How's that Working Out For You?

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.

Cu Chi Tunnels with Vy and An — December 31, 2015

Cu Chi Tunnels with Vy and An

An and Vy

In 1975, the Government gave land in the Cu Chi area to people who were living in Ho Chi Minh City who would be willing to move out there. it’s about 70 km. Vy’s grandmother took them up on this. She had eight children, of whom 7 lived. Now she lives with one of her daughters, Vy’s aunt, in what was originally her own house. It’s a big house that stretches out to the rear. In the front is a mini-market shop which was Vy’s grandmother’s business and is now operated by Vy’s aunt and uncle.

Vy’s aunt and her husband have no children. They have more or less adopted Vy and her sister. Vy’s aunt cooked a really amazing lunch for us. The picture above is An and Vy eating. You can see how hungry they were — we were just as hungry, and ate just as enthusiastically. The green bok choy was especially for us because they know we like vegetables. You can see Vy’s grandmother’s hand on the right; she is now blind and has been for the last year, from glaucoma.

Although I keep saying “This is the best food I’ve ever had,” this lunch was also the best food I’ve ever had.

Grandmothers in Vietnam seem to be especially beautiful. She wore purple satin pyjamas with a brocade over shirt and jade and gold earrings.

Vy's grandmother

That morning, we met An at 6:30 am and got on the first of 3 buses that would get us to Cu Chi about 3 hours later, maybe more, through dense traffic all the way except for the last bus which went through fields along small paved country roads.

bus to Cu Chi

When we got off the last bus, we walked.

Entrance to park

It’s not just tunnels there. It’s a huge park, with a temple to soldiers who were killed in the war with names like on our Vietnam Memorial in DC, a lake, a miniature of the country about a kilometer long and wide, plus recreation and education facilities for kids, swimming pool, paintball area,  and other things. The tunnels are just one section.

A guide took us first through a village — many little thatched houses, maybe 20 or 30, spread around the way they probably really were becuase there really was a village here. The tour took a couple of hours and the guide was great. I will have to write more about this later. The tunnels took 20 years to build, got started under the French, go for 350 kilometers and have 3 levels (clay earth, with little rocks, very good for tunneling) and the bottom level is really bombproof, even when the B-52s started dropping bombs. The tunnels had hospitals, kitchens, dormitories, bathrooms, and above all, meeting rooms. Tables for meetings, big enough to spread out a map.


Trenches in the village. Aperture for rife barrel under clay cap.


How to make paper out of rice, for rolling spring rolls.

Rice paper

Mid-tour they served tea in tiny cups and “tapioca,” also called cassava, described as “some kind of sweet potato.” It grew wild in the forest so  when they couldn’t cultivate the fields, they could eat this. Our guide in the background; he was a sort of mysterious guy, very good teacher, seemed to be on a mission to be a good guide for us, for this place, and he succeeded.

Tapioca, Cassava

I went into a small, short tunnel. Joe went into a longer one.

Joe 1

Joe 2

Joe 3

We saw examples of different kinds of traps that they set, traps with swinging lids that you’d step on and then fall into a it with sharpened bamboo sticks that would impale you. (Note my pronouns here, can’t help it.) These were scattered through the village.

But on our way out we passed this display which had a whole bunch of different kinds of traps: pits, rolling things that would catch you in the arm as you walked past, things that would fall on you. Each thing you can see on the bottom is a different style of trap. Think of all the ways vegetation grabs at you in the jungle, and start with that. All of them have bamboo spikes arranged in some way. And in the mural on the wall you see American GIs running and stumbling and falling into these traps. Our guide told us that the goal was to injure, not kill, because an injured GI would radio his unit and they would send in a helicopter with 4 more guys to carry the wounded out.

Notice that the landscape shows defoliated trees. This whole area was doused with Agent Orange. There is a forest here now, our guide told us, but it’s a young forest, only 40 years old. Forty years ago it was dead land, poisoned, no leaves. You can see that in the mural.

Running and falling GIs

Then we walked out of the park and down the road to the crossroads where we got off the bus earlier. We bought sweet drinks from a roadside stand and then walked down the road in the back, at least a mile (and the sun was hot) until we got to Vy’s grandmothers’ house.

Corner shop

Looking out the front entrance of Vy’s grandmother’s house.

Vy's gm neigborho

When she moved here in 1975 there were not a lot of other houses around; other people came along and moved here, too.


Vy’s aunt gave us rides on his motorbike back to a bus stop (no marker; just a tree that gave shade). We were back in HCMC by 6:30.

There is now so much going on that I can hardly keep up. We have been asked to do new papers on Good Teaching (not “elite” teaching) for the next big teaching workshop. There will be a seminar/workshop or maybe a roundtable or a conference on January 14th about TPP (see posting on blog on that) when Kent’s delegation is here, which is also when the Cornell students are here. We are heavily involved in this because of the TPP thing that we wrote. Also, this afternoon we’ve got students from American University, who are going with Hollis and Leanna to the Agent Orange hospital (“Peace Village”).In addition, a lot of the contacts that Joe has been working on have responded. For example, we’ve got an appointment at the War Remnants Museum next Wednesday to talk about donating a box of slides that came from Felix Green and belonged to my parents, that have images of Vietnam in the 1950’s in them. One slide is missing,the one showing Felix Green with Ho Chi Minh, because the FBI took it as evidence after coming to visit Mom and Dad to see what they were up to.


In addition, the LRTU faculty gave us a lovely party last night at the Lang Am restaurant (where we saw the iguana), really a farewell to Leanna and Hollis, who are leaving on the 3rd. We were late but we met them there. Presents all around. Miss La gave me a beautiful pendant; other presents included books, coffee!  A good party; they ordered vegetables!! We felt very taken care of and in the presence of generous, good people (actually, we feel that most of the time).

There is too much to say about this; I’ll come back to it later.

Feats of Maintenance — December 29, 2015

Feats of Maintenance

TDTU is kept shiny and new by an army of people who sweep and polish and repaint continuously, including these guys.

Painters from above g

From below, with the sun on their backs:

Painters 1

What’s holding them up?

What's holding them up?

Consider…how is the railing attached; what kinds of knots are those; what if the guy moves his foot?

Foot, knot, railing

Actually, I think that assuming those are really good ropes (and it looks as if they are) the only thing that matters is what’s in the sandbags.

You wouldn’t dream of calling these unskilled or low-skill workers, although they work barefoot.

Right behind our faculty housing, they’re completely re-doing the soccer field. This means digging drainage trenches and laying new pipe.

redoing the soccer field

In the rear you can see what appears to be a new river or drainage slough being dug by one guy in an excavator who has been at it for about a month. He’s persistent. Eventually, his river will meet the big river. That will be an interesting moment!

Cutting pipe_1

The pipes for draining the soccer field get delivered to the site, but then they have to be cut to the right length and then the holes get drilled into them, one at a time. One guy holds the drill and the other guy rolls the pipe slowly around.

Apparently an argument against raising the minimum wage is that Vietnamese workers “are not productive.” That is, their productivity rate is low. From this it follows that Vietnamese workers need training to get higher skills to be more productive. Only then can the minimum wage go up. But Joe is working on this big minimum wage project; one of the things he saw early in his lit review was that increases in productivity come fastest from investing in improved technology. So invest in good infrastructure and technology, productivity will go up, minimum wage can go up, right? But what if current wages are so low that even if workers have a low rate of productivity, it’s still cheaper than buying better tools?

So let’s try to figure out what the pipe cutter’s rate of productivity is and see if it is cheaper for him to cut and drill the pipe on the site compared to having the pipe cut and drilled at the factory and delivered ready to install. How cheap does he have to be? Let’s call him Ron, or R, and say that he’s being paid 20,000 D per hour (a little more than most of our students are earning).

R at 20,000 D x 8 hours = 160,000 for one day. Can he cut and drill 20 pipes in one day? That would cost TDTU 8,000 per pipe, or 36 cents per pipe. If the factory charged 40 cents per pipe, custom cut and drilled and delivered, it’s cheaper by 4 cents per pipe to let Ron do it. If the factory could automatically cut and drill custom pipes to pop them out at 10 cents per pipe plus 5 cents for delivery, it becomes more expensive by 21 cents per pipe to let Ron do it. So if the factory invests in new pipe cutting and drilling machines (probably automated), productivity for the factory workers goes up. The factory can pay off the cost of the machines over time.

