BY RON CHEW
On June 1, 1981, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, two young Filipino American activists in Seattle, were gunned down at a cannery union hall in Pioneer Square. Thirty years later, the union hall is boarded up, a scar upon the urban landscape, remnant of a bygone labor era, waiting for the wide arc of the wrecking ball. But those of us who worked and volunteered and dreamed alongside them find continuing inspiration in remembering them and their enduring mark on our community.
Domingo was a native of Texas who grew up in Seattle. Viernes, a Wapato native, migrated over to Seattle after college. They were second generation Filipino American cannery workers, following in the path of their fathers, spending spring and summer months up in Alaska butchering and packing fish on assembly lines in low-paying, dangerous jobs like thousands of other Asian immigrants who came before them. Both were only 29 at the time of their deaths.
Gene and Silme met while working in the Alaska fish houses, but agreed to meet back in Seattle – home of the cannery union dispatch hall – as allies in a new fight to improve working conditions and eradicate racial discrimination in the industry. Silme and Gene spearheaded three class-action discrimination lawsuits on behalf of Asian American and Native American cannery workers and became leaders in the fight to stamp out corruption within their union, Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.
As outspoken advocates of union reform and leading opponents of political repression in the Philippines, they were targeted for elimination by the corrupt president of Local 37 and Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a complex plot uncovered piece by piece through tireless investigation by family and friends. In separate trials in the 10 years following the murders, four men went to jail for their role in the shootings, and the Marcoses was ordered to pay restitution for their high level responsibility in ordering and paying for the murders.
To outsiders, Domingo and Viernes appeared to be the most improbable of allies. Silme was gregarious, suave, slipping easily into laughter, nattily attired in the fashionable bell-bottom pants and platform shoes of the era, at home behind the steering wheel of his big burgundy Monte Carlo. Gene was a country boy, intense, competitive, socially awkward in the city, dressed a half a notch above a hobo in his ubiquitous painter’s cap, raggedy jeans and faded denim jacket, rolling into Seattle from the Yakima Valley in an old green Volkwagen that sputtered to stay alive.
As different as the two seemed, they were the closest of allies as community organizers. Like many of the college-educated Baby Boomers born to immigrant parents and raised during the Civil Rights Movement, they were united by a revolutionary fervor to bring greater equality to America, eliminate the scourge of racial discrimination and ensure fair treatment for workers on the bottom of the economic ladder.
In the 1970s, the two worked with other young activists – and elderly residents – to resurrect the deteriorating hotels that made up the majority of the International District. These buildings were home to a community of immigrants and seniors, but stood in the direct path of bulldozers that had arrived to clear the ghetto and make space for the Kingdome and other large scale public developments.
During their brief lives, Silme and Gene participated in numerous demonstrations for low-income housing, bilingual services, health care, workers rights, fair treatment of immigrants and affirmative action. They helped research and document the history of Asian laborers in agriculture and the canneries, shaped the early vision and social conscience of the International Examiner, and worked to establish the Danny Woo International District Community Garden so that our residents could have a place to till the soil and grow their own food.
Because they worked shoulder to shoulder with so many others who shared the same passionate vision, their murders felt like the jarring loss of two dear family members. Each one of us remembers the exact moment when we heard the news that Gene and Silme had been shot. Each of us endured the progressive stages of shock, denial, anger and fear – and an unending wave of grief. We still think about how much promise was wasted, and we wonder how much more they might have achieved had they lived.
But in an era of overblown hero worship, we tend to forget that they were just ordinary people, not so different from many of us who continue to do community work. As young men, Silme and Gene were brash, foolish and myopic – like the rest of us. But what made them extraordinary was the quality and depth of their commitment: how fiercely they worked toward their dream of a more just and tolerant society, their incorruptible character and their unshakeable devotion to family, friends and community.
One small story about Gene. After I left college in 1976, I worked in the International District for years, barely earning enough to sustain myself. I was looking for a place to live. Gene knew this and so he moved out of his apartment – a modest basement unit on Capitol Hill – a month sooner than he had planned, just so I could have a place. The day I moved in, I noticed that he had left behind his very modest collection of mismatched dishes, silverware and pots and pans on the kitchen counter, freshly washed and stacked. When I asked him about this, Gene said simply, “I already have everything I need.” I knew it wasn’t true, but it was his way of making sure I was taken care of.
This is how Gene and Silme treated those around them. We continue to remember Gene and Silme because – above and beyond our high regard for their community work – they were our dearest friends. And in a time when relationships have been attenuated by the ease of communicating through Facebook and mobile phones, they remind us of what real friendships are made of.
Ron Chew, executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation, is writing a book on the legacy of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in the cannery union reform movement. The publication is scheduled to be completed later this year.