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Filipino Cannery Unionism Across Three Generations 1930s-1980s

Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union 1933-39

Their Strength in Unity

by Crystal Fresco

The United States took possession of the Philippines in 1898 and in the decades after that, 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 Coast.

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 together 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 and congregated.

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 organization campaign.

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 do away 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 canneries.

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 farm workers.

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 establish increased 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 their goals.

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.

©1999 Crystal Fresco
(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 Press, 1994.


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, Acc. #3927

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 later documentation.

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 Society.

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”