2004 Honoree - William R. Tamayo

[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented at the 8th Annual Asian Pacific Fund Gala by Board member and journalist Emerald Yeh.]

While Cecilia Chang made two long journeys, one across China and the other across the Pacific Ocean, in order to realize her destiny as culinary ambassador and celebrity, our next honoree was born in, grew up in, and to this day, works in San Francisco. His was a more circular journey as he searched for his mission in life.

William R. Tamayo

In a sense, Bill Tamayo’s destiny was being shaped even before he was born. His father was among the first wave of Filipinos to come to the U.S. and work the sugar plantation fields in Hawaii in the 1920s. Decades later, that plantation worker’s son, Bill Tamayo, would win a landmark case that sent shock waves through the agriculture industry in America. It put farm bosses on notice that the U.S. government would no longer tolerate sexual coercion, rape and discimination against farmworkers.

“The degradation and humiliation of women farmworkers was an invisible tragedy,” says Luis Padillos of California Legal Rural Assistance. “Dignity needs its champions and without Bill Tamayo’s will to make a difference for those working women in the picking fields and packing sheds, those indignities would have remained in the shadow.”

Bill Tamayo is the regional attorney in San Francisco for the U.S. government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces the nation’s laws against employment discrimination. He decides which employers to sue for discrimination and the terms on which to settle. He is the first Asian American to hold the position.

Seeking justice and dignity for the vulnerable, however, was not Bill Tamayo’s initial life’s dream. He had wanted to be a rock musician instead. Growing up in the '50s and '60s, he was a teenager when color consciousness bloomed in America--the Watts Riots in 1965, the 1967 Riots in Detroit and the birth of the Black Panthers.

At first, Bill was more attuned to the cultural than the political aspects of this movement. He would listen to black radio and play keyboard with a band while he was a student at Saint Ignatius and then Lowell High School. In his senior year, he was recruited by a band named “Sand.” They wanted to be the first Asian band to make it in the circuit. He bought new equipment, was now living in the Haight, and saw Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Visions of being a rock star danced in his head.

While this was going on, his older sister got involved in the Third World Strike at SF State and UC Berkeley. She would hold strategy meetings with fellow activists in their parents’ dining room. Bill remembers that his parents supported his sister, saying “You can meet here. We’ll cook dinner for you. You have a story to tell the world. Just don’t get hurt.” They never told us not to get involved, Bill said.

Still, Bill was bent on becoming a rock star and performed two to four nights a week. But he was also taking Asian American Studies classes at San Francisco State University and demonstrating against the Vietnam War and martial law in the Philippines. By now, he had been playing in his rock band for several years, and as he put it, “We were making demo tapes, but we weren’t catching. In fact, we weren’t that good,” he said. “All it takes is a trip to the record store to see all the one-hit wonders selling for 99 cents. It was also impossible for us to break a racial barrier. What were we offering or doing that’s so different but play music anyone else can play, except we had some Asians in the band?”

At the same time, he was starting to get a sense of his leadership and public speaking skills at SF State, and was recruited to help revive a Filipino student organization. College campuses were becoming hotbeds of activism, picketing and altruism.

“I now decided to become an Asian American revolutionary,” Bill recalled. “No more music,” he declared. “I’ll serve the people instead!”

Sounds rather grandiose perhaps, but serve the people he did from that moment on.

As president of PACE, or Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, at SF State, Bill organized to get a Filipino counselor in the Education Opportunity Program when it was discovered that 43 percent of Filipino students were dropping out because of academic, transition and cultural difficulties.

He went to law school at UC Davis and decided to become a civil rights lawyer. He clerked at the Asian Law Caucus and helped on a case where a Chinese busboy was fired because he blurted out a threat after being called a racial epithet. Bill worked hard on the case, but they lost. It taught him a valuable lesson--you take on these cases even if you might not win. It’s a risk you take in the pursuit of civil rights.

After law school, Bill spent two years working on the Agriculture Labor Relations Board and then went back to the Asian Law Caucus where he served as staff attorney and managing attorney from 1979 until 1995. He took on a slew of public interest cases, ranging from immigration rights to employment discrimination, affirmative action, deportation and voting rights cases.

Some key cases where he helped bring about change include Filipino nurses who were losing their jobs and being deported because they were failing discriminatory exams and a tortilla factory worker who was not able to go back to her job after having a baby. The employer said undocumented workers don’t have the same rights as other workers. In a key decision, a judge ruled that undocumented workers are entitled to the same protections against job discrimination.

While he was at the Asian Law Caucus, Bill also developed the Battered Immigrant Women provision in the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Previously, immigrant women married to US citizens who were being abused were held under threat of deportation if they protested the abuse. Bill handled four to five dozen such cases and felt these women should be able to get their green card by self-petitioning instead of relying on their husbands. A bad marriage does not equal a fraudulent marriage and these women shouldn’t be doubly penalized, he felt. He drafted a legal memo for the Senate and went to Washington D.C. where Sen. Orrin Hatch carried the legislation.

Years later, when Bill went to a conference on battered women, he talked to an INS agent and asked how the new law was working. The agent replied, “We’ve approved 20,000 of these women for citizenship and found a fraud rate of less than 1 percent.”

