An American woman of the Viet Nam War generation goes to Viet Nam 40 years later to teach and learn

Vermont, looking ahead — October 4, 2016

Vermont, looking ahead



This is the view from Overlook Trail in the Jamaica State Park, near our village. The colors are olive-y and yellow, with only a few splashes of brighter color. We’re waiting for rain; scarlet will come later.

Our apple trees don’t make pretty apples, though they are perfectly good for cooking.


A closer look, if you’re interested…


And this…



Yesterday I was clearing out some goldenrod and other stuff from behind the raspberries and found a monster wild grapevine draped and twisted up over two medium-sized smokebushes that turn purple and red at this time of year and two trees, an ash and a maple. The grapevine had ripe grapes on it — blackish purple blue, small, as little as kernels of corn but round of course, and stronger tasting than anything you can buy in a store. I picked them and brought them in, boiled them, strained them, added just a bit of sugar and got a syrup that tasted like pure essence of grape. Stronger than grape soda or grape candy. Bears go crazy for these. We bought vanilla ice cream at the store next door to dilute the intense grape flavor enough to make it edible.

Last weekend the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam up at Ball Mountain, released water to raise the flow of the West River, which runs through the park. Kayakers from all over the East came to ride down the river, some going as far as the Townshend Dam ten miles below. The amount of equipment required for this sport is enormous. The skirts on this woman’s outfit snap onto the rim of the seat of the kayak, keeping it from filling up with water.


A pickup truck carries boats and paddlers up from the parking lot, along the railroad right-of-way, and deposits them at the end of the trail just below the dam.  They gather along the shore before pushing out into the current.

jellybean kayaks.jpg

What does all this have to do with Viet Nam? Well, I’ve been loading papers onto Academia.edu all day now for four days. It’s a tricky website, but it seems to be working. It’s interesting to see what I’ve been up to for the last 15 years. I have also sent some emails. Joe and I have brooded over various ideas. I am reading the new book by John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam, published by Monthly Review, written to voice a perspective that is in angry opposition to the “noble cause” perspective of the Commemoration, an event apparently designed to last through 2025, which would be 50 years since the Americans left.

I’ve looked for and found Nghia’s blog:

It is at:


We are now looking ahead a year instead of back a year.

August, 2016 — August 26, 2016

August, 2016

State capitol

Entryway of the Iowa State Capitol building seen from second floor landing of grand staircase

Exactly one year ago today Joe and I went to Viet Nam. The plane (San Francisco to Taipei, Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City) landed in HCMC about mid-day. Dean Hoa and Vinh met us at the airport, piled us — with our half dozen suitcases, heavy with books — into a van and took us first to our room at TDTU and then to lunch. The next day we staggered into class. Joe “taught” for 6 hours straight. Like being thrown into a chest-high river and trying to walk across it.


We stayed for 6 months. It was great. We want to go back.


Today, a year later, I have been upstairs in the guest room at the top of the house in Berkeley, where I have a sort of desk, going through a set of file folders full of anti-war material gathered by my parents between 1962 and 1970. The war in question is the Viet Nam war, known to the Vietnamese as the American War. I discovered these folders back in June, when we were in Vermont. They were up in the barn in a cardboard box. The loft of the barn is full of boxes. Every year I try to open at least one box up there, and this was the last box I opened in June of this year, two months ago.


I remember my mother saying, when she was in her late 80’s, “Oh, all the stuff in the barn!” And I would say, “Don’t throw it away! We’ll deal with it.” Now, twenty years later, bit by bit, I’m dealing with it. Often, it is stuff that I did not know existed. The box of Felix Greene photos that Joe and I donated to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC is an example of that stuff. And now, here are these file folders with the anti-war movement material inside.


So I have been going through these folders, reading most of the material, but skipping some things if they are too long or too technical. I am riveted by what I am reading. The documents range from handmade fliers, newspaper clippings and hand-written messages to an annual report of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) that includes the treaty itself. I’m entering each of them into a table, which will serve as a sort of annotated bibliography. So far, the table is 12 pages long. I hope to take the whole archive back to Viet Nam and give it to the War Remnants Museum, which has expressed an interest in the US anti-war movement. Altogether, this material creates a day-to-day picture of what participating in that movement was like on the ground for ordinary people who were pushing back as hard as they could against the juggernaut of a government intoxicated by military imperialist ambitions.


This picture supports my overall argument that change for the better comes from below, which is related to the sub-argument that enforcement of anything good for the 99% (in current terminology) comes from below. This in turn is related to what we were trying to teach in our classes and in our discussions about higher education in Viet Nam last year. I think I can write a bullet-point explanation of the implications of this assertion – its implications for organizing, labor education, labor law, unions, labor judicial procedures, industrial relations regimes, etc. etc.


Among the documents are newspaper clippings about one of the Moratorium demonstrations, which my parents attended. There is a speech by Tran Van Dinh, along with photos of him and my father’s handwritten notes on that speech. There is a newspaper ad signed by fifty or more activists. It announces a silent vigil to be held at mid-day on the town common in Hudson, Ohio, where my father worked as a teacher at a boy’s private school. There is a letter to the editor of the local paper blaming the theft of Christmas decorations on the ‘rebellious” participants in that silent vigil. The writer’s son in law is a Marine in Viet Nam. There are some handwritten notes addressed to my mother, thanking her for staffing an anti-war booth at a county fair in Cummington, Massachusetts, a small farming village where we spent every summer. My grandfather, who was a professor and had long summer vacations, owned a very old house up on the side of a mountain above the fairground. I remember helping my mother at that booth, but I don’t remember much else. In one of her replies, she explains that a couple of weeks before the fair she had the idea of the booth, got one assigned to her (and some friends? How could she do this alone?), and wrote to various anti-war organizations who promptly sent along flyers, posters, petitions, etc. which she distributed. There are pages from I.F. Stone’s Weekly, Minority of One, a Catholic magazine and The Guardian (NY)


Of course, the first things that grabbed my attention in these files were copies of LOOK, LIFE, Newsweek and Saturday Evening Post with multi-page photo essays about life in North Vietnam under the bombings, some by Lee Lockwood, with text by David Schoenbrun.


I am embarrassed to say how much I am learning. I can’t believe that I went to Viet Nam and tried to teach anybody anything without knowing all this stuff first.


Concurrently I am reading Truth Is The First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair – Illusion and Reality, by Joseph C. Goulden, Rand McNally, 1969, which tracks the provocation of North Vietnamese patrol boats by the spy ship Maddox, coincident with an attack on nearby islands by South Vietnamese-piloted but US-provided Swift boats, through deliberate misrepresentations of reports of what happened next, up through Lyndon Johnson’s shoving of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress. He later used this resolution to claim unlimited war powers. All of this despite repeated attempts by the Captain of the Maddox to cast doubt on the reality of the aggression on the part of any patrol boats and requests to be allowed to move his ship away from the North Vietnamese coast, arguing “unacceptable risk.” Of course it turns out he was being ordered to put his boat and his men at risk in order to provoke an attack. The book ends with the hearings led by Senator Fulbright in which his committee pushes McNamara to admit that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was based on lies. It took another couple of years for investigative journalists to really uncover the true story.


It’s was another variation on the fraudulent rationales for the beginnings of many other US wars — the Mexican War (“American blood has been shed on American soil” ), the Spanish-American War (“Remember the Maine”), even WWI (the sinking of the “harmless, civilian and unarmed Lusitania”), not to mention Korea and virtually all the US wars since Vietnam. And today there’s an article in the Chronicle about “an Iranian boat” tickling the nose of the American ship in the Persian Gulf. The US boat – actually a destroyer named the Tempest- fired three “warning shots” to challenge the “unprofessional” behavior of the Iranian boats.


So now Fulbright, the critic of Johnson and his Vietnam war policy, gets the new Harvard-related university in Ho Chi Minh City named after him. Someone probably thought this had to be balanced by naming Bob Kerrey, who as a Navy SEAL conducted a massacre of Vietnamese civilians during the war, to the position of Chairman of the Board.


I am mentally comparing the breadth and depth of the anti-war movement then, and the situation we are in now. To the extent that there is a movement in this country, it’s Black Lives Matter and Bernie. The current wars, although ignited by our invasion of Iraq in 2003, have been swept into the fallout from climate change (drought, hunger, migration) but the pieces have not been linked up into a coherent front of opposition.


The Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, 50th Reunion


We were in Vermont in June but have spent July and August in Berkeley. The house in Vermont was rented out for much of that time, which helps pay the property tax and upkeep. But in August we took 5 days and went back to Iowa to attend Joe’s 50th high school reunion. Iowa is in the middle of the country. It’s got thousands and thousands of acres of fertile prairie planted with corn and soybeans, mostly agribusiness. Driving through Iowa is like driving along the ocean, except that the sea is green, not blue. There are no real cities in Iowa. Des Moines, at 200,000 people, (600,000 metro) is the biggest town and very spread out.


Joe graduated in 1966 from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. It claimed, probably correctly, to be the best high school in Iowa. It was proud of being a “ranked” high school nationally. Back in the 1960s it was almost completely white, the kids came from wealthy families, and as far as I can tell what was going on was mostly athletics of the most gung-ho pep squad variety. So in 1965, the year after the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Joe was getting drawn into early (for Iowa) civil rights and anti-war movement activity along with a small group of other students. This activity included a student-led demonstration against the war in Viet Nam, in support of the North Vietnamese and Robert Kennedy calling for an open-ended Christmas truce. Students participating in the demonstration wore black armbands and got suspended from the their schools. The case filed in protest of this discipline went to the Supreme Court, which decided that black armbands were a form of free speech and that students and teachers “do not lose the right to free speech at the schoolhouse door”. The case is referred to as “the Tinker case” because the lead plaintiffs were named Tinker. Because Joe’s father was a public school teacher (at a different school, but he still could have been fired in retaliation for Joe’s behavior) Joe and one other student (also a “teacher’s kid”) wore black suits that day instead of black armbands. They were not sent home, but other kids threatened them, encouraged by the very popular football and basketball head coaches.