Now the girl economist gets lost. Some workers at the factory get laid off, of course. Their wage goes to zero.And what happens to Ron now? Does he get absorbed into the soccer field project? Let’s say yes, and he still gets his 20,000 per hour and no longer has to run a circle saw through hard plastic without safety glasses. Does he get trained to have higher skills? I think the skill he is displaying, cutting pipe all day and not getting hit in the eye, is pretty high.


Nguyen Thi Cam Trang

This is Nguyen Thi Cam Trang, who cleans in B Building and cleaned our office today, sweeping, washing and dusting every single surface. She is wearing a TDTU T-shirt because she is one of the Happy Cleaners employees who switched over to TDTU (see our Student Reports for that story) when they found out how much more money the TDTU folks were making for doing the same work. Now that’s a skill, too.

Guard from gate

This is a guard, one of the ones who watch the gate near our room. They work on 24 hour shifts. This guy is very friendly and likes to practice his English. However, they have been told — everyone at TDTU has been told — that they have to speak English. Look at the student reports to see what their working conditions are because they were one of the groups that our students researched.


Bien Hoa Labor Ed — December 27, 2015

Bien Hoa Labor Ed

VGCL class faces

The class in Bien Hoa in Dong Nai Province took place today. We were betting 50/50 whether this would ever happen. Our visit had been rescheduled, the amount of time we would have had been changed, all kinds of stuff. It’s a class actually sponsored by the Bien Hoa VGCL for their staff and activists and coordinated by our Faculty, the labor program, at TDTU with a text from TDT.


So a request to let a couple of Americans come and take over their class time could very reasonably have been rejected. “Are you kidding?” they could have said. “Do you know how hard it is for us to get 50 people in a room on Sunday morning when they work 10 hours a day all week long?” Yes, we know, and we appreciated it.


Remember that we haven’t got any OK at all to go to anything put on by the HCMC VGCL. But TDTU and Dean Hoa have a good working relationship with the Dong Nai provincial VGCL. Long story to be told another time.


So at 7:30 am we were at the Faculty office. Pretty soon Vinh showed up in a terrific short green dress and then Dean Hoa showed up and off we went in a TDTU van. Dang, a student with good English who was to help translate, to whom I had sent the materials, was supposed to meet us there. He lives up in Bien Hoa so it was closer for him to come from there.


The road to Bien Hoa is a big sometimes 6-lane divided highway that goes northeast from HCMC through miles of industrial zone enterprises. I saw Coca Cola and International Trucks (with acres of them parked in front) but the Business in Asia website lists 100 different enterprises. Bien Hoa itself was a huge US air base during the American War. It was also a place where they stored Agent Orange (and found traces of it as recently as 2014) and ordered napalm air strikes. There’s also this enormous pagoda that looks as if it could house a thousand monks:

PAgoda city


We couldn’t find the exact address so we were a little late. Dang was already there, waiting outside on his motorbike. All of us had dressed up a bit, it turned out: he was looking very sharp in black.


The class was in a vocational school, kind of like a community college although you’re apparently not expected to transfer from a vocational school to university (though we have heard it is possible). A motorcycle driving class was taking place as we walked in. We were late, so our students were hanging over the balconies, waiting for us.

VGCLWe werelate, they waited

After the usual trouble finding the right thumb drive and syncing my computer (with the talking points) and the PPT, we did our show.

I will simply post part of our “show” into this blog, since it wasn’t long. We decided that the thing to do was describe labor education – that is, worker education, not university undergraduate education – in the US and to show it with pictures. I searched my computer for photos of classes. Although the first photos were of classroom situations, I included more about demonstrations, pickets, protests and public advocacy, some very confrontational and visible.  One reason for this emphasis was to show how workers learn in classes and practice in the real world. Another reason was to show what activist unions do in a seriously adversarial environment, such as is now normal in the DFI enterprises and is coming down the pike under TPP.

Some of these photos show “teachers” — like me and other UALE people – in the demonstrations along with students. In action, or practice, the line between teachers and students is not clear. Stuff goes back and forth depending on what is needed. People with experience “know” stuff that people without it do not know. This flexibility finds its way into the classroom, too.  This is a point I will take up with Dean Hoa some time, since we had a discussion in the van going down about whether blue-collar workers had the ability to lead a union or could be taught to lead a union.

We emphasized that these protests, although they were strong, noisy and confrontational, were disciplined and organized in close consultation with the union that represented those workers. They were not wildcat stuff, in others words, which is a big deal in Vietnam. I’ll post some of these photos below. The class was pretty quiet while I was showing these. I could tell that we’d gotten their attention.

Midwes13 pizza ORIG

This was from the Tyson strike in Jefferson, Wisconsin, the year that Corliss Olsen ran the Midwest School. I explained that we were talking to strikebreakers, that you could talk to them but not threaten them or touch the car. I am standing next to Jean Troutman-Poole, bless her soul, holding a sign, in front of the car.

Indiana cap protest 2.11

This is a protest in Indiana against Right to Work legislation. Ruth Needleman took this photo, I think.


This is a bunch of labor educators (including me) at a UALE conference protesting with ROC, Restaurant Opportunities Centers.

Southern school

This is a UALE Women’s School. In the last 5 months I could count the number of Black people I’ve see on the fingers of one hand. People here really don’t get (or think about, or can’t believe) the importance of racism in the US. So I was glad to see such a mix of people in my pictures.

Since many of my photos of classes were of women at UALE summer schools or at Polk, I leaned heavily on the importance of women in unions, which also seemed to get through. The class was more than half women, too, as is the employed working class in Viet Nam, and even more in manufacturing in the Industrial Zones. Vinh was translating.

VGCL H listens Vinh tr_1

We managed to get through the PPT and still have 20 minutes for questions. The first question was from someone who was obviously an experienced leader (I got his card later). He said, “Here in Vietnam we have many direct foreign investment enterprises, multinational companies. Some – (and here he listed British, German and US) – are good employers but others are bad, especially in the garment and shoe industry. Asian employers especially are hard. Our workers work many hours and get paid little. How can we help our workers improve their conditions?”
I think I got the essence of the question, although those many not be his exact words. He was speaking English.

Joe responded in terms of workers’ power, international solidarity across countries and the importance of building power from the bottom up. Joe suggested that the two best ways for a union to build this power was to actually organize workers in solidarity at the base and to provide them with labor education so they could make the decisions as to what to do.

Katie at Pod

At that point I remembered that one of our PPT slides was of Katie Jordan, from UNITE, speaking at a big rally at City Hall against letting WalMart into Chicago. I pulled that slide back up. I explained that WalMart pays $9 an hour, just enough for a sandwich, and our students at TDTU who work part-time get 17,000 D per hour (or less) which is just enough for lunch if you eat rice, veggies and a little meat.IN both countries, whether you’re selling clothes at Walmart or sewing clothes for WalMart, for an hour’s work, you can buy a crummy lunch. So it’s the same thing – the same pay, the same work, the same employer.  Heads nodded! And Katie is from the garment workers!

This made real contact. The importance of having photos like this!!!

We had planned for discussion, of course – we wanted people to introduce themselves, tell what kind of work they did, and then discuss whether what we told them about US labor education would be of any use here in Vietnam. A woman in the front row gestured to me to write this on the board and I did so. While I was doing it, the questions started. We really did not have time for our planned discussion, which the workers realized before we did and they just started asking questions, which was exactly right, and a lesson for a couple of old labor educators. It is the workers’ class and you have to let them have it (just like the union). And they will be right more often than they will be wrong.


The second question came from a woman in the rear middle. She asked two things. First, what was the condition of unions in other countries in the world? Second, do unions in the US have paid staff or partly paid staff or workers who are not paid, or what? (Basically, who represents the union on the job?) Both were great questions.


Joe took the first of these, and said that unions were in decline and crisis all over the world as a result of the neoliberal integration of market economic relations for most workers in almost every country now and that these multinational corporations are hostile to unions generally and see them as obstructions to the free market in labor. Unions all over are having to adjunct strategically to this new reality, but there are some bright spots we can learn from, especially in Latin America, some in Europe, and even a few in North America. In many cases we are fighting the same employers all over the world.


