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.

Vinh, Nghia’s Blog, More about TPP — March 30, 2016

Vinh, Nghia’s Blog, More about TPP

Scroll with Vinh and Joe

Vinh came to the US on a Department of State tour, visiting Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans to look at examples of Civic Engagement. We were able to get her over to Berkeley one night. I tried to cook some Vietnamese marrow bone broth with veggies and she did not say it was awful, and she ate one bowl of it, so it was probably OK. She brought presents (“women’s clothes”!!) for me and a beautiful red-bordered scroll with words written in calligraphy from Vy and An. The central word means “Peace.”  We will hang it somewhere where we can look at it often.

We went up to Tilden Park and stopped at the Brazil Building to see the Akebono Cherry trees:

Brazil Bldg Tilden Park

And then down Strawberry Canyon to the UC Campus where Vinh posed by the entrance:

UCB Vinh showing sign


Nghia’s Blog

Nghia is writing a blog now on blogspot, about labor in Viet Nam:

Katie Quan in Viet Nam

Katie Quan, left for Viet Nam on Saturday the 26th, to work on a project design activity having to do with the changing labor and industrial relations situation there. She will only be there a short time but will come to TDTU and hopes to meet with Vinh as well as Nghia and An and Vy.

David Bacon’s article on Lao Dong

David Bacon, the labor journalist and photographer, came back from Viet Nam and has now published an article in The Nation:

All this happening at once, and the fact that we leave tomorrow morning to go to Labor Notes in Chicago – a huge labor activist meeting that will begin with a Labor for Bernie session – has motivated me to write up a few more things about TPP and Viet Nam. Nghia also nudged me to write this.

More on the TPP: How does the US labor establishment view Viet Nam labor?

The general impression you get in the US is that most of the voices in the debate about TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement) are against it. They focus on the fact that the main effect of the TPP will be to protect corporate supply chain value, which is true. But when we were in Viet Nam, most of the people we talked to about TPP were in favor of it, or at least were actively preparing for becoming part of it. They were focusing on the possibility of forming independent, autonomous unions. Given the wording of the Labor Side Letter about Vietnamese unions, these could turn out to be real fighting unions, capable of restraining the free-market capitalism that is fast coming to Viet Nam. I will explain why near the end of this post. Labor activists in the US should read the Labor Side Letter and say, “This looks a lot like us, with some rights and goodies we don’t have.”  And then ask, “Since we have so much in common, can’t we work together?”

Of course, something else we have in common is the corporations that run the supply chains. And remember that moment at the labor ed class  in Bien Hoa when the slide of Katie Jordan, protesting WalMart in Chicago, reminded me that minimum wage in both Chicago and Ho Chi Minh City has the same purchasing power: a cheap lunch. Pho in HCMC, a sandwich in Chicago. Actual living on minimum wage, here or there, is impossible.

First, what is the argument that US labor is making against the TPP?

Here is a summary statement of the criticism of TPP from the AFL CIO’s report, A Gold Standard for Workers? The State of Labor Rights in the Trans Pacific Partnership Countries. Although there is no date on the report, it came out in winter 2015-16 and bears the names of the AFL CIO top leaders, Richard Trumka, Elizabeth Shuler, and Tefere Gebre. It cites a longer preliminary study done by the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC):

Overall, the LAC found the TPP is likely to harm U.S. manufacturing interests, cost good jobs, suppress wages, and threaten our democracy and economic security interests, while doing little to improve conditions for workers in the United States and overseas (page 1).


 Because employers in our trading partner countries will continue to abuse workplace rights, workers throughout the TPP region will continue to make lower wages and will have fewer benefits and more dangerous workplaces than they otherwise might. An injury to a worker in Vietnam will indeed affect his or her American counterpart by driving down wages and working conditions (page 5).

 The AFL CIO report then walks through the various countries that will join the TPP, summarizing the labor situation in each one in a few paragraphs. The first four are under the heading, “Countries with Critical Labor Rights Violations,” and Viet Nam is among these. Viet Nam is included among the four most serious violators:

  1. Malaysia: forced labor, human trafficking, yellow (protection) unions;
  2. Mexico: yellow unions, forced labor, use of police violence to control labor activism, an overall national crisis of pervasive violence;
  3. Brunei: Sharia penal code (flogging, dismemberment, death) no freedom of speech, no freedom of association, collective bargaining prohibited;
  4. Viet Nam: one single official union, management holding labor positions, no right to strike, corrupt judicial system, child labor in garment and brick industries, compulsory labor for drug offenders.

My summaries do not include every detail listed in the report. In fact, there is a way to hold a legal strike in Viet Nam, although it is extremely difficult to use because of the number and variety of conditions that have to be satisfied in order to make it legal – thus, all the wildcat strikes. I don’t know about child labor and I don’t know about compulsory labor for drug offenders. The Viet Nam part of this report gave citations from Human Rights Watch and the Workers Rights Consortium, such as

The next category, “Countries of Serious Concern” includes:

  1. Chile, where only 8% of workers are represented, there are restrictions on public sector unionization, limits on the right to strike and short-term contract workers are not covered (sounds like the US!);
  2. Peru: forced labor, child labor especially among indigenous people, and again, use of short-term contracts to subvert organizing;
  3. Singapore: Limits on freedom of association, collective bargaining, the right to strike and exclusions for migrant workers;

Then comes a section on specific issues:

  1. New Zealand also exempts “contract workers” from some labor protections.
  2. Australia places limits on freedom of association such as who can hold union office, who can join a union;
  3. Canada also has limits on freedom of association and makes it a criminal offense for a union to file or assist to file a pay equity complaint (???);
  4.  Japan does not require equal pay for men and women.

The US is not mentioned in the AFL-CIO report. If we were, we would obviously be a “Country of Serious Concern”. In some ways we look most like Chile, with less than 8% representation in the private sector, right-to-work laws, some states that limit or have no right to collective bargaining for public sector workers, the whole independent contractor scam, and prison labor – in private prisons, no less! But apparently this was not the place to raise those issues.

So how does the LAC/AFL-CIO’s assessment of Viet Nam’s labor practices look to us, having been there while all this was happening?

The AFL-CIO report sounds as if it got some of its inspiration from the reactionary anti-communist forces that have made their home here in the US. It doesn’t show much understanding of the overall changes that are taking place in Viet Nam as we experienced them.

But why are people in Viet Nam excited about TPP?

The TPP requires Viet Nam to sign on to the two ILO conventions that cover freedom of association (independent, autonomous unions), collective bargaining and organizing. To implement these would force some fundamental changes in the Vietnamese industrial relations system. The Labor Side Agreement spells out in great detail what these changes would look like. At the time we left Viet Nam in mid-February, the latest information that we had on how Vietnamese organized labor would respond was as follows:

The VCGL acknowledges itself as a bureaucratic organization that primarily speaks to the state, not to its members;

It recognizes that it has to re-invent itself as a bottom-up, organizing union (in the words of someone who knows);

That this will require a fundamental change in the culture and social relationships of the organization;

To deal with this, Dang Ngoc Tung, President of the VGCL, has made it a condition of VGCL support for TPP that the VCGL be autonomous itself, with regard to finances and especially with regard to hiring personnel; (At present, the VCGL does not hire its own staff. Staff is vetted by the State and referred to the VCGL.)

That it would probably take two years, at least, to design and set up the permitting process by which “independent, autonomous unions” could be certified (this would not be done by the VGCL but would have to be done by some coordinating office, possibly the ILO);

In the meantime, training may take place within various NGO’s that are already in existence. At the time when permitting is ready, these NGO’s might become unions. The types of NGO’s that could form the basis of future autonomous unions would be workers’ centers or nodes of local bottom-up organizing at workplaces.

This summary is drawn from my own personal surmises, information from on-lookers, and from people who can speak with some authority. My impression was that there was not only no ban on talking about these changes, but that there was some excitement about it – a kind of “Yes we can!” feeling, connected to becoming part of the global economy.

And maybe, the Labor Side Agreement to TPP is enforceable after all

When critics of TPP say that it is unenforceable they are talking about mechanisms of enforcement like trade sanctions and fines (page 3 of the AFL CIO report). The violations that they identify are things like not meeting deadlines, skipping evaluations, failure to advance a dispute process. This is enforcement from the top. In fact, enforcement of an agreement about labor conditions has to come from the bottom. It has to come from the threat of workers to withdraw from the deal they make with an employer: I will work and you will pay me. This is called withholding labor, or various kinds of strikes. But in order to use this approach to enforcement, the union has to be strong. Not rich or politically connected: strong, with active, informed, committed members.

Therefore the question that matters is, will these new independent autonomous unions (or the re-invented VGCL) be strong unions? Will they have the power to enforce protections for workers from the bottom? Do they have the freedom to organize to get that power? The VGCL does not have this power. Whether this is because of generations of acting as if the class struggle was over, or because of something else, who knows? The wildcat strikes that have moved disputes forward and gained some protections have not been led by the VGCL – in fact, a definition of a wildcat strike is one that is not led by the union. But will the new independent unions have this power?

