Getting Ready 14

Getting Ready 14

It’s time to turn and look at the US: Vietnam as a destination for US tourists, Vietnam as the place where Vietnam vets come from, and the US labor movement, which goes about organizing itself in a way that is very different from Vietnam.

When people hear that we are going to Vietnam, the first response is, “You’ll love it! They have great food!” Next they say that the landscape is beautiful. Third, it’s something about the people – very energetic and hardworking. Last, it’s the motor bikes. But overall, people talk about it as if it’s the vacation destination of choice, better than Greece or Italy.

The other response is about the war, which is what we call it – “the” war. Vietnam is the war that we lost, the harbringer of the war in Iraq, another disastrous mistake that we’re still fighting 12 years later, and similarly losing. The Vietnam war – at least among people Joe and I know – is where our contemporaries died or were wounded, physically and psychologically. It’s where the US committed atrocities. It’s where Brian King’s novel takes place.  It’s where vets go for “healing” journeys, some led by groups like Vietnam Veterans for Peace. When we tell some people that we’re going to Vietnam, they respond by saying, “I know someone who leads groups of vets over there,” or sometimes they mention that they did such a visit themselves.

So from over here, Vietnam is either a place where you get great food.  Our history of Vietnam is reduced to one event: the Americans went there and fought a war, and lost. It’s where you go to deal with PTSD.

The Vietnamese point of view, so I am being told, is that they fought the Chinese for 1000 years, the French for 50, and us for 15 or 20, depending on when you start counting, and then had two more wars after we left. So what they call “the American war” is not the major national trauma for them that it is for us. For them, it’s just another war, and they won. For us, it’s still a turning point when we shifted from being the good guys who saved Europe to the superpower that bombed villages and didn’t win any hearts and minds that way, a lesson we didn’t learn.

And to this country we are supposed to bring what we know about how labor struggles with capital in the US. So we need to make sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about our industrial relations system.

Earlier, I wrote that what our labor law gives us is basically permission to fight, a ticket to the struggle. It says, “If you can organize yourselves into a union, management has to bargain with you.” That’s really the essence of what we get, as far as the Wagner Act goes. By organize, it means self-organize. Individual people have to step up and say, “Yes, I’m ready.” Self-organization is what gives a union legitimacy.

The big news here is the “you can organize yourselves” part. It’s bottom up. This is fundamental for us. That’s what gives a union its power, both legally and in the eyes of the members. Individuals hand over a piece of their power as individuals when they willingly join into the concerted activity of the union. It’s an exercise in freedom of association. It is a collective right that is earned by a voluntary commitment from each and every individual. This is the case even in the current right-to-work debate. Even if you’re hired into a plant where there has been a union for three generations, and you were told you had to sign a card and pay dues, you’re just inheriting the voluntary commitment of someone who came before you. Somewhere, back in the recent or distant past of every union, everyone who joined did so by saying, “Ok, me too, I’ll sign up.” They took the risk, they won your right to belong. A generation later you find people paying dues and wondering how that happened, but back in the history of any union, someone said “Yes” and made it possible for today’s worker to bargain.

Next, the underlying assumption is that when labor and management meet to bargain, they meet as equals. Equally legitimate — unions are legal, legitimate parts of the economic infrastructure, just as businesses are. This is an assumption that has only the most shadowy basis in reality.

So that’s how the fight gets a permit to happen. But the fighting takes place in an arena that is set about with innumerable constraints and tricky snags. Once you step away from the table, it’s all politics. For example, the National Labor Relations Board is supposed to have five members. They are appointed. By whom? The President, who can be a Republican or a Democrat. They have to be approved – by Congress, which can be Republican or Democrat. Sometimes Congress balks at approving a President’s appointee and this goes on for years, and the NLRB which should have five members staggers along with only 3 or even 2. The caseload backs up and things that should have been resolved in a month take years, and people start complaining that the whole system is dysfunctional and unions are bad. Or a case gets decided by the NLRB and then the attorneys decide to appeal it into the court system and it ends up at the Supreme Court, which is also appointed by the President and approved by Congress, and right now has such a right-wing slant to its decisions that unions down at the grass roots level are reluctant to send complaints to the regional Labor Boards because they may start working their way up the appeals chain and end up at the right-wing Supreme Court, which we assume is waiting hungrily for cases to show up on their docket that they can use to whup the life out of unions for once and for all.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Ever since Taft-Hartley in 1948, the different barriers that workers’ representatives have to jump over in order to exercise our right to bargain have increased in number and severity.

For example: how effective you are at the bargaining table depends on how strong you are on the ground. The simplest, clearest expression of the power of labor is the threat of workers to stop working. It’s call “withdrawing your labor.” You’d think this was a right, wouldn’t you? After all, slavery – where you have no right to quit – was abolished by the 14th amendment to the Constitution. But many, many laws have only one purpose: to undercut labor’s strength on the ground. So they attack your right to quit — collectively, at least. Many labor laws, especially public sector laws, prohibit striking. Under the 1967 Taylor Law, which gave public sector workers in New York the right to organize, strikes could be punished by fines and jail time. In 2006, the NY transit workers union, TWU Local 100, went on strike for two days when contract negotiations broke down. The union was fined $2,500,000. The president of the union, Roger Toussaint, spent 10 days in jail.

