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Congress Votes a Cure for All But the Victims : Civil-rights bill: The cannery workers in one of the cases that prompted the legislation were exempted from its provisions.

<i> Stewart Kwoh is executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California</i>

Asian-Americans are sometimes perceived to be ambivalent on affirmative action. One reason for this ambivalence is that Asian-Americans are often not included in such programs or are victims of unfair application. A little-known and highly disturbing flaw in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, passed earlier this month, points this out.

The legislation overturns several recent Supreme Court decisions that made it harder for workers to sue employers for job discrimination. Yet the case that in part gave rise to the 1991 act has been excluded from protection. It involved about 2,000 past and present Alaskan cannery workers at Wards Cove Co. who are primarily of Filipino, Samoan, Chinese, Japanese and Alaska Native descent.

In the final moments leading to the legislation’s passage, two Republican senators from Alaska introduced and got passed an amendment to make the parties in the Wards Cove case exempt from the act’s provisions. The company purportedly spent more than $175,000 to make certain that the new job discrimination law would not apply to the 17 1/2-year-old lawsuit still pending against it. This special exception will dim any chances of success for the plaintiffs, whose complaint was sent back to lower courts by the Supreme Court.

Last-minute lobbying by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Japanese American Citizens League, National Asian Pacific American Bar Assn., several legislators from Washington (notably Sen. Brock Adams and Rep. Jim McDermott, who have introduced an amendment to rescind the exemption) and California, and the plaintiffs themselves proved too late to block this special interest deal-making.

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The fight to amend the civil-rights act has begun. There was no ambivalence by Frank Atonio, a Samoan-born U.S. citizen, who was a cannery worker at Wards Cove and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, as he spoke to congressional representatives earlier this month. He said, “While employed by Wards Cove, we suffered grave human indignities and racial prejudice by the management, all of whom were white. We worked in racially segregated jobs, housed in racially segregated bunkhouses called ‘flip bunkhouses,’ worked with machinery called the ‘iron chink,’ and fed in racially segregated mess halls. To this day, we are angered by the experience and hold haunting memories of the past.” Sacrificing the interests of the cannery workers to get the bill passed is special-interest law-making at its worst. The argument that Wards Cove spent large sums defending the case rings hollow. Unlike the employer no insurers were available to pay the bills of the plaintiffs and their attorneys.

Both Republicans and Democrats voted to pass this egregious amendment; both must now put the principle of fair play above insider play. As the plaintiffs’ attorney, Abraham Arditi, commented, “The provision undermines precisely the ideas of fairness and equality the civil rights bill is . . . intended to restore. It tells people an act designed to ensure evenhanded treatment can still be bent for the benefit of special interests.”

It is fitting that the “Justice for Wards Cove Workers” amendment not only has been introduced but should be on an expedited track in Congress so that our new civil-rights act can actually mean fairness for all.


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