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.

What Did We Learn from Student Reports? (2) — December 12, 2015

What Did We Learn from Student Reports? (2)


The students’ final presentations were supposed to be stories about what people did in the workplaces to make their work lives better. Theoretically, the stories were supposed to be about collective action: organizing or leadership. However, we emphasized that what was most important was to tell what really happened, not to make something up. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.


They were also supposed to look ahead and explain what should or could happen.


These are some stories from Joe’s second class and my class. I either typed or took handwritten notes as fast as I could while Vinh whispered a translation into my ear as the students presented. Each student had 10 minutes. The presentations were the product of a team effort; each team would choose one or two students to present for the team.


Some overall thoughts, having to do with how to use these stories as the basis for teaching: What are they about? What do they show? What is missing? These are not meant to be criticisms of the students’ work. Instead, they are thoughts about what the students’ work tells me about labor relations in Vietnam.

Wrapped inside those thoughts is our perennial question, “What do they think we can teach them?” Do we actually know something that they need to know, and that we have the potential to teach?

  •             These are all stories about solving an immediate problem.
  •             The choice for the worker is often between solving the problem or quitting. For workers who have individual labor contracts, there is a process for quitting, but many of these part time workers do not have labor contracts. So the problem gets serious, at least for that one worker, before they try to do anything about it.
  •             If the problem gets solved it gets solved for the moment, not incorporated into something that will apply to others in the future.
  •             The solution is not written down.
  •             In workplaces where there is a management intermediary between the workers and the person who can make the decision, it is harder to get a problem solved. Passing a dispute up a chain of command makes it less likely that the problem will get solved. An example of such an intermediary would be the HR manager.
  •             Proposals for the future always mentioned strengthening the local union and usually educating members, teaching workers about the law. They did not talk about assisting or encouraging workers to organize and apply collective power.
  •             Neither the solution nor the problem is analyzed as an aspect of the overall relationship between workers and employers.   Therefore nothing leads to an overall change in that relationship.
  •             There is no general awareness of ways to count the value that labor contributes to the product. This would be a way to enter the issue of the political economy of a given workplace. We asked students, at a minimum, to ask whether a worker at, for example, KFC, could afford to buy lunch regularly at KFC. The answers were usually “No.” While this is beyond the scope of these stories, an awareness of the distance between what workers earn and the value of what they produce would give a different meaning to “problem.”

A student, reading this (and I know several will) might say, “But she didn’t ask us to do that.”  True, I didn’t, and neither did Joe. We asked them to tell us what they saw. If they didn’t see something, they weren’t supposed to make it up. There’s enough of a problem already with us suspecting that they try to give us what they think we expect. Their whole exam system promotes that, too.

But here are the stories. There’s the whole range of workplaces here, from ones with no union presence at all to ones with a union that seems to get something done.

Anh Tuan

At Anh Tuan, construction and development, the employer provides labor clothes (PPE) but they are not enough and workers do not know how to use them. Also, in 2010 the pay was three days late (this is a construction company that pays people by the day’s work, at the end of each week). The employees didn’t have their money so they started to break the tools. The supervisor got angry and yelled: “Any other person who breaks tools will get laid off.” They got paid two days later. But when the workers went away for Tet they got sick a lot. They don’t sign a labor contract for construction so they don’t enforce the law. They need a union to protect their rights and benefits.

Nguyen Kim

At Nguyen Kim (repair of electrical machines), the workers are from a lot of provinces. They had a lot of complaints about low wages. The union did not pay attention to the comments of the employees. The union seemed to be just for the leaders. The feeling of union members was not good. When the students researched the CBA, they found that it only followed the law. When the union members raised ideas or suggestions, they were shy and the weaker party, they did not know how to protect themselves. One employee proposed to collect signatures to ask for a raised wage, but only a few people joined in and the plan was postponed. If the employer does not solve this problem, the workers will get a stronger voice and it will affect the profits of the company

Nah Be Textile

At Nah Be Textile, there were three problems. There were workers who did not have enough skill and the employer found mistakes in the product. Those workers would get fined. Second, if they forgot to wear an ID or violated some other policy, the workers would get fined three days’ pay. Third, a lot of workers thought the restaurant did not provide enough food and was not clean. The union called for the opinions of workers and took the problem to a different level. After one month, the agreement was made that the employer would cover training costs for new products. There would be no penalty for the first time someone violated a policy, a reminder the second time, and only a third time would there be a fine. The employer would will also build new, clean toilets and have air conditioning. The union was talking about building a dormitory for workers. The reason to have a dormitory was that the workers came from different provinces and could not afford the cost of housing in HCMC.


At Strawberry, workers did not get paid overtime on a holiday. Many workers wanted to quit. Some of the others thought that the job was boring. They want to have a union but don’t know how.


At NyDec COPAL, electronic manufacturing, 1,200 people stopped work for two days on the second of December, 2013. They have a CBA on paper but do not follow it. The current problem with overtime is that the employer arranges the list. The solution would be to have people register for the list.

Happy Cleaners

At Happy Cleaners, the cleaning company was about to lose its contract with TDTU. (TDTU was taking the work back in-house.) Here is the story of one worker who cleaned the downstairs B Building. He comes from the provinces,. He has to work a lot, especially on rainy days. He was about to lose his job. He talked with another employee who does cleaning also but who was employed directly by TDTU. They compared their wages and working conditions. He talked with his work leader and higher. So all the employees of Happy Cleaners went to work for TDTU. They saw the benefit of comparing wages with other companies. This union has some strong members who will learn the labor code. Other workers should compare wages and learn the labor code. All of the employees moved from Happy Cleaners to TDTU because workers at TDTU have a labor contract and a CBA.

Anh Nguyen

At Anh Nguyen, where they assemble and sell furniture, there is no union. This is a disadvantage to the workers. Most workers here don’t know what the union is. I (the presenter for this group) was the person working here. I publicized about the union so they have a more positive opinion so that they won’t quit this job, I explained about the union and social insurance for the workers. The goal of our research is to find the leader, the real leader. It is very hard for us to find a leader, because some they don’t have enough knowledge and skill to become the leader, or they are shy to lift their voice in front of the manager. For this research, we can learn more how to communicate with the leader, how to modernize them, portray them so they strengthen their voice in front of the employer, also to teach them how to do surveys and how to enforce the law in reality.

