collage of workers

Top left: Trefon Angnasan with canned peaches. Angnasan Family private collection. Top center: Gallery view – photograph by Brian Wallace. Top right: Larry Itliong. Photograph by John Lewis. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Bottom right: Cannery worker feeds the fillet machine at Diamond NN Cannery, 1989. Katherine Ringsmuth private collection. Bottom center: The Italian fishermen bound for Alaska, ca. 1900-1910. San Francisco Maritime Historical Park. Bottom left: Filipino fish house worker, Romeo, teaches one of the new female entrants the skill of “indexing,” ca. 1980. Precise placement of the salmon into the butchering machine was vital. Too much cut led to economic and ecological waste, while too little left the gills and the uncanable parts of the fish collar and head, which added work for the slimers. With the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972, more female cannery workers entered the workplace and mastered such skills. Mike Rann, private collection.


Forming Friendships

Although resident Alaska Native people are expert fisherman, APA hired immigrants from maritime nations of Scandinavia and the Mediterranean to catch salmon.

Called the “north countrymen,” fishermen from Norway, Sweden, and Finland were considered part of the “white crew,” while those from Italy were called “Dagos.” Despite being tasked with the same job, the canners placed the Italian fishermen lower in the cannery hierarchy.

The Italian bunkhouse was located near Trefon Angasan’s house in the village of South Naknek. Over the seasons, the Italians formed lasting friendships with the local residents who were similarly marginalized by the salmon packers.

Trefon recalled that Italians’ love of food made a lasting impression on him as a child: "I remember the Italian fishermen would put together big parties to go to Diamond M beach, and we would dig clams. Buckets and buckets of clams. And they would come up to the house, and they would soak them out, and they would cook it. You know, steam them in garlic, and bring their French bread and their wines."

Because fishermen were company employees before 1951, the cannery supplied groceries for the summer fishing season.

Rather than returning the remaining provisions to the cannery at the end of the season, the fishermen gave gunnysacks of canned food to his parents: "All of the fishermen would put their canned goods from their boat into gunnysacks, and at night, they would carry them up to my mom’s house. And I remember the corner of the windbreak was stacked with gunnysacks. And, you know, to this day, I prefer canned fruit over fresh fruit. That’s how I grew up."

Filipino Activism Ends the Contract System, Fights for Civil Rights

Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa parorounan—Knowing your past will provide you direction to the future.              

— Tagalog proverb

1898 - The United States annexes the Philippines after the Spanish -American War; Filipinos become American “nationals.” Called the “Manong generation” young Filipino men migrate to the United States for education and work, including in agricultural fields and salmon canneries.

1910 - The US Census shows Filipino Alaskeros at salmon canneries for the first time. Labor contractors hired them as part of the “China Gang.”

1920s - More Filipinos work in canneries than any other ethnic group. Frustrated by the corrupt contract labor system, Filipino cannery workers begin meeting to discuss unionization.

1933 - On June 19, the American Federation of Labor issues a charter to the Cannery Worker’s and Farm Laborer’s Union (CWFLU) Local 18257, which represents workers who can salmon in Alaska in the summer and pick fruit in the fields of California during the winter. It was the first union of its kind in the United States.

1934 - Responding to anti-Filipino sentiments, Congress passes the Tydings McDuffe Act, an anti-immigration law that set Filipino immigration limits. The act completes the racial exclusion of Asian immigrants into the country that started with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

1936 - Labor contractor Placido Patron kills union President Virgil Duyungan and Secretary Aurelio Simon in Seattle for undermining the labor contractor system. The murders unite Filipino Alaskeros and helps to end the contract labor system in Alaska canneries.

1937 - Union leaders form a new union: The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) Local 7. In November 1937, union members voted to affiliate with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

1951 - Local 7 wins collective bargaining rights from its rival unions, and in 1951 signs a four-year contract with Alaska Salmon Industry, and subsequently, becomes Local 37 ILWU.

