Some Key Moments


We’re getting near the end of our semester. We each have one more class. I’m beginning to think in terms of how to best use these last opportunities. It’s time to lay it out there and see if anything hits the fan.


There have been a couple of key moments.


One was in Joe’s class, a few weeks ago, after the students read Tony Dang’s translation of the interviews from Organizing on Separate Shores, in which organizers talk about their work in Vietnam and the US.


At the end of that class, Joe said, “Any questions or comments?” not really expecting any, since free-flowing discussion is not something that happens in these classes no matter how much you wish it would.


But a girl stood up and asked, “How can you tell if someone would become a good organizer?”


Somebody else said, “I think that’s the wrong question. I think the question is, how do we bring up everybody else, not how do you filter people out.”


Another asked, “What do you need to start with?” Joe said, “You need the courage to do something and you need to be clear about what side you’re on. Everything else, you can learn.”


Another asked, “How do you get rid of a bad leader?”


Of course what we heard was through Vinh’s translation, but her translation was probably pretty good. When we heard these questions we gave a big sigh of relief. Someone got the idea! Now we can go home.


Two other key moments happened in a simulation session. “Simulation” is the word used here, and it means a session in which we demonstrate something as a role-play. It’s probable that they were thinking of collective bargaining simulations, with table skills, etc., and we’ve done two of those. But we have added role-play grievance preparation, meeting with the grievant, meeting the boss with the grievant, plus strategic planning. These sessions are announced on Facebook and students register, somehow, and then show up. We have had attendance ranging from 15 to 3, with 3 in the union grievance (as compared to the individual grievance) session. But those three were hard core.


Key moment #1 happened in the strategic planning simulation last Tuesday where there were 7 students. We used a role play that I found on my computer called “Castaway,” where you put people on a desert island and make them plan how to survive (or escape) and then give them an obstacle like an earthquake or the arrival of a raft full of other castaways to test the quality of their planning.


Joe did a prep for the exercise which was better than the exercise itself, but too long. I was worried that we’d lost them. At last we let them swing into the exercise. They were sitting facing each other on these hard wooden benches. Anh was among them, as was Nghia and Tu. From where we sat, over on the side, it looked like they were whipping through it without a lot of struggle over, for example, any of the typical dead moments during brainstorming, or disagreements on how to word the “mission statement”. We listened as best we could, now and then glancing at Vinh to see if she could tell us where they were in the process. It was all in Vietnamese, of course, and I have to tell you that after four months surrounded by spoken Vietnamese, I cannot recognize a single word except “lao dong” which sometimes means “work” or “union” or things like that. Since I am supposedly good at languages, this is worth mentioning.


Then Anh put the SWOT analysis up on the board and another student, whose name I think is Tong or Hong, stood up and explained how they had assigned the various tasks along with deadlines and reporting duties. Job done.


After this, we needed to have them slow down a bit and let Vinh translate.


Their mission statement was “Survive and escape.”


We asked them what was the first thing they did when the arrived on the island. They said, “We got together and calmed ourselves down and made sure we had the good spirit together.”


Can you imagine what a difference it would make if a local union, facing a crisis, chose as the first thing they did calming everybody, including themselves, down and making sure they all had good spirits? Who are these kids?


I think back on the various union meetings I have been at where there was a crisis, acute or chronic, and people met for a planning session. I’ve been a participant in strategic planning sessions with the National Writers Union, the California Federation of Teachers, and our labor ed program at the University of Illinois, plus a guide or an observer at multiple other union strategy sessions. Never, never have I seen a group take as its first step calming each other down and making sure they had good spirit.


The rest of their planning was very concrete, very specific, full of clear instructions and good deadlines. I began to think that all this organized activity that they are engaged in, clubs, projects, teamwork, may have made them pretty familiar with planning like this. Readiness training!


Then we had another “simulation”  scheduled for Thursday. This one was going to be focusing on steward preparation, specifically on the idea of a collective or union grievance, as compared to an individual grievance. This was going to be tricky since not only do not all workplaces have unions, not all unions have collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).  It was set to start at 8 am since Anh wanted to come and she had only a small window of time.