VCS Home Shopping

 At VCS Home Shopping, a call center for selling electronics and appliances, the company doesn’t have a union. The company set a target of 34 million; if you can get the target you can have the bonus of 5M for your call center. So we have to register for OT. It is not forced – they persuade you. We have a very large blackboard where they write a timeline with the target for each day. All of the workers try their best to do OT because also they will get paid for OT. But the bonus of 5M will divided up to 60 employees so it is very small. At the end, we go over the target, and we are very happy when we receive the bonus. We use the bonus to have a party. In the near future we will have a union here, because if we have the union we can share opinions. The emergent leader is Miss X, not because of her high position, but also because she is very respected by a lot of people and besides working hard she is fun and clever with other people. For example, when a worker makes a mistake, she doesn’t yell, she talks softly to her and reminds her. She has become the emergent leader. She ‘s the recruiter so she works in the HR dept taking care of payroll.

Tran Phu Trung Kindergarten

At Tran Phu Trung Kindergarten they are a SOE and they have a union. At the time the school was established, they didn’t have a union. A group of employees found an emergent leader, a person who could get the trust of workers.

TDTU Security Guards

The Security Guards have a union. In November 2013, when they had their health checkups, they found that most of them had a health problem (from breathing the pollution from the traffic). So they made proposal to union and the union talked with President of the University. The department of security researched different parking lots and proposed that the President make a policy regulation that all the motorbikes have to turn off the engines. Also, one worker wanted to meet regularly, not always officially, to eat or drink together and understand each other better. They face a variety of problems. One is that they often have to talk with foreigners, and can’t speak English. Another is their 24-hour shifts and their health. And the third is that the older workers expect to be replaced by younger workers who have more energy.

DeVoung Shoes

DeVoung Shoe Company is a huge shoe company, with a union. But people don’t know what the union does. In 2013, in the shoe line, there was a stoppage that was moving toward a strike. There were a lot of orders coming in and workers were told that if they didn’t do OT they would not get paid. Also, the meal was bad. The workers were very angry and they asked for union to solve the problem. They waited a very long time. After a while, they sent one representative directly to the Director to speak, and the Director threatened to lay them off. This made them organize a strike. It was very effective. It spread out into other companies. After that the provincial Federation of Labor came down to the factory itself. The learning point that we get from this story is that when there is not a presence of the union here, the union cannot solve the problem, especially if it is a foreign-owned company. The workers had to have the higher level intervene in the dispute. But it’s hard for workers to find workplace leaders because they don’t have enough education and knowledge.

For DeVoung, we (the team) propose five solutions for the union: First, a committee of the union has to be elected by employee, not decided by employer. We have to clarify the difference between outside leaders and emergent leaders. For now, they will assign a leader, but we propose that an emergent leader be elected by workers. Second, we have to organize to collect the workers’ opinions rather early about payment, pay raise, about working conditions. Third, the district level of the Federation of Labor has to go directly to the local union to train them and educate them and explain how to represent workers and strengthen their voice in front of the employer. Fourth is that we have to have a close relationship between workers, the local union and the district level Federation of Labor. Fifth and last, we must regularly hold social dialog to understand the workers so that in the CBA we clarify things like the value of the subsidy. We need to get very specific in the CBA. We must also organize an outside cultural communication stream between VN and Taiwan so that people can understand the culture of a foreign-owned company in Vietnam.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

Here is the story at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Just before TET, the employer announced that each person who worked during TET would get a 14 month bonus (two extra month’s worth of salary). This made workers want to stay at KFC. It was hard work, lots of OT, and stressful. After the end of TET, our friend did not get the 14 month bonus. She talked to other workers who also did not get their bonus. They went directly to the supervisor. The supervisor said that your friend did not make the target. That is why she does not get the 14th salary. But then our friend sees that full time workers (FT) can get the bonus but the part time (PT) cannot. She works part time. This shows that the union here doesn’t function as a proper union to protect the workers. Our plan for the future is to make a separation between HR and the union. Then, collect workers’ opinions regularly, have meetings and build a strong relationship between PT and FT. The next thing that has to happen is that union has make the policy clear to the workers because the employer just said 14th month salary, but didn’t say PT or FT. They don’t have a labor contract here. Most PTs are students, they turn over and they quit their job and just stay a short time, so it’s hard to find an emergent leader among them. So the end of the story is that they did not get their money. Will they get it this year? Not clear.

At KFC, the second story is that there was a lot of overtime. During the holidays, there was 90 hours of overtime in one month. Also Saturday and Sunday, you could not go home early. Also one of the problems is that the meal was not good. This caused a strike. Four workers gathered together and said, “We don’t want to work any more, we don’t want to work overtime and we want to increase our wage.” The four leaders got together and formed a temporary union to stand up to the employer and have a strong voice about overtime and also, if you work overtime, to get paid the higher wage. In the future, they will bargain with the employer about how to improve meals. They will use social dialog for this. They will mobilize people to join the union and the leaders will involve workers and have collective opinions with no discrimination.


Vietopia (1) has a union but HR is the union. We do not hear about social dialog or CBA. There are a lot of current problems. Here is our story. In December 2014 one of the workers was laid off, because she said something bad about the company on Facebook. In reality, she just shared that she had to work OT one hour but got no pay for it. She also said that the manager didn’t have a good policy. When she heard that she was laid off, she went to the company and she cried. I think that she cried not because she was laid off but because it was unfair to lay her off because she dared to speak out with the voice of the worker. She never got her job back.

Vietopia (2 and 3) also reports that HR is the union here. In December 2014, someone was laid off. So the person who takes care of the doctor’s role model section found that she had too many customers but no help. She couldn’t eat her lunch. She had no one to turn over her shift to. She was very angry and talked with co-workers, who were also angry at the short-staffing. She asked if they agreed, and they were friendly to her. They called two delegates to go with her to see the supervisor. After the two delegates talked with the employer, the employer apologized and agreed that they had given her too much work. This calmed the spirit of the employee. They solved this problem before the union became involved. The union doesn’t touch the workers. It’s very weak. Some plans for the union: the union has to collect and inspire the workers so it can solve the problem immediately, not make the problem bigger. The union must also organize different activities to make close relationship between workers and managers. Also the local union must contact with higher level of Federation of Labor to prevent the problem becoming bigger in the near future.

Highlands Coffee

At Highlands Coffee in 2012, there were two workers working here. At the beginning they just got paid 2M 400, not enough to live in HCMC. They decided to ask the supervisor for a pay raise. The manager agreed that when he met with higher level of managers he would ask for pay raise. The two workers said that if they didn’t get the pay raise they would quit. The manager wanted to keep these two persons until the end of the week in order to find another person to replace them. They quit the job.

