Unknown Heroes

Twenty years ago, on June 1, 1981, Filipino rank-and-file leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were gunned down in cold blood inside the Alaska Cannery Workers Union office in Seattle.

By Chong-suk Han Jul 20, 2001

Twenty years ago, on June 1, 1981, Filipino rank-and-file leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were gunned down in cold blood inside the Alaska Cannery Workers Union office in Seattle. Gene and Silme, both cannery workers since their teenage years, had been swept into leadership of the largely Filipino union by the Rank and File Committee just months before the slayings.

Before he died, Silme was able to identify Pompeyo Benito Guloy, Jr. and Jimmy Bulosan Ramil, members of the Filipino gang known as the Tulisan, as the assailants. However, the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes suspected from the beginning that much bigger forces were at work.

After years of international movement building, legal work, and hard-nosed investigation, they obtained the conviction not only of Guloy and Ramil, but the Tulisan gang leader, the ousted local union leader, and in a result unprecedented in U.S. history–a court ruling in 1989 that a foreign dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, had ordered the killings and had to pay monetary restitution for his act.

Silme and Gene were the first Asian American activists of their generation to be murdered by an enemy. They became active in the Asian American, left, and labor movements of Seattle in the late 1960s, and their talent, determination, and energy soon led them to become popular leaders. They were both 29 at the time of their death.

The murders of Gene and Silme were an incredible reprise of the assassination of radical Filipino Alaskan cannery worker officers Virgil Duyungan and Aurelio Simon in 1936.

Recently, Seattle commemorated the 20th anniversary of the tragic death of Gene and Silme–and of the great movements that they were a part of and gave impetus to.

Marked for Death

Within days of the shootings, Ramil, 28, and Guloy, 22, were charged with first degree murder. On September 24, 1981, after a seven-week trial, a jury composed of six men and six women found Ramil and Guloy guilty of the charge.

Prosecuting attorney Joanne Maida proved that Domingo and Viernes were killed because their efforts to reform the corrupt system of dispatching workers to jobs in Alaska’s seafood processing canneries were hampering the gambling activities of a Filipino gang known as the Tulisan. Workers were illegally forced to pay union and gang leaders for the right to be dispatched, and the union and the Tulisan organized gambling operations in every Alaskan cannery and workers’ bunkhouse.

Maida successfully linked hitmen Ramil and Guloy to Fortunado (Tony) Dictado, the alleged leader of the Tulisan, who was subsequently charged and convicted with aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of Domingo and Viernes.

Yet the battle was just beginning.

In March of 1981, just weeks before he attended the international convention of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) in Hawaii, Viernes made his first trip to the Philippines. Partly a way to connect with his father’s family, he also met with the leaders of the underground labor movement, Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement) and spoke in front of thousands of Filipino activists during the May First march and rally. There, Viernes extended an invitation to KMU’s President Crispin Beltran to attend the ILWU convention to educate convention attendees about the repression of workers under the Marcos dictatorship.

Although the U.S. government refused to issue Beltran a visa, claiming that he was a subversive, events in the Philippines would still come to dominate the discussion at the ILWU convention.

Upon returning to the United States, Viernes met with Domingo and other members of the Local 37 Rank and File Committee to prepare for the upcoming ILWU convention. The Rank and File Committee, established in 1977 and composed of union members seeking to rid the union of corruption, lack of accountability, and collusion with the canneries, was already making tremendous inroads toward union reform. The committee charged the union leaders with failure to fight for member’s rights against discrimination, low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of job security.

During Local 37’s 1980 election, Domingo was elected secretary-treasurer and Viernes was elected to the controversial job of union dispatcher. In all, Rank and File candidates swept 11 of 17 positions, winning every election they filed for.

This election empowered Domingo and Viernes to represent the local at the upcoming international convention of the ILWU in Hawaii. At the convention, Domingo and Viernes were instrumental in persuading the ILWU International to adopt two resolutions, the first to support the organizing efforts in Alaska and second to send an ILWU investigation team to the Philippines.

No national labor organization had ever taken a position on the Marcos dictatorship despite overwhelming evidence of repression of labor movements in the Philippines. And, while the ILWU resolution did not condemn the Marcos dictatorship, it seemed only a matter of time before the investigation team would return from the Philippines with that conclusion. Within 24 hours of the resolution’s passage, the Marcos government set about conspiring to murder Domingo and Viernes.

Fighting for Justice

Even before Domingo had died, supporters were able to piece together the political motivations for the assassinations. Three weeks after the murders, Elaine Ko, Terry Mast (Silme’s widow and herself a newly elected Local 37 officer), Domingo’s siblings, Nemesio and Cindy Domingo, and other leaders from Seattle’s International District, formed the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV). Like Gene and Silme, some CJDV leaders were members of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (known by its Tagalog initials, KDP), an organization of radical Filipinos which had been instrumental in building the anti-Marcos movement throughout the U.S., and the Line of March, a national Marxist organization.