I took up the second one. I have heard quite a few Vietnamese ask how anyone can be a workplace representative as long as they get their wages from the employer.  Remember the HR/union president phenomenon. I said that yes, most of the actual work of defending workers is done at the bottom level by stewards who are not usually hired by the union but are paid wages by the employer, just like other employees, but that workers doing union work have certain protections under law just like in Vietnam, although there are enforcement problems in both countries. So how do you find people brave enough to do this work? Courage plus a lot of education, plus the person doing this job never does it alone, always with other people (I didn’t get into concerted activity here), and furthermore, the best workplace representatives are women even though women work three jobs – their work for wages, their union work, and when they home after work.

VGCL class H frm rear

Note that the classroom posters are all about riding motorcycles, including traffic signs (which are never observed in real life). Dang took this.

That was all we had time for. Vinh had to get back to HCMC to go to a wedding, and the actual teacher for the class, who was supposed to teach about social insurance, was waiting to get going. We did pass out pens and pins that national AFT had sent us to take as a solidarity gesture, through the good offices of High Ed Director Alyssa Picard. People were eager and happy to get them, especially the pins, which are really nice. We put the name of American Federation of Teachers on the board, so people would know. You can just barely see it, in red, above my head and to Joe’s left.

VGCL group shot AFTAlso, we passed out our TDTU cards, which have our permanent emails on them and urged people to keep in touch, even though we could only communicate in English. We think some will since two came up to us at the end to ask for materials or ask us to come to their workplace to teach. Not bad for an hour!

Everyone wants to take a picture.

VGCL guy asks for our materials

Everyone takes a photo. I think they grouped themselves for photos according to what workplace they came from.

VGCL Photo op

The next day one of the participants who asked a question and came and got Joe’s card emailed us and asked for examples of contracts. He had never seen a CBA. Lots of union workplace leaders in Vietnam have never actually seen a CBA. We sent him a copy of the Heartland/AFSCME 3494 contract as well as the link to the UC Berkeley Labor Center collection of contracts. Most of those are public sector AFSCME or teacher (AFT, NEA) contracts, however. We did find a couple of technology/manufacturing contracts, however. What they really need is something from USW. Those are probably on line somewhere but I haven’t had time to look them up.



Top 100, Elite and Good — December 25, 2015

Top 100, Elite and Good

TDTU has set itself a goal of offering a new curriculum, taught in English and emulating the top one hundred universities in the world. It will be an undergraduate degree. Students will come from all over Southeast Asia. It will use texts assigned in the Top 100 universities. This initiative comes from the President, Dr Le Vinh Danh, who is an economist. The most recent version of the goal that we have heard is to have TDT listed in the top 50 ASEAN universities by 2036. The list they are using for their Top 100 is  the British QS list.

Pres with flowers

President Le Vinh Danh, greeted with flowers at a graduation ceremony

A lot of our work this semester has been related to choosing texts and creating syllabi for this Top 100 curriculum. Dean Hoa looks to see what is being used at in these places. He tries to order those books. When they come, we look at them and discuss them. The academic workshop that Joe and I did for the George Borjas Labor Economics book was an example of such a discussion. The idea is that the English-speaking labor faculty (us)  will prepare power points that follow the book and that will help the Vietnamese speaking faculty actually teach the course next semester. Joe made a list of the universities in the US that are both Top 100 universities and have a labor program. He gave it to Dean Hoa who has used it.

Although we brought about 50 books from the US, many of them like Troublemaker’s Handbook are for union education and don’t show up on the top 100 syllabi. They are sitting in a small bookcase in the office. Hollis and Leanna did use Maurice Better’s Collective Bargaining for a class they wrote up. It gets used at Illinois. I used it.

Getting books is hard for several reasons. First, the order has to be made by the library, which uses a limited list of vendors. The library told Dean Hoa that a book by Harry Katz from Cornell was “off the market.” Then I found it on Amazon and just ordered it. However, that was over a month ago, and it hasn’t shown up. (Correction: It showed up on Dec 25th). Things don’t always make it through the mail. Joe has never received a whole shipment of his books, for example.

Another problem is that labor books are not like engineering or biology books. Microbiology is microbiology, up to a point. With labor books, you can’t tell from the title what the book will be like. Dean Hoa ordered a book called Mediation and it was about neighbor disputes and marriages. Hollis and Leanna wrote a syllabus for a class called Negotiation but they had to use a book that deals with people negotiating to buy a car – all individual, nothing about collective bargaining. This same thing happened with the book Joe had to use in his class that was called Social Persuasion. It was supposed to be about organizing but it is about marketing. In practice, you could ignore the book, but you’re not supposed to. The slides are supposed to “follow the book strictly,” according to Dean Hoa. Joe actually summarized every chapter in Social Persuasion and presented slides on them, which distorted the class and was confusing to students. He then prepared an entire parallel set of lessons that were actually about organizing and Vinh had to translate them. So his classes always had two parts, the real part and the official part.

  With labor books (and of course, every other discipline, but not as clearly) in addition to the confusing titles, there’s perspective. It’s not just the language, it’s the culture and the politics. A book like the Northouse Leadership that I used for my class takes a management perspective. Leaders are employers, but nowhere does it mention that the “followers” of employers are not really followers. They are employees who have to obey their bosses and can get fired.  This has to be countered with explicit re-framing to represent a labor perspective. I prepared the powerpoints for the first chapter of a book called Cross Cultural Management that, not surprisingly, had no mention of labor or unions in the index and was all management lore. This is for a class in the new curriculum that VInh will teach; it’s up to her to flip the perspective for a labor class.

So our introduction to the Top 100 project has been about trying to find English texts used at places like Cornell and then – once the money has been spent and the books show up – trying to figure out how to prepare a course based on them despite degrees of inappropriateness ranging from a little to a lot.

You might say, why worry about a labor perspective in a book? Can’t you just tell students that the book is a management book but this is a labor course, so pay attention and keep your critical thinking running? One reason is that in Vietnam there is already a lot of fuzziness about who is labor and who is management, and whether they overlap or not. This is a culture in which the president of the union can be the HR manager, remember,  conflict is resolved through social dialog and the goal is harmony, not progress through class struggle. So a book that takes a management perspective will not automatically be viewed critically. Another reason is that critical thinking itself is not encouraged. Between Confucius and the Catholic church, this is an educational culture that does a lot of memorizing and regurgitation.

I mention this because, based on what happened yesterday, this may not be true in the new curriculum

The discussions in the office about this and other things related to the Top 100 project have been energetic, mostly focusing on whether a book can be used or not. We have not been talking about the overall purpose of the project. Overall, I have been looking at it skeptically and anxiously. It seems to me to have swept the whole place up into a whirl, overtaking other projects such as, for example, the cooperation agreement among the three labor universities.

I am also always deeply skeptical about these lists like a Top 100 list or a Top 10 or whatever. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” said Thoreau. This Top 100 project is requiring a lot of new clothes.

The worst case scenario would be that this project is basically a marketing strategy, something dreamed up to fund TDT since it is “autonomous,” meaning that while it has great freedom it also has to raise much of its own funding.


I am actually a Top 100 product

Unfortunately, my CV fits right in with the Top 100 project.

I really did graduate from Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, and I really did teach at Illinois for 11 years. Joe graduated from Iowa and has a PhD and taught at Illinois, so he looks good too. Speaking as a certified Top 100 example, my opinion is that TDTU would be better off focusing on what was good for Vietnamese students and Vietnam, and stop worrying about what they do at Cornell and Illinois. If trying to emulate a class at Illinois means copying the textbook onto power points and going chapter by chapter in a foreign language (English), then that’s not a good project.

Also, I have been up close in a lot of places that show up on these lists, and a lot of places that will never show up on any list. The top 100 may have a lot of resources (and football teams) but some of the best teaching I have ever seen is in community colleges.

The plot thickens, however.

The presentations on Wednesday Dec 23

Last Saturday just as we were getting on the train in Hanoi to ride down to HCMC when we got an email from Dean Hoa asking us to write two 2-page papers explaining teaching in Top 100 universities. We were supposed to make a list of the Top 100 institutions we had either graduated from or worked at on the first slide. We said OK, we can do this. He needed them by Tuesday. So we got started and by Monday had a draft. Then he said the deadline was 3 pm Tuesday so we wrapped it up and emailed it to him.

