Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam: a US Labor Academic at a Union-sponsored University

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

On the Ground 3 — August 19, 2015

On the Ground 3

On the Ground 3

Joe, reading over what I wrote yesterday about his class, noted (and I’m putting it mildly) that I misquoted him and the misquote is not a trivial matter. My mistake has some real significance. I said that he said that what exists now is a post-socialist Vietnam.

Here is what he actually said, at least in the powerpoint we used in our classes:

In Vietnam under socialism, labor and employer did not have this conflict of interest. Everyone worked for the good of society.

But now, Vietnam has been opened to capitalism through direct foreign investment. Many workers have bad jobs. In these firms, there is a conflict of interest between labor and management.

I said “post-socialist” as a short cut to what I had in the power point, “opened to capitalism.” Of course, he said other words in addition to what was on the powerpoint.

Elsewhere, further down, I said, guessing at why the students seemed to have no problem with the idea that workers and employers had different points of view and different goals:

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.

“The end of socialism” and “grown up under capitalist Vietnam” are hot button phrases. Getting this wrong, asserting that socialism is over, is a mistake.

The decision for Vietnam to move into a mixed economy, which meant putting some state owned enterprises into the market, some as shares to employees and others outright to investors, and opening up to direct foreign investment, was a hard choice and the consequences of it are not in yet. Whether Vietnam has surrendered to global capitalism or whether it is using a mixed economy as a way to preserve and build its socialist economy is a big question, and I don’t have any inside information about how this question is being handled. But for me to simply assert that Vietnam has become a capitalist economy would be like saying that the US … well, let me think. It would have to be something that a lot of people talk about, might be true or not, but either way is very controversial and unwelcome – maybe like, for example, saying that voter suppression has gone so far that there really is no democracy left in the US. If I were a visitor to the US and wrote something like that, maybe it would cause a similar reaction.

Nevertheless, we made it very clear in the powerpoint for the class that workers and employers have different points of view under capitalism. I even used the word “fight”:

I used the word “fight” on purpose. In the US, we even say, “The purpose of the union is to fight the boss.”

Sometimes, problems get resolved easily. But other times, you have to show strength. The strength is the power of the people, and the people need leaders.

There were other problems with yesterday’s entry as well. I am getting quite a bit of friendly blow-back from friends in the US about this; not comments directly on my blog, but in private emails.

However, at my age, nearly 72, the way I learn about what’s a hot spot is to put my hands on it and if it’s hot, I learn fast.

I want to be clear about why I am writing this as a public blog. It’s partly to test the situation itself, to see who reads it and what they say.

But I am writing first and foremost for family back in the US, although they may not be really interested in either the political stuff or the teaching stuff: they want to know if the plane landed and what the food is like and also when I am coming home.

Next I am writing for friends, most of whom are not very political. They may even say of themselves, “I am not political.” They may support our socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, but that’s not rocket science. In the US, despite the rise in inequality, most of my friends live sufficiently in the bubble so that the impact of a major change in the economic system reaches them only bit by bit. They’re noticing global warming, they’re noticing the price of food and the drought, but they’re not revolutionaries. Many of them know nothing about Vietnam except what they remember, if they are old enough, about the Vietnam war. Vietnam vets are now old guys, many of them disabled, retired or dead. Most of my friends probably don’t even remember the Gulf war (or maybe I have younger friends.) The war that people remember is the war in Iraq. So this blog is meant to awaken them about where Vietnam has come in the last forty years. Much as I am being awakened.

I’m also writing for other labor educators – in fact, I’m posting this on the UALE list serve, because we hope that others will want to come and teach at TDTU. Those people will be interested in whether there are powerpoint projectors, if you have to bring your own chalk (which is true at some of the union locations where I’ve taught), how many students there are in a class, are there flip charts, what the class process is like. They will want to know the nuts and bolts of the conditions of our work. For them, whether or not the building is well-maintained is important. Is there electricity? It is not an insult to TDTU to mention the conditions of the blackboards or the size of the classrooms. Labor educators teach in all kinds of places, from church basements to back rooms in bars to conference rooms decorated with corporate logos. That’s why Joe used to carry a full set of teaching tools – including scissors, tape, colored markers – around with him all the time. Actually, the buildings here are much nicer than the SLER in Illinois, even down to the paint on the walls.