It is possible that they might. Here are some conditions that are supposed to frame these new unions (for more details, see my post on December 13, 2015), “A Close Reading of the TPP Labor Side Agreement”). Under these conditions, they might be stronger than unions in the US.

  • They can form independently.
  • They are autonomous with regards to internal business and finances; they can own property and hire staff;
  • The local union elects their own Executive Board;
  • They can get training, organize, bargain collectively and carry out “labor related collective activities” – this last is extremely broad and may include general strikes;
  • The can collect the 2% of payroll currently paid into the VGCL, plus the 1% union dues – this is a lot of money;
  • Upper level union bodies can only intervene in a local union if asked (no takeovers or unwanted trusteeships);
  • No more cases of the HR manager being the union president; the distinction between union and management is based on where their interests lie;
  • The government has to create legislation that protects workers and unions from retaliation or discrimination, and punishes failure to bargain in good faith;
  • No laws that undermine union activity can be passed (imagine! No Taft-Hartley!);
  • Rights-based (related to labor law and minimum wage, overtime, etc.) strikes are legal, but the Executive Board has to vote a majority (half plus one) in favor;
  • Full data on representation, bargaining, etc had to be available in a transparent way;
  • It seems as if there can be multiple competing unions at a single workplace, but that’s not clear to me.

If these conditions are fulfilled, there is a real reason to think that these unions could be fighting unions capable of dealing with the employers that are coming in to Viet Nam these days. On the other hand, there may be a harvest of employer-created yellow unions, or there may be unions that exist for the main purpose of undercutting the VCGL and destabilizing the government.

That aside, my first reaction to seeing this list was to ask, “What would happen if these conditions were in place in the US?” Our industrial relations system assumes that unions exist to fight. Our discourse about labor is all about struggle, fight, struggle. But here in the US we don’t get much help fighting. In fact, although we get a ticket to climb into the ring, but then we’re on our own in a hostile environment where many of our tools have been taken away.  When Vietnamese students ask us about why the US labor movement only represents 8% or so of workers, we have to say that although we’re not only allowed, we’re expected to fight, but the odds against us are stacked.

Which makes me look over to the Viet Nam TPP Labor Side Agreement and think, “Is it possible? Are they going to be able to do it?” Answer: Maybe.




Unnatural Causes: 1986 US film about Agent Orange — March 22, 2016

Unnatural Causes: 1986 US film about Agent Orange

We went to Los Angeles last weekend to celebrate Jake’s 40th birthday and stayed at Mona Field and Martin Goldstein’s house over in Eagle Rock. Since we were talking about Viet Nam, Martin mentioned that he had written the story upon which the 1986 TV movie Unnatural Causes was based. He also worked on the script with John Sayles. He had it on a DVD so after dinner we watched it. Here is a short section of it on YouTube.

It’s the story of Maude DeVictor, an African-American woman who worked at the Veteran’s Administration in Chicago, and how she found herself picking up the threads of a puzzle about the different illnesses suffered by veterans of the who in the course of their intake interviews mentioned “chemicals.” It’s a true story and Maude is a real person. Many of the lines, Martin told us, are things she actually said and most of the scenes actually happened. She works with a terminally ill veteran Frank Coleman (he’s a composite character) to gather histories from guys he gets in touch with, then fights to get the mounting evidence acknowledged by her boss in Chicago, who then blocks her every way possible, including sending her data to Washington where it will get buried because the news that the US might be responsible for the consequences of Agent Orange is going to be unwelcome. Maude is urged on by another African-American woman at the VA, who filed an EEOC complaint and was forced to work in a utility closet for 6 years, but who points out that the morning after the judgement in her favor came down, the VA was out hiring black women, including — probably – Maude herself. Other onlookers support her quietly, including women at the switchboard who have been told to pass all Maude’s “chemical” phone calls up to her boss.


Maude is finally given a window of 15 minutes to photocopy some of her own reports, waylays a well-known TV news anchor, and forces them into his hands. Eventually, this results in a broadcast. This is the very night that Frank dies. Maude is expecting phone calls to start coming in due to the broadcast, but the next morning, the switch board is silent. Maybe it’s because people think it’s a holiday –it might be Good Friday, or something. So on Monday she comes in just as the switchboard is opening at 9 am. It lights up like Christmas eve. Veterans from all over the country are calling in. One of the women at the switchboard puts a headphone on Maude who gets to hear the voice of one of the unknown veterans for whom she has been going through all this fight. “You’re not alone,” she tells him.

End of movie, very moving, very well-laid out plot that holds together 30 years later. Lots of very clearly conveyed information riding on a tense, logical plot. It probably contributed to many veterans trying to get treatment. Martin said that on the night it played, according to the Nielsen ratings, one third of TVs were tuned to watch it. He says he stood at his apartment window and looked out and saw the glow of TVs in other apartments and thought, “One out of every three is watching my movie.”

Maude is played by Alfre Woodard,, who is intense. This was pretty early in her career.

What happened to Maude DeVictor herself? She was laid off by the VA over “a labor dispute” and was still in Chicago as of 2011, jobless, according to “Vetwife” writing at:


There’s not much in the movie about what happened in Viet Nam. The word “teratogenic” is mentioned once, in relation to what happens to mice. The first scenes of the movie show a squad of US soldiers pushing through jungle, filmed at an LA botanical garden. They get sprayed by low-flying planes. The next scenes show them emerging into defoliated hillsides that look very much like the landscapes in the photographs at the War Remnants museum. Those scenes were filmed in Malibu where there had been a fire.

News just came in on votes from overseas US citizens voting in the Democratic primary: 69% for Bernie, 31% for Hillary. Yes, this is how it looks if you get outside the US bubble — no question, Bernie is the guy.

Here are some remarkable photos of Saigon in the 1980s:


AFT 2121 Strike Vote — March 15, 2016

AFT 2121 Strike Vote

This post is both news and a real-life example of the chapter in our handbook, “Power Theater.” That chapter was also posted in this blog on October 31, 2015.

Below is a photo from inside a street demonstration in support of City College of San Francisco. I took it back in 2012. The protestors (and there were about 5,000, which does not show in this picture) had just delivered a petition to the Department of Education office in downtown San Francisco, asking them to investigate an agency called the ACCJC, the Accreditation Commission of Community and Junior Colleges. This agency’s threat to shut CCSF down unless it agreed to downsizing, layoffs and cutbacks opened a war between the administration and a coalition of faculty, students and the general public which is still going on. On the question of clipping the wings of the ACCJC, the coalition is winning, bit by bit. But the union is now locked in dead-end negotiations with the administration over salary and working conditions. Because of salary cuts, faculty at CCSF are now making less than they made in 2007.

SFCC demo

Joe is a long-time member of Local 2121.  Joe used to teach labor studies at CCSF before we went to Viet Nam (before we went to Illinois, in fact) and was very involved in organizing contingent faculty. He is now back teaching there and belongs to the union. He is on the Executive Board as a representative of the Retirees.

Last week Local 2121 took a vote that confirms that the members are willing to strike if no progress is made in negotiations with the administration. For Joe, participating in a strike vote had special resonance because many years ago, on his first day of working at San Francisco Unified School District, the union there also had a strike vote.

The Local 2121 strike vote was followed by an action, taken at the California Federation of Teachers annual convention, which just happened to be convened in San Francisco. Teachers from City College went and demonstrated by sitting in at the office of the college administration’s chief negotiator, Jeff Sloan.

Both the publicity around the strike vote and the demonstration with the arrests are examples of what we are talking about in Power Theater. 


Here is the announcement of the outcome of the strike vote, by the President of the Union, Tim Killikelley. This was read at a press conference, to get maximum publicity for the strike vote. The idea, of course, is to make the threat as credible and public as possible, in the hopes that the administration will take it seriously and begin to negotiate. In fact the threat is serious. Note that this is not publicized as a limited-time strike, like a 4 day strike or a 3-day strike. A limited-time strike tells the employer and the public how long they have to plan to deal with the disruption. It pulls some of the punch of the strike. An open-ended strike tells people that the workers will stay out as long as necessary to get their goals met.

Dear Colleagues,

In a historic vote concluded on Tuesday, March 8th, 2016, City College faculty overwhelmingly expressed their dissatisfaction with the District’s failure to protect the City College that San Francisco deserves by refusing to prioritize students and faculty.

In the highest turnout our union has ever seen, over 800 faculty cast ballots with 92% approval to authorize the union’s executive board to call a strike, should contract negotiations fail. In the lead up to this historic vote we have also conducted a membership drive and signed up dozens of new members. AFT 2121 leadership, student supporters, and negotiating team members publicly announced the results of the vote today at a press conference in front of the Chinatown Campus.

The struggle between our union and the CCSF administration has gone beyond a simple labor issue. The very future of City College is at stake as the continuation of the status quo would mean a significant reduction in the size of the college and the diversity of programs offered. CCSF administration’s plan to reduce the college by 26% is of grave concern to the faculty, students and the community. By voting to strike if necessary faculty are clearly demonstrating that we will do what we must to stand up for CCSF and the quality of education at our college.