The reunion took place on three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Out of 700 odd in the class, a little over 100 returned. The returnees were all white with one exception on one day and three on another — a Black man, who came with a Black woman graduate, had taken a good look at the crowd and counted, but he included a woman from Hawaii as being a “person of color.” So that’s a story in itself. We went on a tour of the school. I found myself walking alongside a man (white, of course) about my age. I asked him, “Which way do you think this crowd is leaning, politically?” And he said, “50-50 Trump.” I had heard this from someone else, earlier. Looking around at the crowd, I saw fairly healthy looking people – yes, overwhelmingly white – nicely dressed, people who got at least a good high school education if not college (over 85% at least started college). Most of the people who talked with me seem to have worked for or maybe owned small businesses; trucking, communications, restaurants. Many retirees. I thought, is this the real Trump demographic? This is not the poor, uneducated, angry working class. These are people with something to lose. What’s happening here? What do these people think Trump can get them?


To me, a vote for Trump is like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger but expecting to rise up and live a new life afterwards, in a different body (but better-looking, and rich). I’ve heard that somewhere before, but it applies here.


Upon hearing that we had spent 6 months in Viet Nam, a pretty red-haired woman, Catholic, told the story of her husband who came back from Viet Nam with PTSD “before they knew what it was.” They had married five months before he went overseas. Her husband told her stories of taking big motorized equipment out along country roads to trigger explosives before troop movements, going into the jungle to collect body parts, and being told that he couldn’t shoot unless he was shot at. They had 3 kids. Over the next 20 years he drank himself to death.


There must be many Viet Nam vet stories in this crowd. Iowa was known to be a state where draft boards took their quotas religiously and were pitilessly patriotic about sending boys to war. Nearly all the men in this crowd must have had some brush with the war. The lottery saved some of them, of course. Either way, this crowd must still be living with those memories. But no attempt had been made by the organizers of the reunion to collect, synthesize and interpret the group experience of that cohort then and now.


Back in Viet Nam, when I tried to explain my knee-jerk distaste for military exhibitions by describing to our friends there how the trauma of the war shaped our generation in the US, they would nod respectfully but without much real interest. I don’t blame them. Viet Nam is a country that has been invaded over and over again. We are a country that invades other countries; that’s a big difference. On the other hand, while this has made me loathe military pomp, it seems to have had the opposite effect on many people in Iowa, at least people we saw at the Iowa State Fair (see below).


One hefty white male in a baseball cap, from Milwaukee (where there are a lot of demonstrations going on right now following another police shooting of a Black man) told me that he was retired and enjoys Bible study with an orthodox rabbi. This rabbi does not have a real congregation because he is “at odds’ with the orthodox community. He collects guns, has a sign in his kitchen saying “In Glock I trust”, rides a motorcycle, and keeps a kosher house. While this guy may have been making this all up just to horrify me, I doubt it. This same guy walked across the a whole room to talk to the only Black man in the room, who Joe was speaking with at the time, to tell him he was from Milwaukee, the “current riot capital of America” and the do a libertarian-racist rant about Black protestors and the government.


My main impression of the Roosevelt school buildings themselves is the amazing quantity of trophies – those gold-colored plastic (the older ones  are hard metal) models of athletes performing various sports, mounted on pedestals with plaques listing names and years – that seemed to decorate every single ledge or cabinet. Every trophy commemorates someone winning and someone losing. It’s as if winning or losing is the whole story of human experience. Joe says the coaches ran the school, and this seems to confirm that legacy. No art, no bookcases, no use of the long halls to educate or broaden the experience of kids by surrounding them with evidence of the wider world in which their high school is a part. No displays of student work, either art or writing or photography or crafts. No ethnic studies art or history, although today the school apparently has substantial African American, Latino and other minority enrollment. Come to think of it, we were not taken to see the library. We saw the gym, the weight room, the band room, the art studio, the swimming pool – but no library. In all of these locations, the décor was trophies or victory banners.


Among the 100-plus returnees, we connected with half a dozen kindred spirits, and will stay in touch with them if possible.


The Iowa State Fair


Once a year there is an enormous fair at the Fair Grounds outside of Des Moines. It runs for two weeks and is attended by over 100,000 people. The reunion program suggested going to the State Fair on the third day, so we went.


One reason to go to the Fair are the animals. Horses, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, rabbits — anything that has been domesticated is there showing off its best qualities, whether it is obedience, gorgeous fur, huge muscles, shiny coats, or just plain hugeness. This is the Big Boar, who weighs 1500 pounds. A woman farmer who was showing at 1250 pound boar in the next pen said that there was nothing special about her guy; he just kept eating and kept growing. Yes, they can stand up and walk, but they spend a lot of time sleeping.

Big Pig

Walking down the center road of the fair, we heard a trumpet playing reveille. I suspected that this was a signal of something ceremonial so I climbed a small slope and found myself looking down into an amphitheater. The crowd in the bleacher seats was just sitting down. It was part of an honor-the-veterans interlude. Then a woman sang a patriotic song – not the national anthem, but something different, and a band came onstage carrying smashed garbage can lids and tin cans as instruments. They were wearing a semi-military guerilla soldier outfit: black boots, puffy-leg black pants, big belts, bare chests under vests, wild haircuts and black rags tied sweat-band Rambo-style around their foreheads. This is the costume of hooligans, bad boys, gangsters and bullies. Pull a balaclava on and you’ve got an ISIS decapitation video costume. Then they started singing. The words of the song were about “I love my freedom” and “I love my country.” It was as if they were saying, “In America today, the true patriots are the bad boys who do desperate, violent, things.” Love of country is a violent, desperate, rebellious emotion. The enemy, they seemed to be saying, is among us.


I looked at the audience to see how they were feeling. There was nothing about their behavior that suggested that this performance was meant to be taken ironically. They shouted and raised their fists. Joe said it looked like a pep rally at Roosevelt in the old days; mindless nationalism grown up, with guns.

I love my freedom


This country is disturbed. People can shake their fists and shout “I love my freedom,” but they don’t talk to the person next to them. As a visitor, you’d never know there’s an election going on. No discussion. No yard signs, for example. Not a one. We visited Joe’s cousins 100 miles to the east, in Williamsburg, Iowa. No yard signs there, either. People don’t talk about politics there, say his cousins.
Wrecking the Special Ed Curriculum

I asked this guy if I could take a picture of his T-shirt and he said yes. He said it was a size 6-X and he had to buy it on Facebook, since he has a hard time finding his size. The writing says, “Have you ever seen a handgun shot from moving motorcycle? Just keep riding my ass!”


At one point I was blaming the rise of Trump voters on the destruction of our education system. De-fund education, and what do you expect? Of course it’s more than that, but here’s an example of how bad things are in schools.

One of Joe’s cousins, Anne, a special ed teacher, talked about how her work has changed. The state education system has privatized the curriculum. Now, instead of relying on the teachers to know how to teach, they buy commercially produced “programs” and the teachers have to follow them, word for word. The teacher tells the student things from the script and then the student takes the test. This is all part of the “No Child Left Behind” federal agenda that focuses on test scores. If the scores don’t go up under one program, the state buys another one and the teachers have to switch to the new one.

Anne gave three examples of how meaningless and wrong-headed are the tests that she has to give. Students get one minute to read out loud as many words as possible. “Reading” means pronouncing – nothing else, no comprehension, no understanding or learning, just “de-coding.” So Anne starts the timer and the first case, a little girl begins – but first she heaves a great deep sigh, to calm down. The sigh costs her three or four seconds, so her score goes down and she fails the test. Another little boy reads along fine but when he comes to a word that makes him think about something else, he starts commenting on it to the teacher – and loses more seconds. A third little boy is too short to really see the test, which is taped to a flat table. He can’t read what he can’t see. He fails the test. Anne will get him a stool to stand on for the next time he takes this test.

Anne says teachers hate this approach and feel de-professionalized, but they despair of taking any action against it. So where are these kids whose single opportunity to learn has been choked off by these “education reforms”?

Back in Berkeley

Hillary Clinton has disappeared from my media feed since the convention. All I get from her people is fundraising requests. I believe that she’s serious and works very hard and that people who are close to her trust her. I will vote for her. But we need some leadership to counter Trump. This is not a good time for her to go invisible. She has done three fundraising events with the super rich in CA in two days or so, with one public appearance in swing-state Nevada, but who knows what she is saying at these events.

We are hosting a “Watch Bernie” event at our house in Berkeley tomorrow night. We’re expecting 15-16 people. I’ll make some food and figure out how to stream the broadcast through my laptop into the flatscreen TV. Bernie is expected to talk about what comes next and the new organization he has founded, Our Revolution.

A Good Night’s Sleep — June 26, 2016

A Good Night’s Sleep


Two chairs

There are two wooden Adirondack chairs sitting out in the middle of the grass, far enough away from the road and nearby houses to feel like an island in the  middle of a peaceful grass pond. In the daytime, I can sit in one of these chairs and hear the river, watch the wind in the leaves of the tall trees over along the road, study the clouds and follow birds that flit from the telephone wire to the tops of the apple trees or flap honking across the sky way up high.  On either side the mountains, South Hill and the hill called Worden Road Hill, rise up steeply; that’s why the river is where it is.

