Silme was born in the United States to Filipino parents who had migrated and settled in Seattle, Washington. Silme’s father Nemesio was a soldier in the US army, and before that, a cannery worker in Alaska. As teenagers, Silme and his brother Nemesio spent much of their school breaks also working in the canneries. His friends said Silme was a fun-loving and party-loving person, an “unlikely activist,” yet he proved these friends wrong.
Silme entered the University of Washington (UW) in the fall of 1970, quickly becoming a leader in the UW Filipino Student Association. This group promoted Filipino-American and Asian-American concerns, such as introduction of more relevant courses in the university, greater access to financial aid, and broader recruitment of students of color. This advocacy was successful because Filipino history and the Tagalog language courses were eventually introduced in the university.
The Filipino Student Association under Silme’s leadership started to take a public position against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, then already a dictatorship. The group became openly critical of human rights violations being committed by the regime.
Silme joined his father Nemesio on a visit to the Philippines in 1972. The visit strengthened his interest in his ethnic roots and exposed him to the realities being suffered by Filipinos under the Marcos dictatorship. When the Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipinas (KDP, or Union of Democratic Filipinos) was organized in the US, Silme lost no time in joining and in fact led in the establishment of KDP’s Seattle chapter in 1974, adopting KDP’s 2-part program of the dictatorship in the Philippines, fighting discrimination against Filipinos in the US.
Even prior to his involvement with KDP, Silme had been doing organizing work among the cannery workers in Alaska, promoting welfare issues, and equal and fair treatment to women and people of color. Led by his older brother Nemesio, Silme and other young people of color formed an organization in 1973 called the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Association-International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ACWA-ILWU), and the worker-led Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office (LELO). LELO later filed three class action discrimination suits on behalf of cannery workers, with Silme among the plaintiffs. Two of these lawsuits were won in federal court in the 1980s. They resulted in large awards paid to the cannery workers who were found to have suffered under discriminatory practices, and in giving workers of color access to higher paying jobs previously denied them.
His roots in the Filipino community in Seattle and among anti-discrimination groups, and his work in the university and links with the labor movement all helped broaden Silme’s network, allowing the new KDP chapter in Seattle to influence a wide range of the population. Soon, the Seattle chapter became KDP’s largest in the US, with members belonging to various Asian and American descents. Silme served as member of the KDP’s national executive board. He also became active in the US-based Coalition against the Marcos Dictatorship (CAMD).
Silme continued to be active in the Alaska workers’ union. By then married and with one daughter, he and his wife Terry took turns with their stints in Alaska. Together with other young worker-activists, Silme had a vision: a union rid of corrupt practices and corrupt leaders, a genuinely pro-worker union. In 1977, he helped establish the Rank and File Committee, around which fellow reform-oriented members of Seattle’s Local 37 could gravitate. They were inspired by stories told by older union members, the “manongs,” to seek fair hiring and dispatching procedures. (The union local had the task of hiring and dispatching recruits to Alaska.)
Then in a union election in 1980, under a platform of ridding the union of bribery, vote buying, violence and intimidation, members from the Rank and File Committee took leadership of the union’s executive board. Silme and long-time friend and fellow second-generation Filipino Gene Viernes (also a Bantayog nominee), were elected secretary-treasurer and dispatcher, respectively.
The following year, Local 37, led by Silme and and Gene Viernes, made a presentation at an international convention of the ILWU in Hawaii, providing documents that gave details of Marcos’ repressive rule, including anti-labor decrees promulgated by the regime. With support from the giant Local 142 in Hawaii (incidentally heavily represented by migrant Ilocanos), and despite opposition from pro-Marcos ILWU members, Local 37 won over the entire convention into passing a resolution criticizing these repressive policies and authorizing a high-level ILWU team to travel to the Philippines to look into the human rights situation in the country, particularly involving Filipino workers.
Previous to this, the only other labor union in the US that had taken a position on the Philippines was the United Farm Workers (UFW). UFW leader Cesar Chavez had been invited by the Marcoses to visit the country, where he was wined and dined. Chavez gave glowing reports about the country when he returned to the US.
The ILWU convention’s critical position was potentially disastrous to the Marcos regime. ILWU members could decide to boycott the servicing of Philippine ships abroad, and worse, could lead other unions into taking similar positions against the increasingly notorious Marcos rule. And most alarming of all, Marcos was scheduled for a state visit to the US the following year, 1982, where he expected to secure US aid from his friend and supporter, Ronald Reagan, making any political action against him in the US a huge public relations disaster.
Less than a month after their coup of sorts in Hawaii, Silme and Gene were shot dead inside the Local 37 office in Seattle. Two gunmen simply walked in and fired at the two. Gene died on the spot, but Silme managed to give the identities of the assailants before he died the next day.
The campaign for justice for the two activists’ murder took 7 years, but it was sustained by friends and family, forming the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV), The CJDV helped build the case, uncover evidence, search for witnesses and consistently pressure the US government to pursue the investigation and prosecution.
Finally in 1989, three members of a local gang called Tulisanes were found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. A fourth gang member was arrested then released, but later killed in mysterious circumstances.
For his role in planning and implementing the murder, a former president of Local 37 was also later sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
The hands of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were clearly seen in the murders of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, through the decision of the U.S. Federal Court in a civil suit. Through a family friend, a physician, the Marcoses channeled the blood money to the hitmen. In 1991, the court ordered the Marcos estate to pay the families $15 million in damages.