Teachers, counselors, and librarians at City College became public servants because we want to help students. Going on strike is not a step we take lightly, as it will mean hardship for our families and missed days of instruction for our students. But withholding our labor is ultimately our strongest tool to defend the quality of education at City College for our students and for San Francisco. The District must come to understand that the faculty will not stand for business as usual. This overwhelming vote should be their wake-up call.

In Unity,

Tim Killikelley, President, AFT 2121


 There is a chapter in my book, “What Did You Learn at Work Today?” that takes you up till about spring of 2014 in the story of the accreditation battle. But here is something Joe and I wrote for the BayView, a local San Francisco newspaper, last July (2015), as part of their effort to recover enrollment.


The fight to save City College: Push back against push-out July 28, 2015 by Helena Worthen and Joe Berry

The fight to save City College is taking place on two levels: we’re winning on one, but losing on another.

􀀑 In the May 6, 2015, Walkout to Save City College, 200 students walked out of classes for a march, rally and flash occupation of the administration building. Between the courts, the legislature and political pressure in the streets, City College has made significant advances in the struggle to retain accreditation, despite the attempts by the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) to shut the college down.

Many elected and appointed city and state leaders have taken action to preserve City College as an accredited, accessible, community-friendly institution that serves all of San Francisco. The College is still open, still accredited, and still continues to provide excellent education to this broad population. But on another level, the fight to save City College has taken a terrible toll. Enrollment has dropped from 100,000  to 80,000. In terms of full-time equivalent students (FTES) the college has lost 15 percent of its enrollment since 2010, because so many part-time students have gone missing. Even more tragic is that the price is being paid mostly by low-income and minority students, the very people who use and need the college most.

According to a report commissioned by supervisor Eric Mar, comparing City College enrollment with enrollment in nearby community colleges – Peralta and San Mateo, for example – these students are not enrolling elsewhere to continue their education. Instead, they have just dropped out of college. Bring back missing students Bringing these students, and others, back into the classroom is a top priority for the CCSF Diversity Coalition, an organization formed by current students, faculty and department chairs to protect the ethnic studies classes and other social justice classes. These classes form an on-campus support network for students from Asian, Pacific Island, Pilipino, African-American, Latin-American and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) communities. The Diversity Coalition also includes the Disabled Students􀀏 program, the􀀃 Labor and Community Studies program, the Human Sexuality program and Interdisciplinary Studies, which is the home of the new Middle Eastern Studies Program. Lalo Gonzalez, a student in Latino Studies at City College and an organizer for the Save City College Coalition, says, “If City College goes down, that leaves poor an minority communities with no access to higher education and more gentrification, more police violence, more poverty”

 San Franciscans have long bragged about City College as the largest community college in California and one of the oldest and largest in the U.S. We cannot let the forces of privatization and gentrification persuade potential students to drop their dreams of a college education. City College has always had faculty with an affinity for Black students and is respected as a nurturing school where Blacks can succeed. In the long term, this is the worst possible thing that could happen. If the re-engineering of City College continues to happen by top-down changes forced from above, the college may devolve into a narrow transfer and workforce development-oriented institution, simply through cuts. Low enrollments mean classes get cancelled, faculty get laid off, centers for student support close down, and programs that took many years to design and get approved just vanish.

…and it goes on, but you get the idea.

Vy and An, Internships — March 12, 2016

Vy and An, Internships

Vy and An are now doing their internships. They are working at the garment factory where VY’s father is now a supervisor. They are in their last year at TDTU, and the internships are part of the program.  An still works at the furniture store as well.

Vy wrote:

I didn’t see your email until now. Sorry for answering late. We are good. Recently I have been quite busy with this internship and An busy with her job so we could not connect to you and Mr.Joe.

Talking about our internship: now we have been there for two weeks. The first week we had no work to do, we just read our books and waited for someone to ask us to help. Hahaha you know what? When someone asked us help them sort their files we were very happy. We just talked to 2 people in HR department who needed us to help.

The second week, we could talk to more people and they were happy to share more of their work with us instead of just a little bit. During the time we work  here we will try to discover what are the good things and bad things. Luckily this Korean company is not bad. Although this company’s union is not as good as I expected, they are still better than some company’s. More details about this company situation we will tell 2 of you later.

LATER: Last friday, An and I went to the charity center with my father, his colleague and the vice general director( VGD) of Thanh Cong Textile and Garment Company. Thanh Cong company is a part of E-Land group (Korea).  This group is one of 10 biggest and most famous groups in Korea. We prepared a meal for the old and poor. Before we came, the doctors from the Thanh Cong clinic checked up and gave free medicine for them. The place where we went is near our company, just 10 minutes by motorbike. There is the center for charities of the Korean company community. Lots of Korean companies like Lotteria, Posco and Orion came there.

An and I were very happy to enjoy this day. Everybody was enthusiastic, from the vice general director to the staff.  They were willing to do everything. I put food into the trays, my father put rice, An helped some people serve the food for the poor. And you know, the VGD and some Korean experts were willing to clean trays and spoons, I felt that they did it with heart. After the meal, the VGD had a speech to say thank you and share his feelings.

My father is very proud of this company. He likes the Korean culture and Korean life style. He told me that he will let me learn about the Korean life style and work hard and participate in these charity days as much as possible because it’s good for me.

Last Saturday, I attended  The Shining Day of Suntory Pepsico VietNam Company, the soft drinks company that has lots of brands: Pepsi, Lipton, 7up, etc.  This is an event for students from many universities in HCM city to find out about the Future Leader program of Pepsico. This is a big company and lots of students want to apply there. But I’m not going to. I admit that this company has many benefits for its staff, good wages, and a good environment. I like the way they run their company. But I do not love their product. Soft drinks are not good for your health. I am really more interested in with the garment company because I think the garment workers have more a more difficult time than the other workers. I want to find a way to help them, improve their life, their knowledge.

Today, An and I helped the union steward prepare gifts for the woman workers. They’re very interested in the gift which is 4 plates with 4 different sizes. The brand is Minh Long – a famous brand of ceramics in Viet Nam. Normally, the worker don’t buy the products of Minh Long because it’s expensive. They just buy some bowls or plates made in China. You know it’s not good for their health if they use it for long time. This gift is worth 150.000 VNĐ.

The 8th of March is coming, I wish you  a great day with your family. Wish you have good health, more than success in your life and always be happy with everything you do.

LATER:  About Pepsico, I know Aquafina and it is the only product of theirs that I like. You know, when I attended the Pepsico event, the attendees were divided into 5 groups, one for each of the 5 Departments in Pepsico: HR, Marketing, Supply Chain, Sales, and Operation. I attended HR and Marketing to listen their story. At HR group, I was  really interested in their job and then when I attended to Marketing group I had flexible feeling. The MC of Marketing asked us which brand of Pepsico we liked most. Lots of people answered Pepsi, 7up, or Sting. Only I answered Aquafina. Then many people stared at me like I was a strange person. I wondered “Do they know the bad reputation of soft drinks?” I think they do, but they still like soft drinks because of the flavor.

You can put my message on your blog. It’s my pleasure. You know my writing skill is not good. If u put my message on your blog, please help me to correct the mistakes. Thank you.



An wrote:

I wish I were there to go camping with your family. It will be amazing experience.

Today, after did my internship form 8 am to 5 pm, Vy and I had dinner at the canteen. It’s really good and provides enough the energy for the workers. I will talk about the company in another email, when I have enough information.

Then we went to the SOS Children’s Villages VN, here is the link: . Vy and I go there to teach 3 children, a boy ages 9 grade 4 and two girls ages 7 grade 2. We teach and help them learn Vietnamese language, Math, Science and all the subjects they need help in, of course including English. The boy ‘s name is Thành Nhân – it means “a human, become a good person.” The fingers in his left hand have a problem and they don’t grow. You can see  this in the picture I took. He is really smart. The girl with short hair – her Dad got sick and he can’t take care of her.They live in the Children’s Village like a family. They have a house with the Mom and 9 or 10 brothers and sisters. There are 20 houses in a circle around a yard so it looks like neighborhood.

Vy and I don’t have enough money to donate, we just only have knowledge to teach them so we do.

Vy and SOS kids

H: An took these pictures and emailed them to me. That is Vy in the middle.

BOy human smile

LATER: Vy and I started our internship one week ago. I go on Mon – Wed – Friday and I work at the furniture shop on Tue – Thurs – Sat – Sunday. Everything is different between theory and reality. We are trying to find ways to make the workers have awareness to keep a clean environment at the canteen and help the union prepare gifts for women workers on International Women’s Day.

I am really excited to look forward for tomorrow, because we will go to each factory and see how  the workers do, working conditions, what do they feel, etc.