Dean Hoa looked at our papers and asked, several times, if we could focus more on teaching techniques – what do you do in the classroom in a Top 100 university? We resisted. Although we did describe many teaching techniques, we focused on the teaching environment – class size, office space, teacher load, and academic freedom, etc. We also wanted to push the presentation toward matching the teaching technique with the purpose of the class: For whom, by whom and for what purpose? Given how much we have seen about how teachers get monitored and –well, the right word is controlled, we did not want to create a checklist that would have been just another way to control young lecturers.

These papers were to be presented at a meeting of all the lecturers on Wednesday morning. The whole Board of Directors was supposed to be present. Our papers would be submitted to the conference organizer and they would decide if we would present. Ultimately, over the course of the next few months, every Faculty would present two papers.

We did a powerpoint and divided up the one 4-page paper into two and went to the meeting on Wednesday morning. It was in the big room in A Building where Philip Hazelton from the ILO spoke back in August. As usual, the foreigners – me and Joe, Leanna and Hollis – were ushered to the front rows. Each of us got an interpreter, me a young woman named Clover who was very good.

Then came four presentations, one after another, each 15 minutes long and fully set out with power points. One from micro economics, one from biology, one from math and one from engineering. All hard sciences (or at least aspirationally hard, if you include economics) using basically one textbook. Sometimes the same book was available in English and Vietnamese.

The presentations all focused on the challenges of teaching in English. I got a different sense of the Top 100 project after hearing these presentations.


Four presentations

The math teacher was from the Faculty of Mathematics and Probability. He had taught in Australia for 4 years, said that English language is the only way a student can get access to talk to the whole world and be part of creating new knowledge and information. When you translate an English academic word into Vietnamese, you can’t get close to the meaning. But students are shocked when they find themselves in an all-English class. It’s hard for a teacher to ask a question and hard for a student to ask one, too. One problem is that it’s hard to form a full sentence in a language that is not your native tongue. It is also hard to write an essay. There is a cultural problem: in Vietnam, students come to class and expect the teacher to talk all the time. When they talk, in order to show the teacher that they know, they will try to re-phrase something in Vietnamese but then they will lose the meaning.

The macroeconomics teacher was from the Business Administration Faculty. His course is required for all TDTU undergrads. He said that in the past, tests were all multiple choice. Now you will have to give homework, give problems that have a connection to reality (like the price of coffee), do sudden quizzes, have students work in groups, and write different kinds of tests. He explained the importance of the class monitor, who will help control the class. He said that it will be important to know the names of all the students, ask students to prepare the material before class, let students have discussions and show their opinions. Students will discuss in groups, choose a leader, the leader will come to the board and present. Do not make students ashamed of a wrong answer, he said. If students fall asleep, make a joke. Encourage self-study. An example of English vocabulary: “Total revenue, total cost.” In the first year of this class, the teacher should use simple words.

A young woman from the Faculty of Applied Sciences, who teaches Technical Biology, a lab course, had an English molecular biology textbook that got translated into Vietnamese, which she has used. She took syllabi from two Australian universities and combined them. She showed a power point with the triangle displaying the % of what people hear is remembered (10%) versus how much of what they do (90%). This was actually theory, and although she didn’t expand on it, it shaped what she does in class. She does a lot of e-learning, gives students work and tests to do at home, and presented the virtual lab that is part of the e-learning.

A man who I am told is the Dean of Civil Engineering Faculty says he will speak generally. He divides things up into challenges, requirements and solutions. The challenges are mostly around English. His solutions are that teachers must be flexible, students must self-study and attend classes. There should be a lot of field trips, to real factories and other places. They should invite more professors from top 100 universities, but the problem is salary.

These four presentations were interspersed with comments from the Assistant to the President, an attractive dynamic woman of a certain age who is also a Vice President. She exhorted the lecturers to upgrade themselves, learn English and get Phds. She warned them that the University was recruiting in Taiwan and that they could be replaced. Vinh translated this for Joe this way and he is convinced this is what he heard.

There were questions. One was, “Should our power points be in English or Vietnamese?” Another was, “How many students will be in a class?” The AP/VP responded that the lowest would be 38, the highest 78. “In other countries,” someone asked, “the class has two parts, the lecture and the tutorial. How about having a tutor if the class is so big? AP: “I will ask the President.” For space to meet, she suggested the lobbies and terraces, which are certainly used for meeting space. Someone else asked about making sure that there is wifi in every room.

There was only time for a few questions but my sense was that there was a real desire to discuss things in the room.

There will be a problem, the AP/VP acknowledged, with students who cannot handle the English and will not be able to graduate. One lecturer said that he speaks in English but writes in Vietnamese, and when he asks if the students understand, a high number say yes.

Joe and I were asked to comment but since we had been expecting to make a 15-minute presentation, I didn’t want to re-structure it to fit into a comment. So I said no. Leanna commented, and gave a very well expressed complimentary statement about her faith that the faculty of TDTU would do a great job, TDTU would become one of the Top 100 and Vietnam had a proud future. This was very appropriate and appreciated, but it’s not the kind of thing that comes naturally to me.

I was thinking that what I had just seen was, on the one hand, a lot like a good professional development day at a community college, of which I have been to many and run some. Serious people trying to do a good job despite hurdles that have been set up outside of their control. People who love teaching, too. It was also nothing like what would happen at a Top 100 university – and this was good. When did you last see tenured professors getting together talking about facing challenges collectively?

But the main thing on my mind was that listening to four presentations boom-boom-boom was like listening to the student presentations in class. A cascade of data. Now what? Time to get out Kolb’s learning cycle and see what categories to drop this data into. How were they different? How were they the same? What was missing? I would have loved to hear the faculty consider these questions. The most urgent question, quite rightly, is how to deal with teaching in English if your own English pronunciation (especially) is not great and your students’ English is even worse? Making a list of ideas that these faculty had just for that would be a good idea.

But what about our presentation?

We had been asked to write about teaching at Top 100 universities, so Joe and I took this literally. Of course, most of the difference is resources, combined with having incredibly well-prepared students. But that aside, what is teaching like at Top 100 universities? I thought about my professors at Harvard ages ago, Wallace Stegner et al at Stanford, the faculty at UCB in the Environmental Design School and in the School of Education only 18 years ago. Joe thought about Grinnell, where there was a top-quality focus on teaching, and Iowa and Illinois. So we have a lot of experience to think about, plus our many years in the real teaching colleges, community colleges, and my dissertation which was actually on teaching in the community colleges and based on that huge NCRVE survey done by Norton Grubb and the rest of us. (I gave my copy of that book to Vinh.)

Here are some short cuts from our paper:

David Larabbee from Michigan State explained in 1997 that there are three ways to define the purpose of an education system in the US. These three approaches compete. First is “democratic equality” which means preparing citizens for active participation in society. Second is “social efficiency” which means training workers and takes the employer’s point of view. Third is “social mobility” which means education for individual social mobility and the maintenance of a ruling class. This creates an education market in which individuals compete to buy and institutions compete to sell education.

Fans of Larabbee will note that I’ve changed his language a bit, but never mind.

In the last 20 years in the US, the third purpose has become dominant. Each purpose has sub-categories: credentialism, where the degree, worthless or respected, is all that matters; membership, belonging to a peer group and the networks of influence that spring from it, and finally, actual learning and knowledge.

We also say:

Teaching techniques that are effective and empowering for teachers and students could be shared and adapted. Others, that reproduce the ideology of US elitism, whether through assigned course content, framing, perspective or actual teaching practices, should be approached critically and contextualized.  

We then go on to talk about academic freedom, general education requirements, critical thinking, and on down into teaching methods and class size. Copies of this are available of course if you want it.

And we talk about the downside of elite education:

  1. The peer group and membership values of elite education can be obtained for the purpose of maintaining class position or upward individual mobility without much actual learning taking place.

2. Since Top 100 education is only accessible to a few students, and they are disproportionally wealthy, this often creates a situation where students (and their parents) can look down on their much less wealthy and powerful teachers.

3. There is a potential for various forms of corruption when the social mobility value of an elite degree becomes very high. This can range from grade inflation, where many students get high grades and no one fails, to actual selling of places.

