On the Ground 2

Monday morning after breakfast: Pre-class planning in the foreign expert lecturer’s office with Vinh in Building B, followed by lunch, up on the top floor in the fine faculty dining room, followed by Joe’s actual class which goes first from 12:30 – 3 and then repeats, about 3:00 to 5:30. Long classes!

Vinh tells us, and perhaps she has told us before but I could hardly believe it, that next year they will be teaching these classes in English. This is part of the new curriculum.

Vinh explains the rules of the class to us: Students have to wear uniforms on Monday and Thursday; a supervisor may come by and kick the student out if they don’t have the uniform on. No drinking water. Water jars down. No chatting, no texting, put phone on vibrate. Mostly they use phones for playing games. Most people cannot afford laptops so you won’t see a lot of laptops. If some people bring laptops, you check and see that they are not playing games by walking around.

Joe will have a hand-held microphone. So will Vinh.

OK, it’s time.

Nice gray-walled corner classroom on 3rd floor, glass windows along hall-side wall, long green clean blackboard. Ceiling fans, but air conditioning isn’t on. Windows slide open; the fringe-leafed tops of trees – maybe acacias? – shade the balcony outside. The building feels new and well-maintained.

About 75 students fit themselves into the classroom that I figured would seat 45. They sit elbow to elbow in 4 out of the 5 ranks of desks. So it’s 5 students per desk. They are small people. The girls are all in this lovely pink-lavender ao dae outfit and look about 15 years old. The boys very formal in white shirts. Everyone stands up and bows when we enter the room. A boy brings tea in tall glasses for the teachers.

The goal of this first class is to establish and clarify the difference between the points of view of management, of human resource professionals, and workers or their unions. That’s said explicitly in the first five or six slides.

VInh takes attendance. In the future, Vinh will identify someone to take attendance. That person, a class monitor, will handle this.

Now, introductions – who we are and why we are here. This is partly done through the Powerpoint about what labor ed is in the US with emphasis on the difference between workers’ point of view and management point of view. This is a set of about 27 slides. The differences in these points of view was the contentious issue with regards to the texts, which took the employer’s point of view without ever acknowledging the existence of another point of view.

Half an hour into the class, Joe is really getting into it. Students appear to be attentive and interested despite about 90 degrees and about 99 per cent humidity, broken by an occasional shower.

To explain the essence of a union, Joe tells a story from his own experience, about organizing at City Colleges of Chicago. The point is to explain how local union organizing begins before certification, legal recognition, or any formal structure – it begins when the organizers “act like a union” and practice solidarity. He then asks for group discussions about comparable efforts. You start with a group of people who trust each other – that’s the foundation of the union that the whole structure rests on, and then, whether or not you have the law behind you, you take action and do something together. You don’t wait until you get certified to start representing people.

He asks if this could happen in Vietnam and if anyone has personal experience of such a thing.

Students talk in groups and then come up with examples. One young man who speaks English responds in English, about the various strikes that are going on right now. Another young woman talks about part time jobs in retail. A young man tells about getting rid of a bad teacher in high school and parents organizing to stop being required to pay for uniforms for their kids. Another tells about a situation in a factory where workers are exposed to radiation or some other unsafe condition, but have not been able to organize to do anything about the problem. Another, speaking English, tells about successfully organizing with students to protest a ban on playing a game with water balloons on campus.

I’m calling them “young man” and “young woman” now, instead of “boy” and “girl”.

We are very happy with these examples.

Joe tells them that he’ll give them the overview syllabus next week when we figure out how to handle the books. He shows them the books.

He then has to explain the evaluation process. The mid-term and final exams have fixed dates, set by the university. A third test is given on a flexible schedule, often late in the semester.

We have to write three tests, with answers. The first one is a 20 minute, in-class test. The second one is 40 minutes, and 60 minutes. A student earns an overall grade based on a 10 point scale. The grade is made up of the test scores, attendance, participation and bonuses for projects or reports. The University wants a bell-shaped curve, but it is pushed to the right. Student average is 7-8 and they must get 5 to pass. If they don’t attend, they will definitely get less than 5. Vinh says they hope that everyone who comes regularly and does the work gets a 5. A student who skips more than 3 classes gets kicked out of the class. Usually, they send the students the powerpoints before each class.

Then he passes out the questionnaire about who the students are. This is something Joe has always done in his classes. But by now it’s ten of three. He was hoping to get an oral collective summary of the students’ background and experience but there’s not going to be time.

Vinh tells him that some students want to photocopy the book. Apparently it’s cheap to copy things here. Joe still needs the book, though, to figure out how to organize the syllabus.

We don’t get to talk about the research project that we’d like to see happen: First steps in observing or analyzing a workplace from the workers’ point of view. Three things: the labor process and who controls it, who the workers are, and what their lives beyond the workplace are like. These are things you need to know to begin with when trying to appreciate how people organize at a specific workplace. But we didn’t get to talk about that.

People are filling out the questionnaire and putting it on the top of the front desk. I am tempted to hurry over and read through them. But of course they’re all in Vietnamese.

The idea that the purpose of the union is to fight the boss, or at least that there are different points of view, seems to go down pretty easy with these students. Joe points out that they were born after the end of socialism. Ironic and still hard for me to get my head around, that under socialism, the line between labor and management gets blurred and masked. No country has ever established socialism without a fight, but then after the political fight is over, all the other fights are supposedly over, too. People deny that the fight still goes on daily in the workplace. But these kids have grown up in capitalist Vietnam and they see the inequality and the wildcat strikes, and they have little problem seeing that there are two points of view, labor and management.

On to another classroom to do the class over again.

This is a smaller classroom, hotter. Joe is smoother the second time around. When the students report on the “Does this happen in Vietnam?” question, the first speaker is a young woman who had been a waitress in a restaurant, part-time, and the boss didn’t pay the right amount of wages. People organized and went and confronted the boss. The solution, in this context, is to get the boss to give them a contract. The second speaker is also a young woman. She talks about the Poo Yuan strikes which were about social insurance. 82,000 people went on strike. She says, “We will organize to change the law.” She asks in English, “May I continue?” And goes on to tell about part-time jobs and the insecurity that goes along with them. The third speaker is also a young woman. These speakers are coming to the front of the room and using the microphone. She worked in a company as a part-timer and the place did have a union for the full-timers. But not for part-timers. They signed a contract, but it gave them no benefits and their supervisor had total control over their assignments. Next comes a young man. He was in a class and the teacher wanted the students to take an exam on the computer. He and others organized, made a petition, and got the teacher to change the exam procedure. Next, a girl who had a part time job in a Korean company. She’s describing organizing within this company, where she has worked in the summer, and going to the boss about the working conditions. She’s a motivating speaker. People clap.

A possible comment, to emphasize the point about points of view: take each of these situations and explain how they look from the employer’s point of view. Why does the restaurant hire part-time employees to begin with? Is it because the employer wants to help out college students? Why does the employer fail to pay full wages? Why does another company fail to provide benefits? What do they get out of that? In the case of the teacher, explain why the teacher might find it more efficient to collect exam responses via email, or from a computer.

We eat dinner in the canteen just before it closes. Then I go swimming in the beautiful pool. While I’m swimming, I realize that the pool has no labels indicating corporate sponsorship. It’s just a pool. Building B is just Building B. No ads anywhere, in fact.