Intra-Ethnic Politics and the Emasculation of Filipino Labor Union Politics: The 1947 Founding of the Seafood Workers Union

By Brown, Michael Serizawa | Journal of Intercultural Disciplines, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Intra-Ethnic Politics and the Emasculation of Filipino Labor Union Politics: The 1947 Founding of the Seafood Workers Union


Brown, Michael Serizawa, Journal of Intercultural Disciplines


The last several years of the 1940s represented political turmoil in the life of Victorio Acosta Velasco, a Filipino journalist and labor union leader who had arrived on a Seattle pier in 1922 and remained continuously involved in both realms until he died in a cannery bunkhouse fire in 1968. In the past, he had been involved in intra-ethnic tensions among Filipinos in both his journalistic and union activities, but what happened between 1946 and 1947 affected not only his own life, but also the future of Filipino labor activism; it was a harbinger of the McCarthy era purges of communists from American labor unions that was just around the corner. His contribution to the breakup of the longstanding Filipino-dominated labor union, Local 7 of the Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union, arose in large part because of personal politics and animosities between himself and other union members, as well as the efforts that he and other Filipinos made in order to tap into the then incipient beginnings of a communist scare that was just beginning to take shape in the aftermath of the Second World War. In pursuing his own political ambitions in labor unionism in an effort to preserve his own, tenuous hold on political power and influence that he, like other Filipinos, could scarcely enjoy outside of their own ethnic circles, Velasco unwittingly contributed to one of the most important events in the experience of Filipinos in the United States: the breakup of Local 7 and the end of effective cannery labor organizing for more than two decades (Brown, 2003 ; see also Brown, 2007).

In the winter of 1947, there was an incident that kindled the nascent intra-ethnic political tensions that had arisen within Local 7 during the Second World War and the immediate postwar period. At a 9 February union meeting in Seattle, Matias Lagunilla, a member of the Rank and File Committee, whose purpose was to get the union leadership to take more forceful action to improve work conditions at the Alaskan canneries, questioned vice president Max Gonzales about the delegation's work at the FTA International's 1946 convention in Philadelphia. The delegation, concerned largely with the International's proposed resolution limiting the number of foremen and others of high rank on the executive board, had agreed to pay $13,000 in debts without first consulting the membership for no apparent reason other than that it potentially affected their own, individual positions in union affairs. Incensed, Gonzales pulled out a hidden pistol, shooting at Lagunilla, barely missing him. At a 24 March executive board meeting, Lagunilla pressed charges against Gonzales, but the other officers refused to reprimand him, calling his act "self defense." After the International forbade Gonzales from participating in union activities, the board again supported him, ignoring the International's reprimand. On 1 1 June, Gonzales proposed to dissolve Local 7 and to create a new union, retaining the current leadership of the executive board (Viernes, 1977). On the 24th, Prudencio Mori and others Local 7 members submitted a report critical of board members Velasco, Cornelio Briones, and Vincente Pilien. The International accused the entire board of corruption, fraud, misconduct, and involvement in intimidation and terrorist tactics, and it suspended Velasco, Briones, and Pilien, prohibiting their further involvement in union activities and thus thwarting their plans to run for reelection in the fall (Mori, 1947). The International then set up a new board, naming Trinidad Rojo as president, Prudencio Mori as secretary, and Ernesto Mangaoang as business agent (Viernes, 1977). Within two weeks, Velasco and Briones began writing letters to the rank-and-file, seeking a revocation of the Local 7 charter. In August, they filed a lawsuit in an attempt to set aside the International's suspension order (Mori).

On 21 September, Velasco, Gonzales, and Briones also engaged in another ploy in order to attack Local 7: filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to establish a new union, the Seafood Workers' Union (SWU), which was independent of both the AFL and the CIO. …

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