Last night  we came back from a movie in Manchester (“Maggie’s Plan,” exactly as advertised, a serious romantic comedy, with Greta Gerwig) and I went and sat in one of those chairs and looked at the stars. Despite the streetlight over by the road — it’s a new LED light and focuses down rather than glowing all around — it was possible to look up and get lost. I have never — not since I can remember, anyway — lived for long in a place where you could really see the stars. On a few camping trips I’ve been too tired to stay awake. I climb into the tent vaguely aware that something amazing is going on up above. But here I can lean back in this wooden chair and just stare and stare. I don’t know the names of what I’m seeing, and I wish I did. I can see the Big DIpper but which of the stars that the handle points to is the North Star? I should know that. I could see the Milky Way, though. My grasp of the Milky Way is basically what’s on that famous T-shirt, “You are here.”

We have been here a little more than three weeks. I am starting to calm down. Days consist of yoga, breakfast, reading, email, writing, email, lunch, a bike ride — often up to Pike’s Falls – reading, writing, dinner, reading, maybe watching Borgen or Outlander, reading, bed.  In the middle one of us goes next door to the store and buys something, a bottle of wine, a newspaper, some kale. Once or twice a week we drive to Brattleboro. On Friday nights we go to the Townshend Farmer’s Market where we see people we know, meet people we don’t know, and eat great pizza cooked in their stone outdoor oven. Sometimes LInda and Roger have their stall up, selling Abenaki jewelry and art goods. Usually Albert Litchfield III is there, too – he makes everything, from laundry soap to mosquito repellent to vinegar, and also sells eggs, bread and ham (from the pigs he raises out among the stacks of wooden picnic tables that are his main income). On Tuesdays and Thursdays we go to the Jamaica library, a white clapboard building behind the church, with a lively children’s room and a peaceful, high-ceilinged reading room full of old and new books.

We are working on the organizing and collective bargaining handbook for VInh, a popular education gathering in San Francisco on July 8 and 9, a session for Local 2121 to prepare members for a strike in the fall, and an event for our friends from Mexico, Maria Theresa and Arturo Ramos, who will come at the end of July and can present a close-up, comprehensible picture of the crisis in higher education in Mexico.

Pikes falls 2016

PIke’s Falls on a sunny Saturday afternoon. There is no sign; you park near where you see other cars, and find your way down a steep path. On the weekends, the people are a lot of out-of-staters. The sun is very hot and the water is very cold; the best. 

In Vermont I am able to read long books. I have read the entire Robert Frost collected poems from 1930, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (not great), and a good book called The Theater of War. I am deep into Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. I have finished the first two volumes. She and her main characters are my generation, born in 1944 (I was born in 1943), children of WWII, only in Italy. It’s shocking to recognize how closely my own story runs to the story she writes. The assumptions behind the power of men over women are perfectly familiar to me, as are the assumptions about what the paths for girls to security and success look like. Who would believe it if I said that a girl who goes to Harvard as a freshman in 1961 will have an experience of male hegemony, both intellectually and physically, not that different from the experience of a girl from the slums of Naples?  I think most of today’s young women and men would find this inconceivable. I do not plan to list moments from my own experience, and the experience of other girls of my generation, that substantiate this claim. But how about this: When I was at Stanford on a Stegner Fellowship (a big deal), a New York literary agent offered to represent me and one of the things we did was choose a man’s name for me to use as a pseudonym. This would have been in 1966-67. If I remember correctly, all the names I proposed (I sent her a list) were very Jewish: Moses this, Simon that…By the time  my first novel was going around in the late 1970s’, it was under my own name.

This morning, having finished the second volume of Ferrante’s quartet, I opened the next book I had on my list, a book I had ordered from the library soon after we got here to be my “long book” for this month: Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The volume I got was a 1952 Great Books of the Western World edition, and on the inside cover there was a list of all the other books in the series. Fresh from Ferrante, I read the list as if I was turning over a rock and finding a complete and perfect but dead insect: all men. Every one of them.Not Sappho, not Jane Austen, not George Eliot, not Virginia Woolf.

I reacted in two ways The first was a flashback, the second was shaped by having spent the last week reading Ferrante.

The first felt like being back at Harvard in 1962, walking around among the men, the men’s buildings, the men’s statues, men’s clubs, men’s books and equipment. I felt unemotional acknowledgement, like arriving at a building and finding all the doors locked; it’s closed, it’s after 5 pm, of course. Well, never mind. Not anger, which might suggest that things could be otherwise. Just, “Oh, these are men’s books,” period. Not a hint of thinking that the category “great books” might not be synonymous with “things men wrote.”

My second reaction came a moment later, when I read the brief introduction, giving a quick overview of Gibbon’s life. It was written in a distinctively accessible, even chatty style, as if the author was speaking about someone he had known personally, a slightly troublesome but amusing second cousin, and sharing this private view with us, his privileged listeners. The emphasis was not at all on the labor required to produce this monumental history. Instead, it was on Gibbon the person, “unprepossesing,” under his father’s thumb, disliked by Boswell, a member of the House of Commons who never spoke once (although it was during the American Revolution) and holding a sinecure with the Board of Trade and ultimately, unable to “maintain his life in London” he “arranged to live in Lausanne with his life-long friend, George Deyverdun.” “Life-long friend” is 1952 code for gay, which probably has something to do with the tone of the piece, which to me, today, seems smug. But if I had read this at the time it was published (and by the late 1950’s I was likely to do that kind of thing, just like the narrator in Ferrante’s novels), it would have been code that I could not break. I would have felt confused by the tone of the article. Why was everyone having a snicker about Gibbon? But that snicker  had power; it created an in-group and and out-group, unless you could break the code — or unless you were one of the people who wrote the code – you were not in the club of those who knew. I am now thinking of Elena’s experience in the third Ferrante novel, when her own novel is meeting her first critics and readers.

Now, from reading these novels,  it is as if the door that I had found locked was a glass door, not a giant oak or bronze door the way they are in real life: it was glass and I could not only see through it but I could see it. The glass was something in itself, something that could be looked at. It had shine, smears, discolorations, depth. I suddenly realized (this is all this morning, while I’m sitting on the deck in the bright sun, with cornbread cooking in the oven and Joe getting out the apple butter and honey) that it was reading Ferrante that had enabled me to actually see the glass itself. In her novels, the glass is always present in the perspective of the narrator. The narrator carries the glass with her and sets it in front of her when she describes a scene, whether its swimming in the sea, riding the bus, working in a shop, getting married, having sex — everything. The glass, thick and heavy, compressed out of the power relationships between men and women, is never pulled away. Not that she talks about it directly. She just makes sure it is always right in front of us. Through it we see clearly the busy, terrible and courageous actions and we hear clearly the intense, pivotal conversations of her multitudinous characters. Yes, sometimes the glass is darker and gives us a darker picture; sometimes the glass is colorless and hardly visible. But it is never missing.

If you spend enough time in her writing, you can produce that glass yourself and use it to look at things with. That’s what happened to me, unawares, when I read the introduction to the 1952 edition of Gibbon.

I have bought and started the third volume and will read it on the plane going back to California next Saturday. We’ll have Isabelle and her friend Chloe with us. They arrive tomorrow, on the train from NY after a week exploring Manhattan and staying with Chloe’s aunt and uncle who have an apartment there.

Rose bush going nuts 2016

I trimmed these roses when I was here in April, when everything was gray and leafless and pretty grim. I cut them way back and pulled out all the dead stems. Now they’ve gone crazy. This is the most bloom I’ve ever seen on them. They smell great.

I sleep better here than anywhere else. Look at these beautiful eggs!!!

Nice eggs_1








June 7, 2016 — June 8, 2016

June 7, 2016

Dad's letters

A year’s worth of reading: Letters, 1930-1939

I have been writing this for over a year now. We are in Vermont (again). Beautiful hot weather when the sun is out; chilly enough for a wood stove fire when it’s not. Deep quiet; I can hear individual cars coming down Jamaica Mountain and passing through the village. I can hear voices from somewhere up in the village. Also birds. A cardinal sat on the telephone wire, cackling and whistling.  Something large slept in the raspberries last night, leaving a mashed area the size of a king bed.

Down in Brattleboro, 23 miles southeast following the river, they have an annual celebration of the dairy industry called “The Strolling of the Heifers.”  Here’s a moment from the parade last Saturday: kids with cows from their family herds. There were many booths with people selling jewelry, jam and baked goods. No evidence of actual farm workers, as a letter to the Brattleboro Reformer pointed out a few days later. It’s a tourist event.

Cow parade

My various writing assignments are quieting down and I am bit by bit more able to read “long things,” whole books, whole academic papers. I have read the whole of a book by Bryan Dorries, The Theater of War, (Knopf 2015), nearly all of Robert Frost’s collected poems (as of 1930), and the second volume of a wonderful fantasy series with dragons by Naomi Rovik. Something I like to do in Vermont is read whole books.

I am thinking more, not less, about Viet Nam as time goes by. I’m in email touch with 3 or 4 people there; I want to refresh my contacts with others. I see many students on Facebook; it looks as if they’re vacation these days, posing near beaches. Joe and I are working through the Handbook (the collective bargaining/organizing teaching handbook). We got stalled when Joe took two classes at City College and had to spend time with that. The first section of the handbook has been sent to Vinh for translation.