But I am aware that this is a public blog and therefore may be read by anyone, especially my colleagues here at TDTU, whether or not their English makes it easy. But this is closely related to the fact that I’m supposed to be here as a teacher. I have been asking, ever since day one, what exactly do they think I know that they want me to come here and teach. I was most convinced by Leanna and Hollis’s explanation: “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to learn how to fight it.” Since I’ve spent all those hours in church basements, etc, I do know something about how to fight capitalism, so that made me willing to undertake this adventure. Other than that, I’m basically bringing myself, warts and all, to see what I can learn and above all, do no harm. This blog is an expression of that.

If I get things wrong, like the song says, “Someone else will lend a hand.”

Class today went fine, by the way. I had 70 plus students and in the middle, the electricity went out, but we did fine. The research project will probably be pretty neat. I suggested that the first level of presentations be a dramatization, the second level should be charts and maps, and the third level, stories. More on that later.

On the Ground 2 — August 17, 2015

On the Ground 2

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.

On The Ground 1 —

On The Ground 1

On the Ground 1

Sunday morning, August 16

All our luggage came through OK.

In the crowd at the airport we were the only white poeple in sight. I noticed a little girl, maybe 12 years old, staring at Joe as if he was some kind of giant tall pale monster.

Vinh and Dean Hoa met us outside on the sidewalk. A whole crowd of people was waiting too, and there were neat rows of red folding chairs set up for these people to sit in while they were waiting. We loaded up our suitcases, mostly heavy with books, into a van marked TDTU and went through streets that remind me of Mexico City: wide grand avenues, many two or three story white stucco buildings, flocks of people riding motor scooters in a steady flow of traffic. The trees on the streets are tall and leafy – this is not an arid country. On the upper floors of some apartment buildings are balconies overflowing with flowers – this is not earthquake country. They brought us to our room, which is indeed in a row of rooms constructed under the bleachers of the soccer stadium: clean, two double beds, a TV and shower, air conditioning. Note: his is a country where you drink bottled water and put toilet paper in the wastebasket.

Then to lunch, trying to talk despite jet lag and cultural overload. Dean Hoa is a young guy in his forties, very seriously committed to his work and the goals of his program. He came from the Business school; they saw that he was “multi-skilled,” he said, and assigned him here. Vinh, whose English is quite good, looks fifteen but is twenty six and a force to reckon with.

They let us nap for four hours. Vinh picked us up for dinner at 6:30 and introduced us to Nghia, pronounced “nee”, a student who will be in our classes and who spoke some English. Like Vinh, he looked incredibly young. I’ve got to find another word to describe these people other than “beautiful.” We walk through the campus. By now it’s getting dark. The buildings are all new in the last three to five years, and combine being modern (lots of angles, indoor and outdoor spaces connecting, white stucco and concrete) with small size, not the gigantism of new universities that you see in the US. Lots of overhanging things that Joe has to duck to get under, lots of small steps and curbs that I have to watch out for. The canteen is right around the corner from us, in the same building with recreational facilities, and overlooking on one side the soccer stadium and, on the other, a really appealing swimming pool that is apparently available to people like me from 5 to 7 pm. The whole campus is gated and guarded.

We walk down an inner street to the class and administration buildings. A canal, a bridge, fountains with colored lights. In the central building is a lobby full of displays: one is for the architecture students, who did final projects proposing tourist resorts; the other is fashion design, everything from gorgeous wedding gowns to some pretty weird high-fashion men’s designs. We see the Labor Program offices: clean, open, in Building B. Vinh tells us that there are 4 lecturers, that is, full-time members of the faculty. They are in the union. Then there are about 10 adjuncts who are not in the union. They are mostly union staff who teach one course here and other courses elsewhere.