If we are going to contribute something useful to the implementation of an industrial relations regime in Vietnam that can fight back against the abuses of workers by DFI companies, we need to be able to point to what parts of the US industrial relations system make it extremely difficult for unions and management to meet as equals at the bargaining table, in what ways the fight is fixed.

We should do a review of EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act, which seemed to have a chance of passing early in the Obama Presidency, before he directed all his strategies toward healthcare. We should also take another look at James Pope’s work for the Labor Party, “Towards a new Labor Law.” This is a pdf so the link many not work; paste it into your browser and it will come up.

This week the cover of the NYTimes magazine illustrated a pretty good article about the US labor movement. It explained what Right to Work means, and what Prevailing Wage. It even got the racist origins of RTW into the story. The photos are hyper-romantic building trades images, big strong tired men in a trailer, plus the occupation of the Capitol building in Wisconsin. It was obviously written by someone sympathetic to organized labor and its history, and respectful to workers. But writing carefully, to be palatable to educated people who somehow manage to function in society without understanding RTW. Deep in my heart I am asking, “Do the kind of people who read the NYTimes magazine really need to have this stuff explained to them?” Unfortunately, yes.

Progress today: had a session with James Tucker to prepare our computers to the Asian environment. Added a pop-up blocker called Ghostery and an anti-virus program called Sophos. We’ll do VPN’s next, which will allow us to appear to be in the US and watch Netflix.

Tomorrow we’ll go into SF to the Vietnamese consulate and see about getting visas.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

One thought on “Getting Ready 14

  1. I’m with Sergio, Helena. US political and cultural history is so very different from Vietnam’s that it’s a wonder ours can be applied at all. You’ve been asked to teach community mobilization to a culture with 1000 years of community? Helena’s asked to teach leadership in a country whose leadership made fools of ours? I mean, really.

    You wrote, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to learn how to fight it.” What part of the Vietnamese labor movement is saying that? Is it the future HR reps or is it the wildcat strike leaders? Will you be teaching future bureaucrats anxious to protect their jobs by putting up a show of socialist activism, or will it be grassroots labor leaders demanding real solutions to real grievances? What’s more, since the US labor movement is on the ropes, what DO we know about fighting capitalism successfully? And whatever it is that we know, will it translate to the Vietnamese experience?

    I would think that all you can teach is our own experience here in the US, and that the Vietnamese will have to draw from it whatever lessons they can. Rather than teach how to mobilize a community in the abstract, teach what our communities are like and how we mobilize them. Rather than teach how to develop leadership per se, teach what kind of leadership we need here in the US and how we develop it. Teach our history and how we struggle in it. You know?

    I’m concerned about the future HR reps in your classes. I’m wondering if they’re expecting you to teach them how to manage the unions they’ll be handed, whereas you’ll be looking to teach wildcat strike leaders. I don’t imagine the HR students are planning to lead strikes. If anything, aren’t they planning to negotiate resolutions after the strikers agree to come to the table? Well, Joe will be teaching collective bargaining, right? That’s something they’ll need to know.

    I really like the notion of running simulations, as you said Ms Quan did. And Joe’s thoughts about teaching methodology are interesting: Five Precepts, Six Principles, etc. Do you know what methodologies are generally used in Vietnam? If your students have only had lectures, as I suspect might be the case, how would they react to the sort of experiential learning you might be using? Or to simulations?

    By the way, I’d be very interested in learning about the protections of workers in small businesses, rather than in megacorporations, and whether there is a category in Vietnam’s labor law for workers like our self-employed. I’ll be among your many friends who’ll want to have lunch with you when you get back, urging you to pore out all that’s happened and all you’ve learned.

    Some random thoughts:

    – Will the students separate themselves by region or religion? North and south still carry grudges from their history, and religion played a major part in it.
    – Our friend who worked for an NGO in Ha Noi for 5 years said there were 3 main obstacles to getting work done: men don’t work, they expect women to; everyone seeks their family’s welfare so they don’t seek personal success; patronage is fundamental to decision-making and who owes what to whom is a controlling factor rather than what is best for the group as a whole.
    – I would add that the stereotype of Asian avoidance of negativity is pretty accurate. We run into it all the time. I expect it will show up in surprising ways, for instance, when you try to evaluate strategies and tactics.

    Against these worries, there’s the wonderful reality that Vietnam is a terrific country. It’s already proven to be hugely strong, innovative, and adapted to the global economy. The kids you’ll be teaching won’t be looking for lessons from the past; they’ll be looking to learn new ways. From what we’ve seen, they learn them quickly and put them to use successfully.

    I so envy your adventure.

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