Unions Replaced Labor Contractors in Salmon Industry, but Problems Persisted

Last month’s column described how salmon canners outsourced the recruiting and managing of cannery workers to labor contractors, the earliest of whom were Chinese. Unions came to replace the labor contracting system during the Great Depression, a time when wages for low-skilled cannery workers fell 40%.

Asian-Americans eager to procure labor contracts for themselves organized ethnicity-based groups for negotiating with contractors and canneries. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos each had their own organizations. In 1933, Filipino workers in Seattle joined the American Federation of Labor’s Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union (CWFU) Local 18257. This was a Filipino-only union, dedicated to advancing the needs of the Seattle Filipino community.

Initially, this early union was not much different from the other ethnicity- based workers’ organizations that came before it. Yet change was afoot. The labor contracting system’s unsavory reputation forced canning companies like the Alaska Packers Association to move away from contractors. The press publicized instances of egregious abuse. This helped the CWFU gain membership. But it was the murder of CWFU organizers Virgil Dunyungan and Aurelio Simon in Seattle in 1936 that convinced many laborers to abscond from the contracting system, since people believed that corrupt labor contractors had ordered the murders.

Unions then replaced labor contractors. In 1937, CWFU affiliated with the CIO and became Local 37 of the United Cannery, Agricultural and Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America. This affiliation brought into one union all of the separate ethnic groups that had previously attempted to negotiate with contractors and canneries. Henceforth, many canneries accessed employees through Local 37 instead of through labor contractors.

There were several marked improvements that came with union membership. Workers had written contracts with the union, while with labor contractors these agreements were frequently just verbal. The contracts specified working conditions and wages. Moreover, employees were paid by the cannery, not the intermediary contractor. In 1932, common cannery laborers received $25 to $50 per month. In 1939, after the unionization of cannery workers, laborers received $80 to $100 per month. It is worth noting that this increase wasn’t due only to better negotiated contracts, but also due to New Deal legislation which mandated an increase in workers’ wages.

Unions made serious strides to improving worker safety and pay. Nonetheless, the industry remained segregated and the purview of Local 37 never extended beyond the realm on the Chinese cannery workers in the previous century. The “China boss” who had been responsible for keeping cannery workers in line during the era of labor contractors became the “Filipino foreman,” responsible for managing the Asian American canning crew. Canneries continued to be segregated spaces, dispatching continued to be rife with corruption, and gangs took over the gambling rackets that the contractors had previously managed.

Young union members formed the Alaska Cannery Workers Association. In the early 1970s, the ACWA lodged grievances against Local 37 and the canned salmon industry. The organization charged that non-whites were “channeled into the lowest paying, least skilled job categories,” that there was a lower pay scale for minority employees who performed the same work as whites, and that there were very few promotional opportunities for non-whites. Additionally, the ACWA noted the segregated housing and messing facilities, company policies that prevented white and non-white employees from socializing, and “the permissive attitude of union officials in allowing the companies to abuse the rights of the workers.”

The Civil Rights movement was about to come to the salmon industry.  Stay tuned for next month’s column, which details the work of young Asian-American cannery workers to desegregate Alaska’s salmon canneries.   

For more information, and to find quality primary sources on Local 37, visit the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

After Alaska Purchase, the First Salmon Cannery Pops Up

Note: This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Pacific Fishing.

“But this Treaty is the beginning… Our own Fisheries, now so considerable, were small in the beginning… Small beginnings, therefore, are no discouragement to me,” Senator Charles Sumner, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said to the US Senate on April 8, 1867, speaking of the potential of Alaska’s mostly-unknown fisheries.

Just the week before, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the Treaty of Cession with Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl. The United States was about to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, but the treaty required Senate approval. Sumner spoke to the Senate at length about the opportunities available to the United States if the body approved the acquisition of Russian America.

Sumner waxed about the otters, the timber, the potential for mines (gold had not been discovered in significant quantities in Alaska), but he ended with fisheries. He detailed the reports of European explorers who caught hundreds of halibut with limited effort, of large Native communities subsisting on salmon through the winter, of the newly pioneered cod grounds off the Aleutian Islands. He envisioned an Alaskan fishing industry that would feed growing domestic markets in California, that would export salted fish to majority Catholic nations in Latin America, and that would provide seafood to nascent Chinese and Japanese markets.

