JUNE 1, 1981 is a date that is forever seared in my memory and heart. Thirty-two years ago, US-based labor leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were assassinated in broad daylight at their union offices in Seattle, Washington.
The criminal trials and civil lawsuits filed by their families became a cause célèbre in Seattle. They were my friends and comrades in struggle. Like me, both were sons of Filipino immigrants. Both were at the prime of their lives when they were gunned down at the age of 29. As seasoned activists and Filipino-American community leaders, Silme and Gene headed the reform movement within and were elected officers of the Cannery Workers Union, Local 37 of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), a union with majority members of Filipino heritage. They also fought for Philippine human rights, democracy and worker rights under the brutal Marcos regime.
Although both were born in the US, Silme and Gene had traveled to the Philippines during their short lives. Prior to his murder, Gene visited the Philippines in early 1981 as part of an investigation tour to look into worker conditions and union repression under the Marcos dictatorship. They both understood that even though their immediate work focused on improving the lives of workers in the US, their work was inextricably linked to the improvement of workers’ lives in the Philippines. In particular, they supported union organizing work and recognition of unions in the Philippines even though this meant supporting underground union organizations at that time because of the repressive nature of the dictatorship.
Even before Gene and Silme were buried, community activists and family members banded together to help convict the perpetrators of this murder and uncover conspiracy behind this criminal act. Thus, the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV) was born. The CJDV was instrumental in helping the criminal investigations, murder trials and conviction of the gunmen, including the ILWU Local 37 president, who was a well-known crony and supporter of Ferdinand Marcos. The Domingo and Viernes families filed a civil lawsuit and successfully obtained judgments against the Marcos estate in 1989 in the US Federal Court in Seattle. Both the criminal and civil cases showed that Gene’s and Silme’s murders were ordered at the highest levels of the Marcos regime and carried by Marcos’s crony and thugs in the local Seattle area.
Immediately after the murders, both Gene and Silme were declared heroes of working peoples in the US and internationally. In the US, there is an annual gathering of union activists, community leaders, and international solidarity organizations to commemorate their lives and work. Their names were added to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in 2012 in recognition of their efforts on behalf of the democracy and workers rights and unions in the Philippines, making them the first heroes honored who were killed in the US by the Marcos regime.
Gene’s and Silme’s legacy is still relevant today. In the Philippines, efforts to improve the economic livelihood of people are ongoing struggles, which must be addressed if the country is going to move forward in a sustainable manner. While the Marcos dictatorship is long gone and his repressive rule is now history, rampant poverty and remnants of the economic policies of that time still exist.
In this current era of economic globalization, the tendency for development is a “race to the bottom” when it relates to worker rights. Third world governments promote foreign investments because of cheap labor in their respective countries, including the Philippines.
There must be a better way — a more sustainable way — for governments to promote balanced economic development that improve workers’ well-being — “raising the tide” for all people. While remittances from overseas Filipino workers can hold up the country’s economic status in the near term, using and promoting Filipinos to work abroad is a shortsighted vision and strategy because it encourages the draining of the best and brightest of Filipino labor to work all over the world. In the absence of a clear economic strategy and business/industrial policy that can lift the Filipino people out of poverty and on the road to prosperity, the Philippines will continue to be left behind among its counterparts in Asia.
Certainly, the vision and work that Gene and Silme promoted and sacrificed their lives for remain a dream — an aspiration — for those of us who want to continue their legacy in both the US and the Philippines today.
David J. Della was a personal friend of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes. He and other union reform activists continued the work of Domingo and Viernes in ILWU Local 37 and in the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. Della is currently working in the clean energy sector as cofounder of Global EcoVentures, LLC, which provides sustainable products and services in the disaster management and energy sectors.