by Crystal Fresco
States took possession of the Philippines in 1898 and in the decades
Filipinos, mostly men, began to make their way to America to seek employment,
especially in the fields and canneries. In 1933 some of these men formed
the first Filipino-led union ever organized in the United States: the Cannery
Workers’ and Farm Labors’ Union Local 18257. Based in Seattle, it was organized
by "Alaskeros" who worked in the Alaska salmon canneries each summer and
in the harvest fields of Washington, Oregon, and California in the other
seasons. The union
was in its shaky beginnings when two of its founders were murdered. Yet,
although its leaders were dead, the union would not die. Instead in
the next few years, it grew stronger, becoming effective up and down the West
This paper investigates the early history of the Cannery Workers’
and Farm Laborers' Union and the sense of pride and fraternity within the Alaskero brotherhood
that made the union possible. Much of the credit has to be given to the
Filipino community. The workers believed in
community and unity. The Cannery Workers’ and Farmers’ Union’s motto was
"Unity is Strength." This motto and spirit kept the union
after the death of its founders, Virgil S. Duyungan and Aurelio Simon. The union elected
a new president and soon emerged stronger than before. The camaraderie and
fraternity within this group of men helped them build a successful union, one of
the first lasting organizations led by Asian American workers.
For many Filipino men, the opportunity to
come to America was like a dream. After they had been under
imperialistic rule by the United States, they had been taught in the
American-run school system that
the United States was a place of great opportunity. As U.S. nationals
they had the right to travel to the mainland even after immigration laws
prevented other Asians from doing so. Although they were Asian, they were,
in the eyes of white Americans our "Little Brown Brothers."
They still faced discrimination, but because of their colonial status
they were able to come to America even after other immigration from Asia
had stopped. Most who came were single men in their late teens to early twenties and had only
up to a high school education.
Men came for different reasons, but
primarily for the opportunity that was in their eyes so rich in America.
Ted Abuan of Tacoma Washington recalls his reasons for coming to
America, "In 1928 I came to the United States, ‘land of opportunity,’
where I planned to work my way through college, I graduated from high school. My
desire to pursue a higher education was during a poor time because of the
Depression." This was true for many young men during this massive
wave of Filipino migration. Many hoped to go to college and some enrolled at the
University of Washington. They had a desire for education, but had to
work for that education. Thus, they ended up getting contracted out of Seattle
to work in the canneries up in Alaska. These young men would work there year
after year and it became a subculture for them. They still were in search of an
education, but found this education elsewhere and many didn’t make it to the
university. One of the later presidents of the union recalls his quest for
education and his dual role as a cannery worker, "We did not earn much
money during the summer times, especially I just arrive in the country and I did
not know any other job, except go to the cannery. So I didn’t make enough
money to continue the whole year of my schooling." So, many men stuck to
their jobs up in the canneries and lost their dream of an American education.
There were many factors that "pushed" the
Filipinos out of the Philippines and "pulled" them into America. The
idea of this American Dream, the opportunity that they could receive,
and ultimately an education was a major pull factor for early Philippine
immigration. A prominent Filipino leader during this age recalled that "one of the greatest benefits rendered to the
Filipinos by the United States was the giving of opportunities to
intelligent, ambitious and industrious but poor Filipino students, to
come to the United States to secure a college education."
The center for many of the Filipino
immigrants was Seattle. This was the major assembly point for many immigrants from the
Asia. The Chinese, Japanese and now the Filipinos called the Northwest
and the city of Seattle their home. In Seattle, Filipinos found work
through the contract system and would find themselves in the canneries
in Alaska or the fields of Yakima Valley. The contractors were men of
color like them, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino. Seattle also was
the housing center for many young Filipino men when there was no work
for them or in between seasons. In Seattle they could find
gambling halls, hotels full of laborers, dance halls, and saloons.
Seattle was similar to the pioneer cities where workers would flock
The canned salmon industry had a long history
as a job sector for Asian American workers. The canneries
used a dual system of labor: minority workers would do the undesirable
jobs like cutting and canning, while those higher up the chain were able
to do the fishing and contracting of the industries laborers. At first,
the canneries employed Chinese workers. In the 1880s and 1890s most of
the workers were Chinese. In recognition of this when a machine
was introduced to mechanize part of the fish-cleaning process it was
called the "Iron Chink." Yet, because
of the Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Northwest and the anti-Chinese legislation
including the Exclusion Act of 1882, the number of Chinese laborers were
declining. Thus, the industry had to find another minority to fill the spot.
This spot was filled by the Japanese
workers. They dominated the cannery workforce for only
a short amount of time due to another Asian exclusion act of 1924. Again there was a shortage of workers.
The first Filipino Alaskeros appeared in the canneries around 1911, with
more and more Filipinos coming in the 1920s.
