On the Ground 9

Merle Ratner sent me a link to a song that I might learn to sing, so that I will have “a talent.”

She wrote:”One folk song that is easy to sing is‪ called Qua Cầu Gió Bay. Here is a youtube version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwbLO59ConU

(It is a traditional dating song). Here are the words:

Yêu nhau cởi áo ối a cho nhau, yyy về nhà

Về nhà dối rằng cha dối mẹ a à a á a

Rằng a ối a là qua cầu

Rằng a ối a là qua cầu

Tình tình tình gió bay

Tình tình tình gió bay.


I have to say that I totally do not understand what is going on in this song. The only thing I can think of seems as if it could not possible be what they’re trying to say.


Second class: Enrollment seems to have dropped from 97 to 55. Young men still cluster in the back, although organizing them into groups for their research project meant re-seating many of them. The air conditioning worked and the electricity stayed on.

The short story from the Angie Ngoc Tran book worked well. It goes like this:

In 2004, older women workers led a spontaneous collective action at Shilla Bags, a Korean-owned bag factory. The worker who was interviewed is named Nhung. She lived with her younger sister, Thoa, in a tiny rental apartment with her husband and three brothers-in-law. She described a protest at Shilla Bags that was started by the older women:



There was no enterprise-level labor union here. But the female leaders led the strike. When the female assistant in the accessories department informed us about contaminated food in the cafeteria, we decided not to eat it. We sat at different tables from the younger workers. As soon as we broke all the wooden chopsticks on the table as a sign of protest, the younger workers followed suit. We all stood up and yelled, “Bad food!” Within an hour, the full management team came down to talk to us. Since there was no enterprise-level labor union here, each assembly line sent a representative to talk to the management team, who then said “Sorry” and promised to improve the meals (page 206).


Later these same older women went to the labor press (Nguoi Lao Dong) to tell them about being provided with bad water, and the manager changed the water supply. Nhung’s younger sister Thoa also led a boycott protest with her co-workers to get management to switch to a better food provider.

My first question was “How many leaders were there in this story?”

I had to re-state the question because the first person to respond, a young man, said there was one, “the old woman.” Some translation hitches. Then:

How many leaders can you count? (At least 3)

What different tactics did they use? (This is related to their list of characteristics of leadership that they came up with last week – flexibility and responsiveness.)
Are they trusted? (What would have happened if the young workers didn’t trust the older women?)

Do they engage other people? (Older-younger, the labor press, Thoa’s workplace)

Do they know the people they are leading? (And it is mutual?)

Do they have a purpose? (To get better food and water; anything broader than that?)

The criteria came from the stories about leadership that the students offered last week. I’m not sure if they got the connection, though.

I put them into groups of no more than seven, mixing boys and girls, and spent nearly an hour on explaining the research project. This Angie Ngoc Tran story would be a good model for the third part of their research project, the part they will present in December. The three parts of this project are: first, what is the work like? Second, what are the people like? Third: tell a story of a protest, or if there was none, explain why. The first presentation can be a drama, acted out; the second can be a map or a graphic, a bar chart or pie chart; the third will be a story. In addition to the performance and display the report must be submitted as a written paper.

What I hope to get from their research projects is good descriptions of workplaces in Vietnam. Joe and I are doing the same project for this, so we’ll have about 35 different studies. People seem interested; lots of eye contact, students staring at me with a slight frown as if following their own thoughts. Or maybe trying to understand my English.

Then into the Northouse Power Points, the Introduction and Chapter Two, The Trait Approach. In the middle of the last hour I saw people wrapping their hoodies around their faces and drooping. I made everyone get up and do a seventh-inning stretch. Lots of laughter, they got up and did it.

Wound up just in time for them to try to the self-assessment instrument. One young woman volunteered to share hers: she gave herself high scores for friendliness and low for dependability and persistence. Hmmmmm.

Vinh carried the weight of translation, both directions, throughout.

Some students took my book to copy.

I had misgivings on the copyright issue, until this afternoon when a young woman brought the book back to me in my office. She is an unusually small woman, wearing the pink ao dai. She sat down and started talking, in pretty good English. I’m going to summarize what she said.

She knows about copyright. But the library doesn’t have books and they need to learn. Copying is cheap. She made 11 copies; they’ll sell for about $2 each.

Copy shop

She refers to Mr. Richard (Richard Fincher) frequently, with affection and respect. She says, however, that students learn theory, theory, but not application. They need to practice. Right now, most people don’t know about the union. They don’t know if it exists (I tell her that a lot of people in the US are like that, and she’s surprised.) If they know about it, they don’t think it’s strong. They don’t see it in the workplace. The problem is training. Union staff need training. Dean Hoa goes out to the provinces and does direct training with union staff. But it’s not enough. This university, and its counterpart in Hanoi, are the only places where there is a Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions. Worker representatives also need training. However, they are hired by management and work for management and so they have to do what management says. Maybe they get paid for union work by the union. But the union does not have much money. Many workers in Vietnam are not earning enough money. They don’t make enough to eat right. They get worn out. When the government raised the minimum wage, the price of rice went up, so that wage increase meant nothing. Students have part-time jobs, working in convenience stores or fast food (just like in the US).

She lives with her mother, father and little sister and commutes from home. It’s 2 hours by bus, two buses. That’s four hours a day. She has classes 5 days a week, and in the summer, it is sometimes 7 days a week. She sleeps on the bus. She would move to the dorms, but there are 20,000 students and only room for 2,000 in the dorms. She’s in her last year. She wants to get a job in HR. Jobs in HR in big companies, like Unilever or P&G, are good jobs, but smaller companies ignore all the laws and are bad places to work in HR. She wants to make some money when she graduates so that she can help her family, which has been supporting her through this education. Mostly, she’s tired. When she went to high school it was near her house and she could go on her bicycle, and she felt healthy. Now she doesn’t get enough sleep and she feels unhealthy. She also misses a lot of the activities that go on on the campus at night. Her father is a worker, now a supervisor in a factory. Her mother used to be a worker but now stays home. Her father had a heart attack a few years ago.

I was struck by how much what she was telling me conformed with what I have been reading. I just didn’t expect to hear it all in one story, from this young woman.

She accompanied me and Joe to the bus which we took to go shopping at the Lotte Mart (laundry soap, bread and cheese – hunger for some dairy and wheat after two weeks of noodles and broth!). But she stayed on the bus, starting her long trek home.

This evening Joe and I walked around the campus and saw some of the activities that she can’t be part of: acrobatics, a kung fu class, basketball, soccer practice, badminton under the streetlights and what looked like a rehearsal for a dragon dance, complete with the heads.

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.

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