This is about the work that Vy and I do at SOS children’s villages. We work with them 3 days a week on Mon-Wed-Friday, 2 hours/day, after we do our internship. teaching them is not as easy as we thought it was;  it’s really hard. Each of them has a different character, situation  in life, and history from the way people treated them before. Sometimes, it is stressful to me to think how to change the hostile behavior of these children. They aren’t patient and can’t focus on anything they do. I teach them and then they will forget it. And now, I know how hard you teach and make lessons attractive to a lot of students. Vy and I are try to think what are they need, what is the most suitable way to teach them. We will find some way and will try each of them to find the best way.

And last, about the food at the canteen of company. The company have 2 canteens so EE can chose, so that the canteens have to compete with each other . They have flexible menus every day, and make the food delicious and make it clean to get more EE. Each meal is 15,000 vnd and the ER pays for this. EE eat free (but not students like us). The health office checks the meal every day, and they have suggestion box and a hotline for EE if EE have idea about the meal or the organization of canteen. I think the company has a good idea when they use 2 contractors. The EE can choose the taste they like and the contractor should try to improve and make the meal more delicious to attract EE, so that EE can get more benefit.

Canteen tray

An took this, in the company canteen. This looks exactly like the meals served in the faculty dining room at TDTU, except that they were not on metal trays. 

PS: The soup so easy to cook, they put pork ribs, winter melon, green onions and a little pepper in it. Here is the way to cook that soup: You can change the fruit if you can not find it like: cabbage, cauliflower, carrot + potato, bitter melon, pumpkin. Hope you have a good meal with this soup.



Speaking of soup:  The canteen in the Kaiser Medical Center in Oakland, where my various doctors are, is now serving pho. The man ladling it out, who spoke Spanish, intended to be  generous when he added a whole tablespoon full of hot peppers. Therefore I have no idea what it tasted like. But I’ll try again some other day.

Pho at Kaiser

Michigan, Black Lives Matter, Discussions — March 9, 2016

Michigan, Black Lives Matter, Discussions

Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in Michigan last night. This is a significant upset. However, what appears to be happening in the mainstream media is that Sanders and Trump are being grouped together as “outsider” candidates. I hope this is not a trend.

(Note from 2 days later: The San Francisco Chronicle reported Bernie’s win as “too close to call” on Tuesday and then completely didn’t mention it on Wednesday.)

And on Sunday Quentin Young died, age 94. As a young doctor he went South during the Civil Rights movement and provided medical care for the Freedom Summer volunteers. He then became, among other things, the leading spokesperson for Single Payer healthcare, which Bernie Sanders supports and which was voted in by people in Sanders’ state of Vermont (although the governor backed off and didn’t implement it).



This is a picture of a discussion. People are sitting in pews but turning around to talk to people beside and behind them. Last night, at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, there was a meeting announced as responding to the question, “What can white people do to support black people in their struggle against oppression?” The meeting was organized by Black Lives Matter and several other groups. At least 1000 people came. The crowd was mostly white, old and young. Here’s a picture of the crowd:

Crowd at BLM


There were four speakers from different groups. Overall, the speakers did not really answer the question; what was impressive was the size of the crowd.

But the first speaker was from Black Lives Matter, which was founded by three women after the Ferguson, Missouri demonstrations in protest of the cop shooting of Michael Brown. Black Lives Matter has chapters now all over the country, loosely connected. This chapter decided to do a BART (the commuter train) stoppage, went to the Fruitvale BART station (the site of the murder of Oscar Grant, another cop shooting) and took over the station for four or five hours, stopping the trains. A white group helped by dropping a banner. After this protest, the Black Lives Matter folks were hit with a $70,000 bill from the BART board of directors to cover the costs of stopping the trains. At this point, the Black Lives Matter folks realized that in order to get this $70,000 bill dismissed, they would have to organize on a much broader base and get public opinion behind them. They did this, and after some months, it was in fact dismissed. This was a lesson in organizing: the learned how broad a base they really needed in order to accomplish what they wanted; they learned that the organizing had to be built on real relationships, not “mobilization” where you just get people to join an action and throw their bodies into the crowd.

The other speakers were not as well prepared.

However, what I want to show our Vietnamese friends is what happened next. First, the crowd was told, “Talk to the people sitting next to you so that you are talking in groups of three.”  The prompt for the discussion was something like, “What has your experience been supporting black struggles for justice?”  We introduced ourselves to the person next to us, a young computer guy, and talked for 5 minutes. The next instruction was to put groups of three together and make a group of six. We were given another prompt, intended to get us to share opinions and experience. That’s what the picture shows.

My purpose in mentioning this is to show what is for us in the US a very typical way to hold a meeting. This practice is not limited to left political groups.  A meeting will be planned and publicized by some organizations.  They don’t need a permit, these groups just form and name themselves. They can have a bank account and an address. If they want to accept donations for which donors will get a tax deduction, they have to get a certain status with the Internal Revenue Service which includes showing that they are not doing political work, but that’s the only limit. Then, the meeting is held. People come. They pay money if they’ve got it (tickets to this were $10 but no one was “turned away for lack of funds,” as they say.”) Then, at the meeting, people express their opinions. The people on the podium have presumably been chosen by their organizations, but when you talk in small groups in the crowd, it’s assumed that you say whatever you think and listen to what other people have to say. You can talk about yourself or comment on the speakers. Nobody is expected to know the full truth, the authoritative version. If someone has a fact wrong, you can tell them that you have different information, but it’s not an argument. It’s sharing. This is how you learn. Overall, we assume that when people walk out of a meeting like this they know more than they knew when they walked in, and they have also tested some of their own ideas against the ideas of others.

Speaking of discussions as fundamental to a functioning democracy, this is an insert from March 24, about 2 weeks later.

In the Chronicle this morning, on page A-2 under the News of the Day from Around the World, there was an item that went as follows:

Blogger imprisoned. A court in Hanoi sentences a prominent Vietnamese blogger to five years in prison for posting anti-state writings. In a one-day trial Wednesday that highlighted the Communist country’s tough approach to dissent, Nguyen Huu Vinh, a former police officer and son of a late  government  minister, was convicted of abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state.  Vinh, better known as Anh Ba Sma, quite the police force and set up a private investigation firm. He then launched the blog Dan Quyen, or Citizen’s RIghts, in 2013, and Chep Su Viet, or Writing Vietnamese History, in early 2014. The blogs provided links to news on political, social. economic and cultural issues from state media as well as from activists. Prosecutors said the two blogs posted 2,397 articles and generated more than 3.7 million hits, and that 24 of the articles had “untruthful and groundless contents” which tarnished the country’s image.

I went to the blog, It is huge and long and full of news and history, including — from my half hour of perusing it — some pretty detailed history of the US. If you click on translate it will translate into English and the English is a lot better than what you usually get on Google. Someone must be putting some time into translating it.

This blog is part of what I would judge to be the necessary discussion that has to be running all the time, in the background but sometimes in the foreground.


Planning the Anti-Trump Protest in Chicago on March 11, 2016

People often say that discussions and sharing opinions are nice but you have to set that kind of thing aside when planning something that has to happen quickly. I am going to post a link to a story that suggests the opposite. This is a story about how the protest against Donald Trump speaking at the Arena on the University of Illinois Campus was organized. The planners started working on the protest the moment the event was announced, but they only had a week. They used social media (Facebook) and (which has millions of subscribers) and an app called Signal, but they also had big face-to-face meetings where people volunteered for things and discussed things. Notice how the writer says “It became clear during the meeting….”  That’s because the meeting was not just someone lecturing the audience — there were real discussions.

My point here is that this demonstration was not just a spontaneous outpouring of anti–Trump sentiment. It was carefully but quickly planned, but it was planned collectively. It also drew on the past experience of activists in many different campaigns, from unions to immigration to anti-police brutality. These activists stepped up and became leaders in a very complex and effective action. The article is by Joe Iosbaker, a friend of ours in Chicago and a union leader at the University of Illinois.

March 13, 2016

How students in Chicago organized to shut down Trump

By Joe Iosbaker

Chicago, IL – The announcement of Donald Trump’s visit to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) came one week before his scheduled, March 11 appearance. Within minutes, there was a Facebook page announcing plans to protest. There was also a petition calling on the administration at UIC to cancel the rally.

By later that afternoon, over 5000 people signed up to protest, and by later that night, 50,000 had signed the petition.

The gathering of student leaders on Mar. 7 wasn’t full of movement veterans. There were 15 or 20 members of Students for Justice in Palestine, who had experience winning a vote in the student government for divestment this semester. But during the meeting, when the question was raised, “How many people here have been to a protest?” 20 of the 100 students present raised their hands. Then the question was asked, “How many have organized a protest?” only a few hands went up.

One of the hands was that of Ethan Viets-Van Lear. Viets-Van Lear is a member of Black Youth Project 100, and was part of the We Charge Genocide delegation that went to Switzerland in October, 2014. There, they testified to the United Nations Committee Against Torture about the Chicago Police Department.

Cassie Robledo, a member of the College Democrats, said, “My first protest was when I was 12. My dad and uncles are members of the Steel Workers Union. They took me to the megamarch for immigrant rights.” But the protest against Trump was the first time she was organizing anything like this.