The workers here they don’t know what a union is. They want someone to explain to them what is a union. There should be an organization to bargain for them. The store has to solve immediately the problem. It’s hard to find an emergent leader at a workplace like this where there are a lot of of middle managers who can’t make decisions. Now that we have TPP it is necessary to have the union to sign the CBA but it has to be h be a real functioning union.

Pou Youen Shoes

Pou Youen Shoes is a big company, total workers over 80,000-90,000, with a very strong union. But most of the activities that the union organizes just improve their spirits – singing, sport, to improve their health. They have entertainment outside working hour, but only workers who live in HCMC can join these events. Workers who live in apartments far away can’t join and miss some of the very real benefits. But the union gets money for the workers and also has policy of loaning to workers with difficulties, a good policy of social insurance and medical care insurance.

Our recommendation is that the union can propose to the manager that they give a bonus for seniority, so that we can have the policy for the benefits, so that the worker can stay longer for the company. Some of the persons who live far away from here, coming from provinces live in apartments far from factory. We organized things for them making handmade things such as handicrafts. For the kindergarten, inside their company, they want to lower the fee and give a 50% discount. Worker want to have more facilities to practice their health. These are all the recommendation and the meet of the works in Pou Youen.

In June 2013, there were several strikes at Pou Youen. The first strike was actually about a political issue: China had attacked Vietnam. Pou Youen is Taiwanese and there is something political here between the Taiwan and Chinese which the workers didn’t understand. So it was not a proper strike for the workers. But later it became a very strong union and publicized information relevant to the law so that the workers were well equipped with the understanding of the law. They were frustrated with the government about social insurance so they went on strike for the social insurance that year.

There was also the fire in Pou Youen in August 2013 in Building A-10. Now 42,000 square meters on floors 5 and6 were burnt. The reason here is that Pou Youen doesn’t take care of fire prevention. There are a lot of violations so they don’t have the safety about fire and they can get burnt. We have to train the workers who work here as well as the managers to know how to prevent the fire and build good exit ways so that it is easier for the person working here to not get burned.


How much can we rely on these stories to inform us about what work in Vietnam is like? I think that actually, they’re pretty useful. I say this because the more we talk to people who have an overview of work, workers and unions here, the more it sounds as if this is a pretty good, if micro picture of what’s going on.

Joe’s class

Joes class c H




What did we learn from the student reports? (1) — December 11, 2015

What did we learn from the student reports? (1)

Joe and data

All the reports summarized and put into a table, printed out and taped together.


This will be the first of several posts on this topic. In this post, I’m just describing the  initial sorting process that had to be done with all the student reports when they came in.

Combining Joe’s class and mine, we got 33 total reports. Each report represents the work of a team of five to seven students. Setting aside the workplaces chosen by more than one team, there were 26 different workplaces.


The workplaces that were studied are:

01. Anh Nguyen Furniture (sales, export)
02. Anh Tuan (construction and development)
03. Banyan Luggage (retail)
04. Bluelin Health Mgmt (exercise machines, sales, women’s spa)
05. California Restaurant (restaurant)
06. CircleK (convenience, like 7-11)
07. DeVoung (shoes)
08. Dominos’ Pizza
09. Dungo Bank
10. Golden Hope Cooking Oil (Food processing)
11. Happy Cleaners (cleaning service)
12. Highlands Coffee (coffee shop)
12a. Highlands Coffee
13. KFC (fast food)
13a. KFC
14.Nah Be Textile
15. Nguyen Kim Machine (repair, electrical)
16.NyDec COPAL (electronic mfg)
17.Phong Phu Textiles
18. PouYouen (shoes)
19. Starbucks (coffee shop)
20. Strawberry (childcare)
20a. Strawberry
21.Tan Phuy Trun Kindergarten (SOE)
22. TDTU Security Guards
22a.TDTU Security Guards
23. TST Insulation (refrigeration for seafood)
24.VCS Home Shopping (tech internet sales)
25. Vietopia (childcare, entertainment)
25a. Vietopia
25b. Vietopia
26. Wise Solutions IT (tech service)


Seven workplaces were studied more than once: Strawberry, Vietopia, Highlands, TDTU Security Guards, CircleK, and KFC.

We asked our students to report what these Vietnamese workplaces looked like from the workers’ point of view. This is basic organizing research: what an organizer has to find out about a workplace. For Joe’s class, it was about organizing directly. For my class, which is supposed to be about leadership, it is about what kinds of leadership emerged when there was a problem.

They did a lot of survey questionnaires. Actual observations were not common, unless they had a team member working in one of these workplaces. But in some places they interviewed workers after work. They did some media research. They found company brochures and company videos. There were some elements of participant action research (PAR) where students were also workers. Each group met with Joe or me twice.


So the sample is small, opportunistic, and has no independent variables or statistical value. Nonetheless, it is descriptive and can be considered a snapshot or maybe a pilot research exercise. The most important thing is that the stories that came out of it tell what people actually did and said. This is not looking down at workforces from a helicopter.

Stud rep Eng 1

From an English composition teacher’s point of view, however, the student reports were all plain data. There was no analysis, nothing about implications, no conclusions, no connections made between what the students were observing and what they had learned in other labor relations classes. The presentations were accompanied by skillful Power Points. The paper reports that were handed in with each presentations copied those slides, so we saw pie charts and bar charts, photos of workplaces and lists of employees and organizational trees of how the company or, in one case, how the union was organized. We had of course not thought to ask for anything more. I hadn’t occurred to me that they would hand in raw data without any analysis at all.

When I met with Vy and An and asked them what the problem was, they understood my question. They explained that Vietnamese students are trained to respond to what teachers say they expect. So we had made a list (a handout which we called “Evaluating the Terrain,” which I may post) of things you have to look at in order to prepare for organizing, and they just followed the list.


The problem, which is a major problem for our experience teaching in Vietnam overall, is this: If the students think that teachers want them to give back just what the teachers gave them in the first place, how can the teachers learn anything? Do you suppose that these reports simply mirror back what we told the students we expected them to find?


That would be pretty unfortunate. However, let’s keep going.

Stu rep Vtnm 2

The fact that the reports were sheer data, without any analysis or conclusions, meant that when I sat down with the stack of reports, I had to start from scratch. The first thing I had to do was decide what questions I was going to ask of the data. There were many possible questions to ask: role of women workers, effectiveness of unions, pay at manufacturing plants vs pay at retail operations, impact of foreign ownership, etc. I didn’t have time to work through all 26 reports and answer all the possible questions, so I picked what seemed to me like the most obvious one to start with.

What workplaces had a union?