We see Ms. La’s desk. She was head of the program here, perhaps the founder of the program, and head of the Ho Chi Minh City Federation of Labor. She is now retired but still teaching.

Upstairs is the classroom Joe will teach in tomorrow. It’s a regular classroom with long desks and chairs, not an amphitheater. Joe was warned that he would have 70 students, but since registration was just last Friday, they don’t really know, so the classroom looks as if it will seat 45. They will move the class if there are more signed up. They have not got the class listed as being taught by a foreigner.

There is a long glass window on one side of the classroom and Vinh says that observers will come and stand there and see what is going on in the class.

There is also a blackboard or a whiteboard, apparently. Richard said there wasn’t – I’m glad that there is, because I like to draw a lot of diagrams.

Then we walk out to the guarded entrance to the campus, the guard calls us a taxi, and we go to District 7 where there are lots of restaurants. We stop in a phone and computer store, get new SIM cards, and have dinner. It’s hot but there’s a steady breeze.

The main conversation happens after dinner, when Vinh, Joe and I really dig a bit into the issue of the assigned books. Joe has not been able to create a course that applies to labor out of the textbooks that he has been assigned. Now we find out what has been going on.

The President of TDT has approved a new curriculum. This is the second curriculum that we got via email. It includes the book that I am going to teach from, Northouse, and the books that Joe is going to teach from. There is no way to argue about this. Period. We not only have to really teach these books, we have to look as if we’re teaching them. I can do that, because the Northouse book follows a very fixed pattern, same every chapter. I can do a set of powerpoints that will march through the book, because it is set up that way. I believe I can even add Billy Henderson’s “positive reinforcement,” Wagner Dodge’s failure to make his men trust him, leading to the deaths of 15 out of 17 of them, King Lear and Machiavelli. I can also explain what a theory or a model is. I think I can fit those in.

Also, next year the entire curriculum is going to be taught in English. I am not clear on who’s going to be teaching it in English.

Joe’s books are much more inappropriate and he is having a much harder time trying to see how to use them. They are not written to be use as textbooks, in a chapter-by-chapter kind of way, with a pattern that can be repeated week after week He has never gone into a class unprepared like this, lacking a syllabus that gives an overview of the whole class..

We’ll see. Vinh is prepared for this first class to be a bit loose. Joe will do a self-introduction, ask the students to fill in the questionnaire that he always gives students in the US, then talk about the two kinds of communication, using Fred’s chart of the contrast between union communication and sales communication. At least that’s the plan for now.

Today, Monday, I’m up by 5 after a good night’s sleep. Make coffee in the teapot; it’s intense, sweet, strong stuff. Nghia comes by at 7:30 and we go to breakfast in the canteen where the three of us have good, fresh food – two eggs, cucumber and herbs, a big fresh French roll, another sweet iced coffee. Total for three comes to about $2.70 US, 62,000 Viet dong. A soft breeze flows through the open air, roofed canteen seating area. To one side the swim team, in uniforms, are doing their warmup exercises. Many girls wear pink or really lilac ao dai, the long-sleeved simple dress with slits up the side, over white trousers. Apparently on Mondays and Thursdays, if you have a class, the girls wear these and the boys wear white shirts and black pants. I ask Nghia if I should refer to him as a boy and he laughs and says yes; a man is someone over 25, time to have a job and get married.

I ask Nghia what he wants to do when he graduates and he says he wants to be president of a union. As president, he will make sure that workers get all the benefits they are eligible for.