So it’s probably not entirely surprising that our paper was not “chosen” to be presented. Our paper was directed at this event as we had understood the Top 100 project through our work with choosing textbooks. Once I saw the teachers seriously trying to figure out how to teach in spite of the hurdles they face, I wanted to tone down the criticism in our papers, to at least leave the possibility open that they would find a way to become a world-class university and still do good teaching that is appropriate for Vietnam. However, our descriptions and criticisms of elite education are still true. They just don’t apply to what will probably happen here – unless TDTU really DOES become a Top 100 university! I hope it does not. Instead, I hope it becomes a place where real developments in teaching content across languages are invented.

When we got back to the office Vinh said that she viewed the challenge of the Top 100 project as an opportunity for all the lecturers, herself included, to learn things and “improve ourselves.”  She seemed happy about it. She has an enormous amount of energy. Sometimes these Vietnamese people work so hard it’s scary. That was my first impression, way back when I first met her and Dean Hoa on Skype.  As I mentioned above, I gave her my copy of Norton’s book, Honored but Invisible, about teaching in community colleges, that has two chapters based on my dissertation.

However, my  bet is that  a reason that the presentations were from math, molecular biology, engineering etc was because that opened the fewest doors to political issues. Also, I’ll bet that the other presenters had more than three days’ warning that this event would take place.

Vietnamese roots

This picture is of a bonsai at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, showing what roots look like if you like roots. The Vietnamese like roots. The Temple of Literature was founded in about 1,000 AD and it was actually a university. The diplomas and key declarations of the scholars who came to join it are all carved in stone placed in rows on the backs of turtles:

turtles R

And here’s what they look like:

Stele text


These people are serious about education. If memorization doesn’t work, they’ll try something else.

And in case you forget, around the corner (in Hanoi) is the Citadel, and here is a small building you might overlook if you didn’t know it was made of bombproof steel plates, had a deep bunker underneath it, and was the military headquarters during the American war.  You can just barely see a meeting room inside with a table. There is a name plate for General Giap and another for Le Duan.







Thoughts Upon Reading the TPP Labor Side Agreement — December 23, 2015

Thoughts Upon Reading the TPP Labor Side Agreement

Warning: This is a cold reading of the Labor Side Agreement by a US visitor. It is not a researched commentary that reflects the view of people in the know here in Vietnam. It is addressed to labor activists in the US. All the commentary coming from labor activists in the US, at least all that I have seen, has focused on the loss of US jobs and the investor-state complaint mechanism. This post, instead, focuses on the Labor Side Agreement.

The side agreement on labor from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is titled: United States-Viet Nam Plan for the Enhancement of Trade and Labour Relations. The TPP is a trade deal that some people in the US describe as “building a trade wall around China” to contain China’s power in the global market. It will link 12 nations to “sew up” 40% of world trade in one agreement. It is part of a trade strategy that includes two other vast agreements, the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and TISA, (Trade in Services Agreement).


In the Preamble, the side agreement document cites the ILO Declaration which in turn cites the labor standards, of which #87 and #98 are most frequently mentioned. Each party commits to “obligations” concerning its labor law as stated in the Declaration.The commitments, however, are all on the Vietnamese side.


How big a deal is this? Just like in the US, Vietnamese labor law has evolved and changed. Vietnam’s labor law operates in a way that was originally designed to frame a socialist economy. It was, even before TPP, evolving to adapt to a mixed economy. In 2012, a new Labor Code reflecting some of these changes was produced. More revisions are in the works. So this agreement will add changes to something that is already in motion.


But let’s look closely at those changes, as required in the Labor Side Agreement.


The Current Role of Organized Labor in Vietnam


Right now, there is one union in Vietnam. The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) is recognized in the Constitution as the representative of the interests of workers, guided by the principles of the Communist Party. It works by democratic centralism, but people at different levels of the VCGL may or may not be members of the Party. Overall, the VGCL is constitutionally guided by the Communist political agenda.


To understand what it means to have one union that is written into the national constitution, compare Vietnam and the US. In the US workers do not have a political party explicitly identified with them. In Vietnam, the Communist Party is the workers’ party (which was its former name). In the US we have many, many different unions that operate with no real political coordination. In Vietnam, the VGCL can pull all the different parts of the structure together into a single source of influence so that labor can have a more efficient impact and make the playing field more level. Compare what’s happening with the Bernie Sanders campaign and different unions in the US, how some unions are endorsing Bernie and some endorsing Hillary. Third, in the US, unions have no recognized role in government. In Vietnam, the VGCL is constitutionally empowered to represent workers to the government and in the management of State Owned Enterprises and government agencies.


Changing the role of the VGCL could change the whole political structure. I’m saying “could,” but that assumes that there would be no resistance to change. To make that assumption, or to predict what kinds of resistance will take place, would be a big mistake. The problem for Americans who are still horrified by our interventions in the lives of people in other countries (still ongoing) is that stuff like this brings up echoes of “regime change.” It’s tricky enough to be here teaching about labor as we know it in the US, without being associated with efforts to interfere with another country’s internal relationships.


This blog post, please remember, is not a message to Vietnamese people. It’s a message to my fellow US people: Don’t you want to be careful about telling other countries what they ought to do? Haven’t we learned that lesson?


Before we go futher, it is important to say that agreement is completely unilateral. It requires Vietnam to change its labor code and the role played by labor organizations in the internal political structure of the country. It does not require the US to match what is required of the Vietnamese. The stick behind getting Vietnam to do things is US money: the US may “withhold or suspend tariff reductions” (p 11, VII-3) if “the United States considers…”


How the Labor Side Agreement interprets Freedom of Association as described in Articles #87 and #98


According to the TPP side letter, signing onto Articles #87 and #98 means that independent and autonomous unions will be allowed. Legally, they will be equal to Vietnam General Confederation of Labor unions in terms of law and practice. Right now, all legal unions are part of the VGCL and have to be authorized by the VGCL. TPP requires Vietnam to allow workers to form a grassroots union on their own, without prior authorization. Once a new union is formed, in order to operate, it must register, but it can register either with the VGCL or some other “competent” government body. This probably means MOLISA (Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs) or a DOLISA (Department of Labour, invalids and Social Affairs, the provincial branches of MOLISA).


According to TPP, these independent unions will be autonomous with regard to how they run their internal business and finances. They can join with other unions and form larger structures like regional organizations. They can get training and “technical assistance” from Vietnamese or “international organizations” (such as the AFL CIO, or other US groups, including NGO groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, which gets US government money and is the main funder of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, among other activities.


These new grassroots autonomous unions can organize, bargain collectively, strike and carry out “labor-related collective activities.” They can elect their leaders, employ staff and own property. They will receive the currently legally required 2% of total payroll costs that currently comes into the VGCL from every employer, based on membership, in addition to union dues paid by each worker.


What if there is already a union in a workplace but it doesn’t represent all the workers? Can they organize another union? It looks as if the answer is yes, because a workplace union does not have to represent a specified bargaining unit – that is, everyone at a workplace as defined by the union’s registration documents, constitution and bylaws, and/or CBA. Compare this with the way a union in the US has to represent everyone in their bargaining unit, member or not, with all the free-rider problems that ensue. In Vietnam, you can be a members-only union. If workers decide not to join their existing union, they not only won’t be represented but they may (meaning are permitted to) be represented only if the individual requests it. This could mean that workers at an enterprise who are unhappy with the VCGL will be allowed to form a separate union at the same workplace. So there may be more than one competing union at the same workplace. This is the situation already in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. This looks like an accommodation to a transitional situation.


What about the phenomenon of the same person serving as union president and the HR officer?

This is something that we were surprised to discover when we first learned about what we were going to teach here.  How can the HR manager be the union president?  (We also found examples of this from our student reports – see previous post). Well, under socialism, it makes sense. But not now.

No, the HR guy is not going to be serving as union president under TPP. Item E-1 says that “Vietnam shall ensure that, for purposes of protecting the interests of the employees, including in collective bargaining, that, in law and practice, it distinguishes between employees and those who have the interests of the employers.” This will affect many of our students, who forsee getting their first job in HR, despite studying labor relations and being politically pro-worker. The reason for this is that there are jobs in HR. This will also be a problem for many local union presidents who will have to choose what they are.


But what about all the “good stuff” that labor in Vietnam would get, that labor in the US doesn’t get?


Here is a list of the kinds of things labor in Vietnam will be able to do under the changes required by TPP. Where did this come from? Who came up with these items? This may all be just sugar-coating, designed to make the side agreement look democratic to US-based labor people. But is anyone lobbying to get these advantages for workers in the US?


