Getting ready (5)

Still asking, what do we have to teach? What do they need us for? What do we know that they need to learn?

When Joe and I were first informed of the opportunity to do this, we asked why – what could anyone learn from us? We describe the US industrial relations system as broken, for innumerable reasons. The answer we were given was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to learn how to fight it.”  Well, on a day to day basis, on the level of local unions and shop floors, we know how to do that. But is that what they want?

I am returning Bill Hayton’s book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale University Press 2010) to the library today. Hayton is a BBC journalist and focuses on what would make news in the Western press, such as dissent and the rising level of inequality since the opening of Vietnam industry to foreign investments. The Gini index has risen from .33 to .36 between 1993 and 2006, which, he says, is about the same as European countries undergoing liberalization. But he says that these figures don’t really capture the levels of poverty in villages and among migrants (p 24). He has chapters on history, ethnic minorities, surveillance, the Party. His argument is that the Communist Party faces a crisis of control:

Through more than 70 years of evolution the Communist Party has developed a strong ethos of national leadership and of collective responsibility. It has maintained discipline among the elite and kept difference within manageable proportions. Its internal democracy has allowed different interests within society to debate and find some consensus. The biggest question facing the country is whether the Party can continue to play that role as society becomes richer and more diverse. If the Party becomes a tool of the business elite, then other groups, particularly workers, may choose to act outside Party structure (228).

The Party structure, at the present time as far as I can tell, does not include internal organizing for collective bargaining at the enterprise level (see below). Instead, workers’ demands are answered and complaints are resolved by these apparently leaderless wildcats strikes.

Joe and I had dinner last night with Richard Fincher who has just come back from 6 months teaching at Ton Duc Thong, the first part supported by a Fulbright. He is an arbitrator and was teaching dispute resolution. He also works at Cornell ILR, and was in the Bay Area for a conference of arbitrators. I asked him if I could use his name in this blog and he said it was all right.

We walked around the UC Berkeley campus a bit. It was graduation weekend and students wearing caps and gowns and leis, and carrying bundles of flowers, were coming and going all over the campus. It was chilly, though, so after an hour or so we went to a Persian restaurant on Allston Way and had dinner, continuing to talk.

I posed my question to Richard directly, “What do we really have to teach them?” I think I’m starting to get an answer. Keep in mind that Joe and I are labor educators. Labor education is applied. All my teachable knowledge is about how to make some wheels turn, push in a certain direction, get a little change happening. This is why I feel comfortable with Activity Theory, which assumes that all parts of a system are at least potentially in motion and the whole system will need to re-balance. The easiest way to point out how labor education is different from something else is to compare it with labor studies. Labor studies not have to be applied. You can do labor studies and learn to appreciate a well-organized strike or deplore the martyrdom of the four anarchists of Haymarket without actually drawing on what you learn in order to apply it tomorrow. Not so labor education. Labor education is supposed to be useful in making immediate improvements in the work lives of working people. Labor education is intended to move things along.

Another way of putting my question: Where could things in Vietnam move? Where do they want to move? What direction can we push in?

Remember, some of our students will be seeking jobs as human resource managers. This is consistent with the fact that Ton Duc Thong University is sponsored – that’s the correct term – by the VGCL. In fact, it often happens that in Vietnamese companies, the human resources manager is also a leader, possibly the president, of the union. My first reaction when I learned that this is the case (this was several months ago) was incredulity. I thought it was a translation problem. Wrong. It’s not a translation problem. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying things, I suspect that the idea is that in a socialist country, where the government is run by the Party, there is no longer any such thing as class conflict. If there is no class conflict, there is no fundamental conflict between labor and management. And in that case, you can have the president of the union be the HR manager.

Kind of like in our country, where the practice of collective bargaining presumes that labor and management meet at the table as equals. This is a useful fiction at times – for example, when a steward is negotiating a grievance with management, and needs to consciously step into a different role. But in the big picture, it is a noxious myth.

The point at which the assumption that there is no problem with having the manager of HR be the same as the union president would start to fracture would be when companies from Taiwan and South Korea (and the US) start building huge factories in Vietnam and running them as pure straight-out capitalist businesses.

Richard said that the direction in which it would be possible to push would be towards allowing freedom of association. Right now, no independent unions are allowed. Movement toward allowing freedom of association – meaning some degree of independent unionism – would let the voice of workers at the workplace  become a factor in the balance of power. (This is not obvious, and I have to think about it. For example, does freedom of association necessarily imply self-organization?) At minimum, it would mean recognizing that HR and the union do not have identical interests and cannot be led by the same person.

I also asked Richard if it was all right for me to quote from the student paper he emailed us earlier in the day. This is a paper by a student from Cornell who was in Vietnam with him, James Lowell Jackson. The paper, dated May 12 of this year (2015) lists contributions by three Vietnamese students, Trọng Nghĩa, Nguyễn Ngọc Mai, and Le Thi May Tam.

The paper chooses two “historic moments” of labor activism in Vietnam, and then moves onto the present to talk about the wildcat strikes. The paragraph right before the conclusion goes like this.

The VGCL has not been idle to these strikes, however. In responding to these strikes, the VGCL and Vietnamese Government has made some efforts in expanding collective bargaining at the enterprise level. The VGCL has worked together with the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to expand the coverage of collective agreements to 60% of unionized businesses[1]. However, despite the increases in the quantity of the agreements, there have been little changes in the actual quality of these agreements as most of these expanded collective agreements simply follow the current labor law. Only approximately 40% of collective bargaining agreements have provisions above the statutory minimums[2]. The VGCL and DOLISA have established strike taskforces in the provincial levels[3]. These taskforces aim to intervene in strikes, encourage progressive employee-employer relations, and monitor factories who are possibly violating labor law[4]. Despite these efforts however, the strike taskforce does not address the true issue at hand that is worker distrust of the union.

The true issue at hand is worker distrust of the union. While I have always (at least for the last 30 years) been aware of the importance of the words “self organization” and “representatives of their own choosing,” in our labor laws, I have tended to forget how easily things might have been different. I think that freedom of association and self-organization and choosing one’s own representatives are inextricably linked. One leads to the other; the first leads to the second.

Here is the language itself, from the NLRA:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection….

If you take this language seriously, then the activities of self-organizing and choosing our representatives become a preoccupation of the union, involving a lot of discussion, meeting, airing issues, education, etc. But these are also the processes that build the power of the union and form its defenses when it comes to meeting the boss. They are the processes that make it possible for the members to trust the union.

How does this translate into a class? In Joe’s case, a class on community mobilization or internal organizing; in my case, a class on leadership?


(The following footnotes are from the  paper by James Jackson. I did not copy the biblography.

[1] Chi and Broek 2013, 792

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fincher 2012

[4] Fincher 2012