Hanoi Conversations (2, VGCL)

Article in Lao Dong about this: http://laodong.com.vn/cong-doan/pho-chu-tich-tong-ldldvn-nguyen-thi-thu-hong-tiep-doan-can-bo-cd-my-414628.bld

VGCL Meeting 2_1

Kent Wong’s delegation of US labor leaders and labor educators arrived in Hanoi Sunday January 10. We met them in the lobby of the Rang Dong Hotel (Trade Union Hotel) and went to dinner at a place called Wild Rice, very elegant and full of what appeared to be groups of foreigners.

The people who came with Kent made an impressive bunch. What made it impressive was the number of significant leaders, the diversity of unions they represented, and the important political positions some of them held. I am not confident that the Vietnamese who hosted us at the meetings over the next week understood what putting this group together meant in terms of political capital. There were two leaders of Central Labor Councils from Southern California, Los Angeles and Imperial County CLC’s (Richard Barrera) and Orange County CLC (Julio Perez). Orange County is “Cam” or “Little Saigon,” the biggest community of overseas Vietnamese, who exert considerable influence in Vietnam. There were two Viet-Khieu, Vietnamese-speaking US citizens, both coming to Vietnam for the first time. One was An Le who co-edited the Organizing on Separate Shores book with Kent. The current president of huge UFCW Local 770, Rick Icaza, came with his wife Adele and two staffers, one being John Grant and the other Nam Le, the other Viet-Khieu. Emil Guzman, a retired SEIU organizer, came, so there was someone from the CTW group. Then there were two university-based labor educators, Howard Kling who was filming the whole thing and Gene Carroll from Cornell’s Workers Institute. Kent’s wife Jae, who works with NGO’s in LA, came.

Different personalities, different geographical homes, but all of these people would either have known each other for years or else be one contact away from everyone else, which is also an indication of shared political outlooks, evident in the conversation at meals which sounded a lot like catching up with old friends.

Meeting at the VGCL 8 am Monday Jan 11


VGCL meeting 1

Center: VP Nguyen Thi Thu Hong. To her left, Lan, translator and our general helper throughout; on her left, the Director of Organizing.

Summarizing what was said by the Vice President who met us and chaired the meeting, VP Nguyen Thi Thu Hong:

The VGCL is 86 years old, founded in 1929. Every five years we hold a Congress; this will be our 11th congress. The hope is to build a bridge (ladder?) for low-wage workers. Along with TPP, we have signed a lot of bilateral agreements. Right now the GDP has been rising at a rate of 6.8% for the last 8 years, when our target was 6.4%.

The VGCL has 5-year plan strategy covering 2013-2018. There are four areas of action. First area of action: Organizing and recruiting, to reach 10 M members. Now we have 8 or 9 million members, 4.9 M of which work in enterprises (Industrial zone enterprises?) We want to organize in 120,000 enterprises. Second, training for trade union leaders about union activity for our members. Third, increase in the number of CBAs. Fourth, training in skills for workers, to work with more productivity.

We also must participate in amending the trade union law and the Labor Code. The VGCL is a member of the National Wage Council. We have proposed a wage increase of 12.4% as of January 1, 2016. We are also interested in the meals provided by the companies, especially where there has been food poisoning. The Trade Union will sue employers who feed poisoned food to workers.

We have two universities: TUU and TDTU. We hope that you do training at TDTU and develop training manuals for improvement of training for universities and share models of assignments for workers.

Kent responded by saying that trade unionists in the US have the same four points, organizing, training for trade union leaders, collective bargaining agreements and increasing skills. This makes sense because our economies are becoming more integrated, with production in Viet Nam for US export. The President of the VGCL attended the AFL CIO convention and was welcomed by President Richard Trumka.

Questions: Rick Icaza asked what the official position of the VGCL on TPP was. Gene asked about climate change, with an intro about the last 40 years and what it meant to be here; John from the UFCW asked if, looking backward, would they have done doi moi differently.

Response: Officially our position is that our trade union in general is in support of TPP but we are also clear that joining TPP provides opportunities and challenges. We support the negotiation of TPP and international integration into global trends. However, there will be competition in terms of quality of products and reduction of cost. The agreement also provides for the creation of workers organizations at the enterprise level. They must have a permit from MOLISA according to requirements of Viet Nam. We need to improve our role in representing and attracting workers to our union. The law also has to be revised to accommodate the agreement. Our view is that we have to take advantage of the opportunity created by the agreement.

She responds to the climate change question with an “action plan for the green south,” and the OSH law of 2014, effective 2015, from the National Assembly, a law on natural resources and the environment.

Regarding doi moi: We have had 13 -15 years of liberalization to take Viet Nam from a centralized to a socialist market economy under a policy of developing state, non-state and FDI enterprises. We saw some areas where there is no need for the state to control specific economic groups important to the economy of the country. The view is to continue socialist oriented market economy and continue to improve work quality and social subsidies to people. Most important need is for the different sector to develop but not interfere with harmonizing the interests of both sides. The trade union participates in the Government on this matter.

Joe asked about informal sector and described our student projects and what they uncovered. The person who responded to this was from the Organizing Department:

Our main target is the formal sector. Of our 9 M members, only a small % are in semi-formal work, like taxi drivers, moto drivers. We do not have enough people to approach non-permanent workers. We have 9 M members in 120,000 workplaces and only 7000 FT union officials. In the context of TPP we have to revise the Trade Union Statute to recruit them into the union. Most difficult is how to get the workers to volunteer and organizing a union. Vietnamese do not have the habit of organizing for themselves. They rely on the upper level to send down the direction. It takes time to change these workers to be aware of organizing by themselves. Even in the formal sector, not all workers want to join the union. It is even more difficult to approach workers in the informal economy. In this area we want to learn experience of other countries. This group is important and expanding.

Joe: Union officials in the US are often surprised at how workers can organize when given some support and resources. The challenge is great but not so different from the formal sector. Offers to share student reports.

Rick asks about trafficking, workers going to work in other countries.

Mr. Quang responds: VN wants to send workers overseas because they will get training. The law specifies conditions under which this takes place: pre-departure training, language, worker centers, Ministry of Labor, job protections. The new law on social insurance from Jan 1, 2016 covers workers working abroad.

Vice President Nguyen asks what is the biggest challenge for organizing in the US? Answer, from Gene, fear, plus the union avoidance industry. John from UFCW describes how a private equity fund bought a 160-store grocery chain, sold the property, laid off all the workers and did not have to be responsible for workers losses. Also foreign companies set up US companies as shells so that foreign companies do not bear responsibilities for crimes they commit.

The head of the International Department, I believe a Ms. Tang, asked directly how many members are in unions in the US and how many unions we have, but her questions did not get answered and she had to leave.

Photos, followed by van ride to a lavish lunch in a buffet place on the second floor of building overlooking the Opera plaza.









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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