Planning the actions

The students agreed to support two sets of tactics: one inside the Trump event and one outside. It became clear within the meeting that the main drama would be the protests taking place to disrupt Trump’s speech. Cassie Robledo was going in. Usama Ibrahim of Muslim Students Association intended to go in as well.

Another veteran of past protests, Nathaniel Lewis, a grad student in public health, was incorporated into an informal leadership group for the inside group.

Communications were set up, including the use of the app Signal, which allows for encrypted communication. A plan was hatched for the groups planning to disrupt to be organically developed, and then coordinated by dividing up the period of the Trump rally into ten minute intervals.

The tactics for the mass march and rallies outside the Trump event venue were debated during the meeting. Given that the protest was only four days away, there was an emergency character to the planning. There was tension in the room. But after a wide-ranging debate in which more than one third expressed their views, the organizers were able to present a plan which united the room.

The march

When Friday, March 11 came, the Quad on the center of campus was packed, with 1000 people who gathered at 4:30. The organizers realized that they had to be to the corner of Harrison and Racine, outside the Pavilion where the Trump rally was occurring, prior to 5:00. Since the news stations start broadcasting at 5:00, Lewis said, “It is important to get established as soon as possible.”

It was agreed to have only a few speakers. The rally was emceed by Viets-VanLear, also a spoken word poet, who helped keep it short and lively.

The plan was to attempt to take over Harrison Street and then march to the corner with Racine. The police had placed metal barricades in the median in Harrison.

As the crowd marched across campus, it swelled to several thousand people. When it reached Harrison, the tactical leadership of the march made the call: They would take only one the eastbound lane. The barricades were locked together, and once separated into two lanes, the protest would be divided.

Confronting the police

The next challenge was dealing with the Chicago Police Department (CPD). In meetings with the administration earlier in the week, Juan Rojas reported, “They told us that we had to go to the parking lot across the street from the Pavilion.” One activist with SEIU Local 73, the main union on campus, called the lot a “cattle pen,” because it was surrounded by high, wrought iron fences.

Rojas explained why they still went into the meeting with CPD and the administration. “Essentially to tell them that we’re taking Harrison and that we want them to keep off the crowd and let us as organizers control it.” After the meeting, Rojas reported, “CPD wants us to march from the Quad and take the crowd into the parking lot.”

As the ever-growing crowd got within sight of the Trump crowd lining up at the Pavilion, CPD bike cops blocked the street, trying to force the front of the march to divert into the parking lot. Ethan Viets-Van Lear, Juan Rojas and Bear Steck, the tactical leadership group, stood firm. “We have the right to confront the hate that has come to our campus,” said Rojas.

The marchers stood their ground and kept up chanting. Meanwhile, at the intersection, another 1000 anti-Trump protesters had gathered on the corners, behind barricades. Jerry Boyle of the National Lawyers Guild, a legal observer, explained to the police, “Those people have moved into the intersection, and are marching east to meet the larger group.” At this point, the commander realized that the bike cops were surrounded, and pulled them out of the intersection.

The front line of the march cheered, and surged forward to meet those waiting in front of the main doors to the venue.

A rally was then held just in front of the Trump crowd standing in line. Over the next two hours, the police would have to retreat two more times as the protesters demanded to take the entire intersection so that those speaking out could be heard by more of the anti-Trump group that stretched back over a block along Harrison.


Perhaps 1000 anti-Trump protesters inside the Pavilion filled an entire section of the arena. Before Trump made his announcement that he was chickening out, every 10 minutes, another group would raise their voices. Police would come and remove them. Trump wasn’t facing violence. He was facing courageous youth who were determined to speak out against his hate. As Ibrahim said later, “We would not allow racism, bigotry and xenophobia tarnish our pavilion, nor our city, nor our presidency. Not in our lifetimes.”

Ibrahim continued, “Yesterday, the University of Illinois at Chicago made history. Could this be a turning point in the Donald Trump campaign? Could we have portrayed his cowardice to the millions of Americans and tens of millions of non-Americans across the world? We’ll have to just wait and see.”



The Minimum Wage Paper — March 8, 2016

The Minimum Wage Paper

Green h res

Looking east from Inspiration Point, a walking and biking path that follows the ridge of the hills above Berkeley through Tilden Park. A little relief for the eye before reading. This is watershed land owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and the lake is a reservoir.

This is the paper that Joe wrote at Dean Hoa’s request comparing different arguments about how to set a minimum wage.  The request came originally from the VGCL to Ton Duc Thang Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions as a research project.  Joe has it credited as authored by both  of us, but my contribution was mainly setting up the outline and figuring out how to organize the research.  The research involved some Skype interviews but it was mostly going through about 60 articles. He summarized them in a long table that could be searched by key word. This table is available to anyone who is interested; send me a message and I’ll send it to you.

The paper should be readable and self-explanatory. Joe separates the arguments into living wage, profitability wage, productivity wage and consumption wage. But setting a minimum wage is not a mathematical process. It is a political process, all about power and organizing.

For the US reader who is interested in minimum wage issues and following the fights here in the US, such as the Fight for $15 and the local minimum wage increases in places like Seattle, here is something to know. Our students working part-time in Ho Chi Minh City make between 14,000 and 17,000 dong per hour. With  15,000 dong, you can buy a bowl of pho for lunch at the student canteen. In other words, an hour of work at minimum wage can just about buy you lunch. The same is true in the US. Whether you’re in California where the minimum wage is $10 per hour or Indiana where it’s $7.25, either place you can just about buy lunch — a slice of pizza or a sandwich. In both places, in our highly developed economy and in Viet Nam’s developing economy, the workers at the bottom of the economy are in pretty similar situations.

This is a different way of looking at workers in the global economy. You don’t have to focus on the exchange rate of money (namely, that 17,000 dong is about 79 cents) or that $10 is about 220,000 dong (enough to pay someone to work for you for a whole day, if you wanted them to). Instead, you think about how someone lives in that economy. It doesn’t mean that minimum wage workers in Viet Nam have it good. Instead, it means that in both countries, if you work for an hour you can just barely buy the calories you need to keep you going another four or five hours. You don’t have anything left for housing, transportation, clothing, education, family – much less your cell phone.

Another thing minimum wage workers in the US and Viet Nam have in common: they work for employers who are all part of the same global supply chains.


This paper is written in response to a request from Dean Nguyen Hoa, Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty, TDTU, for background information regarding the setting of minimum wage in various countries, pursuant to a research contract between TDTU and the VGCL. This paper is meant to provide background information on arguments for various approaches to setting the minimum wage, for the use of the research committee on which he serves, that will assemble the full report on minimum wage for the use of the VGCL in its presentations to the National Wage Council of Viet Nam for consideration of the minimum wage in the future. Therefore this paper is not a survey of the entire minimum wage issue world-wide, nor is it a survey of minimum wage debate in Viet Nam.

After a brief look at the minimum wage historically and the levels of government that have been involved in setting and enforcing it, the paper turns to the key criteria upon which minimum wage has been figured, drawing from national experiences, reports by the ILO and others. These criteria include minimum wage as a living wage or in the Vietnamese terms, basic necessities wage; minimum wage as a profit-sharing wage; minimum wage as a productivity wage; and minimum wage as a consumption wage. This last refers to what would it mean to allow workers to buy what they produce, a concept linked to the productivity wage but not identical in content. The paper then moves to considerations of how the minimum wage has in practice been determined, not just with research and mathematical formulas, but including a brief discussion of the relation of forces and the political/economic struggles that have determined minimum wage, especially in places where substantial changes have been seen in recent years. The conclusion of this research is basically that none of the methods of computation or research are as important as the power expressed by workers and their organizations against capital, and usually government allied with capital, to limit wage increases. The paper concludes with a brief on the Viet Nam example based on research done by others, accessible in English. An appendix is attached consisting of a searchable table in Word listing all the documents examined, with keywords and quotes. Rather that clutter up this essay with citations, the reader should just use an obvious key word to search the table for documentation of points made.


The minimum wage historically

The concept of a state-enforced and established minimum wage is relatively recent, having first been discussed in the 19th century and implemented in most countries in the 20th century. This was in striking contrast to the old master-servant notion where maximum wage laws existed in some feudal or semi-feudal systems, but in a context where only a small percentage of the population worked for wages. Minimum wage laws have basically trailed the development and growth of a wage-earning working class from the birth of capitalism in Western Europe through its expansion throughout the world. It has almost always been an attempt to both gain a degree of labor peace and a minimal level of general prosperity in the societies that adopted it. Since the establishment of the ILO in the early years of the 20th century and the ILO standards, an increasing majority of countries have adopted minimum wage policies of one sort or another. This took place by writing into law the national wage bargaining process that had already developed, by establishing statutory minimum wage or by other means.

Historically, minimum wage provisions have been established at national, regional and/or local levels depending on the country and the time period. A single national minimum wage is the most common now, but there are many substantial exceptions, including, as it happens, both Viet Nam and the United States. Also, some nations limit their minimum wage to certain industries or exclude some workers, often agricultural or domestic, from minimum wage coverage. All of these factors change over time and have been the subject of discussion and struggle between the forces of labor and capital and their political representatives.

