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.







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.

2 thoughts on “Hanoi Conversations

  1. Helena: Fascinating stuff. Your understanding of the nuances of VN labour is extensive. How much knowledge of this subject did you have before you started this journey? Have you learned most of this since getting to VN?

    1. I knew absolutely nothing. Last May, as you can see if you click back on my blog, I went to the Berkeley Public Library and started taking out books and reading them. I am a slow reader (I write almost as fast as I read). No one here would call my understanding extensive now. But I am starting to have a clue. Things are also moving very fast — there will be a conference about TPP’s impact on labor and labor unions here at TDTU on January 14, which everyone is preparing for, and it should be extremely interesting no matter what happens at it. Did you see the teaching opportunity announcement on the UALE list, by the way?

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