The CJDV rallied broad support from politicians, labor, and church and community leaders from diverse populations including the Filipino community. This was crucial to breaking the atmosphere of intimidation that had threatened the Local 37 members in pursuing the goals of the Rank and File committee. In addition, the CJDV provided the connections in the Filipino community necessary to build the legal case against the Tulisan gang members.

At the same time, Terry Mast, David Della, Lynn Domingo, and other members of the Rank and File Committee courageously stepped forward to take Gene and Silme’s posts in the union, even as the blood of their fallen comrades still stained the union floor and despite grave threats from the Tulisan.

In 1982, backed by the Committee for Justice, the families of Domingo and Viernes brought a civil suit in Federal Court charging that the murders were committed at the direction of officials of the Marcos government in the Philippines. It also alleged that agencies and individuals of the U.S. government (including Alexander Haig and William French Smith) cooperated with Marcos’ surveillance and harassment of U.S. citizens who were activists against the Marcos regime. However, all U.S. government officials and agencies were later dismissed as defendants in the case due to "national security" considerations.

From 1983 to 1986, the civil suit wound its way through the appeals process while the team of lawyers, composed of Mike Withey, Jim Douglas, John Caughlan, Elizabeth Schott, and a small army of others including Gary Iwamoto and other law students continued the legal course and discovery.

It wasn’t until 1986, following the assassination of Philippine opposition hero Benigno Aquino that the U.S. government began to see Marcos as a liability to U.S. interests in the Philippines. When a mock election stole the Philippine presidency away from Aquino’s wife, Cory, the island nation erupted in civil disobedience, leading the Marcoses to flee to Hawaii under U.S. protection.

Seeing the small window of opportunity, Cindy Domingo and attorney Mike Withey traveled to the Philippines hoping to encourage the Philippine government to cooperate in the Domingo/Viernes case. Although Philippine Solicitor General, Sedfrey Ordonez promised help, supporters of Marcos and the U.S. government undercut him.

By the time that the case finally made its way in front of a jury in 1989, Ferdinand Marcos had died, leaving his notorious wife Imelda as the main defendant.

A six-member jury, two alternates, and a packed federal courtroom listened to opening statements by plaintiffs attorney Jeffrey Robinson as he meticulously laid out the plaintiff’s case, recounting the details of the June 1, 1981 murder, the identities of the murderers by Domingo, the connections to the Tulisan gang, to the connections to the Philippine government ruled by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

The smoking gun that linked the murders to Marcos was a confidential document that showed the Mabuhay Corporation, founded by Dr. Leonilo Malibed, a wealthy San Francisco physician and friend of Marcos, dispersed over $700,000 for "special security projects." The project’s "statement of expenses," dated February 15, 1982, included an expenditure of $15,000 on May 17, 1981, the same day that former cannery union president Tony Baruso visited San Francisco.

Baruso was also shown to be the owner of the murder weapon that killed Domingo and Viernes. Witnesses testified that Baruso paid $5,000 for the shooting. In December of 1989, a jury found that Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were responsible for the murders and awarded $15 million to the families of Domingo and Viernes.

This marked the first time that a foreign dictator was held responsible for crimes committed in the United States.

In January of 1990, Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled that Baruso and Malibed were also responsible, awarding the plaintiffs $8.4 million. Tony Baruso was subsequently convicted of murder and is currently serving a life term.

After two years of attempting to track down the Marcos’ wealth and get them to pay the judgment, a final agreement was reached with Imelda Marcos giving $3 million to the Domingo and Viernes families, with the bulk going to Domingo’s children and attorneys. The Domingo/Viernes Fund was created under the Northwest Labor and Employment Office (LELO) in memory of the two and in honor of those that worked for justice in the murders.

Remember Our Heroes

On June 2, former and current members of Local 37 gathered to reminisce about Silme and Gene and their struggle to reform the union. Most felt that it hardly seemed 20 years since they all stepped forward to ensure that Silme and Gene had not died in vain. Everyone had his or her own personal stories to share.

LELO’s annual event, held this year on June 30, brought more people together to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Gene and Silme’s deaths. Former KDP and CJDV members and supporters gathered from around the country to pay tribute to their friends and to remember the work of the CJDV.

Remembering Silme and Gene, long-time community advocate Doug Chin stated, "[They] fought courageously against exploitation, oppression, and racial injustices from the time they were college students until both were killed by the Marcos regime. Even though they were young, they were leaders in some very serious struggles against the canneries and the corrupt labor union, the Marcos regime, and the discrimination against Asian Americans. They were very active in the efforts to improve the International District and the lives of the elderly residents. Both belonged to numerous organizations and practically spent their whole lives organizing and strategizing over ways to improve the lives of the oppressed.