In the meantime, Obama has been to Viet Nam “to rapturous” response (according to the US press). Vinh was invited to his Town Hall meeting in HCMC. Obama has promised a “free flow” of arms to Viet Nam, as if there weren’t enough unexploded bombs in the rice paddies  — and cities, too — already. This agreement to sell weapons to Viet Nam is related to the tension with China.  Bob Kerrey, who led a massacre during the American war, has been appointed to the Board of the new Fulbright University. There is some discussion about this, not a lot, in the press here.

Hollis has had heart surgery; he has a new mitral valve and is now home, recovering. We went down to Monterey Bay to see Angie Ngoc Tran and her husband, Joe Lubow, and had  great long evening of intense conversation. And the California primary is today. Amazingly, but not surprisingly, the Associated Press ( a news agency) did a “survey”, called up uncommitted superdelegates to the Democratic convention and “found out” that enough were planning to vote for Hilary so that in effect, she has won the primary — the day before the California (and 6 other states) actually vote.  One can always be amazed at new strategic moves!! People will confuse a survey with an election, and seem to be doing so already. Will this affect turnout? Or will people who were saying, “Oh, Bernie can’t win so I’ll vote for Hilary to prevent Trump from winning,” now say, “OK, she’s won already so I’ll vote for the person I really want”? I actually believe that everything possible will be done to stop Bernie.

(Note from July 8, the day after: Hilary won California, 56% to 43%. Click on individual states at http://www.nytimes.com/elections/results in order to see how things shifted as the votes came in.)

On our way here we changed planes in Las Vegas. I looked into the smoker’s lounge. There are slot machines everywhere; in this one, you can smoke and slot at the same time. Throw it all away at once, why not? These are people who I assume would be Trump supporters. Nihilists, content to risk it all for the sake of a spinning wheel, some bright lights.

smoking Vegas airport

It’s beautiful here in Vermont, but people in my generation are dying. I went to the Lady’s Benefit lunch last week, eleven or twelve women over 60, holding a meeting in the church and sharing pot luck, mostly salads. The stories were about husbands  who are ill or dying in nursing homes. Dale Ameden, Karen’s husband, died about a week ago, after 8 years of illness. I remember him as a quiet, strong, good-looking guy. Their romance was the talk of the town at the time, and they produced 5 kids, now all grown or at least graduated. Karen is working in the store every day, seems to be moving in slow motion, taking deep breaths, says she’s doing fine.

Property, Political and Civil Rights

Hilary gave me an article to read which although it’s  a draft (2015) is available on the web at http://drodrik.scholar.harvard.edu/files/dani-rodrik/files/the_political_economy_of_liberal_democracy.pdf

Mukand and Rodrik propose three categories of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. Property rights are a concern of the elite: the right to the private ownership of property is a right extracted from the king’s total ownership of everything (like the Magna Carta).  Political rights are a concern of the majority, the right to be counted among the people who, because of their numbers, are the decision-makers in a society. These rights are voting rights, extracted from the elite on the principal that the majority wins (the elite being, by defnition, not the majority). Civil rights are the concern of a minority; the right to be treated equally or protected despite not being either among the elite or in the majority. Mukand and Rodrik say that most of the time, civil rights and political rights are bundled together; this makes it hard to see what deals can be made when the interests of the majority and the minority coincide, for example, against the elite, or when the interests of the elite and the majority coincide against the minority. They want to be able to consider what happens in a country when it goes through transitions (that’s how this relates to Viet Nam). They are asking how it happens that the share of democracies is increasing world-wide (from about 15 in 1950 to about 82 in 2005, according to their figures), why most of these are electoral democracies (run by majorities) and why liberal democracies (in which civil rights are protected) are so fragile.

They offer South Korea, Lebanon (before 1975) and South Africa as case studies of liberal democracies (not the US). South Korea became a liberal democracy because of a powerful labor movement; Lebanon was a “cosociational” government, with power distributed among three religious groups; and South Africa became a liberal democracy (respecting the rights of minorities and establishing majority rule) because the minority happened to be identical with the elite; the white Afrikaners were both the elite and the minority. All three transitioned to a liberal democracy. The authors want to know what pushes a transition in that direction (what makes liberal democracy the “downhill” into which power flows).

They write, in their conclusion:

The crucial building block of our analysis is a taxonomy of political regimes, based on a tripartite division of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. We have argued that these rights operate across two fundamental types of cleavage in society: an elite/non-elite cleavage that is largely economic or class-based, and a majority/minority cleavage that typically revolves around the politics of identity. Property rights are important to the elite; political rights empower the majority; and civil rights protect the minority. Liberal democracy requires all three sets of rights, while the bargains that produce electoral democracy generate only the first two. 

Democratic transitions rely on the resolution of conflict between the elite and the masses. Our central message is that in the presence of additional cleavages — identity cleavages in particular — this resolution does little, in general, to promote liberal politics. The stars must be aligned just right for liberal democracy to emerge. The rarity of liberal democracy is not surprising.

I am thinking about this on the day of the Democratic primary in California (with the AP announcing Hilary’s victory before the vote). I am also thinking about the transitions going on in Viet Nam.

Here, the Hilary supporters are going for an electoral win that unites the elite and the majority. The majority in our case refers to the majority of people who vote, who are predominantly middle class as compared to poor and/or ethnic minority. The minority means people who may be the most in number (“the 99%”) but who either have never exercised voting  power equivalent to their numbers, or who have been systematically excluded from political power by voter suppression, such as we have seen in the recent primaries. Focusing on the preferences of the majority cuts out the needs of the minority, which include basic public goods such as universal healthcare, public transportation, safe drinking water and free higher education, for example. (I am thinking of the roads, electricity, schools and water that we saw in the villages in Sapa.) These are all on the list that Bernie makes, in every speech.

Hilary has made common cause between the majority and the elite and their money, but the race is tight enough that they – Hilary’s campaign –  doesn’t trust the vote; they send the AP to go do a survey of super delegates and pre-empt the outcome of today’s primary. This is why Bernie talks about his campaign as being a political revolution.

I would say that in the US, we have property rights and limited political rights but not civil rights — not as long as the police can shoot people and nothing happens to them; not as long as we have the death penalty and “detainees” in Guantanamo. But a regime that lacks civil rights is an electoral, il-liberal democracy: majority rule and the hell with the rest of you. Or it can be a right-wing autocracy, which is what Trump is going for — property rights only, no civil rights and no electoral rights.

Mukand and Rodrick write out these relationships using Greek symbols and equations, and then chart them on x-y axes in order to show where the possible zones converge that allow alliances and compromises. I am not actually sure how they can do this without using numbers. But their conclusions — they show that the zone of alliance that can pull the minority and majority together against the elite is small –is provocative. It mainly shows how hard it is  (and thus what a great job Bernie’s campaign has been doing).

So what kind of democracy is taking place in Viet Nam? At the end of the American war, I think Viet Nam was what Mukand and Rodrik would call a political regime organized as “democratic communism” which means a political system that respects civil rights and political rights but not property rights. Is it an electoral democracy today? I am not a good judge of the way voting takes place in Viet Nam. I have had it described to me, and I have seen evidence of Party Congresses, and I know that a certain small number of non-Party people participate in a National Assembly which is elected every 5 years and in turn elects the President, but I do not really know how it works or what what you have to do or be in order to participate. So I can’t comment further on the “political rights” aspect. Also, I am only too aware of how distorted political rights are here in the US to be a judge of what goes on in Viet Nam. So, let’s start with democratic communism. Probably beginning with doi moi in 1986, Viet Nam began to move toward recognizing property rights; businesses could be privately owned, etc. Even today, all the land in Viet Nam is owned by the government or the nation, and is leased out for use. So, with the spread of property rights, does Viet Nam become a liberal democracy (where civil rights, political rights and property rights all combine?) or a liberal autocracy, where the masses of people have civil rights and property rights, but few political rights?

All of these are on a spectrum, all of them are in transition (because there is a struggle going on over all of them) and all of them tangle together like plot lines in a novel. The current election has surfaced many issues that were treated as concerns of the minority; it turns out that inequality has increased so much that now they are majority issues, too. This  mainly means that the fight will get tougher, or, as Bernie says, “The struggle continues.”

Barn attic

I went up into the attic of the barn to measure the dimensions of a chair to have cushions made. This chair was used by my grandfather when he was a student at Amherst College in 1900. After I took the measurements, and realized that the chair itself may be too fragile to be used even if it gets re-glued, I decided to proceed with a major project that I engage in every time I come to Vermont: opening another box.

The first box I opened contained 6 or 8 matched volumes of works by Victor Hugo in red bindings. Some were sections of Les Miserables. There was also The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Han of Iceland, and Ninety-Three, which I’d never heard of. I took these down to the house and read quite a bit of Ninety-Three, which means 1793 and is about the counter-revolution invasion of France, supported by England, that attempted to overthrow the government set up by the French Revolution. Long speeches by leaders on the aristocrat and revolutionary sides express conflicting world views exhaustively.

The second box contained letters from my father to his mother.

It looks as  if they cover the years 1930 – 1939. Many letters back from her as well, and some from his sister Talitha. I had no idea these existed. A year’s worth of reading, if such a thing is imaginable.

The third box contained vertical files labeled Viet Nam, Cuba, China, etc. They are full of newspaper, newsletter and magazine articles. Here are some photos  of the April 7, 1967 issue of LIFE magazine that had a spread of photos by Lee Lockwood taken during a month-long visit to North Viet Nam earlier that year.