Item II A 3-a allows workers to get technical assistance from worker organizations from overseas if they are “legally operating” in Vietnam. “Legally operating” may be key phrase that restricts who comes and who doesn’t. In practice, similar restrictions are at work in the US. The US Government certainly has barred foreign experts and educators, who were invited or employed by some US unions, from entry into the USA or denied them visas, based on their politics, “security” or other reasons. UALE (United Association for Labor Education) members will recall that it has been hard for some visitors from Mexico and even Canada – friends of ours, in one case! – to get visas to attend UALE conferences.


Item II -B-1, as we noted above, continues the employer’s required 2% of payroll contribution to the union treasury, in addition to membership fees, whether the union is a VGCL or a new grassroots union. In the US, employers do not make any contributions of direct cash to the union treasury. All the money in the union treasury comes from dues (or other union-generated sources). This 2% can add up to quite a bit of money.


Item II B-5 says an upper-level union may “assist” a grassroots union only if the grassroots union requests it, which would eliminate the US practice of imposing trusteeships on rebellious or mis-managed unions.


Item II D-1 requires that all members of the grassroots union E-Board be elected by the membership. In the US, while local union E-Boards have to be directly elected, under Landrum-Griffin, many of the bodies that perform collective bargaining duties in unions, district councils or national unions, are elected indirectly by delegate of even delegates of delegates.


Item II E-2 requires that Vietnam establish sanctions against anti-union discrimination and failure to bargain in good faith. Actual sanctions against anti-union discrimination? Right now in the US, “retaliation for union activity” leads to a ULP that travels a slow road through the NLRB. Failure to bargain in good faith? Right now, workers can call in a mediator but ultimately have to strike or do a public corporate or comprehensive campaign in order to make the employer bargain, if he doesn’t want to. What kinds of sanctions are we talking about? In the US, we talk about prohibiting companies from getting government contracts if they violate labor laws, but does that really happen? It’s more a matter of a public image (as in Vermont, with bargaining between the nurses and the University of Vermont).


Item F requires Vietnam to ensure that no laws are set up to undermine union activity. My goodness! Our 80 plus-year old labor law (the NLRA) basically just gives us a ticket to fight. It lets us climb into the arena. I have said this before, elsewhere in this blog. It says, “You can form a union, maybe get it certified, and the law then can make the employer show up to bargain with you,” but after that? From then on, you’re on your own, and the fight got harder and harder as laws and court rulings got more and more anti-union. Now there are a whole bunch of other labor laws and precedents that undermine union activity, like Taft-Hartley, for starters. What if we were required to eliminate laws that were set up to undermine union activity? That would really cause a waterfall of change. What if we shook off all those laws going back to the NLRA? For “union activity” the TPP makes a broad list, including organizing, collective bargaining and strikes, or assisting with these activities as things that should not be undermined.


Item G allows rights-based strikes. “Rights-based” is an ILO term; rights are contrasted with “interests”. Rights are things required by law, like minimum wage, length of workday or limits on overtime. “Interests” are things that workers want in addition to what is theirs by law. Since what is theirs by law is barely enough to live decently (and often not enough for that), strikes to get improvements in working conditions that go beyond what is law are not covered by this. The restriction of strikes to rights-based issues keeps the door open for wildcat strikes for things that are not “rights.” A rights-based strike requires the E-Board to approve 50% plus one. But it’s OK for workers at multiple enterprises to strike in a coordinated way. Also, oil and gas workers can strike! – and these are public sector SOE workers in Vietnam.


Item D and others: A tremendous amount of training is proposed: training inspectors, training criminal system authorities (this has to do with stuff about forced labor and child labor), training in IR bodies and “mechanisms”, personnel in MOLISA and DOLISA and everybody else, including researchers and people who will inspect this whole process. These people must also be hired. Item D says, “Vietnam shall launch an outreach program to inform and educate workers, employers and other stakeholders…” In the US, although there have been proposals for a nationally-funded labor education system, it never happened. Right now labor education in the US is mostly supported by unions with some shrinking public higher ed funding for programs in colleges and universities. How this would be paid for in a developing country is not addressed.


Item IV-B is about public comment and transparency of the whole process, including data on status and outcomes of application for union status, inspections and violations, fines and sanctions. What if we in the US had such a standard of transparency? And if it was easy to find and follow?


Who were the authors of this plan in the US?


I tried to find out where these ideas came from and what their purpose was. It almost reads as if the audience for them is US labor, not Vietnamese labor.


Apparently the AFL-CIO presented some ideas to the Obama administration:


But were then locked out and misquoted.

It feels as if this side letter was written by one person, or a couple of people, who saw an opportunity and, given an assignment, took it and ran with it. I’d like to talk to them.










Hanoi (4) The Opera House — December 21, 2015

Hanoi (4) The Opera House

Concertmistress gives A

The Concertmistress gives the A

Honna Tetsuji is Music Director and Principal conductor of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra. He conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, complete with huge chorus, on Friday night Dec 18 at the Opera House. We went. It was great.

This performance appeared to be sponsored by a Japanese company. Older Japanese men in very good black suits sat in a row in the middle of the audience. One of them gave a friendly, gracious speech at the beginning, translated into Vietnamese.

Hall from the top

You can just barely see Joe, wearing a light jacket, in the corner between the railing and the pillar. We were sitting in the 3rd row center.

Grand staircase

The Grand Staircase. People walked up and down it, met and had conversations on it.

Lobby looking up_1In 1946, the first government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was formed. The Assembly took place at the Hanoi Opera House. In pictures, it looks very much now the way it did then. It has been carefully refurbished but not remodeled.

I took some pictures of the lobby and the halls at different levels, which are so shiny that they look as if they had been polished. The shine and polish goes all the way down into the basement where the restrooms are, but they are new.

Other hallway Opera_1

Dress circle lobby

It was an expensive evening: 500 thousand dong per ticket, or $22.40. There were a lot of empty seats down in front, but they filled in as the evening proceeded.Although there were quite a few “foreigners” (people who look like me and Joe) there, the only language I heard was Vietnamese, plus some Japanese.

The Beethoven was the only thing on the program; four movements, tremendous loud crashing and banging and thrilling drum rolls that seemed to go on forever. Great fun! The performers seemed a bit serious at first but as they played they loosened up. Maybe they saw the audience smiling. Christmas carols in the lobby

After the performance, some of the singers came out and gave a Christmas carol concert on the Grand Staircase. The medley of carols was new to me; strange dissonant  harmonies as they went from song to song.

We sat next to an Australian woman, an art historian, who told us that she had been allowed to look into it in 1999, when it was closed to the public, and there were bats flying around.

Opera house from street

Hanoi Conversations — December 18, 2015

Hanoi Conversations


Not a great picture of me, but Tuyen took it, Joe looks fine, I’m wearing the scarf that An gave me, and the building in the rear is the VGCL

Nine days in Hanoi. Many conversations. Some connections made for us by Philip Hazelton from the ILO, whom we met at TDTU in September, and others by Tuyen Huu Vu, who was introduced to us at TDTU by Dean Hoa and who works at MOLISA.


These conversations have helped me put what we are doing, or supposed to be doing, in context. So here’s what I’m seeing now:


Vietnam started being more integrated into the global economy in 1986 with doi moi. (See Country-Led Development, John Erikssen – a case study on Vietnam done in 2001; this is an Oxfam project that finds Vietnam to be a great success story.) In 1996 the trade embargo with the US was lifted. A closer relationship with the US was inevitable. In 2006, Vietnam entered the Global System of Trade Preferences.


Capitalists who were looking to set up businesses or invest money would find it easy to build closer relationships, but how about relationships between trade unions in the US and in Vietnam? Part of the problem was that there was no experience of partnership between a US unions and a Communist labor union. However, through many channels about which I know little, contact at the level of labor education programs was made. The ILO may have played a role too.


In 2008 there was a wave of worker wildcat strikes. In 2009 the US Embassy, through US AID, put $2 million into an area project intended to build capacity in an industrial relations system for Vietnam. We have been told that this was specifically designed to address these strikes, which were producing unstable conditions. It was called the IRPP, Industrial Relations Promotion Project, and was also described as intended to support the implementation of transitional labor laws. Two other related acronyms are GIG, Governance for Inclusive Growth, and SIR.