One of the things I read when I woke up was a couple of chapters from Kent Wong’ and An Le’s book, Organizing on Separate Shores, published by the ULCA Labor Center in 2009, which are interviews with Vietnamese labor organizers in both the US and in Vietnam. I wish I had read this book first, way back last spring. One chapter in particular is about a Vietnamese organizer who works for the VGCL, Nguyen Tam Duong. In this chapter, we get to see what an organizer actually does in that organization. Other chapters are emotionally wrenching. All the stories begin in the war; some of the chapters about US based organizers begin with stories of fleeing the fall of Saigon. History is present in this book in a way that has to be made explicit in our classes.

Joe’s class starts in a bout 3 hours. Staying calm is the top priority for now

The Fun Part 1 — August 15, 2015

The Fun Part 1

The Fun Part 1

We’re at the airport. Nearly midnight on August 14, about to become August 15. It’s already August 15 in Vietnam, probably about lunchtime. Maybe we should go upstairs to the restaurant up there and have lunch. Just kidding.

This afternoon Rev Haynes from Chicago called me, while I was at Flowerland with Gabi. He was calling to say goodbye and to wish us a good trip, and he said a prayer for me. It was a really good prayer that covered just about everything – health, mental well-being, work, travel, safety, etc. Having someone actually say a prayer specifically for you, about you, about what they want to see happen to you, is a wonderful thing. Hours later, I’m carrying his prayer with me.

Dinner with Gabi, Dave and Theo at the Kensington Pub. Isabelle came over yesterday evening (Thursday) to hang out, but we were all so tired that we could hardly talk. She’s working as a camp counselor all week, and then at Urbanity, a vintage shop, on Sundays, and then school will start 6 days after the end of camp. There are also parties, apparently, to which all the camp counselors, even the 15-year olds like her, are invited. She told us that she’s getting a car, Liisa’s car when Liisa gets a new one. Isabelle has summer homework in math that she hasn’t started yet.

My brother and Kaethe called from Maine. Lots of talk about medical care, prescriptions, etc. We also compared thoughts about blogs.

It’s been along day with so many parts to it that it seems more like a week or a month. I borrowed James and Katie’s car and went to Kaiser to pick up some more medications, the result of seeing an opthamologist yesterday. I also picked up a new computer, a little Macbook, from the MAC store on Shattuck. Very beautiful little object; basically an Iphone with no phone, however. Must learn how to use it, ha!

When I got home Joe told me that John Hess had died. Today. Joe saw him day before yesterday. He’s been going down with Parkinson’s now quite quickly for the last year. Only a year ago Joe was still trying to interview him for our book about bargaining in the CSU system, where John was a key organizer during a period when casualization was just heating up and the union had to figure out who it was going to represent – tenured full-timers or everyone? There were great fights that ultimately led to a really good contract. There came a point last year when Joe would come home from John’s and say that John was losing his ability to tie ideas together, losing his “executive function.” He would lose an idea in the middle of a sentence. For a long time, Joe could prompt him to tell stories by providing the executive function for him. Then that also began to fail. Joe stopped actually taping the conversations but continued to visit regularly. When we left for Vermont in early July it wasn’t clear that we’d see John alive again. But we came back last week and Joe saw him a couple of times. The last time was yesterday. Joe says that he could tell that John heard him talking to him and was happy to see him. Joe says that John has explained his equanimity and sense of peace about dying by relating it to his Buddhist practice.

Then today Joe got a phone call from John’s stepson, Shawn, saying that he had died.

I have only typed up about a third of the interviews with John. Already they make a fat binder. A lot of it repeats. We probably have enough to do a book right now, but of course it will have to wait until we get home next year.

So we have tapes of a set of interviews, done over about two years, with someone who at the beginning had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but wasn’t showing significant loss, and who at the end has lost so much coherence that the interviews were discontinued. That’s not the story we’re trying to tell, but it’s interesting to know that it’s there. Some people do a series of photographs of their dying friends or relatives. This is a record of someone’s thinking, not their appearance.