Sumner knew that Alaska Natives were exceptional seamen, and imagined a day that

“The beautiful baidar will give way to the fishing smack, the clipper, and the steamer. All things will be changed in form and proportion; but the original aptitude for the sea will remain. A practical race of intrepid navigators will swarm the coast, ready for any enterprise of business or patriotism. Commerce will find new arms; the country new defenders; the national flag new hands to bear it aloft.”

He concluded his speech, stating, “…the Fisheries, which, in waters superabundant with animal life beyond any of the globe, seem to promise a new commerce to the country.” The next day, the US Senate ratified the treaty. Alaska and its marine resources became American.

The commercial salmon industry started soon after. Entrepreneurs salted fish in barrels at Karluk on Kodiak Island, in Karta Bay on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere. But it was a Scottish entrepreneur named George Hamilton who claims the glory of founding what would become the first establishment to put out a can of salmon in Alaska.

Hamilton started a saltery at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in 1869. He sold his concern to a California firm called Sisson, Wallace & Co and became a shareholder in the newly established North Pacific Trading & Packing Co.  In 1878, the first two canneries were built on Alaska’s shores. The North Pacific Trading and Packing Co. was established at “Hamilton’s Fishery” in Klawock, while the Cutting Packing Co. was built in Sitka. However, the Klawock cannery managed to process the first can of salmon, thus earning the distinction of being remembered as the first cannery in Alaska.

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Little is recorded about the early American era of Alaska’s fishing history, and even less about George Hamilton. This summer I traveled to Prince of Wales Island in an attempt to track down new sources and old memories. There I met Fred Hamilton of Craig, Alaska. Fred is the 96 year old grandson of George Hamilton. Fred never met his grandfather, but recalled what he had heard of him. “He was a businessman. He did a lot of travelling. He built a sawmill here, along with a partner. They had a schooner here that delivered lumber.” Fred’s grandmother is a Haida woman named Maggie. Perhaps it is partly due to this family connection that many of the cannery workers at the North Pacific Trading & Packing Co. were Alaska Natives in the early years, when most other establishments relied on Chinese crews.

I asked Fred why Klawock was selected as the site for this early cannery. “They always looked for a good supply of water. And Klawock had a good supply. It’s a protected place, with a really good salmon stream there and a lake, with all species of fish except king salmon.” There were ample fishermen, as well; the cannery purchased salmon from local Natives.

At the time of the establishment of the Klawock cannery, eleven years had passed since Sumner’s speech and the subsequent Alaska Purchase. Alaska’s commercial salmon industry was tiny, but it was viable. It was Fred Hamilton’s grandparents who took the early steps to convert Charles Sumner’s vision for Alaska into reality.

Aleutian Villagers in Southeast Canneries during World War II

This article was initially published in Pacific Fishing. 

Seventy five years ago, the United States entered World War II, leading to transformations that shaped the entire Pacific Coast but particularly impacted Alaska. Nearly six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sent fighter planes to bomb the significantly less balmy Pacific islands of Kiska, Attu, and Unalaska. In early June of 1942, the village and military base at Dutch Harbor/ Unalaska were attacked and the islands of Kiska and Attu were invaded and wrested from American control. Attu villagers became Japanese prisoners of war and the Axis forces had a foothold on American soil.

The panicked military, Alaska territorial government, and Department of Interior determined to evacuate civilians who were 1/8 Native or more from the Aleutians. General Simon B. Buckner ordered the evacuation. Nine villages on the islands of Akutan, Atka, Umnak, St. George, St. Paul and Unalaska were hastily evacuated, precipitating one of the greatest injustices in modern Alaska history.

The military torched the homes and church at Atka and gave the residents one hour to leave. The USAT Delarof arrived at St. Paul on June 15 and departed the next day to St. George with the entire village on board. No more than one suitcase per person was allowed, and no one knew where the villagers were headed, not even the captain of the vessel.

The priest at St. Paul, Father Michael Lestenkof, recalled packing, stating, “For myself, I did not take anything except I took apart my five horse Johnson and put every part I can into one suitcase, except for the bracket and shaft, [which] was tied out on the outside of a suitcase, as I would make more use out of my motor than clothing.”

Villagers from the Pribilof Islands, on board the Delarof, en route to Southeast Alaska. Image courtesy NARA.

Villagers from the Pribilof Islands, on board the Delarof, en route to Southeast Alaska. Image courtesy NARA.