Theoretically, all workers can be and are supposed to be represented by a union. This is the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor or VGCL. But whether there is actually a union in a certain workplace is another matter. So, out of 33 workplaces:


  • 9 had no presence of a union at all. Many workers did not seem to know what a union was.
  • 4 workplaces had a union leader who was also the management HR officer
  • 5 had a union, but described it as ineffective. I included in this 2 workplaces where there was an enterprise union at the head office but no one at the branch worksite had any contact with it.
  • 8 workplaces had an active union


Here are the 9 workplaces that had no union: Anh Nguyen Furniture, Banyan Luggage, Bluelin Women’s Health, California Restaurant, Domino’s Pizza, VCS Home Shopping, and Wise Solutions. These are all small retail or service workplaces.

There were two exceptions: Happy Cleaners, which did the cleaning and housekeeping work for TDTU and where there was a union for the office workers only), and Anh Tuan Construction, a large company that had but no union and where workers are hired by the day. Happy Cleaners hired older women to do the actual work (older than 40; there is a lot of age discrimination here!) and had a union for the office workers only.


Here are 4 companies that have a union leader who is also the HR manager: DeVuong shoes, KFC which has many branches in HCMC, TST Insulation which manufactures equipment for refrigeration, a hugely important aspect of the seafood industry, and Vietopia, which is a semi-Disney childcare and entertainment facility for upwardly mobile families and kids. This arrangement would fulfill the letter of the law.


These 5 companies had what looked like, when you read the reports, weak unions: CircleK, where there is a union for full time workers only; Donga Bank, Highlands Coffee, where there is enterprise union at headquarters, no local union; Starbucks, where there also is an enterprise level union but no local union, and Strawberry, which is a smaller version of Vietopia, an entertainment/education facility for children.


Finally, these are the 8 workplaces that appear to have active unions. Golden Hope manufactures cooking oil; Nah Be is textiles; Nguyen Kim produces electrical machines; NyDec COPAL manufactures electronics; Phong Fu also does textiles, Pou Youen manufactures shoes, the Security Guards work at TDTU and Tran Phuy Trun is a state-owned kindergarten that was founded back in the 1980s.


Six of these last 8 workplaces appear to have collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), although I couldn’t be absolutely sure: the TDTU Security Guards, Phong Phy Company, Golden Hope Cooking Oil, Nguyen Kim Electric Machine Repair, Nah Be Textile and NyDec COPAL , which is owned by a Japanese company.


Note that in Vietnam, you can have a CBA or (maybe and) individual labor contracts. There is a whole section of the labor code dedicated to individual contracts. So a company where there is a union but no CBA might have individual labor contracts for the workers. I do not know what the role of the union in troubleshooting individual contracts or setting them up would be.


Doing this kind of thing is a good way to find out what questions to ask.


What do workers make for wages?


I did a quick scan of what workers make, if they work full time. Four million dong (4M) is $178. Minimum wage in HCMC (it varies by province) as of September 2015 was 3.5M dong; in rural areas it was 2.15M.



PouYouen: 4.1M

Tan Phuy Trun: 3.0 – 6M

KFC: 2M – 3.5M

Vietopia: 2.8 M

Wise Solutions: 6.5 – 10M

Phong Phu – 4.5- 10M

Highlands: 4.5M

Nguyen Kim: 3.5 – 5.5 M


So with the exception of Vietopia and maybe Tan Phuy Trun, these jobs pay just above minimum wage. Apparently, when a union negotiates a CBA, the wage that is negotiated is rarely much more that minimum wage. The legal minimum wage is the wage.


To see what it was like to live on these wages, students asked workers about their budgets. They got answers generally like these:


Typical budget for single person: 5.5M

Many workers cannot support a family (need 6.5M)

Many workers cannot save

Many workers depend on OT, commissions, subsidies, bonuses

Were they satisfied with their jobs? No, “Not satisfied.”


But Vy pointed out that the questionnaires that most reports depended on did not separate out reasons why workers were not satisfied – it could be a bad day, or they didn’t like their supervisor, or the work was too hard; you couldn’t tell from the questionnaires whether wages were really the problem or not. The questionnaires were too simple.

students examnning rawdata

I posted the long sheet of all 26 reports and students came and looked at it.

 Student work


One thing we found out is that many of our students are working, some of them up to 30 or 40 hours a week (full time work is supposedly 48 hours a week; it is not clear to me whether someone could work 48 hours a week and still be considered part time). They do this while they go to TDTU, which amazes me. KFC apparently even recruits through TDTU!


So I wanted to compare how much money they are earning at the different places they work. There is no mention of part time workers in the labor code except for one brief section, and there is no separate part-time minimum wage. Employers just divide the full-time wage by the number of hours employed, which can vary even more because some hours-worked-per-month are based on 26 and some 27 days. Or, more realistically, they just offer whatever the student worker will accept. The labor code does state that part-time workers are entitled to all rights, benefits and privileges. Under Vietnamese law, part-time is not automatically assumed to be temporary or casual.


But here is what part time pay looks like. 20,000 is 89 cents; 11,000 is 49 cents. This is per hour.


VCS Home Shopping: 20,000 D/hr

Bluelin Women’s – 20,000 D/hr

An Nguyen: 19,000 D/hr

Banyan Luggage – 17,000 D/hr

Strawberry – 17,000 D/hr

Vietopia: 16,000 D/hr

Starbucks: 15,000 D/hr

Highlands: 14,000 D/R

KFC: 13,000-17,000 D/hr

Domino’s: 13,000 – 15,000 hr/

Circle K: 12,000 – 15,500 D/hr

California Rest. – 11,000-12,000 D




However, in addition to your hourly wage, Vietnamese workers, full or part-time, get a lot of side payments called bonuses. They can get a meal subsidy, often 15,000 D; an extra meal subsidy if they do overtime. They use this to go out and buy food and then sometimes there is a microwave where they can heat it up. At many large workplaces, the employer has cooks and a kitchen and prepares a meal. Many complaints are about the quality and quantity of the meal. You can get a gift of some sort – an umbrella or a gold ring – after a certain number of years. You can get a transportation bonus, a parking bonus, or a subsidy to help you pay rent. One of the most important bonuses is a 13th month bonus at Tet, which provides people with enough money to go to their hometown for the holiday. One place – KFC – as we found out, actually offers a 14th month bonus. You can also get rewards for meeting targets of sales or production and commissions if a whole group meets a target. And the employer can pay accident insurance or medical insurance for you.


Of course, shifting compensation to bonuses reduces employer tax liability and social security revenue. So does the failure to register workers, because not until a worker becomes registered, by having a labor contract, does the employer have to pay social insurance on him.