This morning, packing. We’re bringing so many books! We could each probably go with one suitcase, even a small one, if we weren’t bringing books. But we’re allowed two each, so we’re filling them up, weighing them on the bathroom scale to try to keep them under 50 pounds. Then there are the various “gifts”, things Joe gathered from various unions around the Bay Area – hats, pins, pens, labor movement tchotzkas.

James drove us to the airport. Approaching the Bay Bridge we saw high, red flames near the toll booths. As we got closer we could see that there were at least two cars on fire. One was still in a lane, the other had careened entirely off the ramp and into the grass where it had started a wildfire. Fire engines, police. A cluster of people over at the edge of the ramp, someone lying down. The flames burned from every part of the car, which might have been some kind of jeep or Humvee – a big square thing, or maybe just an SUV. It was nothing but a skeleton but it was still burning wildly. In photos of marketplace bombings there is always a car – often the one the bomb came in – and the car is a skeleton like this. I always wondered what burns, in a car – the seats? Apparently it’s everything, even the paint.

I’ve brought Catch-22 to read on the plane. I went down to my garage office to return my backup disc to the electronics bin, and looked around at the bookshelves and asked myself, “What’s the best book I’ve read recently?” Remember that we went on an Ursula LeGuin binge in Vermont. So I chose Catch-22. I remember being bowled over by the tangles of irony in it.


So we got on the plane, had exit seats with plenty of leg room. I even had a window, but it was night the whole way until about an hour before we landed. Blankets, pillows, two meals of Chinese food (pork and rice, chicken and rice). I probably slept 3 or 4 hours total. It was a Boeing 777 that seated 370 people. I can’t imagine where they stored the food. The flight attendants did not have the tight teamwork choreography of Southwest attendants. They seemed to float around ornamentally. But they got the food out and cleaned it up. The east began to get pink behind us as we approached Taipei, early Sunday morning. What happened to Saturday?

Which is were we are now, in a large white waiting room with one line of people going to Hanoi, another line going to Ho Chi Minh City.

Three levels of translation —

Three levels of translation

Getting Ready 29

Dean Hoa responded to Joe’s request to explain how he would use labor to flesh out his class in community mobilization, which we are translating to mean internal organizing. He sent an example of how he would apply one of the theories of social influence and persuasion.

Dean Hoa taught this class last year, possibly from the same textbook, although maybe not.

His response made me ask, how many translations are actually going on here? There are at least three.

First there is the translation from language to language, which is hard enough. We are asking Dean Hoa to write about this in English.

Then there is the translation from a labor advocacy orientation in a socialist culture to a labor advocacy orientation in a capitalist culture. Actually, it is not just culture, it’s history. History is the big ox in this drama. In this instant moment, history has dragged these two cultures into confrontation with each other. Culture is the surface, history is the beast.

This is probably why sociocultural historical psychology has historical in it.

Then in the middle, between the other translations, stands this thing the textbook, which is not a labor advocacy/labor studies textbook at all, but a business marketing textbook that comes out of a business school class. In activity theory we would call this a tool, in the sense of a thing or resource that people use in order to accomplish something.

I’m calling the textbook a “tool” but I could use Vygotskian terminology, which is really what’s appropriate here, and call it a “mediating artifact.” It’s the thing that holds steady while you use it for different purposes. You use it, but you don’t use it up or turn it into something else – it’s still there when you’re done. I could also call it a “boundary object,” meaning something that marks the limit of one thing and the beginning of another thing, something that looks one way from one side and a different way from the other side.

In order to use this book to teach internal organizing or labor leadership, we have to translate it in the sense of turning it inside out.

That’s three kinds translation: language to language, socialist culture to capitalist culture, and business marketing purpose to workplace organizing purpose. Each one is substantial and dense. This is the first time I have really understood what we are going to have to do. And having penetrated all three levels of translation, figure out how to teach across them.

Getting Ready 28 — August 7, 2015

Getting Ready 28

We also sent Vinh and Dean Hoa a set of 25-30 TDTU powerpoint slides with a proposed first class introduction, in which we say that labor educators take worker’s point of view, not the employer’s point of view, and that these are different and often in conflict, and necessary in order to understand the social relations of work under capitalism.