It was only when the boat was underway that a destination was determined. The evacuees would be kept at abandoned camps and canneries in Southeast Alaska. Quarters and provisions aboard the Delarof were poor. A baby girl was born on board and promptly contracted pneumonia. She was buried at sea near Kodiak Island, just the first of many who were to die from preventable illnesses over the next two years.

US Fish and Wildlife Service and other Department of the Interior employees were sent to assess the conditions of the derelict canneries and camps that were to soon house the 881 displaced villagers. The old herring plant at Killisnoo, an old mine and cannery at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island, an abandoned cannery at Burnett Inlet southwest of Wrangell, and Ward Lake Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Ketchikan were in varying states of decrepitude.

The canneries were constructed for just summer time use and had no insulation, indoor plumbing or heating stoves. At Funter Bay, just a single outhouse was built over the beach. In addition to lacking the basic infrastructure required for winter-time occupation, the sites had been abandoned years before and were either in need of serious repairs or actively rotting away.

The Delarof arrived at Funter Bay six days after leaving the Pribilofs. Five hundred and sixty people disembarked with little food, bedding, tools, or anything beyond that which they stuffed in one suitcase. The villagers arrived at the former complex of the Thlinket Packing Company. The cannery processed its first pack of salmon in 1902. It was sold to the Alaska Pacific Salmon Corporation in 1926 and then sold to P.E. Harris Co. It hadn’t operated since 1931. The government leased the abandoned cannery from P.E. Harris to be used for the “duration village,” as the relocation sites were termed.

The Pribilof residents got to work, fortifying structures, cleaning out the Chinese bunkhouse to turn it into the communal kitchen, and attempting to wire the buildings for electricity. But winter came quicker than building supplies, tools, and proper provisions, including ample blankets, soap, and more. The children were sent to the Wrangell Institute for school, which was difficult for the families, but at least meant that the kids had proper medical care and enough food.

Aleut/ Unangan children at an unnamed Southeast Alaska cannery. Image courtesy NARA.

Aleut/ Unangan children at an unnamed Southeast Alaska cannery. Image courtesy NARA.

In the spring of 1943, US Fish and Wildlife officials informed those at Funter Bay that the men were to be sent back to the Pribilofs, but just for the annual fur seal harvest. During the forced relocation, the government continued to profit by selling the Unangan-harvested fur seal pelts to furriers. The Unangan hunters were falsely told the fur was needed for military uniforms, in order to coerce them to return.

Only in 1945, two years after American forces had retaken Attu and Kiska, were the Aleutian villagers permitted to return home. Yet at the Funter Bay cannery alone, 32 had died, mostly from pneumonia and tuberculosis. In total, seventy four people died while in Southeast Alaska, nearly one in ten of those who were evacuated.

Returning home was bittersweet. The village of Atka had been totally destroyed by the military, and the homes and churches within the other villages had been vandalized or worse by US military troops. The villages of Biorka, Kashega, and Makushin were never resettled. President Roosevelt authorized no more than $12 per person to assist in resettlement. 

The Aleut Restitution Act of 1988 acknowledged that only an Act of Congress could help remedy these injustices. A community trust was established to assist in cultural preservation, education, and for elder services. Those evacuees who were still living received $12,000 each. Today few buildings remain at the old canneries and camps that housed the Unangan villagers, but the Aleut cemetery at Funter Bay continues to be maintained.

Project Update: Storied Shores- A History of Canneries in Southeast Alaska

I spent December and the beginning of January in Petersburg, relishing the tranquility of this community, partaking in the yuletide festivities (God Jul), and planning for a new book project. With humility and gratitude, I'm excited to share this project with you. Stay tuned for the coming anthology, examining Southeast Alaska canneries as sites of Alaska history, published by Shorefast Editions. Below is a taste of what is to come. 

The illustrations in the book are going to be killer. Derived from the private collection of my collaborator, Karen Hofstad, there is material that will be featured that just may not exist anywhere else. Like this stamp.

The illustrations in the book are going to be killer. Derived from the private collection of my collaborator, Karen Hofstad, there is material that will be featured that just may not exist anywhere else. Like this stamp.

