Cannery company agrees to settle longstanding discrimination lawsuits

Ron Chew July 15, 1985 0

Federal District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein last week tentatively approved a $850,000 settlement in one of three long-standing class action race discrimination suits against Alaska cannery companies.

In the early 1970s, Asian American and Native American workers filed three lawsuits against salmon canning companies, charging that Asian American and Native American were relegated to low paying, less desirable jobs and forced to sleep in inferior and segregated housing.

The suits, alleging violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, were the first class action cases ever filed on behalf of a seasonal, migratory labor force. Last Friday, Judge Rothstein gave “provisional approval” to a $850,000 settlement between the minority plaintiffs and NEFCO-Fidalgo Packing Co., an affiliate of the New England Fish Company (NEFCO).

The class, all non-whites employed by NEFCO-Fidalgo between July 2, 1971 and April 5, 1983, includes approximately 700 individuals. To date, 120 minority employees have filed claims in the case.

In the consent judgment, NEFCO agreed to pay specific cash settlements to each of the 10 named minority plaintiffs, set aside money to cover individual claims of housing and job discrimination, and pay attorneys.

The class members are now formally being notified of the settlement. The Court will hold a hearing at the end of September to consider any objections to the settlement before giving its final approval.

Meanwhile, the deadline for filing claims has been extended for minority class members in the case of Domingo vs. NEFO, a second discrimination lawsuit which involved five salmon canneries in Alaska.

The NEFCO case, initiated by Nemesio and Silme Domingo and nine other workers, involves non-whites employed or deterred from employment at NEFCO facilities in Uganik, Chatham, Egegik, Waterfall and Pederson Point since January 30, 1971.

The Court of Appeals, agreeing with the plaintiffs’ charges of discrimination in hiring, promotions and housing, also said the trial judge had erred restricting communications between the plaintiffs and their attorneys. The Court of Appeals directed that the class be expanded to include new members and the class members be given another opportunity to file claims.

In the NEFCO suit, the court has extended the deadline for filing claims to August 26, 1985. Almost 300 persons have already filed claims. After all claims are filed, the court will decide whether to award a lump sum or hold individual hearings.

The third class action lawsuit, initiated by slain cannery union reformer Gene Viernes and others, is on appeal. That suit—brought against Wards Cove Packing Company, Inc., Bumblebee Seafoods and Columbia Wards Fisheries–involves about 2,200 class members and five separate canneries.

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