So now, looking through all these reports, I have to go back and ask, “What kinds of information have I found so far that would help in organizing or create opportunities for leadership?” This is always assuming that organizing efforts and leadership are most effective when they come from the bottom-up.


What kinds of problems do workers face in these workplaces?


One way to construct an answer to this question is to go through the student reports and ask what kinds of labor laws are likely to go unenforced. If a standard exists as a law, then organizing to make the employer obey the law is likely to be understood by workers. Issues such as this are “rights” issues in Vietnam, as compared to what are called “interests,” which are not matters of existing law but involve addressing what workers want above the minimums. Some people say that the distinction between “rights” and “interests” is just a red herring.


Examples of laws that are likely to go unenforced include laws about individual labor contracts, such as the one that says all workers must have labor contract after two months and the law that says limited duration contracts can roll over only once and the employer must offer unlimited duration contact after one limited duration contract.


I looked at the reports to see what workplaces had labor contracts, and found that in many workplaces, workers simply do not have labor contracts or else get them after 3 months (not two) or after a combination of training contracts or probationary contracts.


Laws about overtime are also likely to be violated, such as that overtime (OT) earns time and a half pay, that “excessive” OT is prohibited, that prep and cleanup time should be paid and that there should not be any coerced OT.


Laws about wages are another example. There are cases of low wages, wages that don’t rise to minimum wage, missing money (wage theft), and of course no pay for prep or overtime or improper pay for OT fall into this category.

Employers also scamp on payments into the social benefits fund (taxes). They should pay in on all registered workers’ wages. However, if a worker is unregistered – if a worker does not have a labor contract, in other words – then no money is paid on that worker. Also, it’s clear that employers are shifting payments into meal subsidy, the OT extra meal, parking, transportation, housing subsidies, rewards for meeting targets, commissions, the Tet bonus (a thirteenth month’s pay) and medical insurance and accident insurance. Shifting compensation to bonuses reduces employer tax liability and social security revenue.


Other possible targets for collective action include unfairness of any kind, age and gender discrimination. Women over 40 are often unable to get hired except as cleaners or other lowest-wage workers. They lie about their age to get factory jobs. As a woman well over 40, I noticed this. There is also an absence of clean toilets, water, decent and sufficient meals. These seem to have been the most frequent triggers of collective action of any.


I put all of this into a 35-slide Power Point which I asked Vinh to email out to the students, and then made a 15-slide version that I showed to the class the next day, before they started giving their reports.


While they told their stories, Vinh whispered translation into my ear and I typed as fast as I could. I will provide some of those stories in my next post and I will also try to pull out some of what they mean, from where I’m looking at it.




















Design at TDTU — December 10, 2015

Design at TDTU

MOdel 1

I have mentioned walking through the terraces on the ground floor of the buildings and seeing displays of work done by the various design departments. Early in our days here, we saw fabulous gowns and sharp costumes. We also saw what was apparently an architecture final project that involved designs for resorts, something that I didn’t realize was such a  big piece of economic development until we started going out to beach towns. We saw ceramics, designs for manga, things made out of wire, and big bulletin boards with brightly colored printed posters. All very sharp-edged and contemporary.

I have talked to students who say that they are majoring in industrial design.

Last week we saw a display of things built out of wood. Behind each one was an explanation, done in sketches, of how the design for the object evolved from an image of an animal. Lamps evolved from birds, tables evolved from tigers, etc. I was especially enchanted by a rocking grasshopper made out of rubber wood. The wood was kind of soft and good to touch, and you could see the grasshopper clearly in the overall shape. I would have gone into debt to buy it.

Unfortunately, I often don’t have my camera with me and so I can’t take photos. To make up for that, here are some photos of architectural models. These seem to be country houses, except for the one that has a high wall on one side, which might be a city house.

However, most city houses that I have seen — new ones, I mean — are narrow, at least three stories high, have a wide central climbing staircase and big open walls to catch the wind, so that the upper floors are kind of like terraces. When we went to Vinh and Thinh’s new house for dinner last Sunday we saw new houses like this built right in the middle of a warren of tiny, hidden streets, some about six feet wide, just wide enough for a motorbike to pass you. Deep in these “neighborhoods” you are away from the pollution (the carbon from traffic seems to drop to the ground about 15 feet from the street) and the noise but also still in the heart of the city. Vacancies in these neighborhoods are rare; the same families hang onto these buildings generation after generation.


Just standing in one place on one of those narrow streets and looking around you, you could write a novel from what you could see.

Model 7


Model 8


Model 6


Model 4_1


Model 2

Effingham — December 8, 2015


Trumka and Gr 2

Rich Trumka, AFL CIO President, with locked-out AFSCME 3494 workers.


Effingham: From Organizing to Contract


I never expected to hear the word “Effingham” pronounced in the middle of a sentence in Vietnamese, but it has now happened numerous times. I used the Effingham story, in which the workers at Heartland Health Services organized as AFSCME 3494, to tell the story of a US union organizing effort from start to finish, and it seems to have made a strong impression. The first reaction of students was that they couldn’t believe that workers could survive a struggle that lasted four years. Some of them said they felt it wasn’t worth it. The next wave of reactions was about how severely adversarial labor relations are in the US. Since it looks as if under TPP, labor relations in Vietnam are going to become more like labor relations in the US, this was a lesson worth teaching. So now I hear the word “Effingham” spoken now and then, in a way that makes me smile.


The fact that we had pictures probably helped make the strong impression. The pictures in this posting are ones that I took while it was going on. Our labor ed program at Illinois was actively supportive of this struggle. The women leaders whom I mention came to our POlk Conference, which is another story which I won’t tell here.


This is the handout that we got translated, by Tony Dang (thanks, Tony!) and distributed on the day we presented this story in Ms. La’s class. We later handed it out in other classes, too.

Teaching points:

The importance of local social context and politics

Why the workers started to organize

Forming a local union and contacting a national union

Bargaining with an employer who does not bargain in good faith

The importance of building community support and mobilizing it

The role of the mediator

The role of the Labor Board

The workers go on strike

The workers are locked out

Appealing to the legislature

The workers win a decent contract and go back to work

What did the contract do? Changes in the collective relationship

What did the contract do? Changes in individual relationships

Was it worth it?


The Social Context: A politically conservative town with a right-wing local government


This happened between 2005 and 2009.


The town of Effingham, Illinois, is a working-class, low-income town of about 12,000 located in Central Illinois. It is surrounded by farms that grow corn and soybeans. At one time these were family farms. Now they are owned by big agricultural companies. It is a very white town – only a generation ago, it was a “sundown” town where Blacks were not welcome after dark.