“We had really made a difference. This was a big high for me,” Bill recalled.

Bill Tamayo’s simpatico with immigrants in lowly service jobs was borne partly from his own upbringing. His father had a sixth grade education and built a life for his family in America by working as a janitor, butler and elevator operator. As a boy, Bill would help his dad collect discarded newspapers from 48 apartments every Monday. They were living in Japantown at the time.

When Bill’s father tried to buy a house north of California Street, the agent told him, “We can’t show you the house because the owners would never sell to your kind.”

Bill’s mother worked as a minimum-wage beautician who was never paid overtime. At the end of her 10- to 11-hour days, she would come home and have her children count up her tip money. Those tips amounted to $2.50 to $6 a day. The exercise taught Bill and his sisters how to count and the value of money.

With Bill's background and his public interest advocacy training, farmworkers in California were to realize their first true ally in federal government when Bill Tamayo was appointed Regional Attorney for the EEOC in 1995. With agriculture being California’s second largest industry, employing a million people annually, mostly Latino, Bill decided to shift the focus of the EEOC office over to this vastly overlooked and vulnerable group of workers.

Hundreds if not thousands of these workers were being abused, but had not felt they could go to the government. A worker from Salinas eventually told the EEOC that one company’s field became known as the “field of panties” because so many supervisors raped women there. But the workers, men and women alike, were desperate to keep their jobs and feared deportation.

Then in 1996, a lettuce-picker named Blanco Alfaro walked into the California Rural Legal Assistance Office in Salinas and reported that she was fired because she refused to have sex again with her boss. She already had to sleep with hiring officials twice to get the job. Bill described her as single mother with a three-year-old child who just wanted to pick crops to earn money to put food on the table. This was the case he had been looking for.

It took the EEOC eight months to a year just to investigate Blanco Alfaro’s complaint and establish her credibility against the largest lettuce producer in the U.S., Tanimura and Antle. After all, it was a case about what happened between two people behind closed doors. The company refused to settle and the EEOC widened the scope of the case, seeking relief for many more women in the same situation.

This was the case that would help awaken America’s awareness of the nightmare many of these workers endured everyday. Under Bill’s leadership, the EEOC won a $1.8 million dollar settlement against the lettuce producer, a record amount in the agriculture industry. The lettuce producer also agreed to pay $400,000 to charitable organizations that looked out for women’s and employees’ rights. The case was covered by the New York Times and the networks.

It was not the biggest settlement Bill Tamayo would win at the EEOC, but it was the most satisfying. It was a case that declared that the federal government will no longer overlook systemic abuse of workers in the agriculture business. It told other EEOC offices that these types of cases can be taken on and won. It gave hundreds of other women the courage to step forward. And it gave hope to an entire class of people who until now, felt they had no rights or protection.

Just a month ago, Bill’s office won a nearly $1 million jury award against Harris Farms in Fresno on behalf of a farmworker who was sexually assaulted three times by a supervisor who the farmworker said would conspicuously place a handgun on his dashboard and threaten to kill her and her husband if she resisted his advances.

“When you represent immigrants,” Bill says, “you need passion. You are representing a non-white, non-citizen, non-English-speaking group with no voting rights and the worst jobs, who are underpaid and unorganized, who live in poverty and in fear of deportation and persecution, a sector of society blamed for everything from disease to drugs to unemployment. It’s not surprising these people will put up with a lot of abuse on the job in order to feed their kids,” he said.

Bill Tamayo’s biggest win to date is a $250 million dollar settlement in 2003 against the California Pension Fund in an age discrimination case involving public safety officers. His EEOC office continues to fight cases involving national origin discrimination, same-sex sexual harassment and has now set its sights on a growing and disturbing problem: the sexual harrassment of teenaged workers by their bosses.

Whether he’s fighting for battered immigrant women, farmworkers, aging workers or teenagers, the belief that has always driven Bill Tamayo is this: “A civil rights lawyer must be relevant,” he said. “The worst thing for a civil rights lawyer to be is irrelevant to people who need help the most.

When Bill came to the EEOC, the government agency was indeed seen by critics as irrelevant. It was driven by the black versus white framework in pursuing equity, but was not responsive to emerging communities and the changing issues in the workplace over the years.

“The goal of government is to retool to serve the community,” said Bill, “to be culturally and linguistically aware and up-to-date. You can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. You have to be pro-active and retool."

His biggest satisfaction comes from seeing a worker’s face light up with the following realization: “You mean I can go to the government for help? That the government will help me sue my employer? And that if my boss tries to retaliate by reporting me to the INS and having me deported, that’s illegal? And the government will protect me against that too?”

So as we honor Bill Tamayo tonight, it’s worth noting that his dreams of becoming a singing rock star may have been thwarted, but he has achieved a different and more important dream: GIVING voice to the voiceless and pushing THEIR rights and human dignity from obscurity onto center stage.

As we bring him to the stage tonight, I should mention that Bill Tamayo is a triple-threat honoree tonight. In addition to the Asian Pacific Fund, he was also recently recognized by the Asian American Bar Association and Filipinas Magazine for his exceptional legal advocacy.

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