The historic basis upon which the minimum wage has been set is a shifting set of criteria including such factors as what has been called “a living wage,” “a basic necessity wage,” and factors also including productivity, profit-sharing, the capacity of workers to consume, the general existing state of the national or local economy, comparison with neighboring countries with similar levels of economic development, levels of enterprise profitability, and others.


Minimum Wage as Living Wage

 Regardless of what it has been called, the central debate today about setting the minimum wage revolves around what workers and their families need to live a basic decent life in their own country at a particular time, if they are working full-time. The terminology used to describe this concept has shifted, with “living wage” being the common terminology used in the debate in the US today. Although that terminology has been hard to translate into languages of other countries, the ILO has adopted it as the best expression of that idea.

However, describing what it means does not answer the question of how a living wage is computed. This question remains fraught and complicated. First we must determine what is the unit upon which the wage is computed. Usually it is the family. But what size of family? How many workers in the family? Are they full-time or part-time? What percent of an adult is a child figured to be? And then, if the basic wage is figured on the basis of what a market basket of good costs, the contents of that market basket has to be arrived at, both in terms of what is in it, what it costs, and what quality it is. Alternatively, some systems have used Engel’s Law, which posits that low-wage workers use half their income to cover food, to define food costs and then double that for the cost of other expenses. Other variations have been suggested.

Basic wage or living wage has also been assessed as the poverty level assigned in a country. This definition also has problems, given that international determinations of poverty are difficult based on different levels of national development, different percentages of the workforce in wage labor as compared to agricultural or trade or the self-employed informal sector. For a detailed analysis of some of these factors and recommendations in Vietnam, the recent ILO paper by Richard Anker gives a substantial critique and summary of the application the living wage criteria in Viet Nam (see appendix).

The minimum wage as a living wage has been shown to have substantial political resonance in the US and other contexts where the computed poverty level and the existing Federal (and most state) minimum wage are for various reasons far below what most would conceive of as a basic decent living (or livable) wage.


Minimum wage as profitability wage

Another way to compute a living wage would be as a share of the profitability of the employing firms in a country or jurisdiction. This has not been a potent factor in many computations in the past. However, it could become significant as more supply chains cross international boundaries and if, and in response, trade unions and others attempt to establish multi-national wage floors. An example of this is the Asian Garment Wage Floor Initiative, which has been put forward by unions in a number of Asian garment-producing countries. The major concept here is that the final price of the garment at the top of the supply chain should be what determines the wage of the workers at the bottom of the supply chain. Naturally, calculating what constitutes profit would require some assumptions and agreements since various countries use different accounting systems.


Minimum wage as a productivity wage

It has been argued strenuously by employers in some parts of the Global South (not, usually, in the Global North, where worker productivity has increased much faster than wages in the last 40 years), that low levels of worker productivity especially in places like Viet Nam as measured by GDP per capita, will not support a higher minimum wage and therefore would drive businesses into bankruptcy or out of the country. Therefore they argue for minimum wage tied to productivity, with productivity largely defined as GDP per capita. Further, this argument often devolves into invidious descriptions of the lack of labor discipline reminiscent of employer arguments in 19th century US as workers then were moving from rural agriculture to urban industry, and from self-sufficiency to a great extent to capitalist wage labor.

There are a number of responses that can be made to this argument from a labor perspective. One is that productivity, both as measured by GDP per capita and productivity as measured at a particular enterprise is largely influenced by factors that are not within the control of workers. They include the level of technology used (in other words capital investment), the efficiency of the production process set up by managers, the training supplied to workers, the re-supply system, and that basically the only contribution to productivity that the worker has control over is labor discipline. This means, from the employer perspective, showing up on time and exerting oneself to the maximum all the time one is being paid by the employer. (whether or not this is realistic over life of any worker). So the argument here is that if the employers are really concerned about productivity, rather than just increasing their profit, then there are some investments that could be made that would increase their productivity radically. But in many low wage situations, employers do not make these investments because they can still buy labor power so cheaply.

Also, evidence suggests that higher wage can actually improve productivity on an enterprise level. It does this by cutting turnover of workers and avoiding costs of re-hiring and training, as well as increasing employee commitment and willingness to assert both effort and initiative. The skills of the workforce increase over time fostered by decreased turnover, and there is a higher degree of labor peace, since job actions and strikes reduce productivity to zero. Mark Linder, in his important little book, Labor Statistics and Class Struggle, has a good summary history of these arguments based on the labor portions of unit labor costs over time.

Finally, the entire notion that productivity of workers in the Global South, including Viet Nam, can be effectively measured by per capita GDP is suspect. In fact, measuring productivity by merely assigning per capita GDP as it is currently computed, based on end sale prices on the market, contributes to what John Smith has described as “the GDP illusion” (Monthly Review July-August 2012 p. 88-91). Basically, the argument is that in poorer countries where actual production mostly happens, countries where their workers are making a greater contribution to global wealth, GDPs are counted as much smaller than they should be. This is because GDP and trade data only count market transactions. But that is not where value is created. Value is created where the work is done and the product is produced: “Values are created in production processes and captured in the markets, and have a prior and separate existence from the profit finally realized when the products are sold.” This conflates value with final price and taking the GDP as essentially the sum of the value added at each firm. “The value that is captured by a firm in the sale price at the end does not in any way correspond with the value of the living labor. Smith also points out that mainstream economics fails to note that many firms that supposedly generate value are actually engaged in non-productive activity like finance and administration that produce no value at all. This problem explains why the Global South is underestimated in the dominant paradigms. “Labor’s share of GDP within a country is not directly and simply related to the prevailing rate of exploitation in that country, since a large components of GDP in the imperialist nations represents the proceeds of exploited labor captured from abroad.’” (QUOTES FROM Intam Suwande, 2015 Monthly Review page 50-51.)

An immediate example is from Cornell University students visiting TDTU in January, 2016, who, on a factory tour in HCMC, saw shirt sewers putting price tags of US $160 onto what they had sewed, for which they were collectively paid pennies per garment.

In fact, related to the productivity argument, in much of the Global South, including Viet Nam, the wage of the worker has been driven below the actual value of their labor power by the increase of the reserve army of labor (John Smith 2015 MR page 94).


Minimum Wage as a Consumption Wage

 The consumption wage approach to calculating the minimum wage could be seen as a variation of both the living wage and the productivity wage, but it is actually not identical in terms of either conception or specific argument. The idea is that workers should be able to buy what they produce on the wages that they receive for producing it. Historically, this argument has been directed to business because increasing workers’ purchasing power in this to way, to cover the largest percentage of the commodities that they produce, tends to shrink inequality in society. Doing this is also helps flatten out the business cycle, which is helpful to business by providing less volatile economic environment for them and less extreme business cycles. Historical examples include Henry Ford paying his workers $5 a day so that they could afford to buy automobiles in the 1910’s-1920’s in the USA.


Raising the minimum wage in practice

But in practice, how has the minimum wage been determined? What have been the most successful strategies for gaining substantial increases?

Regardless of the exact legal criteria, mathematical practices or research data used, the primary factor that determines the minimum wage and its size of increase (or decrease, which has happened under austerity policies) has been the relative power of labor versus capital as expressed in the society as a whole. In this respect, it is similar to the question of how collective bargaining agreements are arrived at except that CBA’s are usually focused on a particular enterprise or group of enterprises who are parties to a CBA In the minimum wage case, it applies to the entire relationship between capital and labor in the society as a whole. This power can be expressed in many ways: through direct influence on the government or governmental bodies (political parties, lobbying by unions and others), through electoral action in referendums or candidate campaigns, through development of a movement in the streets or mass action by workers, or in some cases through actions on the job by workers to halt production and thereby exercise political or economic pressure on both their direct employers and the government setting the minimum wage.

The minimum wage has become a subject of mass struggle in the past ten-fifteen years in many countries where it had not been for some time in the past. These countries include the US and Viet Nam. In the US, there have been many struggles, first for a local government employee and government –contractor “living wage”, and then, more recently, for a general local or state minimum wage set substantially in excess of the very low US federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour). The patterns of these, mostly successful, struggles have been similar, even though the computation of what constituted a living wage may have been different and certainly what actually constitutes a living wage differs substantially from one part of the US to another, from rural to urban etc. It should be pointed out that in both the USA and Vietnam the national set minimum wage will basically buy a worker a modest lunch for one hour’s work. Nevertheless, the US experience suggests the following key points as to how increases in the minimum wage are actually achieved in practice.

  • Politically, it is most important to frame the demand in a way that will mobilize workers, not in a way that will be acceptable to decision makers in powerful positions. Those compromises get made later, but only on the basis of large numbers of workers (and working-class voters, in the case of a referendum) being activated in a public way. This is the value of the slogan in the US, “Fight for $15!” Workers could clearly see that $15 an hour would change their lives and, if not their lives personally, the lives of many of their friends, neighbors and family members. It would change their lives in two ways: one, it would give them enough money to have a semi-decent standard of living, and second, if that was really the floor, it would give people much more freedom to quit a job and find another, if there were no $7/hour jobs and every job in their industry had to pay $15/hr.