Although the average income is low, there is a wealthy upper capitalist class. These are the “town fathers” who own business that have been located in Effingham for many years. They are so anti-union that when a company that made brakes for Toyota cars offered to come to town, the city council rejected its application because the pay for workers would be higher than the average wage and this would create pressure to raise other wages.


The workplace where this struggle took place is called Heartland Health Services, an officially nonprofit, but private, enterprise. It provides a broad spectrum of mental health services to people in the region, with money contracted from government at various levels. Counseling, drug addiction, and developmental services are provided. There is a residential program. There is a class difference between the people who use Heartland and the families of the “town fathers.” Heartland patients are mainly low-income, working class people. The wealthy families send their members out-of-state to fancier hospitals in big cities.


Workers at Heartland are working-class, too. About 160 people worked at Heartland when the union was first organized. Jobs at Heartland were steady, reasonable jobs and people said Heartland was one of the few places in the region where you could get a good job. You could work there and believe that you were helping someone. Some of them had been working at Heartland for twenty or thirty years. They had many friends in the community.


This picture was taken the day Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, came to Effingham to talk with the workers. This is in the AFSCME 3494 office. The man on the right is Henry Bayer, Illinois state-level AFSCME president.


Meeting w Trumka


How Changes in the Healthcare Industry Impact Healthcare Delivery and Workers in Healthcare


Two things were going on in the healthcare industry at this time. First, the cost of healthcare was increasing at about 12% per year. These changes affected regular people, who could not afford to buy insurance to cover medical costs and could not afford to go to a doctor at all without insurance. They also affected companies that provide healthcare. Many insurance companies stopped covering mental health. They also increased the kind of paperwork required for a healthcare provider to get reimbursed from an insurer.


Second, the government, which paid for a lot of the healthcare costs for veterans, retirees, the disabled or the unemployed, was cutting back how much they would pay. The fees paid to doctors for seeing a patient, for example, were cut.


In order to adapt to the rising cost of healthcare in the face of government cutbacks, many directors of healthcare facilities changed how they billed patients and how they paid workers. They also changed the ways they supervised workers. This allowed them to pass on the costs of delivering healthcare to the workers, by cutting pay, intensifying work and placing the burden of uncertainty on the workers. Examples of this would be not paying a therapist if a patient cancelled an appointment, or requiring a worker to keep his or her cell phone nearby all night in case of an emergency call, without pay.


The Director of Heartland made a strategic mistake when she decided to implement many of these changes all at once.


Why the workers started to organize


In the US, if a workplace does not have a union, the employer can do almost anything they want. While we have a minimum wage and some fair labor standards, we rely on collective bargaining to give workers real protections and make sure the minimal laws we have are enforced. Without a union, an employer can fire you without warning and without giving any reason. There are a few exceptions to this, but this is mainly the case. So when the Director decided to implement many changes in the workplace at once, she was legally allowed to do that because there was no union or CBA there.


Workers still talk about the day when the Director “dropped the bomb.” The Director obviously had not expected a friendly reception to her announcement, because she told all the employees to meet in the basement and then called the police to have them waiting upstairs outside in case there was “trouble”.


She told the workers about many changes that she was making. All of these were her own decision, done without consulting the workers. People who had accumulated a lot of vacation days by working many years and not always taking all the vacation they had accrued would lose most of those vacation days. People who were part-timers would lose their health insurance coverage. Instead of being paid for every hour of therapy that was scheduled, workers would only get paid if the patient showed up. Since many depressed or drug-troubled patients miss appointments, this meant that the therapist would be fined for something that he or she couldn’t control. Also, workers would be ‘on call’ all night, but only get paid if they were called, and if they were called and had to work at night, they still had to work in the daytime. These were just some of the changes.


The Workers Form an Organizing Committee and Contact a National Union, AFSCME


The workers were very angry. The fact that the Director had summoned the police was very insulting. For several weeks, no one knew what to do.


Three or four of the workers had either worked in a union workplace or else knew someone who had. This information was very important. People are not taught about unions in school, so unless someone knows someone who has been in a union, they probably don’t know what it means. So these workers got together and talked. Then they went around to the other workers and explained what a union would do and why they all needed a union. They formed an organizing committee of about 12 people.


Other workers got the idea quickly. When most of the workers had been talked to, the organizing committee telephoned the office of a big union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) and asked them if they would help. AFSCME’s regional director said yes and came to meet the organizing committee.


With AFSCME’s help, the workers started collecting signature cards, authorizing the union to ask for an election. Under US law, if 30% of workers sign these cards, the organizers can file a petition with the Labor Board and ask for an election. However, most organizers will try to get 80% signatures, because, out of fear, many workers will change their minds at the last minute in response to the employer’s anti-union campaign, which is legal. Also, some workers will lie to the union organizing committee and say they are in favor of it but in reality, they don’t know what they will do when it comes time to vote.

Employers usually run a very aggressive campaign against an organizing effort. They try to scare the workers into voting against the union or else promise them good things if they vote the union down. This director did not do that. She didn’t believe the union would win. She didn’t think the workers knew how to organize. She was wrong. The election was held only four months after the Director “dropped the bomb”, and 80% of the workers voted to have a union. The Labor Board certified the union.


Now the workers had a union, but no contract. In the US, workers have one year to bargain a contract with the employer. If they can’t get a contract, the employer may try to decertify the union by forcing them to hold a new election. So the first year deadline is very important.


Trying to Bargain With An Employer Who Does not Bargain in Good Faith


Under US law, union and employer have to “bargain in good faith,” meaning that they have to seriously engage in bargaining that moves towards agreeing on a contract. They are not legally required to reach an agreement or settle a final contract, as is required in some countries, including Viet Nam. Unfortunately, the Director at Heartland did not understand what it means to “bargain in good faith.” She would try to meet only once every two weeks. She would cancel meetings. When she came to a meeting she would say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to read your proposal, we’d better postpone this meeting.” Months went by and the one-year deadline approached and nothing was being accomplished. The workers’ negotiating committee was careful to always show up for meetings prepared so that she would not be able to blame them for the lack of progress.


AFSCME had opened an office in downtown Effingham where the workers could gather and talk with each other. They held open trainings for members, so that all the workers understood what was going on. They also assigned two staff people to work with the organizing committee. One of the staffers would participate in the contract negotiations when they took place, although the President of the union, an older woman and senior worker named Louise Messer, was the chief negotiator. Several other workers, Anna Beck, Gail Warner, and Azure Newman, played important roles as organizers and leaders.


