By Cindy Domingo
My family has been involved with Alaska cannery workers since my father immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. We are a family of three generations of workers, which is not unusual in Seattle’s Filipino community. By the 1970s, about one out of five Filipino families on the West Coast sent a family member to labor in an Alaskan cannery, making the cannery workers’ union central to the development of the West Coast Filipino community.
My brothers Silme and Nemesio formed the Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA) to help make the union accountable to its workers. I collaborated with them and others through ACWA to educate the Filipino community about the discrimination and the inhumane working and living conditions that Filipinos and other people of color and women encountered in the canneries. The industry conflated race with skill in order to justify unequal treatment of whites and nonwhites. White employees typically worked as managers or machinists (“beach gang” workers unloading fish from ships), while nonwhites were restricted to the most grueling and lowest-paid positions— sorting, cleaning, cutting, and canning the salmon. ACWA helped file three class action lawsuits against such inequalities and won two of them.
The 1970s were a very important time when Asian Americans became more politicized through the Vietnam War and various identity movements. The Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), a radical organization based in the U.S. Filipino community, originated as a result of these campaigns. Silme was a founding member of the Seattle KDP chapter in 1974 because of his leading role in Seattle’s Asian American movement. I shortly thereafter followed him and joined the KDP, which first took a stand against martial law as the Philippines was then under the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.
Eventually, I joined the KDP national staff in Oakland, Calif., performing educational work and guiding KDP chapters around the country. Over the almost 15 years of the KDP’s existence, the organization became well-known for its leadership in the anti-dictatorship movement and the struggle against racism toward the Filipino community.
My brother Silme Domingo and his colleague Gene Viernes were murdered on June 1, 1981, as a result of their work as trade unionists and anti-Marcos activists. It didn’t take my family and the KDP more than 48 hours to understand that the Marcos dictatorship was responsible for their assassinations. It took us until 1989 to prove our case in a federal district court. But when we won, we became the first plaintiffs to hold a foreign dictator accountable for the murders of U.S. citizens. We were awarded a $23.5 million settlement against the defendants.
After the murders, my brother Nemesio and I helped form the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV) in Seattle. I eventually became the National Coordinator leading the global efforts to gain justice for their killings. I traveled across the United States and the Philippines (after the Marcoses fled in 1986) serving as the spokesperson for our justice efforts. To this day, I continue to educate and write about these experiences, hoping to ensure that Silme and Gene’s important work is never forgotten. For example, I participated in writing a chapter in Mila De Guzman’s book Women Against Marcos, which details the roles of female anti-Marcos activists and the CJDV leaders. Additionally, during the fall of 2017, the University of Washington Press will release an anthology of stories by KDP members titled Memoirs of a Movement: An Anthology of the Union of the Democratic Filipinos, which I edited with Rene Ciria Cruz and Bruce Occena. Despite these efforts, the significance of our unprecedented judicial victory and Silme and Gene’s important activist legacy remain unknown to many.
Today, besides my full-time job as Chief of Staff for a King County Councilmember, I am an active leader/organizer in my local, national, and international communities, championing many different and critical issues. Recently, I traveled to the Philippines as an election observer, and I continue to participate in the U.S.-based Philippine solidarity movement. Current Filipino politician Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos Jr.’s refusal to acknowledge the human rights violations under his father’s dictatorship makes our cause relevant once again, among other reasons. In addition to my love for the Philippines, I have made Cuba my other home, leading delegations of visitors, especially women, to learn about the advancements of female leaders under the Cuban revolution. Lastly, the election of the 45th U.S. president has incited me and others to form a statewide coalition to advance a human rights agenda in light of the hostility and attacks people are now facing in the United States and worldwide.
Cindy Domingo is the Legislative Aide to King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.