Only 3 people showed up. We waited a bit and then, instead of running the simulation, a young man named Hong (I think) asked several questions. They were the kind of questions you do not want to avoid. One: “Why has union membership in the United states gone down?” Another: “How many strikes are there in the US?”


We were sitting on these wooden benches, me and Joe on one side and Hong, Anh and Tu on the other side. Anh has pretty good English. Tu’s English is school English; reading and writing, not much at talking and speaking. It’s hard to tell about Hong. Vinh was sitting at the side facing all of us. I should mention that after reading the story of the four-year struggle of the Heartland AFSCME 3494 workers (Effingham), students have told me that they think  US labor relations are very brutal. They can’t believe the AFSCME 3494 workers held out for four years.


Joe answered Hong’s first question with three reasons. One, that the industries where union density was high, like manufacturing, have mostly gone out of the country, elsewhere, and the remaining work is in the service industries which in the past were not organized. Two, that there has been a relentless attack on the very idea of unions ever since the 1970s. And three, that as far back as the 1940’s (and earlier, actually), because of the competition with the Soviet Union, the Communists – who were the most serious organizers and the most committed to the working class – got purged out of the labor movement.


This was one of those “I wonder if they hear me?” moments.


The number of strikes has also gone down, of course. We did not have time to get into any further points about that, such as the effectiveness of the Chicago Teachers strike in 2012 or the strike threat raised by NUHW against Kaiser just a week or so ago.


The willingness to show interest in the US labor experience convinced me that, since the class coming up was going to be my last one before their presentations on their workplace research, I should say what I really wanted to say, and ask them what I really wanted to find out. So I wrote up the following handout, gave it to Vinh for translation, and had them read it in class on Wednesday.

If you have been reading since last summer, you will recognize my main question.




What Should We Be Teaching?


When we were first thinking of coming to TDTU to teach in the Labor Relations and Trade Union Faculty, we asked, “What do they want us to teach the students?”


The answer to this depends on whether you see Vietnam as being still a socialist economy, moving into a mixed free market economy, or a capitalist economy with some remaining socialist features.
The answer under socialism

One answer was, “Teach them to be more productive, work hard, motivate them to join the union, do sports, study hard and be healthy.”

This answer assumes that Vietnam is still socialist. All these are good things, of course. Being productive, working hard, joining the union, studying hard, staying healthy and doing sports are all good. But they should be the focus of union work only if workers and employers are on the same side. In a capitalist economy, a curriculum designed to teach only these things would leave students vulnerable and ill-equipped to face capitalist employers, either as workers or worker representatives.


The answer under the free market capitalist economy

Another answer was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to know how to fight it.”


This answer assumes that Vietnam is moving into capitalism. Now that we have been here five months and are nearly done teaching our classes, I would say that capitalism is not just coming, it is already here. Also, I can tell that you, our students, know this. The list some of you wrote in Joe’s class, of things people want from a good local union, revealed that you know that capitalism is here. One way to see that is that you did not put on your list that it is the union’s job to help the workers be more productive or manage them in any way.


But the second half of that answer was, “They want to know how to fight it.” Do our TDTU students know how to fight capitalism? Specifically, do they know how to defend and improve the jobs of workers who are employed in capitalist companies?


That’s what I’m worried about.


What a good local union also has to do: Fight


The list of things that people need from their local unions that students put on the board in Joe’s class last week was a good description of what a live union does in a capitalist economy. However, one major thing was missing. It’s great to have a union that can resolve labor disputes, ensure fair treatment, safety, good working conditions, good pay and benefits, the right tools and PPE for workers, and stay current with the law and train workers to understand the law – that’s all great. But how? Since not a single one of these things will help the capitalist employer make more profit, the employer will oppose them. Therefore the union must carry out every one of these things in the face of employer opposition. How you carry out these responsibilities in a friendly environment is very different from how you carry them out in a hostile environment. In a hostile environment, the union’s actions often have to be aggressive and direct rather than routine, and they have to be grounded in real power. So the list needs to include “build the union’s power” and “know how to fight.”


