Updated: June 7, 2020,12:07 PM
Updated:June 6, 2020, 2 PM
Updated:June 5, 2020, 6:35 AM
Updated:June 3, 2020, 1:00 PMUnited States/ Canada
Celebrating the legacy of Filipino labour unionism
Teodoro ‘Ted’ Alcuitas
In the United States…
Almost 40 years ago today on June 1, 1981, two young Filipino-American unionists were gunned down in the Seattle office of the Cannery Workers ILWU Local 37.
Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, both 29 years old, were union officers and were campaigning to reform the union of corruption.
They were summarily executed on orders of then Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos for their anti-Marcos activities. Marcos was found guilty in 1989 and in 1991, union president Tony Baruso was found guilty in the death of Viernes and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison on November 14, 2008. The estate of Silme Domingo was awarded $12,794,000.00 and Gene Viernes $2,254,000.00 – the largest personal injury verdict in the state of Washington and the only time a head of a foreign government was held liable for murders of American citizens on U.S. soil.
All these are detailed in the book ‘Summary Execution – The Seattle Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes’ by family lawyer Michael Withey.
Larry Itliong, UFW (United Farms Workers)
Long before the murders of Domingo and Viernes in 1981, another Filipino-American labour leader was already active in the labour movement.
Larry Itliong convinced 2,000 Filipino farmworkers to walk away from the California vineyards on September 7, 1985 and began the famous Delano Grape Strike.He also convinced Mexican labour leader Cesar Chavez and together they formed the United Farm Workers (UFW). The Delano Grape Strike lasted five years, considered the most important social justice movement and economic movements in American history.
Itliong’s life is immortalized in the book ‘Jouney fro Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong’ by Dawn Bohulano and Gayle Romasanta and illustrated by Andre Sibayan.
But why is it important to remember this history?
Teaching Filipino-Americans—specifically the youth—about our collective history is about “battling for the Filipino-American soul,” says Dillon Delvo, executive director of the advocacy group Little Manila Rising in Southside Stockton. Without understanding our history, Filipinos are content to just fill the economic and labor needs of its current oppressor, without critical analysis of who they are. “When we talk about the battle for our souls, it’s about standing together, despite this history, despite compounded generational trauma. [The battleground] is where you stand with your people and acknowledge this marginalized history. It’s only when we acknowledge this shared history, can we then stand together and fulfill our own needs and our own dreams.”
Excerpts from the University of Washington Digital Collection
The son of poor farmers, Carlos Sampayan Bulosan (c. 1911– September 11, 1956) was a Filipino American author, poet, and activist. A chronicler of the Filipino American experience during the 1930s – early 1950s, he is best remembered for his semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical novel America Is In the Heart (1946) — a staple in American Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies classes.
First migrating to the United States via Seattle in 1930, he spent several years working migratory labor jobs and labor organizing with his fellow Filipino immigrants. In doing so, Bulosan shared common experience with many other first-generation Filipino migrant workers, most of whom worked in domestic jobs or in agricultural or cannery labor on a migratory labor circuit that spanned the West Coast—from California to Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.
Bulosan is a central figure in Filipino American history. His words and image appear in murals and exhibits throughout Seattle’s International District. Scholars, artists and activists continue to look to him for inspiration. Yet many factors conspired to silence Bulosan and ensure his words and deeds would never be known. It was because of the hard work of various progressive labor, ethnic, cultural, and political communities — the same communities that inspired and sustained Bulosan — that we remember him today. Bulosan is remembered as a progressive anti-colonial, pro-labor, humanitarian voice by an array of communities including Asian/Pacific Islanders, organized labor, academics and intellectuals, and a wide range of social justice; ethnic; and activist communities.
Though Canada is much younger than the U.S. in terms of migration, Filipinos have also distinguished themselves in the labor front.
Sonny Arrojado ( National Federation of Nurses’ Union)
The first Filipino known to occupy a major union in Canada was Sonny Arrojado, a nurse in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
A 1977 graduate of the University of Santo Tomas School of Nursing, she worked in both the operating room and the urology section of the St. Boniface General Hospital. From 1968 to 1971, she was employed at the Flin Flon General Hospital.
She later became the president of the Manitoba Organization of Nurses’ Associations before becoming president of National Federation of Nurses’ Union.
In 1982, Arrojado was appointed Chair of Manitoba’s Workers’ Compensation Board, the first woman to hold that position.
Mable Elmore, MLA (Canadian Auto Workers Union)
Mable Elmore was the first Filipino to be elected a Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (MLA) and the first openly gay member. Elected first in 2009 for Vancouver-Kensington, she was re-elected in 2013 and 2017.
A former transit driver, Elmore was active in her union – Canadian Auto Workers Local 111 and led successful campaigns as a transit advocate.
A graduate of the University of British Columbia, she serves as Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction.
Elmore previously served as the Official Opposition spokesperson for ICBC, and the deputy spokesperson for Finance.
Betty Valenzuela, (Health Employees Union, HEU)
Betty Valenzuela occupies the second top position in the Health Employees Union (HEU) Executive as Financial Secretary.