This is Gail Warner, leading a song on the picket line.

Gail speaking

AFSCME knew that this was going to be a long struggle because of the politics of the town and the region. They knew it was going to be hard. But it was important for them to win and get a good contract because they represented workers in public healthcare all over the US, and Heartland was a case of work that had been public but now was privatized, a trend that is part of the neoliberal agenda. So this was a case of “chasing the work” across the line between public and private, something that AFSCME has had to do more and more. There are parallels in Viet Nam between work that was state-owned (SOE) and has been equitized (sold in shares, sometimes to past employees and sometimes to various kinds of investors).


The Union Builds Community and Labor Movement Support


The workers organized within the town and regionally to get public support for their struggle. They talked with their patients and got them to understand what the problem was. They organized meetings at their churches. They printed T-shirts that said, “We want a fair contract” and sold them to raise money. Workers wore buttons at work, to let people know they were involved in the union. They held pot-luck dinners at the union office to keep their spirits up.


Because AFSCME is a very big union, the workers at Heartland were able to reach out to other workplaces where the workers were represented by AFSCME. These included cities and county office workers all over the state as well as healthcare workers. Members of the organizing committee learned how to speak at rallies and big public meetings. They came to workers’ events in Chicago. They got on TV and on the radio. They invited the president of the AFL-CIO to come and meet with them in Effingham, and he did. This made the national news.


But none of this forced the Director to come to the table and bargain in good faith.


The Workers Invite a Mediator to Come and Help


After a few months, AFSCME called up the FMCS (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service) to see if they could help. The FMCS was established in 1948 as part of some labor legislations known as Taft-Hartley. The purpose of the FMCS is to help unions and employers deal with problems that can be solved by good negotiations. This is to prevent strikes and the other disruptive troubles that can be caused by labor disputes. When workers go on strike, they lose wages, people lose services, employers lose production and the overall economy becomes unstable. Therefore the government is interested in preventing crises like this. The FMCS will send a mediator to deal with a situation where there is a crisis and will make suggestions that both parties should be able to follow. This is similar to the function of a mediator in Viet Nam with an important difference. In Vietnam, the mediator’s proposal must be implemented. In the US, the mediator’s proposal is advisory.The Vietnamese word that is translated as “mediator” actually means a combination of mediator and arbitrator (arbitrators in the US work in a separate, private system, and their decisions are binding, not advisory), although since the decision of the mediator/arbitrator in Vietnam can be appealed through government channels, it is not strictly binding.


The mediator came to Heartland. He listened to the workers and to the Director and, based on these conversations and his own experience dealing with many other union contracts in similar industries, he proposed a whole first contract. This contract would have covered the whole relationship between workers and the employer at Heartland. It did not merely resolve one type of problem.


However, when the mediator made a suggestion for a contract that was acceptable to the workers at Heartland, the Director rejected it.


The Role of the Labor Board


The mediator agreed that the Director was not bargaining in good faith. Under some conditions, the failure to bargain in good faith is clearly a violation of labor law and a charge can be filed with the Labor Board as an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP). If the Labor Board agrees that the employer is committing a ULP, it can extend the clock so that the union has more than one year to get a contract. It can also issue a bargaining order to make the Director bargain.


However, the Labor Board did not agree that the employer was committing a ULP. The Labor Board actually refused to accept the charge and respond to it. This was at a time when, under President George Bush, appointments to the Labor Board had become extremely politicized and this particular Labor Board in St Louis, Missouri, had a very right-wing Board. Exactly why the ULP charge was rejected was never discovered.


This left the union with no alternative but to go on strike.


The Workers Go On Strike


The Heartland workforce is mostly women, fundamentally caregivers rather than fighters. Within the span of two years they had gone from being a fairly satisfied workforce to being angry enough to go on strike. They set up a picket line outside the Heartland building and staffed it every day.


During the strike, most workers stayed involved. Only five crossed the picket line. Some workers had to get other jobs and could only participate a few hours a week. But others made the strike the center of their lives. They made the union office downtown a second home. They cooked dinners there and shared food and news. They held rallies, spoke with the local media, got on the radio, passed out flyers, and went door-knocking through the town. Teachers from the teacher’s union, who had an office near Heartland, walked their picket line, let them use their bathrooms, and gave them money. Community organizations brought food to the union office, donated money, provided other kinds of help.

As winter came, workers set up a strike hut in front of Heartland and staffed it. They had propane heaters once the snow fell. The few employees who had crossed the picket line, and the new employees who had been hired since the strike, had to drive past the strike hut and workers on strike would go and try to talk with them.


The strike got a great deal of publicity. Legislators in the state government were aware of it and were following it closely.


Workers Offer to Go Back In and are Locked Out


According to US law, if workers and employers cannot agree on a contract by one year after the union is legally recognized and certified, the employer can force another vote. This time, only the people who were still working would vote. All the workers who were out on strike could not vote; the people who were inside, including the new hires, would vote. In a vote like that, the anti-union forces would definitely win. If this happened, the union would cease to exist as a legally recognized organization.


Therefore the workers offered to stop their strike and go back in.


On the last day before the end of the year, the workers marched back in together and stood in the lobby at Heartland. The union president announced that they were willing to go back to work without any conditions.


The Director told them that they were not welcome and that they should get out. They were “locked out.”


The workers, shocked and surprised, went back outside and gathered at the union office downtown to decide what to do.

Picket 1


The Workers Expand their Strategy: Appealing to the state legislature


The workers did not give up. They continued to picket and staff the strike hut, which had been vandalized and painted with obscene graffiti. They also expanded their strategies. Busloads of fellow AFSCME members from Chicago came down and held rallies. Since many workers in Chicago are Black, this meant that there were crowds of black people in Effingham, a city that was unfamiliar with seeing Black people.

They also searched for other community health organizations that might take over the work of Heartland. They found one, in a nearby town, but it was too small to handle the patient load.


They appealed to the State of Illinois to stop funding an agency that was abusing labor laws. After all, most of the funding that Heartland received was government money. The State responded by doing an audit of Heartland and found that in fact, there was a substantial amount of missing money. The state then withheld some funding. This made news and embarrassed the Board of Directors.


Effingham was also made “the poster child” for a new federal labor law proposal that would have required that first contracts go to arbitration, if not settled at the bargaining table and both parties would have to sign. This law was called EFCA, The Employee Free Choice Act. The AFL-CIO invited activists and leaders from the Heartland struggle to come and speak at their national convention. People all over the country knew about Heartland.


All of this made news. The local paper and TV showed people marching, holding rallies, and speaking to the state legislature.


