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Title: Frank Miyamoto Interview IV
Narrator: Frank Miyamoto
Interviewers: Alice Ito (primary), Tatsuya Fukunaga (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: July 7, 2003
Densho ID: denshovh-mfrank-04-0016

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AI: Today is July 8, 2003. We're continuing our interview with Dr. Frank Miyamoto, focusing on the history of the cannery work in Alaska. And we're going to pick up today with some information about the structure of the organization of the contracting of the labor and a little bit of background on that in relation to the Japanese contractors in particular.

FM: And ultimately to the unionization of the industry sometime in the mid-1930s. So, I do want to start, however, by talking about the organizational set-up within the cannery industry which led to the contracting situation. As you might assume, then, naturally, the white people were the, the owners of the packing companies and so on, interested in packing salmon. As I said yesterday, it's remarkable that the canning industry got started so quickly in Alaska given that Alaska was simply purchased as late as 1867. And thirty years later, here are these canneries coming in. And I think the reason was that salmon is such a natural food for packing or for large public sale that it was the natural kind of thing to get into if the cannery system could be set up. So the packers then set up canneries... incidentally, they're all over Alaska. The one I went to, Waterfall, was in Southeastern Alaska near Ketchikan. And Tom Ikeda said he went to Petersburg which is also in Southeastern Alaska. There were others much farther north around Anchorage such as Cordova and then there were others over in Kodiak. So here are these canneries scattered around the country -- shoreline of Alaska.

Anyway, the one I went to was run by a company called Nakat Packing Company which had, was a subsidiary of the A&P, Alaska -- the Atlantic Pacific Food Company. And the function of Nakat was to produce large numbers of cans of salmon for sale in the supermarkets. As you know, A&P was, so to speak, the initial supermarket in the United States before the Second World War. They need workers. And the kind of workers you want in the canning industry is not the type you would want in a watch company or a shoe company, where you need skilled labor. These are relatively unskilled people you want in an organization like the canneries, especially because a cannery is a seasonal thing running at most, four to five months during the summer season and actually, the catch comes in a period of maybe two months, from June to the middle of September or so. It's a very short-run thing. Therefore, you cannot hire labor that will be steady and over the long run. You have to find the right kind of labor supply for that type of work. It's a little like the orchard pickers, kind of thing.

Now, for that type of labor they could have gone to the Native Americans, whom as I pointed out are not a suitable population for labor supply in American industry. And I'll point out a little more clearly in a moment why that is so. They could have gone to white workers but white workers, generally, were looking for better pay, better work than could be offered and furthermore, these companies are interested in relatively cheap labor, as cheap as they could get it. This, in fact, was always the complaint of... and on the West Coast here, from 1950 -- 1850 to the early 1900s, that the capitalists were trying to run down the laborers, run them down in the sense that they were trying to pay them the least possible and looking for workers who would work at the least possible amounts. Now, the supply from Asia of immigrants, Chinese, Japanese, and later Filipinos provided that kind of labor supply and a good part of the reason for the anti-Japanese, anti-Chinese, anti-Filipino sentiment that developed very early on the West Coast was due to the competition that arose from the import of immigrants, immigrant laborers who were thought to be undermining the worker status in the United States, particularly on the Pacific coast. And if, if these people, if the Asians had not competed in the labor market, I think there would have been substantially less discrimination and anti-Asian feeling than did develop, but this is the nature of immigration. Even on the West Coast -- East Coast, for that matter, to point out the reality of that time, you got anti-Irish, anti-German and so on kinds of sentiments built around essentially the same kinds of issues.

Now, the Asians are a highly desirable labor supply for this reason: that because they cannot enter into better kinds of work, they have to start with whatever the American opportunity offers. And in order to get access to this kind of population of laborers, there was a need for people of Asian background who could recruit workers readily, capable of understanding and speaking the English language and the English, American culture, but also capable of dealing with workers of their own ethnic background. So contractors, then, are a kind of a natural type of enterprise that would develop under these circumstances. And that's why, in a sense, it was almost automatic, almost necessary that contractors come into the scene. Asian, Chinese, or Japanese or Filipino contractors who would set up enterprises and supply the laborers that the companies wanted. These contractors worked by setting up, by receiving some, at least in the case of the cannery system... maybe I should back up a moment. I should tell you that these contracting systems were developed not only with regard to the Alaska canneries, but also with regard to the lumber and logging industry for hiring labor into, especially in the early period, into these sawmills that dotted the Pacific Northwest, also in hiring them for railroads, the Great Northern and Northern Pacific and other railroads that were functioning out of the Seattle area. And even in the farming areas, in order to get farm laborers, initially, contractors supplied laborers. So, contracting, as I say, was a kind of a natural given the immigrant situation of the early, or of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2003 Densho. All Rights Reserved.