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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The Murders of Virgil Duyungan and Aurelio Simon and the Filipino Cannery Workers' Union

by Nicole Dade

The founding leadership of the Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union in 1933. Virgil Duyungan is on the far left. (Special thanks to Fred and Dorothy Cordova and the Filipino American National Historical Society for permission to display this image.)

On a cold December night in 1936, three men sat down to what would be their final meal. The Gyokko Ken Cafe in Seattle’s Chinatown was known as a place of clandestine meetings, and this meal was no exception.[1] What the meeting was supposed to be about is debatable. What is known is that after their meal, Baseda Patron, the man who invited the others to dinner, stepped out of the dining area on the pretense of checking out the rest of the restaurant only to return with a gun in hand. Patron shot his dining partners, one of which also had a gun and returned fire. Patron, the nephew of a labor contractor, murdered the two men due to their involvement in union efforts to remove the contracting system from the salmon canning industry.[3]

Patron’s victims,Virgil Duyungan and Aurelio Simon, were officials of the Filipino Cannery Worker’s and Farm Laborer’s Union (CWFLU). The main goals of the CWFLU were to rid the salmon canning industry of the exploitive labor contracting system and to improve working and living conditions at the canneries. These goals were hard fought, as internal and external forces fragmented the unity of the union. The deaths of these union leaders provided the spark needed to unite the fragmented Filipino community behind the union movement.[4]

After the Spanish-American War, the United States colonized the Philippines. At the time, Filipinos were considered US nationals. Because of this status, many Filipinos migrated to the US in hopes of finding economic and educational opportunities. In the Philippines they were taught that they would be welcome in the US, making it all the more difficult to bear the racism and hostility they received when they arrived here.[5] As the newest immigrant group entering the West Coast, many Filipinos could only find work in Alaskan canneries or on farms. Cannery work lasted during the spring and summer months, after which the workers often migrated to the orchards and fields of Eastern Washington and California. In between seasonal jobs many Filipinos based themselves in Seattle, establishing a Filipino community within Chinatown.[6]

The people who worked in the Alaskan canneries were mostly young male Filipinos called “Alaskeros.”[7] Living and working conditions for these men were quite bad. Due to the isolated location of the job, the company provided housing and food to its employees. The amount of food provided usually was not much and mostly consisted of rice and salmon every day. Many resorted to attempts at gardening and hunting because they were so hungry. Housing conditions were also notoriously bad. Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese workers lived in separate housing from the white workers. Workers had to bring their own bedding.[8]

The CWFLU marching on labor day, 1939, a few years after the murders. (Special thanks to Fred and Dorothy Cordova and the Filipino American National Historical Society for permission to display this image.)

Filipinos faced many hardships. As the newest ethnic group to be migrating to the Pacific Northwest, not only did they face hostility and racism from whites, they were also not given the same economic opportunities as the Chinese and Japanese who had migrated before them. In the canneries they were given menial positions, including the most dangerous jobs. They were not allowed to advance to more skilled or higher paid positions.[9]

The Alaskeros also had to deal with labor contractors, often Chinese or Japanese men, who were in charge of providing the canneries with labor. Potential employees were at the mercy of the contractors to get the job in the first place and then to determine the conditions of employment. Contractors could control salaries by withholding a fraction of their wages or by skimping on necessities. In Fred Cordova’s research on the history of Philippine-Americans, one Filipino recalled: “The less contractors doled out to their crews for food, clothing, transportation and other cannery needs, the more profit contractors made.”[10] Another way contractors would profit off of the cannery workers was to charge a contracting fee or a percentage of their wages as a condition of employment. As one Seattle Filipino described it, “You see, the conditions in Alaska at that time was so awful. That is just like they were (slaves). . . . They go there and get money from the contractor so they can go to Alaska and work. And then, when they come back, they are broke.”[11]

It was under these difficult working conditions that in June of 1933, Virgil Duyungan and six others founded the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Laborers’ Union. Duyungan was the union’s first president. They started the union with the goals of increasing wages and improving work conditions in the canneries and fields. The CWFLU hoped to achieve their goals by abolishing the contracting system and negotiating pay and work conditions through the union instead.[12] The contractors did not want to lose their position in the canning industry and fought hard to maintain it, a fight that culminated in the murders of Duyungan and Simon.  