They wrote back and said they’d be OK as an introduction to our first classes. Also that they’d pick us up at the airport, take us to lunch, drop our suitcases off and talk.

Dean Hoa said that he used that text (or a similar one) and handled it by using labor examples. Joe asked him if he could send some labor examples.

One week from tonight.

Meanwhile, we’re still in Vermont, kids running around, lots of wash and cooking.

What happened to #27? I’m not getting enough sleep.

Getting Ready 26 — August 3, 2015

Getting Ready 26

Getting Ready 26

Two weeks from today, August 15, we’ll be on the plane to Vietnam.

We’re in Vermont, with one grandchild here already and two more due to arrive this evening, with their parents. This is the “family event” that couldn’t be modified to get us to Vietnam earlier, which is why we’re arriving in Ho Chi Minh City about 24 hours before Joe’s first class on Monday the 17th. We want to spend the next 8 days cooking, eating, swimming, playing in the river, kicking balls around, playing.


Theo (the 11-year old) and Joe went down to Townshend to the Grace Cottage Hospital Fair, which is mostly an auction plus food and booths. While they were off doing that, I rode my bike up to Pike’s Falls. It’s a gentle nearly-five mile winding climb, first on asphalt and then on a dirt road when you cross the bridge at the West Jamaica turnoff. The falls itself is a beautiful waterfall and a good swimming hole.

I stopped halfway up and sat by the river long enough to see three little brown-black river otter cubs hustling along the far bank, over the rocks and under the bushes and ferns. There was a little thunder in the distance. Black clouds were visible along the tops of trees to the west, but where I was the sun was shining and the sky was full of small white clouds.

Then there was a snake in the road, a small one. It been hit by a car. It had a gash in its side. It coiled and uncoiled, raised its head and opened its mouth wide, hugely wide, the way pythons do in movies. Opened it and closed it, then lowered its head and rested, coiled and uncoiled, then raised its head again. It was clearly in pain and knew it. I could swear it was trying to communicate with me about it. I am sure that if I had the right ears I could have heard it screaming.

I rode on up to Pikes Falls, dumped my bike in the high grass near the old graveyard, and walked down into the pool below the falls. There were a few other people there, parents with kids and dogs. I swam: nice and cold. The dogs were barking nervously, because of the distant thunder. The dark clouds were moving in. I dried off and went back up to my bike. Just as I got on my bike, the rain started. It was pelting, blinding rain. It rained so hard I could hardly see. On the other hand the whole ride back is downhill so although I was cold and sopping wet, it was a fast ride. A few cars came by with windshield wipers wiping, and I could see people waving at me, but I couldn’t take my hands off the handlebars to wave back. It was beautiful.

Sometimes the sun came out even while the rain was pelting down. I was going too fast to look around to find a rainbow, though.

It was an absolutely wonderful ride, both ways. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better ride. Both places I live, Berkeley and here in Vermont, are close enough to open country – the great parks of California, including Tilden, and the Green Mountain National Forest, here – so that I can walk out the door or ride my bike out the door and be in real wild country. Not wilderness, but open land, public land. Both places still have access to open, public land.

Joe is still trying to read the books assigned for his class. Yesterday he told me about this: Seiter and Gass have a section on “social loafing,” which, along with “de-individuation,” means going along with the crowd. They see this as a bad thing. This is on page 135. The point they are trying to make is that when people become part of a group they lose their capacity to make a good moral judgment. Here is what Gass and Seiter say about groups:

“In this section, we examine how groups can affect a person’s behavior by causing the person to lose his or her sense of self or by making the person feel less responsible for his or her actions.”

And then:

“Crowds influence a person’s behavior; once we get lost in them, we tend to do things that we would never do alone.”




“Because being in a large group makes a person both more aroused and anonymous, the person focuses less on himself or herself and behaves more impulsively.”