Life cover

Life photo villages

Life Mag prisoners

Life photos Hanoi

We will go through all this, thinking about what might be of value at the War Remnants Museum in HCMC.



Cheese Board; “The Language of Post-Socialist Discourse is Rotten but the Concept is There”; “What’s the 500 million dollar deal?” — May 5, 2016

Cheese Board; “The Language of Post-Socialist Discourse is Rotten but the Concept is There”; “What’s the 500 million dollar deal?”

After the meeting at the Labor Center I biked over to the Cheese Board and decided to stand in line with the rest of the crowd. The Cheese Board is a co-op. It began as a simple store where you could get bulk cheese cheap. Then they added a bakery and sold coffee and put chairs on the sidewalk. Over time, it became a destination for gourmet shoppers so now you can buy cheese aged in a cave in Mongolia if you want, for large amounts of money per ounce. They also opened a pizza place next door. It’s a “scene.” They make one kind of pizza per day, serve wine and beer and have about ten ovens going at once. The line of people who want to buy pizza goes down the street to the end of the block but moves quickly. There is a jazz band, usually five to seven musicians, indoor and outdoor seating, and they’ve built a kind of patio out into the street, taking up parking places. These are all over the Bay Area now and are called “parklets.”

Today, May 3, there is a floor-to-ceiling sign in one of the windows telling the story of May Day and the Haymarket Martyrs.

Sitting out in the parklet eating my pizza (I bought a half, for $11) and my glass of red wine, I watched the crowd. It’s mostly 30 and 40 year olds. The men are on their cell phones calling home to see if they should buy one or two pizzas. Some families have babies. Small children climb all over the parklet furniture. Two 40-ish women, both wearing plaid flannel shirts, jeans, and hiking books, both with curly gray hair and glasses, are deep in private conversation. A young black woman in a red hoodie, probably a teenager, poverty written all over her, moves slowly along the crowd, asking for handouts. I used to work at a home for girls like her in Oakland, the Fred Finch Home. It was an open campus; our girls tended to run away. This girl looks like a runaway, like someone who is new to the streets and ill-prepared. Everyone, everyone she talks to shakes their heads “No.” If she were on a bus or on BART, the black women would give her some money. Maybe a white woman would give something. But in this all-white crowd, no hand goes near a pocket. The stony expression on her face says, “I’m halfway dead and no one notices.” White people don’t give money on the street. If she walks north from here it’s just going to get whiter and whiter and she could indeed die before anyone gave her anything. I get out a dollar but she walks past without coming over to me.

Going down the line another woman is speaking to everyone. She’s white, in her 60’s, has an armload of petitions and she’s collecting signatures for ballot issues. They’re all very liberal; I’ve probably signed all of them.

Next to me a young black man with a backpack is standing, listening to the music. We nod hello, tentatively. He’s not panhandling. He says he’s worried about tonight; it’s supposed to get cold but the shelters are all closed, since they only open when it’s cold…and in May, it’s not supposed to be cold. He can’t sleep in parks because the police look there first. He says he has a few places on private property that he knows about.

I don’t think I need to say out loud that the scene at the Cheese Board is a living snapshot of the contradictions of our lives in the US.

China’s Working Class.

So the reason I went past the Cheese Board was because I was over at the UC Berkeley Labor Center to listen to a presentation by a friend of Katie Quan’s named Gao Gaochao He. She worked with him at the Labor Institute in China that was shut down last year. He is a professor of Political Science at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, but right now he’s at Harvard at the Labor and Worklife Program (note that it’s not the Trade Union program anymore — it’s part of the Law School).

There were 12-15 people in the room around a curved seminar table, some undergraduates, some visiting researchers, some other people who clearly had a lot of experience working in China. David Bacon came. The title of the presentation was “Working Class Formation in China: Cognitive Dissonance and Politics of Reconceptualization.” He was reporting the results of a study done by himself and his students – and I think Katie’s as well – in 2013. The students went to the train station in the 20 days before spring break, when everyone was going back to their hometowns. In the train stations at this time of year there would be thousands and thousands of people trying to get on trains. The students had questionnaires to ask, each question to be answered on a 1-5 Likert scale. The students were instructed to spread out, choose people coming from different directions and not to choose more than one person per group. They collected 1200 responses. The questions the students were asking were about whether or not the workers felt they were being exploited at work.

Why was this an important question? Well, in China you are not allowed (socially) to use the word “working class. “We could not use it, “ said Gao. They could not use “lao dong,” which is close to the same word in Viet Nam, meaning workers. For lao dong they had to substitute a similar word that means “work issues.” There has been an intellectual taboo, a post-revolutionary blind spot in the whole society. “Working class” refers back to the cultural revolution. To use the term “working class” means putting yourself at political risk. So despite the “self-regulated” economy (we would call it ‘wild West’), the state owned enterprises now having to compete with the private sector, the floods of migrant workers, a production regime based on exploitation, “it is very quiet on the working class discourse.” The industrial relations system supports this silence: labor relations are framed by the human resources model; workers have individual contracts and the labor market is completely supply and demand.

However, it seems to be possible to talk about exploitation. In China now people work under highly exploitative economic conditions, production is mostly in private ownership, and many workers are migrants who have no residency in the cities where they work. But being allowed to talk about exploitation doesn’t mean that you can talk about doing anything about it, or even that it’s wrong. Some people say publicly that exploitation is inevitable, necessary, impossible to do anything about, an inherent part of a supply-and-demand labor market. People say things like, “You can never get rid of exploitation.”

Others just ask if “working class” is still a useful concept at all. Maybe the Chinese will never form a working class because the factory workers still have access to land. They migrate to the city but go home to their villages where they have land. You can’t have land and be working class. At most they will become half-proletariat. When people talk about work under socialism as compared to today, people say “old workers,” meaning the people who work in State Owned Enterprises (old socialist economy) and “new workers,” but they don’t say “working class.”

Gao said, “If we use this kind of lens, we will never see the Chinese working class.”

Political scientists and sociologists have dealt with the study of workers in the face of a constrained discourse by doing stratification studies. They map the working class in various ways. One famous study broke the working class up into 10 strata, with peasants at the bottom. Workers were number 8. This produced some comments: “We’re supposed to be the leading class and we’re Number 8?” Political leaders got upset too: “Why are you doing this study?” Gao says they were afraid of triggering class conflict.

This reminded me of Luria’s expedition to South Central Asia and the banning of his results by the CP – for one quickie version of that well known story, see U.P Gielen and SS Joshmaridian’s paper, Lev Vygotsky, The Man and the Era, in the International Journal of Group Tensions, Vol 28 No ¾, 1999 http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Vytogsky-the_man_and_the_era.pdf

Looking at the various factors that shape the experience of Chinese working people, says Gao, you should see the basis for creating working class consciousness. And in fact there are strikes, mostly wildcats and factory-based. So Gao asks this question: “So maybe we need to get back to basics. What about the workers themselves? What do they see? What do they think? What do they say?”

That’s where the research project in the train stations began. If you ask workers about their lives, do they say things that sound like working class? Do they feel and act like working class? Let’s turn it around and instead of studying them, ask them. Let’s find out about their recognition of their position, the acts of every day resistance, the reach of their solidarity, the level of collective actions, their ability to imagine alternatives.

So the students went out and asked 1200 people in the train station what their life experience was, their sense of social justice, their experience of collective action, their consciousness of class exploitation, and whether they had a core concept of social class. Was there some kind of bridge between class awareness and class consciousness? They asked, “What does ‘exploitation’ mean to you?”

Gao then showed some slides with the results, and obviously I was not going to be able to copy down the whole thing. He has said that he’d email me a draft of this paper when he writes it up. But for now, here’s what I got:

People recognized that they were being exploited. Types of exploitation were 44% pay-related, 28% job control related. 8.5% seemed to be able to conceptualize an exploited class. 12.4% didn’t know what to day and 7% had no explanation. There was not much variation by gender or job. Unions tend to be a conciliatory factor: people have less awareness of exploitation if they have a union (I’m sure this is true in Viet Nam as well, under the current kind of union that they’ve got).

Since I couldn’t write down the numbers on the slides that worked through the various regressions, where he was trying to figure out what factors would affect the likeliness of a worker saying that he or she was in an exploitative relationship, I am going to jump to the conclusions. The following are from my notes and may not be word-for-word but are pretty close:

“Most workers have a pretty clear idea about exploitation. They say, ‘I don’t get paid enough.’ Exploitation is alive in workers’ hearts. It is viewed as morally wrong. If you step back from the classical images of the working class, you can see the awareness of exploitation and that can be the foundation of working class consciousness and socialism. The language of the post-socialist discourse is rotten but the concept is there. Maybe the working class can come back. Socialism is very much alive in the heart.”

Throughout his presentation I was wishing that we had met someone like him in Viet Nam, someone who has not abandoned the vision of socialism, who can speak not only academic English well enough but understands the kind of historical questions we wanted to ask. We did not meet anyone who met these three constraints: socialist at heart, speaking good English, and willing to talk to us. But his description of the ban on using the term “working class” reminds me of so many aspects of my own experience. For one, being told at UC Berkeley that I could use the word “Marx” in my dissertation only once (and since I was using Vygotskian theory as a framework, that was hard). And then, our colleague the economist who sat with us at lunch one day in the faculty canteen and said, “If the Americans had won the war, the South today would be like South Korea. We would all be rich! And the North would be like North Korea.” This guy was teaching economics out of a Mankiw textbook. I would like to sit with this colleague during pizza time at the Cheese Board and talk about what we can see in front of us. I would ask him, “Do you want this?”

