Alaska Cannery Workers Await Court Ruling on Historic Discrimination Suit

Ron Chew November 15, 1976 0

Court testimony in the class action discrimination suit brought against the largest cannery company in North America ended November 10, but Federal District Judge Gus Solomon is not expected to rule on the case until sometime in January.

The Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA), a Seattle-based organization fighting employment discrimination in Alaska’s canneries, brought the suit against the New England Fish Co. (NEFCO) in 1973, charging that Alaskan Native and Asian American workers were relegated to the lowest-paying, menial cannery jobs, dined in segregated mess halls and slept in segregated bunkhouses.

Suit on Behalf of Labor

ACWA’s suit is the first class action case ever brought on behalf of a seasonal, migratory labor force. It is also the largest case ever brought on behalf of Alaskan native and Asian American workers, potentially affecting 1,000 cannery workers.

The suit went to trial November 8, after negotiations between ACWA and NEFCO attorneys fell through. The negotiations failed when agreement could not be reached on an affirmative action requirement for skilled positions in the canneries.

Approximately 50 per cent of the company’s employees are non-white, but the vast majority of those working in the lowest cannery position are non-white. There are no non-whites in the top administrative category, and few in other skilled positions.

Nemesio Domingo, ACWA representative, told the Examiner after the surprisingly short three-day trail, “At the heart of anything we want is a 50 percent affirmative action requirement for the skilled positions. That is the cornerstone of any kind of settlement we would accept.”

During the trail, NEFCO attorneys argued that the percentage of minorities applying for skilled positions was less than six or seven per cent.

Michael Dundy, NEFCO attorney, told Judge Solomon during the opening arguments November 8 that the company has no legal obligation to train and promote employees.

“The people must be able to perform when they arrive,” Dundy said. “There’s no promotion. If someone’s got the skills and we know they got the skills, we give them the job.”

Nepotistic Hiring

Michael Fox, ACWA attorney, said the company engaged in nepotistic hiring practices and that there were separate hiring channels for whites and non-whites.
The absence of written job qualifications can lead to the imposition of illegal and racially discriminatory practices, Fox told the judge.

“We contend,” Fox continued, “that some of the opinion offered by some of their (the company’s) witnesses are ideal job qualifications rather than actual job qualifications applied on those in the industry.”

Fox said that before ACWA filed suit in 1973, as many as 16 non-white cannery workers were housed in one room. Fox called attention to the deposition of one worker who said his bunkhouse floor was so warped he could roll a stone down it. Even today, Fox said, non-whites continue to receive inferior housing.

Dundy retorted, “Most of the housing is not good for anyone.” The NEFCO attorneys added that, recently, the company has upgraded the housing.

One witness, a white woman, testified that the mess hall at Chatum was partitioned into two areas, one for whites and one for non-whites. The non-whites, the woman testified, receive no bread, butter, coffee or potatoes.

No Bread?

Judge Solomon asked, “If it wasn’t on the table, were you able to get it elsewhere in the dining room?”

The woman replied no.

NEFCO had witnesses prepared to testify that non-whites and whites received comparable food, but Solomon said their testimony wasn’t necessary.

“I want to tell you now that I believe they served bread and butter,” the judge said shortly before court testimony ended.

“I would agree on the bread and butter, but don’t press it too far,” the judge cautioned Dundy.

Ivan Fox, superintendent at Uganik Bay since 1963, testified that hiring was done strictly according to ability. People have to have the “desire” to become a machinist, Fox said. 
 Is the desire asked the judge, stronger among whites than it is among non-whites?

Fox said no.

Solomon, who began questioning Fox, then asked about the different food served non-whites. Do Filipinos want to be served “ethnic food?” asked Solomon.

“Yes,” the superintendent replied. “Rice and pork and ginger beef and that kind of thing.” He added, however, that whites and non-whites ate at both mess halls. And he said the food at both halls was comparable.

Solomon brought up the testimony of plaintiffs Nemesio and Silme Domingo who said the food they received was of poorer quality.

Too Late to Change

“Didn’t you tell him (Nemesio Domingo) it was too late in the year to change the food?” asked Solomon.

Fox said he could only “slightly recall” the incident.

“He was a troublemaker,” the judge said. “He asked for better food, didn’t he?”

Fox denied that was the reason Domingo was fired. He said Domingo was fired for other reasons.

Solomon asked Fox to comment on the contention many, many people were housed in one room.

“We had dormitory-style rooms,” Fox replied.

Solomon asked about the statement of the plaintiffs that, out of four toilets in the bunkhouse, two or three were never working.

“I have read their statement,” Fox said, “and I don’t agree with it.”

Asked if there were fewer dresser and chairs in the Filipino bunkhouse, Fox replied, “They (the workers) move them around, so it’s pretty difficult to say where they’re going to be.”

The judge noted testimony that there are very few minorities requesting work on tenders, the boats carrying the fish back to the canneries.

Fox said there were probably six or eight Alaskan natives on the 17 tenders. There were no Filipinos, Fox added.

“Compatibility” is a quite important qualification of those who work on tenders, Fox said.

Badge of Discrimination

The judge told Fox the U.S. Navy once used the test of compatibility as a qualification, but the Supreme Court struck it down, ruling it was “a badge of discrimination” used to keep “Negroes” out of the navy.

Michael Fox argued that minorities have been kept out of entry level jobs and that the company should be required to reserved a certain number of those jobs to minorities in the future. Had there not been discrimination in certain classification, Fox argued, there would be significant numbers of minorities in those positions today.

One of the NEFCO attorneys said, however, “What the plaintiffs are asking for can be described in two words: quota system” What is fair, the attorney said, is to hire based on qualifications and skill which, he said, NEFCO has always done.

Judge Solomon, at one point, said, “I believe that the New England Fish Co. is not required to hire any non-white because he is non-white. They should hire on qualifications, Solomon said.

However, the judge added, looking at the statistical absence of non-whites in the skilled, higher paying jobs, the burden can be placed on the defendants to show non-discrimination.

Hesitancy about Ruling

Solomon cautioned that “court decree” will not solve the problems of the case. He expressed hesitancy about ruling that there have to be written job qualifications. If he did so, to what extent he should spell them out, Solomon asked.

During the next two months, attorneys for both sides will submit briefs and rebuttals to Judge Solomon. Sometime during the 15 days following the two month period, Solomon will come out with his decision.

ACWA representatives feel that if they win this case, they will be in a much better position to negotiate favorable settlements with the several other cannery companies against which they have also filed.

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