The employer will fight with all its power which comes from ownership of the property, equipment and raw materials, and its right to manage what it owns, including locking workers out or demanding obedience from them during the time for which they are being paid.


The union has to fight with all its power,too.The source of this power is the solidarity of the workers. This power starts at the point of production, the point in place and time where the work gets done. Workers can choose to work or choose to stop working, choose to walk out, or choose to sit down. This power extends  out in one direction into the society of which the workers are members and back in the other direction to the negotiation table. If you really wield this power, you don’t have to actually touch the point of production.


This is the situation now. The workplaces you are studying now are operating under these conditions.


So what if the fight gets even more intense?


You have heard of the TPP, the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. While there are apparently many ways that the TPP will be good for Vietnamese business, the view of it from labor activists in the United States is that its primary beneficiary will be large corporations which will become even more free to move investment money around the globe. This will undoubtedly mean that there will be more competition among manufacturers and more pressure to keep wages low. Vietnamese workers will have to fight back even more effectively to prevent this from happening.


Will the changes required of Vietnamese labor organizations help?


If the TPP is passed, one possibility is that labor relations in Vietnam will become much more like labor relations in the US. I think that many of you view US labor relations as very adversarial, even brutal.


But TPP will also require changes in how Vietnamese unions operate. These changes may or may not make Vietnamese labor bodies more competent to protect workers.


Here is a list some of the changes in Vietnamese unions required by TPP. These are from the side letter on labor that is linked to the TPP.


First, workers will be allowed to form new grassroots autonomous unions. They do not have to be part of the VGCL. These unions can organize, bargain collectively, strike and carry out “labor-related collective activities.” They can elect their own leaders, employ staff and own property. They will still receive that 2% of total payroll costs that is paid by every employer, based on membership, in addition to union dues paid by each worker. All members of these autonomous grassroots union E-Boards must be elected by the membership. An upper-level union may “assist” a grassroots union only if the grassroots union requests it.


Second, there has to be a clear difference in role between people who represent workers and people who represent employers. The agreement says, “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 means that there will not be any HR officers who are also local union presidents.


Third, Vietnam must establish sanctions against anti-union discrimination and failure to bargain in good faith, and ensure that no laws are set up to undermine union activity. This last point is very far-reaching, because that impact can be caused by many different factors.


Finally, a tremendous amount of training is proposed: training inspectors, training criminal system authorities who will inspect sites suspected of employing forced labor and child labor, training for Industrial Relations bodies and “mechanisms”, training personnel in MOLISA and DOLISA and everybody else, including researchers and people who will inspect this whole process. Item D in the side letter says, “Vietnam shall launch an outreach program to inform and educate workers, employers and other stakeholders…” Whether this actually means that there will be more jobs is not clear, but it seems likely.


Discussion questions about the impact of the TPP requirements


Get into your research groups. Have you heard about these changes? Have you heard people discussing them? What might happen at workplaces you have studied in this class? How would you answer the following questions about the impact of these requirements?


What might happen to Vietnamese workers? Will they be better or worse off?


What might happen to local unions?






Here, filtered through translation, are the issues that the students brought up to report after their discussion.


Training. Vietnamese workers are low-skill and will need training to get up to the point where they can compete against workers in other countries.

Labor standards. Signing the ILO standards will be good for women and children.

Equipment. Competition under the TPP will force companies in Vietnam to upgrade their equipment and make a better, safer working environment.

Unions. Workers want grassroots unions and worker representatives. Right now there is the one VGCL. The new unions (under the ILO “freedom of association” standard) will be hard for the government to control.

Education about labor standards and law: a great deal of training will be needed in order to educate workers about their rights under the law. This is true for both Vietnamese workers and foreign workers who come to Vietnam to work.

















Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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