Minority workers appeal cannery civil rights case

1974 suit claims companies treated nonwhites unfairly

Posted: Wednesday, August 09, 2000

SEATTLE -- A civil rights lawsuit filed by minority workers in Alaska salmon canneries back in 1974 has returned to court for yet another appeal.

The (now former) workers, mostly Filipinos and Alaska Natives, claim the two companies that employed them gave them worse pay, housing, meals and promotion chances than their white co-workers.

The companies, Seattle-based Wards Cove Packing Co. and Dole Food Co., insist there was no double standard.

``This court is no stranger to this case ...,'' plaintiffs' lawyer Abraham Arditi noted as he began his argument Monday before a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Arditi accused the companies of using separate hiring channels to target white workers for higher-paying positions in Alaska salmon plants and to hire nonwhites for lower-paying jobs.

Arditi represents about 2,000 former workers.

He maintains the companies should have changed their housing policies to improve conditions for minority workers.

Seattle lawyer Douglas Fryer, who represents the companies, argued that 10 percent of the skilled jobs at the plants are filled by minorities, which is representative of the labor market.

Fryer told the appeals court that the case is weak, based largely on anecdotal evidence.

The companies have prevailed in almost all of the court battles. Only a few issues remain regarding alleged unintentional discrimination.

``The plaintiffs have had many, many days in court, and it's been no dice,'' said Wards Cove President Alec Brindle.

Joaquin Arruiza was 17 when he started work in 1970 at a Dole-owned salmon cannery on Alaska's Bristol Bay. He said the case, for him, is still very much alive.

``There were definite differences in terms of the way we were being treated. I knew it was wrong,'' said Arruiza, now a 47-year-old bakery salesman from Renton.

The first major ruling in the case came in 1983, when U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush ruled the companies did not willfully discriminate.

Six years later, the Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that to prove discrimination, workers had to do more than present data that showed numerical imbalance among the races in different jobs.

In the 1991 Civil Rights Act, Congress effectively reversed the court, restoring an easier-to-prove discrimination standard.

But in wrangling to ensure the bill's passage, the Senate agreed to a provision sponsored by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, who prevented the plaintiffs in the Wards Cove case from pursuing their remaining claims under the looser standard.

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