1972 - Congress amends Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, approving the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. That same year, next-generation Filipino- American cannery workers Gene Viernes, Silme Domino, and Nemesio Domingo spearhead the formation of the Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA).

1973-74 - ACWA file three separate class-action lawsuits against three different Alaska salmon packers, alleging discrimination under Title VII, promising “to further promote equal employment opportunities for American workers.”

1977 - The US District Court for the Western District of Washington rules that that NEFCO discriminated based on race in the allocation of jobs in violation of Title VII and found that NEFCO discriminated based on race in housing its employees but not in feeding its employees.

1979 - The Alaska Packers Association integrates bunkhouses and mess halls at its Alaska canneries, recognizing that racializing accommodations such as “Filipino Bunkhouse,” “Native Bunkhouse,” and “White Bunkhouse” denied workers civil liberties and violated Title VII.

1981 – Silme Domino and Gene Viernes are shot at the Local 37 Union building in Seattle, Washington. Tony Baruso, Local 37 President, was convicted for aggravated murder for ordering the executions.

1991 – In Antonio v. Wards Cove Packing Co., the US Supreme Court rules against the cannery workers, concluding that they could not prove discrimination. The decision, however, sparked Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that reinstated protections against workplace discrimination.

2022 - Today Filipinos constitute the largest immigrant population in many coastal Alaska towns and the city of Anchorage.

Labor Champion: Larry Itliong

Filipino-American labor organizer Larry Itliong was the Local 37 union delegate at the NN Cannery in the 1950s. Like many of his generation, Itliong worked in California farm fields in the winter and Alaska salmon canneries in the summer. Itliong organized agricultural workers beginning in the 1930s and formed the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta in 1962. Itliong’s nickname was “Seven Fingers,” because he lost three of his fingers at an accident in an Alaska salmon cannery. 

From the Seattle Headquarters to the Shores of Alaska Union dispatchers gave cannery workers their season assignments at the Local 37 union office in downtown Seattle. After receiving a physical exam they would depart for Alaska. 

Women’s Work

In most Alaska subsistence cultures, fish camp was critical to surviving harsh winters. Native women managed the important and influential task of processing fish, and decisions made by women helped Alaska Native families thrive and flourish over thousands of years.

As fish factories settled alongside fish camps along Bristol Bay rivers, the esteemed role of female fish processors decreased with industrialization. Although preparing fish for market is arguably the most important step in the canning operation, fishermen - not processors - became the icon of the industry.

Decreasing the value of processing labor legitimized lower wages regardless of the product’s overall value. Canners who hired Chinese men inaccurately described the Asian workers as “feminine” who could be paid like women.

Salmon canneries employed few non-Alaska Native female workers until after WWII. The Mess Hall was an important entry point for women into the workforce. Both Alaska Native and non-Native women worked in the mess hall as waitresses, bakers, and Mug-Up servers. 

In the 1960s, female cannery workers increased, especially with the introduction of the Egg House, where Japanese technicians oversaw packing salmon roe.

With the passage of the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972, the canners’ newly formed Human Resources departments recruited more female workers. Women entered the cannery workplace as bookkeepers, store managers, and fish clerks. Women served as patchers, worked in the can shop, and made their way into skilled positions such as Quality Control.

By the 1980s, women served as supervisors. With more wives and daughters fishing on salmon boats, women hanging nets in the Net Loft also increased. Former cannery worker Becky Savo recalls that female laborers watched out for each other:

“It was kind of a team spirit. We would rally around each other.”

Unheard Voices

As the number of female workers in salmon canneries increased, so did sexism, discrimination, and accounts of criminal abuse. “I remember the centerfolds wallpapering parts of the cannery,” recalled one female cannery worker. “But even though the Playboys came down, it was still a man’s world.” Although female workers make up a large percentage of the industry, far too many stories of female cannery workers remain unheard.