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Mending a Hole in Rights Shield : Bill would extend protections of 1991 act to Alaska cannery workers

March 21, 1993

In the final days before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, one company and only one--Wards Cove Packing Co.--got an exemption in the legislation. This extraordinary dodge by Congress unjustly denied Asian-Pacific-American and native Alaskan cannery workers the opportunity to seek judicial remedies that the 1991 legislation makes available to other Americans. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) recently introduced a bill to end this exemption. It's needed.

Here's the background. In March, 1974, Frank Atonio, a U.S. citizen of Samoan descent, and nine other minority cannery workers filed a class-action suit that eventually involved 2,000 workers of Filipino, Samoan, Chinese, Japanese and Alaska native descent. They held low-paying, seasonal jobs processing salmon, and they alleged employment discrimination in the company's racially segregated housing, mess facilities, recruitment and jobs. One machine was dubbed the "Iron Chink"; living quarters for Filipino workers were referred to as the "Flip House." Recruitment allegedly was separate for cannery jobs and non-cannery jobs, which paid more and went primarily to whites.

A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case made it almost impossible for minorities to successfully challenge certain discriminatory employment practices. The 1991 civil rights legislation restored longstanding protections against discrimination that had been eroded by that and other decisions.

Three weeks ago the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases to determine whether the 1991 civil rights law applies retroactively to cases pending before the legislation was passed.

President Clinton has written to McDermott saying he is committed to removing the exemption--to giving these workers the same civil rights protections available to others: "America is a nation of great diversity founded on the principle of equality before the law. It is contrary to all of our ideas to exclude any American from the protection of our civil rights laws." The plaintiffs in Wards Cove should be no exception.

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