Once in these jobs, Filipino workers
noticed that there was definitely a dual labor system. They were hired
only for the least desirable jobs. Treated as the inferior, they faced
discrimination and difficulties in the canneries. Because of these persecutions,
some workers decided it was
time to organize. Before the Filipinos tried to organize, the Chinese
had also tried to fight the system. But they were unsuccessful in their
attempt to strike. The Alaskeros started a grassroots
Another reason for organization was because of the
anti-Filipino race riots that occurred in Kashmere and the Yakima Valley
in 1927-1928, which then spread from eastern Washington to the fields in
California. Filipino agriculture workers were killed and their
bunkhouses were destroyed. Faced with prejudice and hostility, many men
were determined to protect themselves through organization.
Back at the center of the industry in
Seattle, men would come together in the pool halls and dance halls. At
these venues, they began to talk about organizing together as workers
and demanding an end to the dual labor system of employment. They would
converse within a social setting in the pool halls and dance halls, yet
they were serious in their discussions. They wanted to be treated better
by their employers.
One of the organizers major goals was to
with contract labor and stop the corruption associated with labor
contracting. Tony Rodrigo, one of the original union activists, recalled
the reasons the men wanted
to end the contract system, ". . . you know the wages of these boys, why we
actually pay them directly to the boys, see. So we get rid of all the
contractors." The Filipino Alaskeros wanted to get rid of the middleman.
The workers’ eyes did not see any benefits coming from the contractor, they only saw one
man taking another man’s profits away from him. The "game" that the
contractors’ played basically was a "’forcing’ of new employees to pay a
fee (bribe) to ensure
employment." The fee came in from different avenues including:
"outright monetary payment," "withdrawing fees from one’s
seasonal check," or "a more subtle form in that of requiring new
employees to purchase blankets and supplies from a contractor’s store located
either at the departure point or at the facility itself." This contracting
system was fully backed by many of the workers’, this was primarily due to the
fact that they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into and the fact
they weren’t going to get a job without the contractors’ help.
The Great Depression aggravated the
discontent in the canneries and with the contract system. As the
economic crisis hit the Northwest in the
early 1930s, competition for jobs grew fierce and the contractors were
in position to exploit the desperation of the men. The system worked like this: the
contractor would give special privileges to his "barcada" or townmates. These men would
receive special treatment and thus receive the best jobs, while others had to
pay high fees to the contractor for the privilege of working in the
Thus, major efforts for a union began.
The Alaskeros credit the success of the
organization of the union to its first president Virgil Duyungan, who was an
excellent orator and charismatic leader. Others who took part in the major
organization of Local 18257 were
Ponce Torres, Casamiro Abella, Antonio Rodrigo, L.V. Molina, Leo Roduta, C.B.
Mislang, Leon Bellosillo, and Aurelio Simon.
These men had picked a hard time to start to
organize in the winter and spring of 1933 with so many men out of work and
desperate for jobs. But it was what they needed to do and they were
remarkably successful. From the pool halls and dance
halls, men talked about the benefits of organization, realizing that they needed
a union to protect the rights of cannery and
Thus, on June 19, 1933, the
American Federation of Labor issued a charter to the Cannery Workers’ and Farm
Laborers’ Union Local 18257, which was the first of its kind in the United
States. Shortly after the union was launched the battle would begin.
The union’s first task was to
wipe away the contract labor system. The contractor’s tactics included
the using of "barcada" to recruit,
taking advantage of new, and desperate immigrants, while denying union
supporters jobs. They also tried to discredit the union, calling it a communist organization.
Whereas, the union was using collective bargaining as a technique to
pay, less working hours, receive overtime and have adequate food supply and
housing. The support of the union was now backed by the majority of the workers.
In 1933 the union membership had 200 members, three years later in 1936, the
membership rose to 2,000, again showing how the Filipino Alaskeros came together
to better themselves and their community. An article from the
Philippine American Chronicle shows that the "Union Helps Get Workers
Wages" and that the union is making a huge effort to help workers get their
back wages from Japanese, Chinese and Filipino labor contractors.
Although they still had not completely
rid the industry of the contractors, many of their demands were reached.
After the initial success of the union, the contractors were not pleased. On December 1, 1936 in a restaurant in Seattle,
the nephew of a labor contractor awaited the arrival of President Virgil Duyungan and the secretary of the union, Aurelio Simon, whom he had
invited to the Chinatown restaurant. As the two labor leaders were sitting down
to a meal, the nephew shot and killed them. As the Seattle Daily
Times reported it, the two men were killed at a "Japanese cafe" and
the nephew was critically wounded by one last shot fired by Duyungan. The
wounded gunman, labor contractor Placido Patron, explained in his defense
that the reason for his shooting was because the two men "’had been
trying to cut in on his hiring-hall business and he wouldn’t let
them.’" He later confessed that "’[he] did all the shooting, and
then Virgil shot [him].’"
