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.

Salmon, Diamonds, and the Alaska Packers Association

Note: This was originally printed in the December 2015 issue of Pacific Fishing. To learn more about the early years of the Alaska Packers Association and canneries more generally, check out the Way Back in Kodiak episode, "Canned at Karluk." 

It’s difficult to miss the towering masts of the Balclutha during a visit to the San Francisco waterfront. This square-rigged sailing ship is now part of the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park and was formerly the Star of Alaska. This ship was one of the legendary “star fleet” that the Alaska Packers Association (APA) moored at Alameda during the winter months and sailed north to Alaska each spring. Tellingly, the most commonly recognized vestige of the once colossal APA is not even in Alaska. Nonetheless, there are plenty of remnants of the APA that persist in Alaska, if you know where to look.

The APA was founded to cope with the astronomical growth of salmon canning in the early years of Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery. In 1888 there were 16 canneries operating in Alaska. By the next year, that number had more than doubled, to 37. It was canners at Chignik in 1890 that first came up with the idea of joining forces to decrease competition for fish and increase efficiency in operation. It worked so well that the canners operating on the Karluk Spit and Bristol Bay paid attention.

Note the <KS> on the old APA sign on the right. This sign was once hung on a fish trap, but now is visible in the mug up line in the Larsen Bay cannery. 

Note the <KS> on the old APA sign on the right. This sign was once hung on a fish trap, but now is visible in the mug up line in the Larsen Bay cannery. 

The Alaska Packers Association was founded in 1893 when the owners of the major canning enterprises recognized that it would be more efficient to create a “salmon trust” to coordinate the catching and canning of Alaska’s salmon rather than engage in continuous competition, which was leading to an unsustainable growth in the pack. “Sustainability” wasn’t an ecological concept at the time, it was an economic one. The amount of salmon processed in Alaska exceeded the ability of consumers to eat it. The market was glutted, and it was not profitable to continue production at such a rate.  Twenty seven of the thirty three canneries operating in Alaska sold their plants and re-emerged as the Alaska Packers Association. In so doing, the owners created a business which would become one of the most economically and politically potent institutions in the history of Alaska.

Although their assets were in Alaska, APA’s shareholders were comfortably situated in San Francisco (like the Balclutha is today). However, many of the founders of the APA had strong ties to Alaska and considerable expertise in the land that was known as Russian America less than two decades before. Some on the APA’s board of directors, like Louis Sloss and Charles Hirsch, were intimately connected with the Alaska Commercial Company (AC). AC today is a grocery store chain in Alaska, and this is the very same business that purchased the assets of the Russian-American Company following the US purchase of Alaska in 1867. In addition to providing early financing for salmon canneries in Alaska and sharing key shareholders, AC also provided the APA with one of the company’s most lasting legacies- the “diamond” naming convention. 

&lt;C&gt;, the APA cannery at Chignik Lagoon. This photo is part of my personal collection.&nbsp;

<C>, the APA cannery at Chignik Lagoon. This photo is part of my personal collection. 

To distinguish AC trading stations in written correspondence, AC employees created a symbol for each trading station. They enclosed a letter in the less-than/ greater-than symbols. For example <K> was Kodiak Station. The APA adopted this shorthand and applied it to their many canneries. <NN>, <X>, <KS> written in letters or stamped on a box became pronounced as “Diamond N,” etc.

Del Monte dismantled the Alaska Packers Association in 1982. Yet many APA-built canneries continue in operation today, and some continue to be referred to by their diamond name. Next time you walk the docks at an old APA cannery, pay close attention and you might even find <> etched onto a board, or fading from the bow of an old double ender. Although that diamond is less regal than the masts of the Balclutha, it is no less historic. 

The following comes from a list located within the John Cobb Papers at the University of Washington Special Collections.