Organized active worker support at the base sometimes over a substantial period of time – i.e. months or years, not days or weeks – is necessary.

That support can only be generated with the vision of a substantial increase, and “substantial” means a 50% increase or more, so as to make the call for a minimum wage to become a living wage credible, and to overcome both the fatalism and pessimism of previously inactive often non-unionized workers to get them into active support. For workers at or below the poverty level despite being employed, a proposed increase of 10 or 20% is not sufficient to stir the vision of a better life.

The research backing up the true purchasing value of $15/hour, what its impact might be economically on workers, employers, the media, the economy as a whole, is important, but it is primarily important because it gives confidence to workers and those organizing the movement, not because it’s going to change the opinion of employers or fundamentally change the perspective of most of those government policy making officials who are instinctively pro-employer in the US. Just as the arguments at the collective bargaining table are as much for the membership and potential allies outside the enterprise as they are for the employer, likewise – especially since this is taking place in an even more public sphere than in collective bargaining – the arguments for it are primarily public arguments. If they are cogent, well researched and well presented, they will also provide some sympathetic individuals within the government or in certain sectors of employer groups, with cover which they can use to support a demand that already now is a public issue with mass support, which they would not have felt safe doing under normal circumstances.

  • In the final analysis, just like in collective bargaining, these demands that seem often utopian at the beginning have been won because there was a credible threat of disruption, either economically or politically in some fashion. When the President of the City Council of Seattle realized that his personal political base could be at risk to the Fight for $15! led by a recently elected openly socialist council member, he was willing to compromise and work out a schedule for achieving a $15 per hour minimum wage in Seattle – and only then.
  • Since in the US a minimum wage raise would overwhelmingly impact people who are not represented by a union, it is essential that forces outside of the union and the union movement be brought into support of the struggle. That means that all organizations and individuals who have a stake in the welfare of the working class need to be approached and won over to this struggle. That means small businesses whose customers are poor workers, or religious organizations whose members are poor working people. This means organizations that may not have thought of themselves as “class” organizations but may be mobilized on this basis if approached properly. And then a formal alliance can be built that can push this struggle forward and may be able to win other struggles, as has been the case in Seattle. This can then isolate the employer’s associations, and especially the most recalcitrant employers, on this issue. Otherwise workers are left with a very limited, compromised increase, that employers can easily accept, and that will not mobilize masses of workers, so that workers will lose even that in practice over a short time.


Impacts of increases in minimum wage

 The dominant debate over substantially raising the minimum wage in the US has revolved around the issue of job loss. The argument, based on standard mainstream neo-classical economics, has been that if you raise the minimum wage you therefore raise the price of labor power through government action. This means you will reduce the demand for labor power that would have expressed itself in the labor market if it was possible to hire at a lower wage: basic supply and demand. Therefore as the argument continues, in its purest sense the existence of the minimum wage actually hurts the people it was intended to help because while it benefits some low-wage workers, it actually causes other low-wage workers to fall into unemployment and lose their jobs completely. Over ten years of empirical studies have finally come mostly (although not quite universally) to the conclusion that the impact on employment levels of minimum wage increases is minimal compared to the positive impact on raising wages of those directly affected and those immediately above them who generally will experience wage increases as well. This is fairly settled among most economists today.

Further, recent research has indicated that there are a number of other impacts that the minimum wage creates on a broad social economic level that are good for most people in the society. One, more purchasing power in the hands of workers tends to increase economic activity as opposed to having that money be profit which is often used as savings by the rich, speculation or other kinds of non-economically productive behavior. Two, raising the minimum wage tends to lower the churn of workers at individual employers that pay minimum wage and less worker turnover has many positive consequences for employers. It also avoids many social costs that high worker turnover creates (job training, unemployment insurance, greater call on public welfare funds, need for workers to change commutes or even residence, which is wasteful and lower their public participation, etc.). Three: Raising the minimum wage has the independent impact of particularly helping those who are the most vulnerable workers. In doing so, therefore, it not only decreases economic inequality in this society but it decreases it by helping those who have been most left out: discriminated racial and ethnic groups, immigrants, other minorities, women, etc. It is one of the most effectively targeted aids to those most in need of any social policy. Last, it has a substantial effect on reducing poverty in a society and thereby reducing all the negative consequences that go with having a significant poverty-stricken group.



The case of Viet Nam

While this paper is not meant to be an examination of the minimum wage case of Viet Nam (which it could not be, with the authors having only access to English-language documents) nonetheless, in the course of this research, enough Viet Nam-related information was encountered to make it worth reporting and summarizing.

First, it appears that, originally, substantial increases in the minimum wage were placed on the political agenda by the wildcat strikes of workers some years ago, during a time of great inflation when the minimum wage was losing its value and workers were facing survival issues. Second, Richard Anker, in his consultant report Dec 2014 to the National Wage Council and the ILO, critiques the three estimates of minimal living needs of employees and their families as figured by the VCCI, MOLISA and the VGCL. His report and recommendations regarding the manner in which to figure what would be the level that would fulfill the legal requirement in the Labor Code seems to me to be appropriate in all respects. He critiques the three estimates and their methodology while acknowledging the usefulness of each of them. This paper has nothing to add to his recommendations on this score. Third, given the arguments made in the English language press about minimum wage and the lack of any discernable worker activity at the base in support of the minimum wage demands in the last cycle, it would seem to this author that a call for a substantial minimum wage that would bring it close to a realistic living wage would be positive strategy to pursue for advocates such as the VGCL. The reasons for that are outlined in Section 7, above. It would also substantially add to the base wage upon which employers pay their payroll taxes and would help to make the social insurance funds more solvent.



The results of this investigation would suggest that none of the methods, manners of computation, or “facts” are as important in determining the minimum wage as the power built on the ground by organized workers to weaken the resistance of capital and the reluctance of government to seriously offend the interests of large employers. These last, especially in Viet Nam today, in contrast to the US, tend to treat the minimum wage as their basic wage and therefore pay social insurance based on that wage.

Our research suggests that the only strategy effective in getting a minimum wage to approximate a living wage in practice is to have workers excited and mobilized in support of the demand either at the ballot box or in the street, or the credible threat thereof. The technical arguments made will not by themselves change that. They can give, of course, added support to those who wish to advocate for an increase but need technical backing in order to do it. It is the hope that this paper, with the attached appendix (which represents a fair survey of the contemporary reporting and research on minimum wage in English, with a focus on the US) can contribute to that effort.



The long table of approximately 60 references, with searchable quotes, is available if you want it. Send me a message — H








Sergio Finardi — March 6, 2016

Sergio Finardi

Soon after we got to Viet Nam, I asked Sergio to help me understand what I was looking at. He sent the messages that I posted (I’ll have to find them) as part of this blog. I have referred to them to refresh my perspective a number of times. The more I learn about Viet Nam, the more meaningful they are.  But he died, back in December. He  had had a heart problem a couple of years ago, quit smoking, and seemed to be OK except that now that I think of it, there was something uncertain about his behavior last time we got together in Chicago. He was, on top of everything else, a great cook and a generous, creative host. One time we came to dinner at the apartment where he and his partner Giamila lived and he had just come back from the Congo where he had been tracking arms shipments. You could hardly imagine some of the things he did, but it was all true and deeply informed. He gave a presentation in Joe’s Labor Ed class in Chicago on export zones all over the world. Very few people knew what he knew in as much depth as he knew it, and could also talk to regular people about it and make it make sense. I miss him greatly. He and Giamila were an important part of our lives. The more time goes by, the more I miss him. We’ll be going to Chicago for Labor Notes (a big ,multi-union conference) in a few weeks and it will feel strange not to see him.

Some of his friends are putting together a Tumblr page of materials that Sergio worked on. A lot of it is in Italian, but here’s the link:

Here is the obit that Tom Gradel in Chicago sent me. Sergio was a member, with me and Tim and others,  of the National Writers Union (although he quit in exasperation at some point).:

IPIS   December 3, 2015

Natural Resources Conflict Mapping Business & Human Rights Arms Trade & Security Capacity Building

A Farewell to Sergio Finardi

The 2nd of December, in Chicago – where he had lived for many years – Sergio Finardi passed away following a short illness. For over a decade he was a research partner of IPIS, commissioning and co-authoring reports on arms transfers and defence logistics.

Sergio was a friend and tireless companion of many battles, he was an investigative journalist and researcher, founder of TransArms, collaborator of OPAL and author of numerous articles and essays with specific focus on the concern of the arms trade, of which he had become one of the world’s leading experts. Born in Cremona in 1950, he was formed at the height of the student protests. He graduated in Milan with a thesis on the Northern European social democracy. Thanks to a scholarship from the Stockholm Universitet he studied the historical-political experience of Swedish socialism which he then described in the book The Swedish New Deal (1982). Close to the working class and the labour movement he joined the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) and collaborated with CESPI, the Centre for State Reform of Rome, collaborating with the magazines “Rinascita” and “Laboratorio Politico”.

