Court: AK seafood companies did not discriminate

Decision may end 27-year-old legal case filed by Filipino and Native cannery workers

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2001

SEATTLE - A federal appeals court has upheld a judge's finding that two seafood companies did not discriminate against Filipino and Alaska Native salmon-cannery workers in Alaska.

The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may mark the end of the 27-year-old case, which prompted Congress to rewrite civil rights laws.

Ten workers filed the original suit - later made a class-action lawsuit - in March 1974 against Seattle-based Wards Cove Packing Co. and Dole Food Co. The workers contended they were paid less than white counterparts, given poorer living quarters and meals, and were victims of job discrimination.

Seattle attorney Abraham Arditi, representing the 2,000 workers who signed on to the lawsuit, said he had not yet decided whether to seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. But others involved in the case say such a challenge is unlikely, noting the nation's highest court ruled against the plaintiffs once before, in 1989.

"We don't have anything to celebrate with this decision," said Michael Woo, of the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, a Seattle group that has supported the lawsuit.

Douglas Fryer, representing Wards Cove, said the decision was not a surprise, in part because U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush had ruled for the company in 1999.

"I think as a practical matter it has now been resolved," Fryer said. "It's an enormous relief."

The appeals-court judges indicated they "didn't like some of the evidence of race in the case and how race labels were used," he said, but ultimately concluded there was no discrimination that violated federal law.

The plaintiffs in the case, Atonio v. Wards Cove, said their treatment at the canneries violated Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Minority workers testified they were stuck in low-paying canning jobs without chance for advancement, were fed meals that rarely varied from fish stew, and sometimes had only two showers for 45 people.

The case has ricocheted through more than a half-dozen appeals and the companies have almost always prevailed. In one appeal, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that to prove discrimination, workers had to do more than show 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 the Senate accepted a provision by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, that barred its application to the Wards Cove case.

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