Some Things Get Straightened Out

drugsMost important, we have an actual date to go and meet with union leaders in Dong Nai. The date is December 21. We will have half a day, to either teach or ask questions, it’s up to us.


Dean Hoa told us this at lunch on Tuesday, after we taught in his class on strategic labor relations.


Piecing together information from various people, we have learned something that may help us prepare for this meeting with union leaders. This is about how worker representatives are employed by the VGCL. The jobs are not announced publicly. Instead, you get invited or chosen to come and apply. You may be an activist worker who has become a leader at work, or you may be someone who is well known for other reasons. The body that actually screens you is the provincial government. You take a test. If you pass the screening, the government sends you to the VGCL. In other words, the VGCL does not hire directly.


If this is accurate, the first question we usually ask in a meeting with union leaders — “How did you get involved in your union?” – will generate answers we haven’t heard before.


Dean Hoa’s union contacts are in Dong Nai which is where he has set up our December meeting. He intended to set up a previous meeting in Vung Tau but was unable to arrange the details in time, and we already had a conflict. He told us that those union leaders had wanted to meet us.


Two other things that have been taken care of: Our visas and my medications. It turns out that we got the wrong kind of visa. Our visas are “enterprise” visas, not “tourist” visas. Therefore they were harder, and more expensive, to renew. But Vinh managed to get it done, using a private service, including a young woman who rode out to Ton Duc Thang on a motorbike to deliver them, in the rain. Twice. Now we are legally here through February 15.


And then, since Kaiser wouldn’t give me six months of meds, I only brought enough for 3 months. I waited until they were re-authorized in October and then re-ordered them. Long story short, after many mix-ups: A friend of Gabi’s named Tenley flew to Hanoi with them in her luggage, mailed them to me at TDTU and luckily kept the tracking slip. Weeks went by.When Tenley checked the tracking slip, there was a name on it of someone who had signed for the package. It turned out that the young woman on whose desk they ended up had gotten married right about then, and simply forgot.


These three things, although not all of the same level of seriousness, created a small storm of tension that has now passed. Included in this storm were the complexities of paying the Berkeley earthquake and homeowners insurance and the property tax, all due this month and next. Now all I have to do is register to pay the Vermont rental taxes, which has been a real fuss; I had to get a business license and now that I’ve got one and am ready to pay online, the screen keeps freezing on me.


We will have two more full months at TDTU plus two weeks to travel around and then we’ll go home. It’s time to push actively on the contacts that we have made and get the bigger picture we’re in need of. Kent Wong has put in a proposal for a session at UALE in April.


But I am still asking my original question, “What are we suppose to be teaching?” I am not sure that we have contributed anything that is going to stick. We have spoken a lot of English to people who want to learn English, we have taught our classes, we have tried to help with the Top 100 New Curriculum which will be taught in English to Southeast Asians. But what we know about labor-employer interactions in the US may fall on deaf ears. Many of our students simply don’t believe things could get that adversarial. A whole generation of living in a context where the president of the union can be the HR guy has left them unprepared for big fights.


Hollis and Leanna’s first response to my “What are we suppose to be teaching?” question was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to know how to fight it.” Well, I think that they don’t really know that capitalism is coming, and they don’t particularly want to know how to fight it.


Here, a big factory here may pay people barely enough to survive on, and cheat on overtime pay and the quality of food. Nevertheless, the social dialog process, if it takes place at all, moves forward rather smoothly with regular meetings. The union may organize a kindergarten or a “travel trip.” In other workplaces, where no one has heard a peep about any union, many people are still “satisfied,” a word we keep hearing students use. They don’t need a second job as a union activist.


When we used the story of the Heartland AFSCME 3494 workers in Effingham to show what a whole campaign looks like, from organizing to contract, the students here couldn’t believe it. How could the workers hold out – for a year on strike followed by a year on lockout? Reportedly, Miss La couldn’t believe it.


In one class I ran down a list of current strikes that were either threatened or in process – a general strike in Quebec, the faculty at AFT 2121, the faculty in the CSU system, NUHW at Kaiser in Oakland, just for starters. Then I told how the UAW workers and the Southwest pilots have voted down their contracts and I realized that to our students, our way of doing things sounds completely brutal and Wild West. “Vietnam is peaceful,” one student told me, in a slightly corrective tone.


Yesterday in Dean Hoa’s class we used the example of the IKEA warehouse workers, 32 workers in the warehouse who work from 2 am to 10 am, who have decided to organize with UFCW. The teaching point was how far back in time the strategic planning had to happen in order to pull off a coordinated action in the present. In this case, it looks like at least 2 years. They have given IKEA 72 hours to recognize the union, and somehow got Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and the UNI General Workers Union in Switzerland to send out letters of support all at the same time. Seventy-two hours, after which they will probably go to an NLRB election. We got this on Portside and Dang translated it into Vietnamese.


Last on my list of things that have gotten straightened out: Joe and I have decided that at least we can leave them with a small collection of labor ed materials translated into Vietnamese. We’ll pull together all the good stuff we’ve written for our classes and then had translated, and put them into one packet and distribute them. They may never get used… or maybe they will.



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.

3 thoughts on “Some Things Get Straightened Out

    1. Yes that is the point and I’m sorry to have not made it clear. It was the summer of ’08 that we cleaned Bell Fuel’s clock. To quote Sun Tzu in the Art Of War, fast attacks and don’t linger or have a protracted event. Get in and get out before they can counter. Capitalists(ism) will always have the upper hand if we let them.

  1. We wonder how some can stay out on strike and lockout for extended periods too. With rampant consumerism comes massive debt. Debt (credit cards, mortgages, student loans, etc.) have to be paid so that our credit ratings don’t suffer so that we can buy more stuff. Being in this position leads workers to be little more than slaves. You have to work if you want the same lifestyle and the old fallback is that we want better for our children-while working to tread water. The problem arises when we cannot fight back and companies know this. Example-My dispatcher was almost crestfallen when I told him that I was working to put my wife and children through college but the mortgage was paid off along with the cars. I can walk away and not feel it. He literally rubs his hands together when someone gets married/divorced, buys a house or a car because he knows that he’s got the upper hand. This works with others who do not have enough and want to have more too. Material worth can be deadly while self worth is best. At what point do workers determine this? When they’ve lost everything else.

    The working person got the best labor laws in the (then) worst times in US history. Why? Because they lost everything, they and their families were starving, some living in the streets or hobo camps and they became active and vocal. They found their self worth at that point.

    Here’s a strike victory story for you. Bell Fuels. Inc.locked out some of my fellow 705 drivers. The first day was confusion but my local (Steve Matter) went to action. We found out who was their biggest customer and went after them. Then we went to the refineries and told them that we were going to do secondary picketing when Bell was on property. The managers didn’t want anything like that so they sent a letter to Bell Fuels barring them until the strike was over. The refineries don’t care who hauls the product, just haul the stuff. Exxon/Mobil makes $1000 a minute profit so they don’t want any work stoppage at all even though they are rabidly anti-union.

    Other refineries “lost” Bells paperwork which caused Bell to be charged daily instead of monthly. The large company that we went after was China Air Cargo. They dropped Bell permanently once we announced that we were on the way to shut down O’Hare Intl airport. We really didn’t have the authority but what the heck, it worked.

    In 5 days, we had Bell back to the table and they gave us what we wanted. The IAM 701 mechanics were locked out too so they were made whole. Just like the sit down strikes in the 30’s, you have to know where the choke point is and then strangle them. Our self worth was discovered and found that day.

    China Air never came back either,~snicker~

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