MOLISA worked on this project for three years. The first project, the MOLISA project, closed in 2014. The US Department of Labor refueled it with more money in a second phase. There were essentially two projects, one US AID from 2009 and one through the ILO, a parallel project. This is the project that Philip Hazelton is working on.

There are three Vietnamese universities that offer labor studies programs – TDTU (Ton Duc Thang), ULSA (The MOLISA University of Labor and Social Affairs) and VTUU, the Vietnam Trade Union University. While the VTUU was started in 1940, even before Independence, ULSA  was founded in 1976, TDTU was founded in 1997 and the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty was started in 2009 after the 2008 wave of strikes.

In February, 2011, these three universities prepared a report on their various interests with respect to cooperating with overseas universities and hosting labor educators, especially from the US, for teaching purposes.  Each institution said what their faculty needed and what kinds of support they could offer. This is in the document titled Report: An Overview of International Faculty Exchange Procedures at Ton Duc Thang University, the University of Labor and Social Affairs, and the Vietnam Trade Union University, by Van Nguyen. It was followed in February 2012 by a needs assessment, also by Van Nguyen, who may be someone who works for the Ministry of Education and Training Needs. That publication, titled Appendices for Assessment Report: On Faculty Training Needs and University Partnership Building in Industrial Relations Education in Vietnam, was prepared under the IRPP, the Industrial Relations Promotion Project, the USAID Project under Contract No. DFD-I-09-05-00220-00.


The roots of US AID and its predecessor entities go back to the Cold War and Point 4 of the Truman Doctrine. US AID funded all kinds of anti-Communist activity including paying for CIA interference in the governments of other countries in the developing world. To the extent that there is still outside money for the IRPP project, it has been moved to the US Department of Labor and passed through the ILO “to be less controversial.” I have heard this from several people so the source of the funding is apparently not a secret.


There are parallels with the NED, National Endowment for Democracy, which is US government money overseen by the Democratic Party foreign policy arm, the Republican Policy foreign policy arm, the Chamber of Commerce’s foreign policy arm and the AFL CIO’s foreign policy arm.


Michele Gonzalez-Arroyo, an independent program evaluator who works mostly in South America, came to TDTU to evaluate the impact of the US AID and MOLISA project back in September. The idea is that building capacity in an IR system will help stabilize the economy. From sitting in on her interview with Dean Hoa, it looked as if one surviving impact of that project was a labor relations textbook in Vietnamese this is still used. There were also visits by Greg Mantsios, Lance Compa, Katie Quan, Richard Fincher, Hollis Stewart and Leanna Noble, and the conference last April 2015 that Richard Fincher helped organize.


How much of these were done in the name of a partnership among the three universities is not clear. One of the people we talked with this week says that there is a national umbrella framework for the training and education of trade union leaders and Industrial Relations specialists, and that this framework has been approved but not implemented by the Ministry of Higher Education, so it is still just a framework.


The “needs” that were assessed in 2012 emerged from discussions between unidentified Vietnamese Specialists and Kent Wong in 2010 and 2011. The Report, although it is dated prior to the needs assessment, states needs quite clearly. It motivates the partnership among the three universities by saying that they all want to “participate in a faculty exchange at their respective universities in order to share practical experience and knowledge of industrial relations.” Currently, guidelines for setting up exchanges “are not standardized or codified, rather they operate flexibly depending on the relationships and ongoing communications.” According to this report, this flexibility is sufficient for the time being, as the partnership matures.


But each university does set out contact information, tells what it can offer by way of housing or stipend, and who it is looking for. TDT, for example, would like someone who can teach Industrial Relations Studies (Collective Bargaining, Dispute Resolution/Strategic Negotiations, Grievance Mediation, Labor Inspection, Social Dialogue, and Trade Union Management) or Organizational Studies (Human Resource Management, Organizational Psychology, Public Relations Management). TDTU can offer faculty housing and a stipend. The VTU can only offer housing in a guesthouse and is interested in a basic set of topics. ULISA also offers housing in a guesthouse and is interested in a broader set of topics, including qualitative research, statistical software and teaching methods.


I think that the idea was that the three trade union universities – ULSA supported by MOLISA and the VTU supported by the VGCL, plus TDTU which is supported by the VGCL but autonomous (has to raise, and can control its own funding) – were going to be the academic partners that would form a framework to flesh out an Industrial Relations field of study that would do research, hold conferences and train practitioners. Laying the groundwork for this was happening at least by 2009, at least, when the first delegation of Vietnamese labor people came to UALE with Kent Wong. Conversations were happening in 2010 and the reports and needs assessments were done in 2012 and 2012. There was another delegation led by Kent in 2012.


This makes me want to think about what an Industrial Relations system is. A system is something with many parts. There are relationships among the parts. Some move forward, others stay the same. In the US our Industrial Relations system has changed over time. In recent years – since the 1970’s, for example – it has changed so much that university programs like the one at Illinois, which was called and Industrial Relations program, are changing their names. Parts of our system would include the National Labor Relations Board, the various regional Boards, our labor laws, various state level public sector laws, the various union bodies at the national, state and local levels including Central Labor Councils, the FMCS – where do you draw the line? Is the Department of Labor or OSHA part of our IR system? I’d say so. how about the Federal Court system? The parts of the system relate to each other and support and critique each other back and forth in many ways. Although is always changing, this “system” has essentially been in place for 80 years. Because I am so used to hearing “industrial relations” in the US, as a labor regime that includes government agencies, public and private entities, organized labor bodies and a whole raft of other stuff, I have taken it for granted that there are corresponding systems in other countries.


But the point here is, as Tuyen noted, that it is not possible to match the idea of an IR system in the US to something parallel to it in Vietnam. There is no parallel. In Vietnam, there is one labor union, the VGCL, and it has a constitutionally recognized role in the government. Above all, developing an IR system in Vietnam can not mean copying the US IR system. As Lance Compa was quoted as saying, whatever it is, whatever system is built has to come from the Vietnamese culture and history.

To the extent that an IR system in Vietnam is developed for the purpose of stabilizing an economy, it will be shaped in part by whatever Vietnamese workers decide to do with the changes afforded by TPP.

The VGCL building in Hanoi, one of those grand yellow French-style buildings with high ceilings and big windows, is going to be re-purposed as a labor museum when a new modern building for the VGCL office gets built. The new building will be over beyond the Soviet-built Friendship building, a huge concrete edifice that looks like a public library or a train station, and which is now used for cultural events.

Friendship palace

We suggested casually that a museum would be a good place to locate a research center, a place where the ongoing labor research could take place and bring together the three labor universities.







The Swimmer and the Sea — December 16, 2015

The Swimmer and the Sea

A teacher is teaching a boy how to swim. The boy lies on the ground and the teacher moves the boy’s arms up and over, to show him how they should go. The teacher lifts the boy’s feet and moves them up and down to show him how to kick. Then the teacher lets the boy practice. When the boy is ready, he calls the teacher to come back. The boy moves his own arms and kicks his own legs. The teacher claps and gives him an A.

Is there a problem here?

What has the boy earned the A for? He did what the teacher told him to do, didn’t he? Maybe there is no problem.

Some people would say that the problem is that he is not in the water, he is on the ground. He is not swimming. He is not swimming because he is not in the water.

But what if swimming is not the point? Maybe doing what the teacher says is the point. But then, why call it swimming?

What would happen if the boy had to take his A, walk over to the water and jump in and swim? Maybe he would drown. If he did, whose fault is it? The teacher? You can always punish the teacher, that’s easy. Or maybe the water is shallow and he doesn’t drown, he just stands up and paddles while he walks. In that case, no one will ever know if he can swim or not and the teacher will not be criticized, and there is no problem.

However, the water is just a figure of speech. It stands for something else. The student is not really learning to swim, he is learning to be a real person who can think and act intelligently. He is getting an education. I am thinking about our students at Ton Duc Thang, who are students at a big university that has ambitions to become one of the top 100 universities in the world, or perhaps one of the top 26 universities in ASEAN.

The ground is a metaphor for the classroom. It is an artificial situation shaped by a curriculum through which students are supposed to learn something that has value. In the classroom, the teacher tells the students what they are expected to do (swim) and shows them how to do it (moves their arms and legs). Then she gives them an exam to see if they have learned what they are supposed to have learned.

