 1982, the Wards Cove case was tried before hostile Federal Court Judge Quakenbush in Eastern Washington. The evidence showed pervasive race labeling of jobs, bunkhouses and mess halls at the cannery. Five job departments were at least 93 percent white during the case period, even though the work force at the cannery and in the industry overall was almost 50 percent non-white. Nepotism prevailed in nearly all the upper-level jobs with whites almost invariably benefiting from the nepotism. 

At the trial, Judge Quakenbush refused to apply what was known as the Griggs Standard. The Griggs Standard was established in 1971 when an African American janitor sued North Carolina’s Duke Power Company for practices that kept workers of color from advancing beyond menial jobs. In Griggs v. Duke Power Company the courts ruled that practices that are fair in form but discriminatory in practice, “or have disparate impact,” are discriminatory and, therefore, illegal. As a result of Judge Quakenbush’s refusal to use the Griggs Standard, he found no evidence of discrimination and ruled in favor of Wards Cove Company. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Quakenbush. 

The Wards Cove workers appealed the unfavorable decision, and in 1987 the full nine-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Wards Cove workers and upheld the Griggs Standard of disparate impact in the evidence uncovered.

Unwilling to accept this loss, Wards Cove Company petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and in 1989 the case was granted a hearing in Washington, D.C. Both Della and Domingo knew that the Wards Cove workers would not fare well due to the conservative justices appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Wards Cove became one of six decisions that the new conservative Supreme Court used to narrowly interpret federal civil rights laws and reverse the gains that the civil rights movement had made with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Wards Cove was the most prominent case because the Supreme Court retreated from its earlier concept of disparate impact in employment discrimination cases.

Alaskeros working at the canneries. (Photo by  Cindy Domingo)

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Stevens, writing in dissent for four Supreme Court justices, wrote: “Some characteristics of the Alaska salmon industry described in this litigation—in particular, the segregation of housing and dining facilities and the stratification of jobs along racial and ethnic lines—bear an unsettling resemblance to aspects of a plantation economy.”

Justice Blackmun wrote: “The salmon industry as described by this record takes us back to a kind of overt and institutionalized discrimination we have not dealt with in years: a total residential and work environment organized on principles of racial stratification and segregation, which as Justice Stevens points out, resembles a plantation economy.”

The High Court sent back Wards Cove to Quakenbush. He once again dismissed it, and the Wards Cove workers appealed it to the Ninth Circuit. 

Even the 1991 Civil Rights Act, which was meant to reset the Griggs Standard and passed by Congress, failed to deliver justice to the Wards Cove workers. In a highly financed lobbying effort, Wards Cove Packing Company managed to exclude the 2,000 Filipino, Asian American and Native Alaskan cannery workers from the 1991 Civil Rights Act. An ironic twist since these workers were the original inspiration for the Act. The votes of the two Republican senators from Alaska made the Act veto-proof.

A Much Bigger Fight

Today, even though Wards Cove remains an active legal case, Domingo and Della know that the fight is much bigger than just the Wards Cove workers. “Many of the Alaskeros that were part of the class of Wards Cove workers are no longer alive,” Della says. “Just like the Filipino Veterans who fought with the U.S. military during WWII and cannot get their benefits from the U.S. Congress, it may be too late to get justice for most of the Alaskeros.”  

Instead, Domingo is turning his attention to the state of civil rights in the United States and how Wards Cove represents the historical dismantling of legislative acts that were meant to protect and expand civil rights in the United States. 

“Since the post Civil War reconstruction period, this country has gone through periods of constructing and deconstructing civil rights depending on the needs of the U.S., global economic needs and the state of the peoples’ movement,” Domingo analyzes. “As long as we continue to see our struggle in the context of the narrow confines of a civil rights framework, we will never have any permanent rights in this country. Our rights will always depend on the decisions of just a handful of people as exhibited by the Supreme Court and Congressional decisions that were reached in relationship to Wards Cove.

Domingo and fellow LELO board member, Garry Owens, took the struggle of the Wards Cove workers to the United Nations Conference on Racism and Xenophobia in Durban, South Africa. “The only way we can have universal equality is if we recast the debate of civil rights in the framework of human rights,” Domingo said. “The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights does this. This is the standard that the U.S. needs to adopt! Then we will see justice for the Wards Cove workers.”


Cindy Domingo is the Legislative Aide for King County Councilmember, Larry Gossett in the state of  Washington. She is the sister of Silme Domingo, who together with Gene Viernes was assassinated by Marcos conspirators in 1981. Article originally published in Filipinas Magazine, October 2001