The internal challenge of keeping the union organized and the external one of dealing with a racist country and aggressive contractors kept the Filipinos of Seattle in disagreement about how to gain economic power and control of their own lives. One way this disagreement manifested itself was in a lack of consensus about how to deal with the contractors. As there were several Filipino contractors, some Filipinos thought the abolishment of the contracting system would rid their people of one of the few high-status positions available to them.[13]

Due to a scandal involving Duyungan, the union was rife with internal disagreement. After his murder, the union actually became stronger, without what was seen as his corrupt leadership, and as the murders galvanized union members and the community in support of the CWFLU. To see why this was the case, a look at Duyungan’s actions in the years after the formation of the union is needed. Duyungan’s role was both positive and negative; while he fought hard to get Filipinos better wages and working conditions, he often mishandled union money and brought scandal to the organization.

One way Duyungan tried to improve Filipino American’s lives was by leading the CWFLU’s picketing against illegal gambling halls. It was in gambling halls that many migratory laborers lost—and rarely gained—a lot of money. A 1935 article in the Philippine-American Chronicle reported on a CWFLU estimate that $500,000 in Filipino wages were lost to gambling halls. Duyungan sent a letter to Seattle Police Chief Kirtley and Mayor Smith with the addresses of these illicit gambling halls and an explanation of how cannery workers could not afford to eat because all their money has been lost gambling.[14] 

The front page of the radical-labor paper The Sunday News, from December 6, 1936, reporting on the CWFLU murders.

The previous year, Duyungan had testified about the exploitative labor practices of the canneries at the National Recovery Act (NRA) hearings in San Francisco. He testified about how wages, working hours, working conditions, and living conditions were all substandard. Contractors swindled workers by making them buy clothes and other items stores that had deals with the contractors as a precondition of employment. Another complaint was that laborers were forced to work more hours than their contracts stated.[15]

For all of his efforts to promote the union’s goals, charges of corruption against Duyungan put the union in a bad light and made it harder to gain the trust of the Filipino community. Claims of crooked leadership arose around the mishandling of funds received from canneries paying union fees to get Alaskeros on board ships to Alaska. Charged with keeping over $4,000 in membership dues collected for the CWFLU, the union’s leadership was tried for grand larceny only two years after the CWFLU’s formation.[16] According to the Philippine-American Chronicle, “They failed to give Union Local No. 18257 funds donated by various cannery operators during the period from January 1, 1935 to April 27… At that time striking longshoremen refused to let cannery workers pass picket lines to board ships unless they were union members. Operators paid the money to the Cannery Workers local in order to put their employees in good standing.”[17]

It was suggested that Duyungan colluded with strike leaders to make sure that cannery workers could not pass the picket line without paying a fee. The workers were under the impression that the money spent to get past the picket line was a fee to join the union, so when they returned from the canning season to find that the money was considered only a fee to pass through the picket in safety, not union membership, they were quite displeased. In addition to that, Duyungan and other union officials had purchased cars while the aforementioned cannery workers were toiling in Alaska.[18]

There was more publicity working against the union’s leadership and image in the community.  A fight broke out in a printing house and the victim accused Duyungan of being one of the attackers. Duyungan, along with fourteen others, was accused of beating up the man, allegedly because he was printing and distributing flyers written against Duyungan and the union. The flyers argued that Duyungan was not to be trusted and that he was scamming the Alaskeros for their money without giving them anything in return, and that he was going to use their money to open a business for himself.[19] Other historians have confirmed that one of the union leaders did indeed purchase a restaurant around the time with what was supposed to be union money.[20] The flyer asked cannery workers to “defeat V. S. Duyungan.” The authors of the flyer “recognize[d] the NRA” and “respect[ed] the principles of the American Federation of Labor,” and only protested Duyungan’s practices.[21] This is a clear example of how divisive Duyungan was only two years after the union’s founding. When this event was written about in the newspaper, the flyer in its entirety was published in the article, providing a greater readership and producing more negative publicity than it probably would have had otherwise.

Misuse of union funds was one of the main concerns CWFLU and potential CWFLU members had with the original leadership of the union. In 1935, the monthly salary for the president was $80, the secretary received $60, the vice-president and treasurer each received $40, and other various officials ranged from $20 to $40. Compare this to the $25–$50 a month the average cannery worker earned and it is easy to see how resentment formed within the union against its leaders.[22]

The memorial service for slain CWFLU leaders Duyungan and Simon. (Special thanks to Fred and Dorothy Cordova and the Filipino American National Historical Society for permission to display this image.)