As far as I can tell, from my experience at this university in Vietnam, they do not go near the water. Maybe I only see a narrow slice of what is really out there. But what I see forces me to ask, what does the water represent? The water is a metaphor for what?

First, I want to call it the sea, not the water, because what I have in mind for “sea” is the real world, with all its chaos and complexity, history and danger and power and beauty. This is where the real swimming will happen. The students who are learning to swim are going to have to do their swimming in the sea, whether they like it or not. Sometimes they will be able to avoid the sea, but today in this world of rising temperatures and melting ice, the sea will come to them and they will have to swim in it or drown.

Pool at night

Hanoi (2) Realism — December 14, 2015

Hanoi (2) Realism

The Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibit called, at least in English, “Realism.” The wall poster at the entrance was not inspiring in its English translation. Reading it, my main reaction was that this was a pre-emptive effort to deflect possible criticism. It seemed to say that Realism (and it listed six or eight different types of realism, including both social realism and socialist realism) was a diverse, multiple thing; that each artist has to speak for themselves and paint what they are driven to paint, and that all these artists no matter how different from each other they are nonetheless all follow along in the great traditions and even in the light of love and God. In other words, everything and nothing. For sure, if you read this poster, you would skip the exhibit.


So I didn’t skip it, but it took me well into the second room before I started to think I understood what I was looking at. I also went out and got Joe and walked him through it. He is not sure that he saw what I saw.


The first three paintings were dark, green-blue still lives, as if painted in a room with the shades drawn. No sharp angles of light anywhere. The objects were all household items from the 1950s and earlier: alarm clock, a fan, a portfolio, suitcases, a scooter, a lamp. Stacked up. The paintings were about 24 – 26 inches high, maybe 3 or 4 feet long. A feeling of dust all over everything. The items in the pictures were definitely old. It wasn’t as if they were in an attic, though. It was as if they were present only in memory.

Next came three very frightening but initially cute-seeming  paintings. These are big paintings. Standing in front of them, my eyes were about at the level of the grasshopper in the upper painting. In the lower left painting, the image in the child’s eyes is a cracked dry mud desert. The animals moving from left to right are headed toward a deep crevasse. In the upper painting, that bird is feeding one live grasshopper to about 17 baby birds that are all screaming with hunger. The innumerable animals in the lower right painting are all crowding around a small patch of lush green grass that is about enough to feed one of them for one day. Behind them the desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. The tree has been stripped bare.

Global warming

There were some pictures that were technically extraordinary. I didn’t take photos of everything. I felt a bit conspicuous taking photos, although some other people were doing it too.

Three of these were splendid watercolors about water, or at least that’s what it looked like to begin with. One showed a seacoast, breaking waves, etc. Next to it was a closeup of a small waterfall, water running over shining stones. Here and there were glimpses of golden fish climbing the waterfall. All shiny and transparent and multi-layered. But the third one showed a display of transparent plastic bags, each containing half a dozen small gold fish, pinned up on a rack for sale. Goldfish and the water they live in have become commodities.

This one is a lovely scene of ducks swimming in a quiet river. Behind them n the distance, however, an army of towering apartment buildings is approaching across the field. This is exactly what is happening in the landscape of District 7 in Ho Chi Minh City. We could see it when we went with Mark Nguyen to that restaurant where you could fish from a pavillion and they’d cook the fish right there. In the distance, only nearer than in this painting, were miles and miles of these white buildings getting closer.

Encroaching apts

And then we get this amazing pair of paintings. How can you make the most expensive object d’art even more expensive? Take Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom in Arles, when he was waiting for Gaugin to come and visit him. How can you make that painting even more desireable than it is? Well, one way to do it is to add something else desirable — just paint it right on top!!

Van Gogh

And if you still want to add something more, you can put in an apple. This is probably the same apple Eve used, even though we’re in Vietnam and Judeo-Christian legends aren’t well-known to everyone.


And while we’re at it, how about this? We can do it with a Matisse, also a famous painting. Let’s have the same lovely girl in this painting, too. Now nothing is missing! Can you see the cupcake?


I feel as if John Berger is laughing over my shoulder. He explains how paintings, once they came off the walls of churches and could be carried around and put into people’s houses, could be used as sort of catalogs of what one possessed — one’s wife, children, horses, mansions. And of course all the things that you might want but don’t actually possess now, like beautiful girls.


Then there was this painting, probably the most horrible, relentless, fearsome painting I have ever seen. What do you suppose this is about? Who are these four guys? This painting is about 3 feet high and 5 feet long. It’s not a miniature.

Four thugs

And now this: a boy holding a plastic action figure toy. The boy himself is held by someone who may be his father, whose hands and feet are visible: bare feet, blue work pants, lots of veins and muscle in both hands and feet. It’s three generations: the worker father, the precious son, the action figure. And behind is a turbulent sky full of clouds circling a bright moon.

3 generations2

And finally, this, that sticks in my mind:


Woman with plow and frog


The tool is a plow. Women used to pull plows like this. In the lower right of the painting we’re looking at a map, a seacoast. Behind the post in the lower right is a shadow that continues even when the thing that should cast the shadow is gone. There are layers of writing on the wall, one on top of the other. The woman seems to have one breast; that can’t be an accident. And what is that frog behind her right foot?




Hanoi (1) —

Hanoi (1)



Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. Seven million people live there today. It feels like a combination of New York City and Paris. According to one guide book, space in the Old Quarter is the most costly per square meter in the world. Luckily, our room at the Charming Hotel II on Hang Ga Street costs only $38 per night, breakfast included.

Houses in the Old Quarter have narrow frontages, as little as three or four meters. Then the house runs back, room after room, courtyard after courtyard, sometimes all the way to the next street. Between the houses run shoulder-width alleys. You can just glimpse the households full of life down those alleys.

Birdcage shop

In the Old Quarter, parts of a street are named by what is sold in the shops there. So you have Silk Street, Coffin Street, Bamboo Street. Our hotel is one door away from a bamboo shop. They make everything from ladders to water pipes out of bamboo, right there on the sidewalk. Above is a birdcage shop.


Walking up past the night market we came upon a performance of Cheo, traditional theater and music.

Cheo perf

There is no way to convey the cultural richness of this city in a few photos. We arrived Friday night, met with contacts on Saturday, walked around on Sunday and walked around today, too, Monday. Here are some photos from walking around today:

War memorial 1946

War memorial, 1946, on a tree-lined boulevard at the top of the Old Quarter. The trees have bark like plane trees, which are the trees of Paris (and a lot of Berkeley, too) but the leaves are different, so they are something else. Besides, they are much taller than plane trees. This part of the city was developed under the French, starting in the 1880s. Huge, elegant yellow stucco mansions with louvered casement windows.  Some in serious disrepair; others, re-purposed.

French disrepair

Here is the new National Assembly Building. The glass flying saucer effect in the right rear must be where the Assembly meets. You can’t see how big it is from this picture; it’s huge.


Lenin statue

You remember this guy.

The Temple of Literature in Hanoi is actually a university. It was founded in the 11th Century to create a space where scholars could meet, study, live and teach. This is one of the central inner gardens.

Temple of literature garden

The great scholars who came there are honored with stone stellae erected in a long loggia. Onto the surface of each stela is carved the text of the essence of that scholar’s wisdom. Each stela sits on the back of a turtle, because obviously they were all Terry Pratchett fans, even back then.

turtles R

When the inscriptions on the stone stellae are rubbed and pulled so that they can be read, they look like this:

Stele text

The characters are Chinese, a form called “Southern” because it was adapted to Vietnam.

Vietnamese did not have its own written language until the 1700’s when French missionaries created a romanized script to convey Vietnamese, called Quoc Nur. Under the French, the language of education was French; after 1946, Quoc Nur became the national language

We also went to the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum and saw a contemporary exhibit called “Realism,” or at least that is how the title was translated. This was such an interesting experience that I’m going to deal with it in a separate post.

Our hotel is on a street corner where they sell bamboo. They make everything from ladders to flutes to water pipes to signs out of bamboo.

Rope sign bamboo st

Tea or traditional medicine? Maybe both.

Meds or spices

Five-story coffee shop on a side street near the ILO:

coffee shop

Soviet-built Friendship Palace. Across the street from the VGCL. Now a cultural activity venue.

Friendship palace

View from our hotel window:

View from hotel window