Location and Designation of Alaska Packers Association Salmon Canneries, 1917

<PNJ>   Scandinavian Cannery, Nushagak Bay

<NC>     Clarks Point, Kvichak Bay

<J>         Koggiung, Kvichak Bay

<X>        Coffey Creek, Kvichak Bay

<NN>    Naknek river (upper)

<O>       Naknek river (middle)

<M>      Naknek river (lower)

<E>        Egegik river

<U>       Ugashik

<C>        Chignik Lagoon

<A>        Alitak bay, Kodiak Island

<KS>      Larsen Bay, Kodiak Island

<CI>       Cook Inlet, Kasilof

<FW>    Fort Wrangell, Southeast Alaska

<L>         Loring, Southeast Alaska

<PR>     Point Roberts, Washington

<S>        Semiahmoo, Washington

<T>        Anacortes, Washington

The Baptism at Smith Beach

Mission Beach

“Just a seine full of dollys,” my dad said with disappointment, shaking his red beard as he assessed the results of our illicit beach seining trip to Mission Beach in Uganik Bay. I picked up a humpy and hugged it to my slimy chest, pitching it over the gunwale of the wooden skiff that stood about as high as me. I was relatively certain that Dolly Vardens were named in honor of Dolly Parton, and I doubted that the country music star would be pleased to know that my dad thought her namesake fish were wormy, or that he cursed as we weeded through them in order to pick out the few humpies that we’d hauled to the beach. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t deliver them to the tender, who would come around Packers Spit later that evening. They looked close enough to salmon, to me.

“They don’t want them, Anjulooni,” Dad explained as he kicked a dolly from the beach back into the water. My brother Gus struggled to save our unfortunate by-catch by dousing their gills with water. He thought Dolly Parton had nice legs. I wondered if the tender’s affront to the rainbow-hued fish would impact my brother’s tenderhearted affection for the big-busted star.

We were fishing behind the markers. That my dad had brought his 5 year old and 3 year old children as crew that day doesn’t mean he lacked complicit partners in this fishing expedition, since there were plenty of misfits who fished on the Spit who disregarded the law. It is more likely he doubted we’d make a big haul and he didn’t need the muscle.

It was a typical summer day for my family in Uganik Bay, since my dad rarely caught lots of fish and he was prone to illegality in many of his dealings. The only thing that makes it remarkable is that it is my earliest memory of Mission Beach.

Gus’s earliest memories come from that same summer: first, pulling in a beach seine. Second: being convinced he was drowning. It was at Mission Beach that Gus was baptized.

Forgetting and Changing Names

“Why it’s called Smith's Beach, I don't know,” Deedie Pearson spoke with a dry throat. “When there were a lot of people on the Spit they started calling it Mission Beach. I'm trying to get it converted back to Smith's Beach.”

Deedie and I were talking in her house on Alder Street, overlooking the boat harbor. My memory of breaking fishing laws on Mission Beach as a child took place around 30 years ago. Deedie’s tenure in the bay stretches back 70 years, to 1947, when her parents purchased a house and saltry in Mush Bay. Each day in June, she would skiff by Mission/Smith Beach, which is located on the west side of Mush Bay. She would pass it as she brought back to her family’s saltry the reds that she and her siblings had caught in their setnet. If Mission Beach is actually Smith Beach, she would know.

“Why do you think they call it Mission Beach, then?” I asked. 

“Why Mission Beach? Well, because Reverend Smith. But it was Smith Beach long before he knew about this place,” Deedie clarified. She was speaking of the Reverend Smith who circumnavigated the archipelago aboard the Evangel. Supposedly, Reverend Smith would anchor the Evangel in front of Smith Beach. From Smith Beach, it became Mission Beach, seemingly renamed in honor of the Smith who tried to evangelize the wilds of Kodiak.

But Deedie didn’t know for which Smith the beach was originally named. In the catalog cards of my brain, the name was definitely classified as pertaining to the history of Kodiak’s seafood industry, but I couldn’t quite articulate the connection. Since our conversation, I uncovered that it was named for Oliver Smith, the founder of the first cannery on Kodiak. He beach seined at Smith Beach and sold his salmon to the cannery that was then located at Packers Spit.

“My brother was baptized there, at Smith Beach,” I said acknowledging the precedence of Deedie’s preferred name in the hopes that it would improve the reception of the next bit of information: “Coyote Bowers dunked him in the water during a party.”