In Alaska, canneries are places where fish are put into cans. But they are more than this perfunctory, mechanical description. They are places of work. They are places of leisure. They have served as prisons and relocation camps. They are where Alaskan families have been made, where technological innovations have changed the way the world eats. They are places of segregation and integration. They are the sites of “corporate mortality” and dogged persistence. They are the backdrop for the industrial revolution of the north. They are sites of racial conflict, environmental degradation and scientific hubris. Canneries are theaters of activity and places that have made, shaped, and been the setting for Alaska history.

There are a multitude of ways to consider canneries, and a multitude of historic disciplines through which they can be examined. Political, business, social, environmental, cultural, and gender history come together on the docks, on the decks, and in the mess halls. As such, this anthology will be a seafood smorgasbord, including in its interpretive stances. It will combine both micro-histories of the operations of specific canneries within Southeast Alaska with thematic, interpretive essays. It will appeal to a broad readership as a work with both historical and literary merit.

It is not the definitive history of the seafood industry in Southeast Alaska, and there is much which is not included. But it will serve as a new means of thinking and looking at the places of production, these landscapes of work, and why the places, people, and stories contained within those weather-beaten walls matter.

This book is a labor of love and truly a collaborative effort. It is written in memory of Southeast historian, Pat Roppel. For decades, Pat compiled research on the history of the seafood industry throughout Alaska, but particularly Southeast. She intended to write a book detailing cannery operations throughout the Panhandle and made it so far as to draft over 30 individual cannery histories, in addition to many short biographies of those involved in the seafood industry. But she died before her work was finished, and her papers were donated to the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Karen Hofstad was a close friend and collaborator of Pat’s. Over forty years ago, Karen started collecting salmon can labels, fishing industry ephemera, and other source material related to the industry in order to write a book about the history. When she met Pat, she saw that there was already a work in progress, so she shared her resources and a decades-long conversation with Pat.

After Pat’s death, Karen decided that it’s time to finish this book and invited me to take part in the project, in honor of our mutual friend. Pat wrote detailed operational histories of canneries, which are relevant to the local communities to which the canneries pertained. Karen and I decided to create something that will appeal to a broader readership. So, this anthology will incorporate edited selections of cannery histories and essays that Pat wrote with broader, interpretive essays that examine how canneries are representative of themes, events, and ideas in Alaska history.

Readers will turn into time traveling cannery tourists, able to swoop from bay, to strait, to island across Southeast Alaska, touching down at different moments in time. Along the way, they will see the different ways that canneries have been utilized, and examine interactions among peoples, places, nature and technology.

Our first stops are Klawock at Prince of Wales Island and Sitka. Two canneries started in 1878 in Alaska, and they are connected through the stories of early salteries, trade, and cross-cultural relationships. These first Alaskan canneries were a harbinger for what equated the industrial revolution of Alaska. Next, we travel to southern southeast Alaska, to Metlakatla, where we will examine how two of Southeast Alaska’s major industries- timber and fish- were connected. After, we will swoop over to Loring, where we will learn about the history of the Alaska Packers Association and see how an enterprising superintendent’s invention of a floating fish trap shifted fishing methods across the Pacific Northwest .

Next, we will examine Hunter Bay, where a California company known for whaling attempted to diversify its operations into salmon. The Pacific Steam Whaling Company serves as a story of corporate mortality, as it transitioned away from one dying industry and into the palms of a capitalist dreamer whose faith in a “salmon trust” gutted Alaska’s salmon industry.

The origin of Petersburg can be directly attributed to the establishment of a cannery there, in 1898. On our stop at Petersburg, we will get a glimpse of the history of the local fishing industry through five iconic objects, with the daughter of the founder of Icicle Seafoods as our able tour guide.

Port Althrop was one of 13 canneries constructed in Southeast Alaska in one year during WWI, as the industry mobilized to feed troops and Allied nations, leading the trade journal Pacific Fisherman to claim that, “The world war has been to a great extent a war of canned foods.” In World War II, people shuffled and lives crumbled as abandoned canneries like that in Funter Bay become the frigid homes of Unangan people from the Bering Sea, forced from their homeland due to the Japanese invasion. In Wrangell, we see Japanese Alaskan cannery workers sent to relocation camps. And we see German POWs shipped to the Excursion Inlet cannery after the Aleutian Islands were retaken by the allies.

At Wards Cove, we will see how desegregation and the fight for civil rights transpired in Alaska’s canneries. Finally, we will visit Kake, which is no longer in operation but still very much loved. There we will see a community’s work to preserve its beloved cannery.