Gao described going to the University of Chicago in the 1980s and taking an economics class from the leftist, Marxist professor Jon Elster, who is described as doing “Analytical Marxism.” Gao says that he had to be re-educated from scratch in Marxism. This also reminds me of the comments about the required 12% of curriculum that is Marxism/Leninism in Viet Nam today. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JYGrjBCoog

Jake’s comment on China, where he now has some projects: “They say, “So that’s the 5 million dollar deal? What’s the 500 million dollar deal?”

How much did our student research assignments get past the translation/discourse barrier? We opened the class by saying, “You have to take the workers’ point of view.” In some cases, this worked.





Howard Kling’s film about the US-Viet Nam labor delegation; AFT 2121 UFL strike at City College — April 28, 2016

Howard Kling’s film about the US-Viet Nam labor delegation; AFT 2121 UFL strike at City College


Here the the film that Howard Kling put together. He came on Kent’s delegation and was pretty much busy all the time, filming.

AFT 2121 Strike at City College

A strike has been looming on the horizon at City College for many months as the administration balks at negotiations with the union and contract talks are stalled. A one-day strike (an unfair labor practice strike, protesting the failure of the administration to bargain in good faith) was planned for today, April 27. Preparations began at least a month ago. Most of the faculty had never been on strike before and didn’t know what to do or what it would be like. So the day was announced and flyers went out. Then the administration, rather than deal with picket lines making it hard for other workers to come into the college, to say nothing of the students who would arrive and find picketers with handbills and signs, decided to close the whole place. Simply put a sign on the door saying “Closed.” The union took this as a victory — the administration basically struck itself. But the strikers still gathered and picketed.

We met at 8 am at the Evans campus, one of the 12 City College campuses. This campus is where most of the trades programs (automotive, carpentry) are located, as well as Labor Studies which Joe teaches. Our group started small but eventually there were about 25 of us. Bill Shields, head of the Department of Labor and Community Studies, explained the plan: picket from 8:30 to 10:00, a tight line circling around the corner, then go to the rally at Civic Center. Followed by more picketing 4:00 – 6:30, and a party at a bar on in the Mission at 7:00. The picket captain is the man on the right, in the tweed jacket; he brought the signs and a couple of boxes of goodies.

Agreeing on hwhere to picket

We got the idea. People driving past honked.

Marching and chanting

Then it started to rain.


By then it was nearly 10 anyway so we went and had a good breakfast in a Bernal Heights cafe. The sun came out. We took the bus down Mission Street to 8th and Market where the rally was going on.

Rally crowd

The signs and posters make the issues pretty clear. Everybody gets to talk.

girl speaker

The reason why attacks on City College is another way of accomplishing gentrification is because one way to get rid of low-wage or working class people is to eliminate the major social institutions that they depend on. Before this fight began four years ago (2012), City College enrolled 110,000 students. Now it’s down to about 70,000. Where have those students gone? At $46 a credit, City College (and the other 100-plus California Community Colleges) are a real deal, a real ladder of opportunity. But take that ladder away, and it becomes more hopeless to try to live here.

Gntrification sign

A note to our Vietnamese students: All this is “Power Theater.” This is not stuff that takes place at the bargaining table. It takes place on the phone, in hallways, and especially out on the sidewalk and in the street. It’s a way to demonstrate that there is collective power behind the negotiators at the table and they are willing to use that power. The Power Theater part of bargaining takes a whole lot of planning and coordination. It’s just as much, if not more, work than the table negotiations. But it works.

Red T shirt


Southern Vermont Village — April 25, 2016

Southern Vermont Village

After the UALE conference I took the train up from Washington DC to Brattleboro, Vermont, to take a look at our little house up there. Everything was fine.

house and street

Our house is on the left. The building behind it is the general store (D&K) which faces onto the main road, Route 30.

The town sits in a valley where three rivers come together. Of course, this means there is a history of flooding. You can see it written in the changing patterns of riverbeds. I remember the 1976 flood. I remember the sound of the big boulders bouncing along down the river. Then there was the flood in 2012 when Hurricane Irene came and sat on top of the watershed.

Rive rin sun 2

I took a walk early one morning. Here is the place where Ball Mountain Stream  spills into the West River, which is the river that goes through the state park. This is a new vista. Hurricane Irene leveled out the river, cut new curves into the banks, and left boulders sitting in the stream bed much the way a melting glacier leaves big rocks sitting in fields.There are still pieces of metal sticking up between the rocks — half a bicycle here, there a bedspring or a piece of a car, a smashed TV. It’s been three years, though, and people bit by bit are pulling things out of the river and making a pile. For a long time people just didn’t even try.

The flood caused a great deal of physical damage. It destroyed the bridge on the north side of town and wiped out sections of riverbank and road going all the way up the mountain. Long falls of rock still stand exposed along the mountain road. It also took four houses from Back Street –just swept them away. I saw the barn and kitchen of the house across the street from us fall into the water. Someone else who saw the barn fall into the water said it was like watching a candy vending machine: you pull the lever and stuff falls into the tray. Only “stuff” was a washing machine, freezer, lawnmower — all the kinds of things you’d find in a barn.

The flood also cause a lot of social damage.FEMA money from the government came too little, too slow, and with strings attached. Some families whose homes were destroyed simply moved away.  The town had to grieve and repair at the same time, and it was too hard. One young woman who had just broken up with her partner. She and her partner had been working for years on fixing up a home on Back Street. They were both carpenters, tradeswomen. They broke up just as they were moving back in; Tracy was left to move in by herself. Less than a week later, the house was swept away.  Her story became a kind of emblem of the insufficiency of our support system.

Vermont is not an easy place to live. The hills in our area are too steep to farm profitably. In the 1830’s the economy was merino sheep, which was suited to the landscape and caused small farms to consolidate to create big grazing spaces, but when that economy crashed (cheaper land out west) the forests began to move back over the hillsides. The ski industry is now fading as a result of global warming. Vermont is still a great tourist destination in the summer because it’s only a few hours from New York, cool and un-polluted: you can swim in the rivers and waterfalls. People come in the summer to eat fresh local food, swim, play golf at the ski resort, hike in the many state forests. But there are signs all over the place of ideas that didn’t come to fruition, and people moving away.

Ghost house 2

This is a place I think of as a ghost house. It’s on Depot Street, going down to the State Park. It looks out across a beautiful sloping field which leads down to the river. It must have been a stunning, elegant house when it was conceived and built. The three old maple trees that frame its facade (there’s a stump of a fourth, to the right) indicate the expectations of its first owners: dignity and respect. Right across the river would have been the depot where the train from Londonderry to Brattleboro stopped, so this house commanded the hear of the village. There are not many houses in the village that are three stories and designed and built all at one time. Most of the houses look as if they were built and added onto. This is the case with ours.

My parents moved into this village as retirees in the late 1960s. I don’t remember this ghost house as inhabited at that time. There was a woman in town whom everyone knew whose name was Ann; I forget her last name. She was developmentally disabled. The house had belonged to her family, and when she became the only remaining member of that family, the house was sold to a man named Jack Raymond who had bought other properties in town — nice ones, places with good views and good foundations. My father had conversations with Jack Raymond and told me that Jack understood himself to be a bit manic-depressive, or what we would call today, bi-polar. He would get excited and buy things and then never do anything about it. He was a lawyer from Connecticut; I think he still lives there. At any rate, his plan was to turn the village into an 1800’s New England theme park and rent out rooms in these various properties, linking them together with horse-drawn carriages. None of this came to pass. He got as far in the ghost house as putting in a new foundation, including a foundation for a handball court.

ghost house 1

The windows along both sides stand open, but you can’t easily get into the house because the foundation acts like a kind of moat.

Ann was provided with a lifetime residency in one of the houses on Back Street and for years she was a familiar presence in town, taking walks, doing her shopping, going to church. She wore a nice blue wool coat and a hat or scarf in the winter and was very friendly. The house she moved into was swept away in the flood. I last heard that she had moved down to an assisted living place in the next village.

I have always wondered how she felt when she walked past her old home and watched it fall to pieces.

One of the big industries in this part of Vermont now is logging. Here’s a logging truck, the sort that scares the daylights out of bicyclists.

logging truck

Our house was bought by my great Aunt Polly and her husband Austin Ballou  back in the 1950’s. It was their retirement home. They bought it from the Landsman family (I met Beverly Landsman, who died just a year ago). When Aunt Polly died, she left the house to my mother and her sister Margaret. Then my parents lived there for about 30 years after they retired. When my mother died I took it over. All our family comes from this part of the country, going all the way back to the 1600s. As my father would say, they were teachers and preachers and barbers; not farmers, but village people. On my mother’s side they were in the dry goods business down in places like Holyoke. Now that my brother and his family have moved out to California, where I came during the 1960s, this is my foothold on the east coast. I find that I can sleep through the night when I’m there.

16 k dn rm

It’s a comfortable, well-insulated little house. We rent it out now and then to cover the running costs. So far, there have been no problems.

“The Sympathizer” wins Pulitzer Prize for some reason — April 23, 2016

“The Sympathizer” wins Pulitzer Prize for some reason


The author of “The Sympathizer” is Viet Thanh Nguyen.  

I posted this (with some edits) on the Pulitzer Prize Facebook page:

I am completely puzzled by why this manipulative, approval-seeking book won a Pulitzer. It is over-written and hyperbolic, but that may have been overlooked that because of the topic — the Vietnamese community of Southern California and their gaze toward their home country. People in the US who only know about what’s happened in Viet Nam since 1975 through war movies that focus on our guys in the jungle may think there’s only one side to the story and this is it. 

