Gene was born in Washington, USA, of a large but poor family. His father was a Filipino migrant worker and his Caucasian mother a waitress. Both also worked in farms and warehouses. Gene was fifth of 5 brothers and 5 sisters, growing in a small farming town with a considerable Filipino-American community. (Wapato claims itself to be at one time the only place in the United States where a Filipino could legally own land.)
Gene started to work in the farm when he was barely 11 years old. When he turned 15, he went with his father to work in Alaska, where work in the canneries paid better. Work in Wapato was hard but one was accepted without question, surrounded by family and friends. Alaska introduced Gene to racism, when he often had to swallow insults against people of color. Like most young men who rebelled against such treatment, Gene was advised by the older workers to “endure the situation,” earn money to finish college, and thus leave the hard life.
Friends describe Gene as “the quiet type,” not a rabble-rouser, but Gene could not take the casual insults and indignities he experienced in Alaska. He chose to fight. His first engagement was a strike in 1968 against unequal and segregated meals, which he and his fellow strikers won.
When Gene entered college, he met other Asian American activists, notable among them, Silme Domingo, with whom his life would take a parallel path until the end.
Gene, a half-Filipino, was very interested in his father’s homeland and history. He kept a popular column in community newspapers in Seattle where he documented how Filipino Americans participated and even led in the union struggles in the US from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s.
Through his association with various student groups in Seattle, Gene became one of the first members of the Seattle-based movement against martial law in the Philippines. He joined the letter-writing campaigns whenever news filtered of a new round of arrest of political prisoners in Manila. They exposed the torture suffered by these prisoners, or the disappearance of others. They passed information to other Filipino migrant families in Seattle.
Meanwhile, he was also active in the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Association-International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ACWA-ILWU), and the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office (LELO). He supported the United Farm Workers (UFW)’s Radio KDNA, the first Spanish-language public radio in the Pacific Northwest.
He and fellow activist Silme (also a Bantayog nominee), began to seek reform within the ACWA-ILWU’s Seattle chapter, called Local 37, 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.)
In 1977, he helped establish the Rank and File Committee, around which fellow reform-oriented members of Seattle’s Local 37 could gravitate.
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. Gene and Silme were elected dispatcher and secretary-treasurer, respectively.
The following year, 1981, Gene came to the Philippines for the first time, where he saw for himself grinding poverty unlike any he had seen before, but also, the heroic struggles against such poverty as well as against the repressive policies of the Marcos regime. He met with many worker-activists and even visited guerrilla zones in the countryside. Later he would recall telling a very young guerrilla fighter the latter was “too young” to understand the dynamics and philosophy of the struggle against the dictatorship, and that he should go back to school, to which Gene got the following answer: “How old does one have to be to understand right from wrong?”
His Philippine experience fresh in his mind, Gene then travelled to Hawaii, where together with Silme Domingo, 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.
The only other labor union in the US that had taken a position on the Philippines prior to this was the United Farm Workers. UFW leader Cesar Chavez had been invited by the Marcoses to visit the country, wined and dined there, and later 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.