David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Living Tradition of Filipino Union Activism
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (8/5/96) - When Joanne Bunuan applied to attend the Organizing Institute, and began the odyssey which led to her current work as a union organizer, she didn't realize that she was following a long tradition among Filipinos. "I was in college at the University of Massachusetts," she remembers. "I wasn't an activist, but I had radical ideas. I knew I wanted to be involved in social change, but I didn't really know much about the labor movement."

An adviser urged her to investigate the Organizing Institute, set up by the AFL- CIO to recruit young people as union organizers. To her surprise, she passed the initial evaluation, and was sent to work on a union organizing drive in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The experience not only demonstrated her abilities, but convinced Bunuan herself that she had something to contribute.

"Seeing the way many workers live in this country shook me up," she remembers. "I saw the racism dividing Asian, Latino, African-American and white workers. I thought, I can do something about this."

She did do something. Today, she's an experienced union organizer for the Laborers' Union, criss-crossing the midwest. She brings the union's message to workers in chicken and turkey processing plants, who work in dangerous conditions at some of the country's lowest wages.

Joanne Bunuan, born in Quezon City in 1973, followed the footsteps of the original pioneers, who left the Philippines in the 1920s to find a new life in America. They became a radical generation, and set a pattern of labor involvement still characteristic of the Filipino community. Today, Filipinos are active in all levels of American unions. They are worker-activists in factories and offices, organizers like Bunuan, and elected union officers. They have helped to establish enduring links between labor organizations and the Filipino community as a whole.

"The manongs who came in the 1920s were children of colonialism," Abba Ramos, a veteran organizer in the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, says. "They were radicalized, because they compared the ideals of the U.S. constitution, which they were taught in the islands, and of the Filipinos' own quest for freedom, with the harsh reality they found here."

The contributions of that generation to the larger U.S. labor movement are hard to underestimate. Leaders like Philip Veracruz, Larry Itliong and Pete Velasco organized strikes of California grape pickers through the 1950s and early 60s. Their work culminated in the great grape strike of 1965, when the United Farm Workers of America was born. Ernie Mangaoang and Chris Mensalvas organized the Filipino workers who made the long and dangerous voyage every year to isolated salmon canneries in Alaska. Seattle's well-known Local 37 was the fruit of their efforts.

Carlos Bulosan, who chronicled their labor organizing efforts in California fields, expressed the idealism of that generation. "America is not a land of one race or one class of men," he wrote in his novel, America Is In The Heart. "We are all Americans who have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers." At a time when the Philippines was still a U.S. colony, Bulosan declared that "America is not bound by geographical lattitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world."

Ramos is one of the first children of that generation - sons and daughters of the first immigrants. His mother and father worked on Hawaii's giant sugar plantations in the late 1930s and 40s, when unionism was in the air. "It was an apartheid style of life," he remembers, "where workers were held hostage to the mill owners."

Hawaii was swept by union organizing drives during those years, which made the ILWU the most powerful political force in the islands. "The union revolutionized the whole democratic process," Ramos explains. "Before sugar workers had a union, five families ran everything. Afterwards, every politician who wanted to run for office had to come talk to the workers, and their union decided who got elected."

Ramos was one of the first children of sugar workers to attend the University of Hawaii. On graduation, he got a job in a non-union hotel, the King Kamehameha, hoping to help workers organize. Ramos listened to Filipino ILWU leaders. "I admired them. They had the power to stand up to the boss. They told me, if you want to be an organizer, show us what you can do. Go into the workplace and unite your fellow workers."

Ramos spent his life working for his union, the ILWU. "Filipino workers," he says, "are often still on the bottom. We make the beds. We work in the restaurants, the electronics plants, and the fields. We need to accept the fact we are a working-class community. If we want to advance, we have to unite with other workers like us. That's what we learned in Hawaii."

Filipino labor activists not only organized unions, but fought to make them clean and democratic, responsive to the needs of their members. Seattle's ILWU Local 37 fell into the hands of racketeers in the 1950s and 60s. Union leaders sold jobs in the union hall, and ran gambling operations to fleece workers in Alaska. Meanwhile, bad conditions in the remote canneries went unchallenged.

In 1977, Richard Gurtiza, just out of college, got a dispatch to Alaska. "I found segregated housing and mess halls," he remembers, "and discrimination against Filipinos in promotions and jobs. We had no upward mobility, and lived in old and decrepit bunkhouses. I felt like I was living in the past."

Two older friends of Gurtiza, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, spearheaded a movement to challenge that discrimination, and filed suit against the canneries. They built a rank-and-file movement among the local's members, and were elected dispatcher and president. Then, in an incident which horrified the Filipino community up and down the Pacific coast, they were assasinated in the Seattle union hall soon after taking office in 1981.

"I decided to help finish what they started," Gurtiza explains, "Gene and Silme started a movement which empowered union members. That was how we beat the people who killed them. Instead of scaring people into silence, more workers came forward."

Gurtiza, a childhood friend of Viernes, became a union activist. He was elected to the local's executive board, and a shop steward in Alaska. Today he's the Regional Director of District 37 of the Inland Boatman's Union, ILWU, the old Local 37. Cleaning up the union made it a better representative for workers. "The old administration was more like a company union," he says. "Our concern, first and foremost, is to represent the interests of the rank-and-file. We follow the decisions they make, regardless of what the company says."