Between these destinations, we’ll pause for mug-up, an Alaska-wide cannery term that means coffee break. We will rest for poetry, we will take in recipes, we will see the first-hand accounts of those who lived in these places and in these times.

Along the way, you will find material written by me, Pat Roppel, Bob King, Katie Ringsmuth, Sue Paulson, Waynne Short, Pennelope Goforth, Jim Mackovjak, and others, handsomely illustrated with materials from Karen Hofstad’s collection. 

Once published, you'll need to open a can of salmon and get your saltines. You’ll need to fortify your belly with some wild Alaskan foods before you embark on this wild Alaskan ride. 

From the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

From the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

The Diamond NN Cannery and the Spanish Influenza

This was initially published in Pacific Fishing's November 2016 issue. 

On June 4, 1919, a sail boat drifted towards Naknek in Bristol Bay. On board were three children, weak from the Spanish flu, and two men who had died before reaching shore. The Spanish influenza pandemic that killed over 30 million people around the world had gripped the villages and canneries of Bristol Bay.

This summer, historians Bob King and Katie Ringsmuth walked the quiet docks of Trident’s South Naknek Diamond NN cannery and came across the very hospital in which Naknek villagers convalesced and died. This cannery served as the center of the relief efforts in Bristol Bay during the summer of 1919.

“Instead of outposts of civilizations, canneries served as global hubs, which brought men, women, and an array of ethnicities together for over 100 years,” Ringsmuth says. She and King are documenting the social and architectural history of the cannery. Diamond NN (often shortened to <NN>) became the first industrial processing plant on the Naknek River when the Arctic Packing Company opened it as a saltery in 1890. Several years later, it became part of the Alaska Packers Association (APA), which converted it into a cannery in 1895. Con Agra purchased the facility in 1982, and Trident gained full ownership of the plant in 1995. Until recently, fishermen who sell to Trident used the plant for boat storage.

South Naknek's &lt;NN&gt; Cannery. Photo by Katie Ringsmuth.

South Naknek's <NN> Cannery. Photo by Katie Ringsmuth.

At the time of the flu, APA’s <NN> operated as the head station for five canneries in the Naknek region. The superintendent, JF Heinbockel, lived at <NN>. It was also the location of a company hospital, at which nurses and doctors served both cannery employees and local Native villagers.

On May 22, 1919, the cannery steamer Kvichak anchored at the cannery. Four days later, four men from the village arrived at the cannery hospital, stricken with the flu. Dr. Frederick Spencer immediately informed the superintendent. Together they made plans to quarantine the cannery, enact a stringent sanitation program and prepare to care for sick cannery workers and villagers.

Over the next month, ninety Natives were treated in the <NN> hospital. Of those, fifty two died, which does not include the number who died in Naknek. “About eighty known died at Naknek. Adult population practically wiped out… Am giving all possible assistance at my command here and Ugashik. Nurses required to handle orphans,” Heinbockel wrote in a wireless message sent to a government agent in Dillingham.

Each day during the outbreak, Dr. Spencer, nurses, and cannery employees carried hot food, firewood, medicine and clean clothing to the village, since the sick residents were too ill to provide for their most basic needs. APA nurses also travelled to the villages of Ugashik and Savanoski, which were severely impacted. Thanks to the quarantine, the village of Egegik escaped unharmed.

<NN> was converted into a makeshift orphanage in order to feed, house, and care for all the children who lost parents to the flu. Forty-four children from Naknek and Ugashik lost their parents. These orphans stayed at the cannery until the salmon season was over, at which time they were taken to Dillingham.

These days, South Naknek is quiet. But the history of the cannery still speaks through its buildings. The bright blue paint that colors many of the structures is peeling away, exposing APA’s red underneath. Animal pens under the mess hall hint at how hundreds of people were fed before the advent of refrigeration.  The dilapidated buildings that constitute China Town provide testimony to Asian exclusion in the 19th century and segregation in the 20th century. But it’s the old hospital building that contains one of the most heart-wrenching stories of the 20th century: the Spanish Influenza.

Hospital at &lt;NN&gt;

Hospital at <NN>

As part of their efforts to tell the story of <NN>, historians Ringsmuth and King are planning an exhibit which will commemorate the history of the cannery and the 1919 flu epidemic in Alaska.  To learn more about this project and the history of <NN>, visit Tundra Vision's Facebook page or read this blog post at the Alaska Historical Society's website.