Iron Born

This summer, I skiffed passed Smith Beach on my way to Mush Bay. I recognized it immediately, but before it was within sight, all I could pick up were memory-pulses.

Pulse: beachseining with my dad and Gus.

Pulse: Taking a skiff over to Mission/Smith Beach for a party during a fishing closure.

Pulse: My mom running into the water to extract her frantic toddler.

Pulse: seiners coming in close to the beach and Coyote shouting after them, “See you down the trail!” as they pulled away.

I remember much more clearly the retelling of the story of when Gus unceremoniously was submitted to the first sacrament, a story that has become part of the Grantham-Trueman family canon. But I don’t recall the answer to a question that pervades my adult sensibilities now: why? What possessed Coyote to toss a terrified toddler into the sea and not fish him out?

Gus isn’t too concerned about it. “I remember he asked if I was baptized, picking me up and walking out to his waste into the water. He said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ and he flung me into the sea,” Gus told me over the phone. He remembers trying to swim, sinking below the water, and looking upward to see our mother’s hands, yanking him back out.

“Why do you think he did it?”

“I don’t know, sister. We told the story many times together, but I don’t think I ever asked him why.”

 “Iron born,” Gus now claims. “I tell my friends that I was iron born, like in the Game of Thrones. I survived drowning to become a warrior,” he chuckles.


I could as easily ask the beach’s namesake, Oliver Smith, about his history within Uganik as I can ask Coyote of his motives for tossing a toddler into the sea, or my parents about their memories from that day, since all are dead. So, I sought another avenue of familial information: the Grantham-Trueman family photo box. Photos from the day of Gus’s baptism are slipped in the pages of a mini-album that contains one roll of developed images. Examining them, I see the details that my memory did not hold on to- the supersized lifejacket that I sported that summer that tied around my chest and reached down to my knees, for example.

But the presence of my little sister, Carrie, is the most surprising bit of information, since I don’t remember her being there that day. But there she is, less than a year old, holding a fishing pole, reaching for her dad’s can of Rainier, being snuggled by our Uncle Ronny. Suddenly, what were just pulses of memory have a fact to affix themselves to- the existence of my sister.

Gus was baptized during the summer of 1988, then. It was the same year that we lived in the cabin that had three sets of triple bunks within its ten by fifteen foot tar-papered walls. Richard would sit on a middle bunk and play his electric guitar. He strummed without an amp, because the only power on the Spit came from batteries. Still, he would play just loud enough so that I could hear the notes of “You are My Sunshine,” as we sang together. He was called the Pup because his father was Coyote. He had stringy hair, big glasses that matched his big teeth, and a poor complexion like other teenaged boys.

That summer, my baby sister fell from the top bunk in the middle of the night, right into the pit in which the barrel stove was rooted. But the fire had gone out and she was wrapped in blankets so she didn’t even wake during the fall. I recall that my dad was frantic, even though my sister was not his daughter. She was the daughter of Cliff, my stepfather. But we all lived in the cabin that summer, my mom, dad, stepdad, Gus, Carrie, Richard, Danny Bowers. Others too, who I can’t remember.

It was 1988. The best price ever paid for reds in the state of Alaska. It was 1988. The summer that the Nickerson brothers were killed up the bay at their Noisy Island set net site. A man named Cue Ball found their bodies. I remember their surname being repeated, over and over again: The Nickersons. The Nickersons. The Nickersons. The Nickersons. Could they have been there, at the party, the Nickersons and their crewmember who killed them both? It’s more likely that they had already gone missing. Perhaps their bodies had already been found in a ravine.

I wonder if Coyote was feeling his own mortality during the party at Mission/ Smith Beach. Maybe in that summer of disappearances, he considered the eternal soul of those around him. He considered the unbaptized being of my brother, and for good measure, determined to dunk him.