HEU is British Columbia’s oldest and largest health care union representing over 50,000 members in hospitals, long-term care and community social services, as well as a number of First Nations health organizations.
A former health records clerk at Vancouver General Hospital, this is Valenzuela’s first term as financial secretary. An HEU member since 1995, she was first elected to the Provincial Executive as a trustee in 2014 for a four-year term. A long-time secretary-treasurer at her local, she has also served on a number of union committees – including HEU and CUPE global justice committees. Valenzuela has worked as a facilitator for table officers’ training and on HEU’s bursary committee. She has been on union leave from the Health Records department at VGH since 2007 to serve her local as a full-time shop steward.
The Provincial Executive is responsible for implementing the goals and policies set by the union’s membership, and guiding the work of the union between conventions.
Rene-Nicolas ( BC Government & Service Employees’ Union)
Lawyer Rene-John Nicolas is currently an advocacy staff representative for the BC Government & Service Employees’ Union. In the past, he was a labour relations staff representative for the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators.
He was appointed to the Board of Governors for Vancouver City College(VCC) on December 31, 2017 and will serve until July 31, 2021.
An associate lawyer for Victory Square Law Office LLP, prior to joining the union, Nicolas worked as a research assistant for the University of British Columbia.
Active in his community, he served as a past director for Tulayan, the BC Employment Standards Coalition, the Kaya Community Society, and the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association.
A former Kalayaan Centre director with whom he had conversations about uniquely Filipino issues prompted Nicolas to consider studying law. “It was conversations with her that inspired me to consider pursuing law school as a means of potentially working on some of those issues.”
As a member of VCC’s Board of Governors, Nicolas hopes to bring his experiences working with immigrant youth groups and labour organizations to the table.
Alex Banaag ( United Food and Commercial Workers ,UFCW)
United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada) – a proud union that feeds, serves, and provides for Canada’s hard-working families. UFCW Canada National Representative Alex Banaag was honoured as a Filipino-Canadian advocate of Labour and Social Justice for his years of organizing work with Canada’s leading union.
“I am thrilled to be recognized by PATAC as a proud Filipino Canadian working hard to make a difference in the labour movement,” says Banaag. “I would like to thank PATAC for awarding me this wonderful honour and also thank UFCW for supporting me in my work as an organizer,” he adds.
He was one of the honourees in a June 22, 2019 exhibition by Philippine Advancement through Arts and Culture (PATAC) n celebration of the first Filipino Heritage Month in Canada.The week-long photo-exhibit w shell at the Toronto City Hall.
UFCW is the union representing workers at Cargill’s meat processing plant in High River, Alberta, site of the largest Covid-19 outbreak in Canada. Over half of its 2,000 workers are Filipinos.
Laarni de los Reyes ( British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCEGU)
De los Reyes is a union organizer for the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) which represents approximately 77,000 members who work for the provincial government.
She previously worked as the Constituency Assistant for MLA Raj Chouhan, New Democrat MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds who was the Labour Critic at the time.
Born in the Philippines, she immigrated to Canada as an infant.
She visited the Philippines in 2008 on a two-week human rights tour with the Vancouver and District Labour Council’s delegates from local unions.
De los Reyes believes the challenge in organizing workers to join a union is fear. “People coming from the Philippines will remain quiet and work hard despite even the most deplorable working conditions. But under Canadian law, people have the right to join a union, and unions are here to defend those rights,” she says.
She hopes that Filipinos and other new Canadian workers learn more about how union membership can improve their working conditions in so many ways. “It’s important for Filipinos to understand the importance of joining a union and getting behind the Labour Movement. It opens the door to a better life for themselves and their children by increasing job security, wages and our dignity as workers.”
Monica Urrutia, PSAC ( Public Service Alliance of Canada)
Urrutia previously worked for the Federal Government at the Canada Border Services Agency and the Passport Office before joining PSAC.
As a PSAC member she involved at local, regional, and national levels. She started her activism through youth and women’s issues in the Filipino and broader community and saw a need to bridge this social activism with the union movement.
As a PSAC Regional Representative she continues to put her experiences to work for the benefit of the members.
Urrutia is responsible for various Metro Vancouver locals, coordinates the work of Vancouver, North, Southern Interior, and Vancouver Island Regional Women’s Committees and the Vancouver & District Area Council, as well as being the Regional Mobilization Coordinator for CFIA and FNHA members in BC.
Urrutia also holds the regional Racially Visible equity portfolio.
Nym Calvez, Unite Here Local 40
Nym Calvez is a union organizer for UNITE Here Local 40 in Vancouver.
She immigrated to Canada as a domestic worker under the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) for eight years and eventually worked as a housekeeper at Pinnacle Hotel in downtown Vancouver.
It was through her work at the hotel that she was introduced to Unite Here, an international union that works mainly with the hospitality industry.
Calvez recently became the centre of a raging controversy in the Filipino community in Canada when she appeared on national TV as a representative of the union.
Appearing on CBC’s coronavirus town halll on the effects of the pandemic on hotel workers, her comments generated an unprecedented backlash from the internet community.
Critics filled their social media accounts with fake reports on her statement and the post became viral.