Richard Gurtiza is President of Region 37, Inlandboatman’s Union/ILWU, representing Alaska cannery workers. He has been a member of Local 37 since 1977 and Regional Director of the IBU since 1993.
Gurtiza was born in the small farming community of Wapato, Washington in the 1950s. Like many young Filipino Americans in Washington, he went to work in the Alaska canneries in the late-1970s.
Cannery work was difficult. Men stood neck-deep in fish unloading cargo holds and sometimes spent eighteen-hour days on their feet, gutting and canning fish.
Filipino Americans who worked in this industry were treated poorly, paid the lowest wages, and given the worst jobs. They lived in segregated bunkhouses, ate at segregated mess halls, and were treated poorly by other workers and their employers. Moreover, corrupt union officials charged men for jobs and found other ways to extort money.
In the late 1970s, these conditions led activist Filipino cannery workers to reform the union and fight for better working conditions. Gurtiza was active in this movement. He worked side-by-side with Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes—the leaders of the Alaska Cannery Workers Association—to build the reform movement. After Domingo and Viernes were murdered in 1981, Gurtiza and other reformers won leadership positions and transformed Local 37.
In 1992, Gurtiza continued to advocate for Asian-American workers when he joined the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. In 1993 he was named regional director of the IBU. He remains active in the IBU/ILWU, the King County Labor Council, and the Washington State Labor Council.
Rich Gurtiza shared memories of his life and activism in an interview with Michael Schulze-Oechtering Castenada and Steve Beda conducted on July 16, 2008. To the right are video excerpts.