The death of President Duyungan was the last
ditch effort on the part of the contractors. They thought they would have no more worries
about the union with the death of its founder, but the Filipino Alaskeros and
the leaders of the union proved them wrong.
The death of Simon and Duyungan only brought shame and more hostility towards
the contractors. Duyungan and Simon became martyrs for the union
and all laborers in Seattle. Thus, the men of the CWFLU all came together to
recognize the accomplishments of their leader and hundreds of men came to the
memorial services of their brothers in fraternity, Brothers Duyungan and Simon.
The funeral service and parade that followed was the largest ever given to
Filipinos in the United States including that of the Philippine President Quezon
in 1944 in Washington, D.C. Within the union, a committee was formed to
investigate the murders and a Memorial Fund Committee was created and actively
supported. Not only the members of the Seattle union, but Oregon and
Californian unions contributed to this cause. Also, other major labor unions
including the Seattle Labor Council helped in the recognition of the brothers, again proving the unity the union shared immediately after this tragedy. Both
men became martyrs in this community.
The deaths did not kill the union. The
men came together to make major decisions. The first would be the new
president. The vice-president, Casimiro A.
Abella, immediately stepped up and regained order in their union and in November
1937, a democratic election was held and Irineo R. Cabatit was elected president
and a new charter was written with the cooperation of Conrad Espe, a Norwegian
American and considered one of the best leaders of the labor movement. This
helped in the progress of the union.
Once Cabatit took over the presidency, many major events occurred within the
union. One was the establishment of the closed shop, which eliminated the
contract system completely and created plentiful jobs for the union members.
Another major issue that occurred was in
1937-38, the CWFLU came into conflict
with the American Federation of Labor. The A. F. of L. had a long history of
racism and discrimination, especially towards Asians. When the
Filipino-led Cannery Workers Union affiliated with the AFL in 1933, the
Federation claimed to have changed. The A. F. of L.
advertised in a handbill that "the A. F. of L. fights discrimination"
and that "racial and religious prejudice are against union principles,
racial and religious prejudice are used by anti-labor forces to divide workers,
racial and religious prejudice are undemocratic, and racial and religious
prejudice weaken our unions." This promise to its unions and the workers of
its federation did not stand true. The members of Local 18257 felt the
discriminations that the American Federation of Labor were forcing upon its
members and their criteria for membership. Thus, the men decided to break away
from their affiliation with the A. F. of L. According to minutes taken from a
regular membership meeting, "explained Flynn motive of splitting the
Cannery Workers’ and Farm Laborers’ Union---as a craze for race and
nationality; a motive tallying with the purpose of the Packers to weaken out
stronghold; and as initial effort to disown and get rid of us." What
happened was the opposite. The A. F. of L. did not even have a chance to get rid
of their minority affiliation, but the C. W. and F. L. W. found a supporter of
On April 12, 1938, the final transition
from the American Federation of Labor to the Congress of Industrial
Organizations was made. This major decision was finalized, only two
years after the death of its president and secretary. The union were
making major decisions and moving forward full force. The men voted for
this change of affiliation unanimously, again proving the fraternity of
the union. The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied
Workers of America-CIO (UCAPAWA) was formed and the A. F. of L. was no longer in the
cannery business. This was the birth of Local 7. According to the preamble of
the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Benevolent Association Constitution, the
purpose of the union was "to assist in disseminating principles of
industrial unionism by education and publicity; to assist in organizing
unorganized workers; to forward their collective interest of the labor
movement." After the switch, many more accomplishments were recorded. The
leadership and fraternity of the union stayed strong and the men proved their loyalty to each other as Alaskeros and continued their strength through unity
years after the death of their founding fathers.
By the time Trinidad Rojo took the office of presidency in 1939, the union had
made major steps in its transition to be a major player in the labor organizing.
Rojo continued to strengthen his union and the men continued to support their
fellow Alaskeros. There were no major confrontations and disagreements with the
union the few years following the two murders.
Before the Filipinos organized, Asian
Americans had never built a lasting union.
Yet, the fraternity and common goals that these Filipino men shared
helped them create a successful union and change much of the
mistreatment of their industry. The fight still continued into the 1980s
and is slowly dying down. According to the old timers, the union now is
not the same as it was during the days of Duyungan, Trinidad Rojo, and
Ponce Torres. These men really fought for what they felt was right and put heart and soul into
their actions. The reason for success was their willingness never to let down. Even with the tragic deaths
of the founders, leadership was regained and the union was moving
strongly into the future. With unity and perseverance, the members of Filipino
labor union made their mark on the Northwest labor movement.