When the men were murdered, Mrs. Duyungan was one of the few who believed that members of the CWFLU arranged for the murders to take place because of the discredit Duyungan had brought to the union.[23] With the anger of many union members in mind, it is easy to see how she could have believed this. Without enough proof to support Mrs. Duyungan’s claims, though, the view that Patron really did work for the contractors remained the more likely scenario.

The murders may have been an attempt to stop the removal of the labor contracting system, but they had the opposite effect. Newspapers stopped writing negative things about Duyungan and started singing the union’s praises. Days after the murders at least 3,500 people marched through Seattle in a memorial parade. The progressive Washington Commonwealth Federation’s newspaper, The Sunday News, printed photos of the viewing and the procession.[24]

The CWFLU and the progressive labor community in Seattle were quick to turn both men into martyrs for the labor movement. More specifically, they rallied people in support of ridding the canning industry of the contractors. The executive director of the Washington Commonwealth Federation stated: “to do them full honor, we must carry out the aims they had in view.” In the same vein, a speaker for the CWFLU said: “Our brothers faced death for us . . . for their sakes, we must pick up the reins where they left off and eradicate the evil that killed them.”[25] A spokesman for the Maritime Federation stated: “no man or member will go to the Alaskan canneries in the 1937 season who was hired by or through any labor agent or contractor.”[26] Both Duyungan and Simon’s role in the labor movement were spoken about, and the accomplishments of the union were also described. Workers were described as “virtual slaves” of the contractors, and it was remembered that cannery unionization “opened the door to a rapid improvement in wages and working conditions in Alaskan canneries,” and that “Wages rose from $25 a month in 1933 to $65 a month in 1936.”[27]

By using their deaths as a rallying point, the union was able to bring the Filipino community together and forge a real, if short-lived, consensus in gaining rights for their people. The event brought the Filipino and broader labor community into agreement about the need to remove contracting and produced real change in many laborers’ lives. The murders of union leaders Virgil Duyungan and Aurelio Simon ironically strengthened rather than weakened the Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union.

Copyright (c) 2009, Nicole Dade
HSTAA 353 Spring 2009

[1]     Chris Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), p.146.

[3]  “Triple Cafe Killing Rocks Community,” Philippine-American Tribune, 9 December 1936, p.1.

[4]     “Union Officers Slain,” Philippine-American Tribune, 9 December 1936, p.4.

[5]     Carlos Bulosan, America Is In The Heart (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1973), p.xiii.

[6]     Dorothy Fujita-Rony, American Workers, Colonial Power: Philippine Seattle and the Transpacific West, 1919-1941 (University of California Press, 2003), p. 173.

[7]     Fred Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans (Demonstration Project for Asian Amerians, 1983), p.57.

[8]     Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, pp.66-69.

[9]     Cordova Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, p.67.

[10]    Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, p.65.

[11]    Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, p.65.

[12]    Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor, pp.140-141.

[13]    Fujita-Rony, American Workers, Colonial Power, pp.173-174.

[14]    “Vigorous Picket Against Gambling Resorts Launched by Union Local,” Philippine-American Chronicle, 2 August 1935, pp.1-2.

[15]    Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, p.78.

[16]    “Union Officers To Be Tried For Grand Larceny,” Philippine-American Chronicle, August 1935, p.1.

[17]    “Union Officers To Be Tried For Grand Larceny,” Philippine-American Chronicle, August 1935, p.1.

[18]    Fujita-Rony, American Workers, Colonial Power, p.184.

[19]    “Mention of Duyungan as one of attackers of V.S. Panganiban,” Philippine-American Chronicle, April 1935, p.1 p.3.

[20]    Fujita-Rony, American Workers, Colonial Power, p.184.

[21]    “Mention of Duyungan as one of attackers of V.S. Panganiban,” Philippine-American Chronicle, April 1935, p.1 p.3.

[22]    Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor, p.144.

[23]    Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor, p.146.

[24]    “3,500 Unionists Lay Two Slain Martyrs To Rest,” The Sunday News, 13 December 1936, p.3.

[25]    “3,500 Unionists Lay Two Slain Martyrs To Rest,” The Sunday News, 13 December 1936, p.3.

[26]    “3,500 Unionists Lay Two Slain Martyrs To Rest,” The Sunday News, 13 December 1936, p.3.

[27]    “3,500 Unionists Lay Two Slain Martyrs To Rest,” The Sunday News, 13 December 1936, p.3.