All about weakness, susceptibility, loss. Impulsiveness is a bad thing. When people do things impulsively, they do bad things. Think about how this is going to play in a class on organizing a union!

Nothing about how  people are enabled to do more with others than they can do alone, how people learn from more competent peers.

Something everyone tells us about  Vietnam is that people are really good at working in groups. This may be a legacy of their socialist ideals; it certainly is how they were able to win the war. My experience, and my hope, is that doing things with other people, in a group, can make people braver and more generous, less selfish. You make a collective decision to do something difficult or risky because the outcome will be worth it for others: this is the idea behind concerted activity. There is also that little thing about power.

So telling our students that groups facilitate immoral or bad behavior is a serious misestimate of who our students are, to say nothing of contradicting the purpose of the class.

It gets worse. The authors give three examples of “social loafing,” or “dis-individuation,” meaning the loss of individualism through participating in a group.

One, a girl who had been at Woodstock in the 60s and went along with the crowd and may or may not have danced naked, along with thousands of other people. Apparently the authors think this embarrasses her; they tell us that she won’t talk about the experience. No kidding – she probably just won’t talk about it with them.

Another is what they call the “Los Angeles riots” in 1992. They are referring to what happened after the video was released that showed the police beating up Rodney King, an African American man. Gass and Seiter give the destruction of property in the protests that followed the beating as an example of “social loafing.”

The last example will take your breath away. They offer the My Lai massacre, known in Vietnam as the Son My massacre.

They quote a US soldier saying:

I just went. My mind just went. And I wasn’t the only one that did it…a lot of people were doing it, so I just followed suit. I just lost all sense of direction, of purpose. I just started killing. I just started killing any kind way I could kill. It just came. I didn’t’ know I had it in me (p. 135).

I wonder if this quote came from the trial? They cite an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology but it’s a secondary source; they are quoting from a quote.

After this quote, they go on to talk about “anti-social behavior.”

From Wikipedia: The massacre took place in March 1968. Between 347 and 504 (this is the Vietnamese government count) civilians, including women and children, were killed. They were also gang-raped and mutilated. There’s a photo on Wikipedia. The news of the massacre started to leak out about 8 months later. Public outrage strengthened resistance to the war. Twenty-six soldiers were charged, only William Calley was convicted, and he was let free after three years of house arrest. The three soldiers who tried to stop the massacre and protect civilians were shunned, called traitors by various US congressmen, but eventually honored.

Gass and Seiter, the authors of this book, Persuasion: Social Influence and Compliance Gaining, seem to think that these three examples – dancing naked, looting as part of a civil disturbance in response to police violence, and finally a massacre that played a historically critical role in our conduct of and eventually abandonment of the war in Vietnam – are somehow equivalent or remotely appropriate to link together and use as illustrations of “going along with the crowd.” I hope that this will serve as convincing proof that this is not a good book to use as a textbook in a class on internal organizing – in Vietnam!

It is awful on so many levels that they’re hard to count.

We have wasted a lot of time ordering, reading and trying to figure out how to teach from these books. Given that time is short, this is a problem. Also, these books cost a lot of money — $100 each, and more, including shipping.

Vinh has not read them. The library at Ton Duc Thang has apparently ordered them but no one has seen them yet. I wonder who recommended them? We will bring out copies and talk about the problem. It’s really all about what flows from acknowledging that workers and employers have different, conflicting interests. The conflict goes way beyond what takes place at the bargaining table, which is what mediators, arbitrators, neutrals focus on — the resolution of problems through negotiation. The conflict extends out into culture and psychology, the way you understand what is fundamentally human.

We are still asking, “What exactly are we going to teach?” We’re going to have to go ahead and prepare the classes that we think we should be teaching.

Vinh was not able to Skype with us because she was going to a three-day retreat with others from her faculty. Once she got to the place they were headed, the internet connection was not good enough.