In the 80’s he became interested in the systems of transportation of goods, first as a consultant and journalist, subsequently as a researcher in Vietnam and in the United States, where he later moved in 1994. Author of numerous essays (The World Transport System, 1995; State of Exception, 2001; The Arms Routes, 2002; Letters from a would-be Empire, 2005) thanks to funding from the American and the European Union, he became a founder and tireless advocate of TransArms an independent research center for the arms trade and defense logistics, and then consultant for the United Nations and Amnesty International, contributing important research to a series of AI’s reports, from 2005 to present date.

He co-authored investigations that revealed the role of logistic operators and the flow of arms in the conflicts of post-September 11: towards eastern Congo and Rwanda (2005), Darfur (2007), Israel and the Gaza Strip (2009), Yemen and Somalia (2010), Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as the network cover that upheld the “secret flights” in “extraordinary renditions” (2006); this same research was often used to write leading articles published in the newspaper «il manifesto».

The sudden and untimely death of Sergio Finardi deeply touches those who have loved and appreciated him for the energy and humanity with which he inspired research in a field both crucial and opaque, and drives us to continue, in the name of a possible peace, his valuable scientific work with his same self-denial and ironic intelligence.   (Carlo Tombola)

OK — March 2, 2016


Here is the website for Project Renew, that has been doing useful, small-scale lifesaving work for many years. We learned about this from Chuck Searcy in Hanoi.

Central valley flat

OK. Some people seem to be still reading this. So now, back home in the US, I am going to try to describe what my life is like here using the same perspective that came naturally to me in Viet Nam. In Viet Nam I was always asking, “What on earth am I looking at? Why are they doing that? What’s going on? Are they serious?”  Asking those questions was easy, and since I couldn’t speak Vietnamese, I often never got clear answers to those questions. Or I got a series of answers that changed over time.  But now, I am going to try to keep the communication going by sketching in what things are like here in the US, for us, in the lovely bubble world of Berkeley, CA.

I will put in enough personal stuff so that you can keep track of what’s going on but hopefully, not enough to embarrass my family or neighbors. If you want more personal stuff, write me a message.

That’s Joe on the AMTRAK San Joaquin Valley train, going to Los Angeles to hook up with our son Jake and his twin boys and go camping in Joshua Tree National Park. Here is Joe cooking at the campsite:

Joe one leg

You will notice a lot of stuff sitting around in bags. That’s what happens when you drive your car to within a short distance of the campsite. You bring too much stuff. Sometimes you forget the essentials. I intend to make a checklist for our next camping trip, to avoid that problem next time.

Nevertheless, it was a great trip. All goals were accomplished. The boys ran around all over the rocks and found beetles. That’s them in the distance, wearing their sun hats.

twins running around

The stars were phenomenal. The sky is really that blue; nowhere in Viet Nam did I see sky that blue. There was either a mist or a pollution haze, even on the clearest days.

Super Tuesday

This is Super Tuesday. That’s the day that 12 states hold their primaries. Trump is sweeping the Republican primaries. You thought it was a joke, right? It’s not. Not all extremists are Islamic fundamentalists. On the other hand, Bernie has won four states, amazingly. Vermont, of course, where people have elected him to various offices for 30 years and voted 90% for him. Then Colorado, then Oklahoma, and now Minnesota. Hillary has won the beltway state of Virginia (not surprising) and the South (Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas) but also Massachusetts, although that was close: 50%-48%.

One way to describe the mood of anxiety that pervades us here is “scarcity within excess.” A gut feeling that there is too little of what you want, when you’re surrounded, even being choked, by more than you need. Among Trump’s supporters, I think this anxiety reaches the level of panic. You can feel the panic in the eye-popping racist dramas that are appearing on Facebook: the young black woman getting shoved at a demonstration, the mini-ballet where Trump tosses “Mexicans” off the podium, another clip where a white guy who has come to harass an anti-fracking demonstration and turns his venom on the camera guy, who is black. The content of the panic is fear of the “other.”

Mitt Romney made a speech yesterday in which he called Trump a “fraud” and likely to “lead the country down a dark path”, which is true, but Romney’s credibility is weakened because he, like many other Republican leaders, has been perfectly content to use Trump’s publicity machine to prop himself up.

I mentioned “stuff” in the photo of our campsite. The issue of “stuff” in the US is not trivial. A growing industry is storage units: people build long rows of locking boxes the size of small rooms and rent them for a fee, so that people who have excess stuff and put them into storage. What’s in these boxes? Clothes that don’t fit; rugs that need cleaning; broken small appliances. Photos, coupons, ads. Things that looked like a good deal on the shelf at WalMart.

I will try to get control of my tone of voice. Not everything has to become a lesson about capitalism.

Joe’s class at City College in the CityBuild Program

Today Joe taught a class at City College of San Francisco. The class began at 7 am, so he had to leave the house at 5:15 in order to get there on time. It’s a class for people who want to get into the building trades union apprenticeship programs. The topic is labor studies. Of the 34 people who take this class, all are black except for 2; all are men except for 3. Some are in their 30s and 40s. They are in a program called CityBuild.

Where does such a program come from? It is widely recognized that the unionized building trades, which provide good wages ($25-$45 an hour, plus benefits including healthcare and pensions), have also practiced discrimination against women and minorities. The percentage of women and minorities who get these jobs, as compared to the while males who get these jobs, does not correspond to the percentage of women and minorities in the general population. Back in the day, some building trades unions actually publicly declared that they were “white only.” Fathers and uncles would make sure that their sons and nephews got the announcements about when tests would be given, knew what fees had to be paid, had good tools, and otherwise got a hand up getting in the apprenticeship programs. This was known as the “sons and nephews” problem.

Because this problem persists, various programs have developed, usually funded by state or federal money, to counter act it. Union or construction industry money also supports them. I worked on one of these programs in Chicago between 2000 and 2011, called the Building Bridges Program, and wrote quite a lot about it (available if you’re interested). This one is hosted at the City College of San Francisco, a huge low-cost public community college with academic university transfer programs as well as vocational and lifelong learning programs. There is a battle going on over the survival of this college, but I’ll write about that elsewhere.

So Joe got called in mid-semester to take over this class because the previous instructor got another job. The class is once a week, Tuesday mornings, from 7 am to 1:30 pm. The 34 students are broken into two cohorts of 17 each. That means Joe has 17 students from 7-10 am and another 17 from 10:30 to 1:30. This is a very good size for a class; lots of discussion will be possible. No microphones necessary! During the rest of the day they learn trade skills; the class building has a wide open central area in which they put up and take down small houses, walls, plumbing, etc. They study blueprints, learn to use tools, etc.

This is exactly the kind of teaching Joe likes best: teaching about unions to people who are working and who need to understand the social, political and economic context they are surrounded by. The students, who come from very wide-ranging backgrounds (including prison) are tremendously motivated and prepared to learn, because they know from experience what it means to have, or not have, a decent job. We will talk more about this later, too.

The Handbook

At Ton Duc Thang, we wrote many handouts for our classes. These handouts were intended to bridge the gap between available materials that reflected the “harmonious labor relations” tradition, in which a few top leaders from a union and a company solve problems quietly, and the more US-style labor relations culture which is much more adversarial. We could see that as more direct foreign investment comes into Viet Nam, and more and more employers bring the adversarial perspective to their workforces, and the labor regime in Viet Nam has to adapt to the requirements of the TPP, the “harmonious relations” approach would leave workers vulnerable.

By the time we finished our classes, we realized that we had a whole set of chapters of something that added up to a coherent whole. They had also all been translated into Vietnamese.  Therefore we committed to tidying them up, sending them back to Viet Nam in the hopes that our friend Vinh or others would do a final once-over on translation, and then we could distribute them to anyone who is interested.

That’s the main project that we have in front of us now, with a few secondary projects.

Overseas Vietnamese Organizing Autonomous Unions in Viet Nam

But one more thing: just to update you. A friend of ours was at an organizing training workshop in Los Angeles and met a man who said he was organizing workers in Viet Nam. He said he would like to meet us, and we felt the same way, so we invited him to come to our house and he did, bringing with him a woman who is also involved in this project.

The two of them are funded by “overseas Vietnamese,” of whom there are apparently 4 million, many of whom are very rich. They contribute to an NGO which in turn supports this project. So far, the organizing has consisted of him going to Cambodia where he met with a small group (10) of Vietnamese workers who crossed the border to come to him. They were all men; one woman was going to join the group, but dropped out at the last minute. He says that he teaches workers’ rights. We were not able to find out exactly what he meant by this. He did not seem to know much about labor unions. He himself came to the US in the 1960’s, went to San Francisco State University, and has not been back to Viet Nam since then.

He teaches economics at a community college south of San Francisco. He referred to “Free Viet Labor” which is affiliated with

Like in the US, there is a great deal of money to be made by taking sides against whatever labor regime is in place. We have a whole industry here that claims to be protecting workers against organized labor.