It starts out as if the writer had watched the movie “Last Days in Vietnam,” put himself in that picture, and then took up the plot line of the true story of Pham Xuan An (see the book by Larry Berman, 2007) who really was a double agent. Many, many details of the two lives, fictional and real, including the time spent studying in the US, right up until when the narrator flees Vietnam, whereas Pham An stayed and kept his cover as a reporter for Reuters. Nguyen then makes his narrator take a gig as consultant to a movie that sounds like Apocalypse Now, which shows us how movie extras in the Philippines are treated but not what the war in Vietnam was really like.   Finally, in order to keep us engaged, delivers a 70-page interrogation and torture scene that ends the book. Seventy pages is more than you need unless you get off on torture. The narrator is not credible as a real spy, drinks and is out of it too much, is seemingly untrained and undisciplined, and doesn’t really know enough about what’s going on to be a good informant. He arranges the useless murder of an innocent acquaintance and actually does it himself (although someone else pulls the trigger) — not a likely job for someone who is supposed to lay low and survive. The book winds up with him defying his handler’s warning and going back to Vietnam supposedly in order to protect a friend – but there’s no way that makes sense, emotionally or strategically or plotwise.. The whole book is supposedly a text produced while he’s imprisoned in Vietnam after trying to stir up an antigovernment movement through Thailand, kind of a Bay of Pigs effort without the support or planning, which goes bad fast. Some people may find the squid part funny; I found it funny/disgusting and not important to the plot.

However, the book does give a picture of a community that is not written about much – the Vietnamese, especially those who worked for the Americans, who fled Vietnam after 1975 out of fear of what would happen next. Many of them came to Orange County, CA, outside LA and that’s the world he’s writing about. Maybe this book won a prize because it’s about a group of people most Americans don’t think much about. It’s not a flattering picture, though, and it certainly does not appreciate the role they play in California (and national) politics. Disclosure: My husband and I just came back from Vietnam where we taught labor relations for 6 months at a university in HCMC. In the South, we met people who look back with nostalgia on the American days, the 1960s, as a time when there was plenty of money around, which is of course true. Many of these people have family in “Cam,” the Vietnamese word for “orange,” meaning Orange County. The next generation, the grandchildren of those who fled, are now coming back to VN. When they bring money and can speak good English and good Vietnamese, they have a great time. They don’t get captured and tortured; they get invited to dinner parties. The Revolution has prepared a thriving country for them to invest in. There is a much better book that could be written about what’s going on in this community.

I have been participating in a Facebook read-along book group led by Cate Poe, and have been expressing my irritation at this book for some time now. I bought my copy second hand from Alibris, for $10, and when it came I was surprised to see that it had been withdrawn from a public libraryin Jefferson County, Colorado. Since it is a 2015 book, new and expensive, and even had one of those special library covers on it, I wondered what was going on. But I’ll bet someone like me actually read it and said, “What a mess!”

One of the blurbs on the back of he book  is from Andrew X Pham, probably Pham An’s son. This may be intended to clear Nguyen of having drawn from Pham An’s life story in writing his novel.

PS: I got a  message saying that Andrew X Pham is not Pham An’s son; that he’s at http://andrewxpham.com/

Lunch to Lunch, Land to Land; UALE and Democracy Spring — April 19, 2016

Lunch to Lunch, Land to Land; UALE and Democracy Spring


Demo Spr 04.15.16

Democracy Spring demonstrations at the Capitol; see last section of post for details. The white cloth banners say “A corporation is not a person”.

VN workshop at UALE 4.14.16

Participants in the UALE Viet Nam workshop. From left: Gene Carroll, Don Taylor, Jean Dearden, Victor Narro, Joe Berry, Michael Maurer, Randy Croce, Kent Wong, Monica Bielski Boris, me, Howard Kling, Attley Chock, Katherine Scacciatano, Amy Livingston, Megan Fissel

The second part of this post draws from research by Dang Bao Nguyet.

Lunch to Lunch

The single insight that seems to catch hold when we talk about our experience in Viet Nam is the one about “lunch” – that is, that when our students work for one hour at their jobs they earn 17,000 dong (or maybe 11,000, or sometimes 20,000) and when they go to buy lunch in the canteen they spend 15,000 dong for a bowl of pho. In other words, an hour of low-wage or minimum wage work in Viet Nam will buy you a cheap lunch.

A good lunch will cost more – 26,000 dong, for example – which is the amount that some employers will give their employees to go buy lunch during break. A 26,000 dong lunch will consist of some rice, some veggies and a little bit of meat. There is actually a discussion going on at the national/state level about whether workers on minimum wage get enough calories. Plenty of people think the answer is “No,” but then you get into a different discussion about how productive Vietnamese workers are, whether it’s lack of calories or lack of job training, whether the minimum wage should be increased, etc.

But the thing that catches people’s attention is that the 17,000 dong lunch in Viet Nam is the mirror image of the $7.50 or even $15 lunch in the US. In other words, if you earn minimum wage, even the “aspirational” minimum wage in the US, what it can buy you, basically, is lunch – whether you’re here in the US or in Viet Nam. Not housing, not transportation, communication, education, clothing, entertainment, healthcare, or any of those things – just lunch. A sandwich. If we’re matching minimum wage to minimum wage, Viet Nam and the US are the same. When we’re talking about the race to the bottom, it’s over: For most people we are there, right down there with Viet Nam.

It’s the exchange rate that confuses people. Those 22,000 dong are worth a dollar. So one dollar can buy about five lunches, which makes American tourists feel rich and makes American companies feel that they can buy a whole lot of hours of labor for not very much money. But if you look at it from the perspective of the worker – not the tourist, not the employer or investor – then we’re sitting in the same seat, looking at the piece of purchasing power, asking the same question, “How are we going to make it on this?” – whether you are a US or a Vietnamese worker.

This way of explaining things seems to stick when people we have met listen to it.

There is another way to talk about the match between the US and the Vietnamese economies, however. I got this from reading Dang Bao Nguyet’s research proposal, “Facilitating the agency of landless farmers in Viet Nam as a means to improve the effectiveness of public policy interventions.” We met her in Hanoi in February via a connection through XMCA, the Mind, Culture and Activity email discussion list.

Land to Land: Who was displaced from the land when they built the factory where your job went? 

When we were working in Illinois (1999-2010) we were always conscious of a backdrop of empty factories, boarded up warehouses and train tracks overgrown with weeds. Right in the middle of a town there would be an empty space that had obviously once been the site of the place where everyone worked. There were still churches, schools, shopping, neighborhoods clustered around this vanished thing, but now it was just a piece of flat, dusty open space fenced in and paved over, a ghost workplace. This was how reminders of the American economy fifty or a hundred years ago stayed present right before your eyes. When you go on YouTube and look up labor history movies you see and hear the sound effects of workers streaming in and out of factories of various sorts, bells ringing, trains moving, streets full of people hurrying along. Then you look out the window as you drive or ride through the city and you can hear all those sound effects but instead of seeing crowds of people, you see weeds, empty windows, bare land.

Yesterday I came up from Washington DC on the train, heading to Brattleboro Vermont to take a look at our little house in Jamaica which has been rented out all winter. The AMTRAK route has been changed a bit – it no longer stops in Amherst, Massachusetts. Instead, it goes through Holyoke. Holyoke is where one side of my family is from, on my grandmother’s side. They worked in the dry goods industry and made enough money to keep the next couple of generations in the middle class. I hadn’t visited Holyoke since I was a little girl, going to visit a very, very old woman known as “Cousin Caroline.”

Passing through Holyoke, I could see why it was a place you could make money back in the 1880’s. Holyoke is on the Connecticut River. I could see a dam, canals, evidence of water power, and more abandoned bricked-up factories than I had ever seen in one place before, even in Chicago: streets and streets of them four stories tall, many with the high windows that indicate that people worked there before cheap electricity was available for lighting – not just along the river and the canals themselves, but off into the distance. Factory after factory! It was a shocking sight. Far too many to turn into artists’ lofts or non-profit offices.

So what is the parallel in Viet Nam? If, in the US, you walk through a landscape past empty buildings where the jobs and the people have gone away, what is the matching landscape in Viet Nam?

In Viet Nam, farmland is being claimed by the government through eminent domain to be re-dedicated to industrial parks. In those industrial parks, the jobs of Chicago and Holyoke, Massachusetts are starting up in brand new metal-roofed buildings with huge parking lots, filled with workers and the sounds of machines. It’s as if a giant hand has lifted up the economic activity of one region and planted it down somewhere else, fourteen time-zones away.

But the land where your job went was not empty.

In Viet Nam, 55.7% of the labor force is still in agricultural production. Starting in 1986, which is when doi moi began, an average of 70,000 hectares of land per year have been claimed by the government to be used for industrial development. Every hectare that is taken is estimated to take 13 farmers out of farming. That’s near a million farmers per year (70,000 times 13 = 910,000). These are people who have been farming for hundreds of years. They bury their ancestors on that land. What are they supposed to do? A few, of course, work in the new industrial zones. A lot more migrate into the cities where there are more factories. However, over 68% simply have remained jobless.

Nguyet’s research will be “actor-oriented,” grounded in the idea that “the reality of the insider is what counts.” “The powerful outsider assisting the powerless insider is present in many interventions aimed at the powerless,” she says. She is looking at what supports the ability of insiders to exercise agency and how this is constrained or enabled by sociocultural factors.