Finally, the Board of Directors of Heartland Health Services did something that made a difference: They fired the Director and replaced her with someone who was willing to negotiate seriously.


Workers Go Back to Work with a Decent Contract


Within a month, the new Director signed a contract. It was very much like the one the mediator had recommended two years earlier. So four years after they started the struggle, Heartland workers finally went back to work.


By now, Heartland only employed 50 or 60 people. It had lost money, patients, and workers. It had been a hard and costly fight on both sides. Some people had dropped out or the fight, found other jobs, moved out of town. While some people felt that the struggle had been “the best experience in my life,” others were burned out from stress.


The ones who went back to work had to work side-by-side with people who had either crossed the picket line or had been hired while the rest of the workers were on strike or locked out. The emotions that were felt by everyone were very strong. Who would sit with whom at lunch? How could they work as a team? Tempers sometimes burst out and people said and did things in anger or sadness.


The four years of the struggle divided the old and new workers not only by what they had done but by what they had learned. The workers who had gone on strike had seen what employers will do to retain control; they were not innocent any more.


Anna Beck, one of the leaders of the striking workers, reported that after they went back in to work, the hardest thing was to convince that employer that they really had a contract now and the employer had to respect and follow it.


What Did the Contract Do?


A great deal of suffering could have been avoided if the union and the employer had just signed that contract.


But what did the contract do? What did it provide for the workers?


It provided two kinds of changes in the social relationships between workers and employer. The first kind was changes in the collective relationship between all the workers and the employer. The second kind was the changes between individual workers and the employer.


            Changes in the collective relationship between workers and employer


A contract usually starts out by defining “the bargaining unit.” This establishes who is represented by the union. The bargaining unit has a relationship with the employer that is defined by law and implemented by the union through bargaining. What happens to the bargaining unit matters to the union.


Most importantly, the existence of a recognized union with a CBA commits the employer to treat workers as members of a collective. As members of a collective, workers have certain rights that they do not have as individuals. The employer may not set up new practices impacting workers and/or the union without giving the union an opportunity to bargain over them first. When the employer “dropped the bomb” back in 2005, she was changing all the working conditions without bargaining them, which an employer can do if there is no union. This would never have happened if the workers had had a union.


Under a union contract the power of management to manage has been somewhat constricted and a bit of that power now resides with the union, if it can remain strong, active and organized enough to take that power. For example, all members of the collective must be treated equally. All members of the collective have the right to representation in a labor dispute. All members of the collective are protect against retaliation by the employer for engaging in union activity. In Viet Nam, workers also are protected against retaliation.


This contract as bargained also gives the union some resources needed to carry out its responsibilities. The union gets ten days per year of paid time to send members to conferences and conventions, which they union can distribute any way they like.


The contract sets out some aspects of how the union will do its work. In the case of AFSCME 3494, the union got to choose four stewards, or worker representatives, who got paid time to work on problems involving workers, called “grievances.” These stewards could be chosen by election, by volunteering, or by appointment. Under US labor law, the employer cannot interfere with who is chosen or how. The stewards have access to a phone and a private meeting place, and the employer has to meet with them and work on the problems. If the steward and employer can’t resolve the problem, it can be sent to mediation and ultimately arbitration, which is enforceable. This is called a “grievance procedure” and is often what the union gets in exchange for agreeing not to go on strike over the life of the contract. Not surprisingly, there was a no-strike article in the new Heartland contract.


The Heartland contract also required four meetings per year between labor and management, at which five persons from each side should be in attendance. This is rather like the social dialog process in Vietnam.


These changes gave the union a substantial legitimate presence in the workplace and significant responsibilities for representing all the workers, whether they choose to join the union or not.



Changes in the relationship between the employer and individual workers


The most important change that affected workers individually was that the employer would now respect seniority. Working on holidays, assignment to overtime, asking for paid time off, promotions, opportunities for training and assignments to premium-pay work like the suicide hotline, would all be done be seniority or, if the work is not desirable, by reverse seniority.


Discipline is another important change. In the past, with no contract, the employer could fire, suspend, re-schedule or re-assign a worker without giving any explanation. The employer could just say, “You’re fired,” and that was that. Under the new Heartland contract, discipline is progressive. That means that punishments progress from mild to severe: an oral reprimand, a written reprimand, suspension, and then discharge. Discipline is supposed to be corrective, not punishment. It is supposed to teach, not intimidate.
This shifts the balance of power between management and worker toward the center and reduces the role of fear and intimidation.


You can see that the first Director at Heartland thought that she could change anything she wanted about the way the enterprise was managed, without ever asking the workers if they agreed.

Discipline and work assignments can also be challenged – “grieved” – with the help of the union steward. The contract also says that discipline must be carried out “in a manner that will not embarrass the employee.” This is like what’s called a “respect and dignity” clause in other contracts: an agreement that the workers will be treated with respect and dignity.


The workers got a significant raise in pay and the part-timers retained their health insurance coverage. An increase in pay, however, although it looks important, is not as important in the long run as seniority and a grievance procedure.


Was it worth it?


This was a huge, long-term struggle, but it is not unusual in US labor history. A small group of workers self-organize in order to confront a bad boss. They call in a national union that helps them. They vote, get a union, try to bargain, and then have to develop a strategy that includes publicity, getting legislators to support them, and bringing the community together in order to put pressure on the employer to get them to sign a contract and end the labor dispute. It’s a painful and emotional experience.


Many people who engage in the struggle itself do not benefit from what is won. They get other jobs, get burnt out, move away. They may ask themselves if it was worth it, if they didn’t benefit from it themselves. If they are among those who lose their jobs during the organizing drive, they may feel bitter about it.


But many others answer yes, it’s worth it. It’s part of the big fight for a better society for working class people, even if it never pays off for someone personally. To know that these workers who tried so hard finally have the security and peace of mind that comes from working under a union contract makes it worth the fight for many workers who become activists.


And besides, if you happen to get a job where there is a union, where the boss can’t fire you for no reason and where you can solve problems by bringing them to the steward, then you are very lucky. But someone else had to do the hard, dangerous work of organizing the union that protects you now.



Some Key Moments — December 5, 2015

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.

















What stories do we tell? — December 2, 2015

What stories do we tell?

Laughing 1

The first stories that come up when a bunch of old labor educators are killing a couple of bottles of wine are health and safety stories, like the generator that exploded and the printing press that blew across Michigan Avenue. Then we start remembering stories told us by other people: Emanuel Blackwell, RIch Egeland, Gary Gaines. Pretty soon we’re talking about Charlie Richardson, to whom many owe a great debt.