Sometimes I wonder if places have memories. Think: words are flung from the mouth, each accompanied by a particle of saliva that drops to the ground. The spit becomes absorbed and a part of the environment, still bearing the energy and bits of the tetrahedral architecture of the speaker. We disturb a rock on the beach and a strange thought enters our mind, a bit of unexpected wisdom, a dream of people we’ve never met. Of course memories are suddenly excavated when reinserted into places one hasn’t been for years. Could it be that these memories are shared between both the human and the place, like a conversation with a long-held friend as you work together to remember an event from your mutual past?

Maybe names, stories, and hunches stick like static to places that they are naturally connected to. Just as elements arrange themselves to create compounds, so too do spoken bits of heart, guts, and will travel to cling to where they most make sense. Like beaches that attract the same shells, or eddies in which a similar assortment of marine debris conglomerates- once told stories circulate until they find their way back to a familiar home. There is identity inscribed on landscape that goes beyond what has been or can be recorded. There are sticky remnants of history that are magnetically attracted to place and picked up by the sensitive observer, to the intuitive listener.

Perhaps the day that my dad, brother and I hauled in a net full of Dolly Vardens, my dad smelled the lingering sweat of the beach’s namesake, Oliver Smith, as we pulled in the seine. Perhaps he heard an echo of Smith’s voice rustling in the beach rye. After all, that day we were mimicking what Oliver Smith did in the previous century: beach seining at Smith Beach and delivering to Packers Spit.

Maybe the day of the baptism, Coyote caught a note of a hymn, sung by Reverend Smith and it was this Christian association that inspired him to fling a toddler into the sea. Coyote, filled more with spirit water than the Holy Spirit, reenacted what he imagined the Reverend Smith did on that very beach. Drunk and rowdy, maybe upset over the disappearance of his fellow Uganik fishermen, he thought he’d continue the evangelizing legacy of Mission Beach.

Whatever the case, it seems we persist in keeping history and ritual, both known and forgotten, alive. 

Yesterday I held a beach seining permit in my hand, as I started installing the West Side Stories exhibit at the Baranov Museum. At that moment, the daughter of Coyote called the museum to speak with me, after 25 years of not seeing one another. She told me she wanted to start using her dad's beach seining permit again. She told me she has an envelope of photos from Packers Spit with my name and my brother's name on it. She said that when her dad was dying, he gave her a poem I had written about Uganik Bay, which I don't remember writing. And, she said she took the photo posted above of Cliff holding Carrie, which means she was there, at Gus's baptism. I didn't ask her about it, since I had to get back to work, but the uncanny timing prompted me to post this story which apparently is still in draft form. 

Charting Packers Spit

Sixteen years passed since I had last slept in Uganik Bay, on the west side of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Yet there is something about the summers of childhood that stretch on and on. They persist in dreams. Perhaps they are the soil in which our character takes root. No, we are fishermen, not farmers; they are the redd in which the roe is spawned.

Uganik Bay on Kodiak's west side; Packers Spit is circled.&nbsp;

Uganik Bay on Kodiak's west side; Packers Spit is circled. 

This I knew: on the chart, Packers Spit swooshes out like a reverse comma into the East Arm of Uganik Bay. But would I remember its three-dimensional form as we made our approach? I was sitting in an aluminum skiff, and in my lap were my stepdad’s ashes. It was summer solstice and, coincidentally, it was Father’s Day. The day before I spent conducting oral histories with fishermen, but today I wasn’t the historian. I was the daughter of Shutup Joe, Pam and Clifford, and I was returning to the fish camp where I spent summers as a kid, the place where my parents go after they die.

When the float plane that delivers mail twice a week dropped me off on the beach, Clifford’s ashes weighed more than the produce that I carried as my food contribution for the remote fish camps that were to host me. I was flippantly eschewing the line between the personal and professional as I set out to document the bay through oral history and, for myself, convert places on the chart to places that I’ve stood. There was no practiced disinterest, no professional distance here. In August of 1982, my father was fishing in the bay when he received a message delivered via FM radio: “Come to town to meet your new girlfriend.” The girlfriend was me. When I was planning this project, I went to the home of Floyd, one retired Uganik fisherman, and saw a framed portrait of my stepfather’s father hanging on the wall. I learned it was my grandfather who had taught him and many others in Uganik Bay to setnet for salmon- a type of fishing in which one end of the net is affixed to land and the other juts into the sea like a hook.

