Seattle’s notable moments in labor history

Fourteen year Wal-Mart employee Mary Watkins (right) marches in support of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)
Wal-Mart employee Mary Watkins (right) marches in support of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle in 2014. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

The first Monday of September is Labor Day. While some Americans are glad it will be another three day weekend, others remember that the day is dedicated to honor the American labor movement and the contributions of workers.

Seattle has had its share of notable moments in labor history. Here are just a few, in no particular order.

Boeing hires its first black workers during World War II

In the 1930s, Boeing Company was a Seattle-based major player in the growing aviation field. But the company, founded in 1916, along with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, also had discriminatory hiring practices that excluded black people from getting jobs in the burgeoning industry.

That changed in 1942, when Florise Spearman and Dorothy West Williams became the first African Americans to ever be hired at Boeing — but it only happened after years of local activism and a national order.

In 1940, Hutchen R. Hutchins — a Seattle-based black activist, former local Communist Party leader and reporter for the Northwest Enterprise — organized a Committee for the Defense of Negro Labor’s Right to Work at the Boeing Airplant to push for the hiring of African Americans. The union had a policy against admitting nonwhite members. Boeing blamed the union for preventing the hiring of black applicants — though it had never hired any black people at any point in its history, according to the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History project.

Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), encouraged the NAACP’s Seattle branch to back the local efforts to get African Americans hired at Boeing.

In June of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning racial discrimination of  companies with government contracts, after black activists threatened to protest to the White House. The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. But it would take months before Boeing hired its first black workers, which it did only after the NAACP filed a complaint against the company in the newly established federal oversight committee. Spearman and Williams were among the many women being hired to replace men who were being called to serve in World War II.

Today, Boeing has an anti-discrimination policy.

Filipino-American labor leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes murdered

On June 1, 1981, Filipino-American activists and union leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, both 29, were gunned down near downtown Seattle — in a shooting that eventually was tied to the union president and to the family of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

The murders shook local labor activists and the Filipino community.

In the 1970s, Domingo and Viernes became active in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37, the union that represented Alaska cannery workers. They also wanted to organize a movement to end discrimination against Filipino workers and called for better working conditions in the canneries.

They founded Alaska Cannery Workers’ Association, which won a class action lawsuit for 700 cannery workers against some of the Alaskan fishery companies. The workers received a multi-million dollar settlement which resulted in one of the companies sued to file bankruptcy.

Domingo and Viernes also became concerned about reforming what they saw as corruption in the union. They also were community activists, and founded the Union of Democratic Filipinos, the first group in Seattle openly protesting Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

According to a 2011 story in Real Change, Domingo and Viernes believed the Tulisan gang was influencing which workers would get jobs, based on bribery. The gang would also control the secret gambling tables, which were popular among workers.

In 1980, Constantine “Tony” Baruso, a supporter of Ferdinand Marcos, was elected president of Local 37. Union reformers Domingo and Viernes were elected to leadership positions under him. According to Real Change, Viernes turned down Baruso’s requests to assign certain workers to the canneries.

Viernes and Domingo were shot at the offices of the Alaska Cannery Workers Association. Viernes died at the scene, but Domingo was able to identify the shooters before he died.

Two cannery workers Pompeyo Benito Guloy Jr. and Jimmy Bulosan Ramil, and gang leader Fortunato “Tony” Dictado were convicted of the murders. Several years later, the families of Domingo and Viernes won a civil lawsuit finding Baruso and the Marcos family liable for their deaths. The federal jury saw evidence tying Baruso to a large payment made on Marcos’ behalf, according to Colorlines.

After that lawsuit, Baruso was later tried in a criminal court and sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty in Viernes’ death. Baruso went to jail in 1991 — 10 years after the murders — and died in prison.

Seattle and SeaTac break ground in national $15 minimum wage movement

In the early to mid-2010s, the idea of the $15 minimum wage was catching on nationally. Activists in New York City say that the movement began there 2012, when about two hundred fast-food workers walked off the job demanding pay of $15 an hour, according to Fight for Fifteen website.

In 2013, voters in the city of SeaTac narrowly approved the $15 an hour minimum wage, which went into effect in 2014. Airline food vendors, Filo Foods and BF Foods, and Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association, argued in court that the airport was not covered by the minimum wage law, but lost.

A few months after SeaTac voters passed their measure, Seattle joined the movement with 15 Now campaign, launched in January of 2014 by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative Party. Seattle became one of the first large cities in the country to adopt a $15 minimum wage. However, unlike in SeaTac, Seattle’s minimum wage would be gradually increased so it would be $15 an hour between 2018 and 2021, depending on the size of the business and other factors.

The year after the Seattle City Council passed its measure, the $15 minimum wage was adopted by a dozen other cities and states, including Massachusetts, San Francisco, New York City, Missoula, Greensboro, N.C., Pittsburgh and more.

Seattle protests the World Trade Organization (WTO)

Seattle was selected to host the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in November 1999. The talks were expected to be the launch a new round of multilateral trade negotiations. Instead, Seattle became the center of a major protest often referred to as “Battle of Seattle.”

Protesters organized a series of marches in attempt to disrupt the conference. Thousands of people converged on Seattle to protest a variety of issues. Issues included sustainable economies, environmental protection and social issues. Labor protestors, including unions, focused on workers’ rights and a global minimum wage, according to Seattle Municipal Archives.

Protesters surrounded buildings downtown Seattle, blocked delegates from entering the meetings and stood off with law enforcement. Law enforcement arrested 157 people. An estimated 40,000 protesters were involved in the Battle of Seattle.

Gov. Gary Locke declared a state of emergency on Nov. 30, after businesses were vandalized and streets were blocked. Following worldwide media coverage, Seattle was criticized for mishandling the protest with police officers firing pepper spray, tear gas canisters and stun grenades. In 2004, the city settled with the 157 protesters who were arrested after a judge ruled that police held them without probable cause. The city settled for $250,000, according to the Seattle Times.

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