Job loss or land loss: the shock impact is equivalent and training is not the answer

In spite of a government program to provide training for displaced farmers, only 18% of the dislocated farmers have received training. In the US, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) was supposed to gather up people who had been dislocated by trade and provide them with training so that they could get different jobs. But WIA funding was block-granted to the states, got used for other things, mixed up with welfare reform, and basically fizzled out. Not that it would have helped much anyway: factory workers who had union jobs that paid a bundle (including healthcare and pensions) amounting to $40 an hour found themselves scrambling to get trained as nurse’s aides, making $12 – $15 an hour. This is a familiar story.

What is not familiar to us here in the US is the story of what happens to the people who get dislocated by the transplantation of factory jobs to the industrial parks in Viet Nam. The parallels are not industrial worker-industrial worker; instead, it’s between the laid-off industrial workers of the US and the displaced farmers of Viet Nam. These two sets of people, paired by the same economic policies, may have a hard time finding each other.

Dislocation itself is the problem; loss of continuity, loss of history and identity. Naomi Klein wrote about this in The Shock Doctrine.
United Association For Labor Education Annual Conference, Washington DC

The reason I was in Washington was for the UALE conference. Joe and I were part of a session organized by Kent Wong (see photo at top of this post). Kent introduced the overall project; Howard Kling showed his video, which is in progress; then we talked. I now have a list of 17 people who attended the session and signed up to participate in one way or another. Three of them – Don Taylor from Wisconsin, Monica Bielski Boris from Minnesota, and Elyse Bryant from the Labor Heritage Foundation – all indicated that they want to go to Viet Nam, and Michael Maurer is all set up to go there in December 2016. We also got the endorsement of the Viet Nam project in a unanimous vote at the General Membership meeting:

“The United Association for Labor Education endorses the concept of a bridge-building project between labor educators in the US and labor educators in Viet Nam. One part of this project will be building a relationship between the UALE Women’s Caucus and the Women’s Union in Hanoi, initially commencing with a curriculum exchange.”

Democracy Spring demonstrations

Protesters in circle

Friday afternoon, before the general membership meeting, many of us from the conference went down to the Capitol to join the Democracy Spring demonstration. Several hundred young people had walked to Washington from Philadelphia and were holding a week of protests on the Southwest Lawn against corporate money in politics, among other things. Several hundred had been arrested already. We watched while seven or eight more were arrested. The witnesses stood on the sidewalk or on the grass while the protestors, who had been sitting on the street, were handcuffed and led away. The crowd had been shouting and chanting; as the protesters were being handcuffed and walked away, the shouting became singing. Everyone knew the words and the melodies – “We shall overcome,” for example. It was a spontaneous, solemn ceremony with a message of respect and thanks.

Old lady singer good poster

This old woman had a beautiful singing voice and great lyrics, including a song with the refrain, “What are we gonna do?”









Exams, employer interference with union elections — April 9, 2016

Exams, employer interference with union elections

A few days ago I saw a copy of an exam given to 1oth grade high school students here. I want to offer it as an example of the high value placed in our educational system on recognition and critical interest in multiple perspectives. This was hard to explain to our Vietnamese colleagues. Students in Viet Nam sometimes asked,  “What do you want us to say?” or “What do you want us to learn?” as a way of finding out what the “right answer” to a question was. This example shows what “critical interest in multiple perspectives” looks like in practice. In this example, it involves paying close attention to a different point of view, being able to summarize and explain that other point of view, and then construct an alternative to it and presenting that alternative in the form of an extended argument.

The exam was one page. Students would be expected to bring their own paper to write on. They would be given the whole class period (50 minutes) to complete the exam. It consisted of instructions (“Read the following paragraph carefully; summarize the reasoning offered by the speaker, respond with  your own reasoning, agreeing or disagreeing,  and write a careful argument explaining your own position.”) This was followed by a rather long paragraph, perhaps 300 words, which was a quote by a woman who had small children but also works full-time. This woman is saying why it is both necessary and good for her to work full time. She says that she doesn’t think it hurts the children, either in the sense of depriving them of her attention or of leaving them alone in the house sometimes. She talks about their competence and independence and a few other things. Because the paragraph appears to be a quote, it is written in colloquial English as if the woman was really speaking.

This would be a situation that most teenagers would be familiar with, either from their own families or from families of friends. The instructions tell students to write their essay based on their own experience, class discussions and readings for the course. I don’t know what their readings were, but it’s plural — readings.

Things about this exam that would be interesting to discuss with our colleagues at TDTU: The exam responses would turn out to be 3 or 4 pages of handwritten text. No third party or Department of Evaluation could grade them; they would have to be graded by the teacher of the class, who knew what the readings were and what the class discussions had been. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, class size would have to be no more than 30 students, preferably fewer, not 70, in order for the teacher to have time to grade them. The idea of writing from one’s own experience, not referencing an authoritative text, would be interesting. And finally, making an argument: laying out the logical steps of an argument in order to persuade the reader of something he or she might disagree with, which implies disagreeing with the teacher (the reader), would be new.

The US teacher would read these exams looking first at correctness, but not making it the most important; second at how accurately the student has read the long quote; then  the skill with which the student has constructed an argument, and last at the persuasiveness of the argument. Agreeing or disagreeing with the argument would not be an important question.


Another topic that came up in our conversations about labor relations in Viet Nam: employer involvement.  Under law, in Vietnam, employers pay 2% of payroll into the VGCL. This means that a substantial among of the union’s treasury comes from employers. When I first heard about this, I couldn’t believe it.  In the adversarial context of US labor relations, employer involvement in internal union affairs — including and especially providing resources, which would include money — is actually a violation of law. Here is a current election that is going to have to be re-run because of that kind of violation. This is an important election because there is a strong reform movement (and I use the word “reform” knowing that it has a spectrum of meanings) within the Teamsters, which has had problems with mobs, gangs, and general bad democracy for many years:


Among the changes in Vietnamese labor law or trade union law that would be required by TPP is that there be a clear distinction between persons who have the interests of the employers at heart and persons who have the interests of workers at heart. This distinction, gently expressed, recognizes class conflict in the workplace, in opposition to the traditional socialist view that once socialism has emerged, class conflict disappears.


And Journalist Lien Hoang wrote the following for BNA. 

Vietnam Labor Union ‘Happy’ to End Monopoly for TPP

BNA Snapshot

Vietnam Labor Unions

Development: Vietnam General Confederation of Labor will surrender monopoly on association.

Potential Impact: Would allow new grassroots unions formed under the TPP to focus only on employment issues

By Lien Hoang

April 8 — The sole labor union in Communist Vietnam said April 8 that it is happy to surrender its monopoly on association, as required by the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor will retain its exclusive “political” functions, Vice President Mai Duc Chinh said, while new grassroots unions formed under the TPP would focus only on employment issues.

Chinh did not specify these political functions, but the union is controlled by the Communist Party that has run the country since 1975, when the Vietnam War ended.

His remarks signal an expansion of workers’ rights that an International Labor Organization official said would have been unthinkable five years ago. These rights have been the main sticking point for some U.S. politicians who have opposed Vietnam’s inclusion in the 12-nation trade deal.

Relinquishing its monopoly status would be a challenge for the labor confederation, Chinh said, but he welcomed the reforms needed to compete with new unions.

“In case they are better than our traditional trade union, then we are happy if workers join the other ones,” he said at the Vietnam Leadership Summit in Ho Chi Minh City.

Worker Friendly

The Southeast Asian country limits civil liberties, from expression to assembly, but it promised to liberalize union rights so it could join the TPP.

Some Democrats in Congress and labor organizations in Washington have cited labor concerns as a reason to kick Vietnam out of the TPP. Yet some Vietnamese policies are more worker-friendly than those in the U.S., from paid maternity leave to overtime restrictions.

“I think Vietnam does a lot to protect labor because it’s a socialist country,” Benjamin Yap, a panelist at the summit and senior partner at law firm PBC Partners, told Bloomberg BNA. “There is an inherent feeling they need to protect the worker.”

Wildcat Strikes

Both the employer and the employees pay union fees in Vietnam, but ILO Country Director Chang-Hee Lee said the union should represent workers, not the government or businesses. The TPP is supposed to reduce employer meddling in unions, as well as facilitate strikes and collective bargaining.

Vietnam’s TPP labor negotiator, Nguyen Manh Cuong, told Bloomberg BNA there are plenty of strikes in his country. However, Lee said, they’ve all been wildcat strikes, and Vietnam needs a legal mechanism for such union activities.

“It is the most glaring example of malfunctioning in the industrial relations system in Vietnam,” Lee said in a speech at the summit.

Uncle Ho

But he also told Bloomberg BNA that Vietnam’s great progress on labor rights has been “a surprise.” In the past, he could not even discuss the right to organize.

In his speech, Lee said the ILO’s support for equal work opportunities matches the ideals of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist revolutionary and founding father of modern Vietnam. Across the country, red-and-yellow posters implore citizens to work hard, in the example set by the leader known as Uncle Ho.

Vietnam maintains steady raises to the minimum wage and makes it hard for companies to fire workers. Unemployment is usually the lowest or second-lowest among TPP states, according to World Bank data.

The trade agreement has been signed, but not ratified, by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam.

Efforts to join the TPP would help Vietnam comply with the three remaining fundamental conventions of the ILO it has not signed, out of eight total, Lee said. They cover freedom of association, collective bargaining and forced labor.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jerome Ashton at jashton@bna.com