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.



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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