Floyd and other Uganik old timers took out their charts to show me fish camps, and I tried to imagine the landscape but I couldn’t clearly grasp in my mind. I became familiar with their index fingers as they pointed out capes and crannies of coast line. Their fingers jumped from small islands to miniscule outcroppings that were an eighth of the size of their fingernail yet managed to hold a lifetime of their summers. Like tracing constellations across the sky, these fingers indicated fish camps instead of stars, old canneries instead of planets. Miners Point, Trap 6, Daylight Harbor, Gull Light, Packers Spit- the utterance of names over lips as they pointed at each place reminded me of the devout performing a daily rosary, with familiarity and with respect.

I opened my own atlas of Alaska and ran my finger countless times along that comma of land that constitutes Packers Spit, rubbing to conjure memories. Many times I’ve flown over it, heading to another destination but sneaking a glimpse of the rotting hull of my father’s last salmon seiner, a speck high and dry in the lagoon. In archival collections for the Alaska Packers Association, the company from which Packers Spit derives its name, I encountered plats on which buildings like “China House” are noted. The salty marsh that never had a name when I was a kid was marked as Mathew’s Lagoon. It was known as Uganik Fishing Station then, according to the 1893 land commissioner’s report. I tried to recall where the nubby pilings protruded from the sand and correlate them to the cannery building hand-drawn on the old survey. But the sad truth was that after so many years, Packers Spit was more familiar to me as a birds-eye landform than an actual landscape.

Even though I couldn’t remember it before that moment, it was a startlingly familiar site as we neared Packers Spit’s sandy beach on Father’s Day. The crewman jumped over the bow and walked the anchor up shore. I followed him and looked up to see the cabin that my family slept in barely visible behind the towering beach grass. There was no path to it, so I made big steps and hoped to not squish any voles underfoot in the process. The cabin was standing but rotten; all windows were broken and gray sky was visible through a large hole in the roof. It was insulated with old salmon can boxes, but mostly the cardboard had drooped to the floor. I looked out the window from which I used to watch Clifford plunging from the seine skiff, making bubbles to scare salmon deeper into the net. But the grass was so high that I couldn’t even see the beach. I picked up a key to an outboard motor and slipped it into my pocket. The cabin might last another few winters, or not.

More skiffs arrived filled with fishermen who were friends with Cliff. A salmon seiner anchored off the spit, close to shore, and the husband and wife walked to the bow. I opened the bottle of my stepdad’s drink of choice, Bacardi, took a swig, and passed it to the fisherman sporting orange rain gear to my right. I opened the plastic box in which Clifford’s ashes were packed, tore the plastic, and held the bag by its bottom. Light particles floated in the wind, heavy chunks of bone thumped in the sand. I wondered if what looked like smooth, white shells were actually the weathered bits of my mother and of my father, whose ashes my siblings and I had scattered in that very spot years before. The captain of the seine boat rang a bell. We sipped the bottle of rum until it was empty and I put Clifford’s photo and a handful of ash within it. I screwed on the lid and threw it into Uganik Bay.

We jumped back into the skiffs and powered away from Packers Spit. I looked back across the wake to see Packers Spit moving further away. Then I saw: it isn’t a comma. It rolls out like a green and slate-grey carpet from a wall of mountains. It is outspoken flat land in a bay made of peaks and cliffs. Its appearance was again fixed in my mind, relieving the burden of faded memory. But if it was closure that I was seeking, it was not something that I found. And if it means leaving Uganik Bay behind for another 16 years, it’s something I don’t want, either.  

Note: This February I attended the Fisher Poets Gathering for the first time. This annual gathering of fishermen writers and their supporters in Astoria, Oregon includes a variety of literary events and nurtures a community of folks whose creative energies are fueled by the sea.  It was an honor to take part in this growing event that pays homage to the oceanic literary arts. I shared Charting Packers Spit there.