(HSTAA 498 Spring 1999)
Cordova, Fred. Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, A Pictorial
Essay/1763-circa-1963. United States of America: Demonstration
Project for Asian Americans, 1983.
Friday, Chris. Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast
Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942. Philadelphia, Temple University
Most information was found at the Filipino-American National
Historical Society and the Manuscripts and Archives at the University of
Washington, both in Seattle, Washington.
Records of the Cannery Workers’ and Farmers’ Labor Union Local No.7,
This collection consist of everything from Minutes to meetings,
newspaper clippings, invoices and court papers. The documentation starts
in 1933 and continues to the early 1980s at the union’s demise.
Box 1 contains minutes to monthly meetings from both the
executive board and the membership board (general assembly). Nothing is
written in detail, but each document gives an idea of what was going on,
in terms of important topics and issues surrounding the union. Some
minutes seem to be missing from the collection because from before the
time of Duyungan’s death and the appointment of the new president, no
documentation was made of the murder in the murder. Reference to a
Memorial Fund and the aftermath was deliberated and a committee was
formed to further investigate it.
Box 33 contains the Constitution of Cannery and Agricultural
Workers Benevolent Association.
Box 8 contains American Federation of Labor paraphernalia and
The Philippine American Chronicle
There isn’t much concerning the CWFLU, but there is a section in
every paper with Labor News.
March 6, 1936 issue contains a front page article about the CWFLU
and the active progress of its organization.
Selected Interviews from the Filipino American National Historical
Accession No. FIL-KNG-75
Antonio G. "Tony" Rodrigo, September 16, 1981. Speaks about life
in America, but most importantly his role as a labor organizer and life
as a Filipino laborer in the 1930s.
Mr. Ponce Torres, August, 25 1975. Talks about life as immigrant
from the Philippines and his role in the formation of the CWFLU.
Mrs. Margaret Mislang, June 16, 1975. Gives her account of her
late husband’s role, Virgil Duyungan, as the CWFLU’s first president and
the murder of her husband and Simon.
Mr. Chris Mensalvas and Mr. Jesus R. Yambo, February 10 &11, 1975.
Speak about what it was like being a part of the union, and their role
as farm laborers.
This is the first in a
two-part report on the history of Seattle's Filipino-American Cannery
Worker Unions. It continues with Micah Ellison's essay:
"The Local 7/Local 37 Story: Filipino American
Cannery Unionism in Seattle 1940-1959"
processing workers in Alaska, known as the "Alaskeros" (above), who
worked in Alaska in the summer and then the "farm factories" of
California and eastern Washington in other seasons. Photo courtesy
Local 19, Seattle.
This is the first in a two-part report on the history of Seattle's
Filipino-American Cannery Worker Unions. It continues with Micah
Ellison's essay: "The Local 7/Local 37 Story:
Filipino American Cannery Unionism in Seattle 1940-1959"
to Fred and Dorothy Cordova and the
Filipino American National
Historical Society (FAHNS) for permission to display the following
pictures and documents. Click on any image to see a larger version.
Virgil Duyungan, Tony Rodrigo, CB Mislang, Espiritu in 1933
Alaska cannery work
of Washington students spend part of the year in the canneries and
fields. 1936. Photo from the collection of Julius Ruiz, front row third
Below: scenes from a cannery at Ketchilikan Alaska.
"gang" shows the mix of ethnicities working in Alaska in the 1920s
union loses its leader
The new Cannery
Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union Local 18257 obtains a charter from the
American Federation of Labor 1933. Back left: Tony Rodrigo. Front left:
Joe Mislang; President Virgil Duyungan. Front right: Frank Alonzo.
for slain leaders Virgil Duyungan and Aurelio Simon 1936
members on Labor day 1936
affiliating with the AFL, the Cannery and Farm Laborers union in 1937
joined the CIO, becoming Local 7 of the United Cannery, Agricultural,
Packinghouse, and Allied Workers of America.
to vote in NLRB election, May 1938
Local 7 members
vote to ratify 1938 contract
in a Name? A timeline of affiliations and name changes
June 19, 1933 – Cannery Workers’ and
Farm Laborer’s Union (CWFLU) Local 18257 formed under American
Federation of Labor (AFL).
November 4, 1937 – Seattle, Portland,
and San Francisco locals leave CWFLU-AFL and join United Cannery,
Agricultural, Packinghouse, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA)
under the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The Seattle local
is UCAPAWA-CIO Local 7.
1943 – Local 5 of San Francisco and
Local 226 of Portland merge into Seattle’s Local 7.
1947 – The Food, Tobacco,
Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union of America (FTA) succeeds UCAPAWA.
The union is now known as FTA-CIO Local 7.
1949-1950 – CIO expels FTA
International and Local 7 affiliates with International Longshoremen’s
and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) to become Local 7-C.
1951 – ILWU Local 7-C becomes Local