Local 37 has been an institution in Seattle's International District for decades, and provides important services to the community. It helps with tax returns and sponsors Filipino youth activities. Many other organizations meet in its hall, and the local participates in coalitions on community issues like immigrant rights. "We're here, not just to provide employment opportunity," Gurtiza says, "but to play a role in the community. Our responsibility is to represent all our members, Filipinos and non- Filipinos alike, so we're not a Filipino union. We're a union with many Filipino members, in the Filipino community."

Luisa Blue, now an organizing coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, also began her union activism in a movement to make her union more responsive to issues in the broader community. "I grew up wanting to fight for my rights, and for those of other people of color," she says. Like Gurtiza and Ramos, her parents were first-generation immigrants. They settled in San Francisco's low- income housing projects, where Blue became a community activist before she really knew what unions were.

"We organized young people in San Francisco's Mission District," she remembers. "We fought for the right of young people to be out on the street without being harassed and beaten by the police. The war in Vietnam was going on, and we could see that young men of color were dying at a much higher rate. We organized around that issue as well."

She became a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. With its large Filipino workforce, the hospital was a natural source of support for campaigns to defend the rights of immigrant nurses. Blue worked to defend Narciso and Perez, two Chicago nurses blamed for the deaths of patients. She fought other attacks on Filipino nurses as well, many of whom came from the Philippines on H-1 visas, and whose credentials were often challenged. "These nurses were extremely competent at their job," Blue remembers, "but they couldn't get their licenses."

Blue brought these and other staffing issues to her union, Local 400 of the Service Employees. "My local was one of the few unions which supported immigrant nurses," she says. "I got active in the union so I could get it to take a position on these community issues." These fights won her a reputation as a defender of nurses' rights, and she was elected to the union's executive board.

There she campaigned to change the union's leadership, which didn't reflect its membership with large numbers of women and people of color. New leadership was elected with a commitment to diversity. "Being more diverse enabled us to get closer to our own members," she says. "They recognized that they were represented in leadership, and we pulled many new people in. The union won more respect in the workplace."

Blue eventually went to work for the union as an organizer, signing up nurses in hospitals up and down the west coast. She also became a recruiter for the Organizing Institute, which was set up to help diversify union staff by recruiting young people, women, and people of color.

"In health care," Blue says, "the largest group of minority workers are Filipinos. Unions won't make a dent in organizing the health care industry without dealing with Filipino workers. That means we have to have a bilingual and bicultural staff, familiar with immigrant issues. We have to understand the social network which already exists in the Filipino community."

Increasing the diversity of union staff, and the power and visibility of Asian- American union leaders, is also the mandate of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, founded by Asian-American union activists like Blue, Gurtiza and Ramos in 1992. Gurtiza is the organization's national secretary. "As Asians in the trade union movement," Gurtiza says, "we haven't received the recognition we deserve. Now we have our own organization, which ensures a place at the table. We can advocate for issues of concern to Asian trade unionists, like immigrant rights and welfare reform, while we talk about the importance of unions in the broader Asian community."

Not all Asian labor activists even belong to unions, however. Some of them are unorganized workers themselves. One of the most outspoken voices for the rights of workers in the unorganized electronics industry of Silicon Valley belongs to a Filipino immigrant, Romie Manan.

Manan came to California from Manila in 1979. For the decade before he left the islands, he had been a union activist in the Telecommunications Workers Union. When martial law was declared in 1972, all the union's officers and activists at Telefast PT&T, where Manan worked, were fired. They fought successfully for their reinstatement, but after working for a year, Manan was fired a second time. He then worked as a full time organizer for his union until he left the islands.

Arriving in Silicon Valley, Manan found a job at National Semiconductor's huge, 10,000-worker plant in Santa Clara. Nounion was in sight. Manan became a leader of the Electronics Organizing Committee of the United Electrical Workers, a grassroots union committee. Despite the firing of many of the committee's leaders, Manan held onto his job for fifteen years. During that time, he spoke out forcefully for better health and safety conditions. He opposed the semiconductor industry's policy of relocating production out of Silicon Valley, which eliminated the jobs of thousands of workers, including, eventually, his own.

"While our union never won recognition and a contract," he says, "we were the only voice which called for protecting the jobs of production workers in our industry, a large percentage of whom are Filipinos. We fought for higher wages and better health and safety conditions - for measures to improve life for the whole Filipino community."

Manan points out that today's Filipino immigrants often come with a high level of education and skill, and are forced to work in jobs below the level of their abilities. "We are coming, not just with work experience, but often with experience in the labor movement and other movements for social and economic justice in the Philippines," he asserts. "We are a natural link between the movements at home and those in our adopted country. This is especially important for unions. We live in a global economy, where we have to find new links between unions and workers from country to country."

"This is the great thing about the labor movement," Joanne Bunuan says, "that it's much bigger than ourselves. It brings us together, not just as individuals, but as communities. And with that ability to see what unites us as working people, we can really change things in this country for the better."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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