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.

Howard Kling’s film about the US-Viet Nam labor delegation; AFT 2121 UFL strike at City College — April 28, 2016

Howard Kling’s film about the US-Viet Nam labor delegation; AFT 2121 UFL strike at City College


Here the the film that Howard Kling put together. He came on Kent’s delegation and was pretty much busy all the time, filming.

AFT 2121 Strike at City College

A strike has been looming on the horizon at City College for many months as the administration balks at negotiations with the union and contract talks are stalled. A one-day strike (an unfair labor practice strike, protesting the failure of the administration to bargain in good faith) was planned for today, April 27. Preparations began at least a month ago. Most of the faculty had never been on strike before and didn’t know what to do or what it would be like. So the day was announced and flyers went out. Then the administration, rather than deal with picket lines making it hard for other workers to come into the college, to say nothing of the students who would arrive and find picketers with handbills and signs, decided to close the whole place. Simply put a sign on the door saying “Closed.” The union took this as a victory — the administration basically struck itself. But the strikers still gathered and picketed.

We met at 8 am at the Evans campus, one of the 12 City College campuses. This campus is where most of the trades programs (automotive, carpentry) are located, as well as Labor Studies which Joe teaches. Our group started small but eventually there were about 25 of us. Bill Shields, head of the Department of Labor and Community Studies, explained the plan: picket from 8:30 to 10:00, a tight line circling around the corner, then go to the rally at Civic Center. Followed by more picketing 4:00 – 6:30, and a party at a bar on in the Mission at 7:00. The picket captain is the man on the right, in the tweed jacket; he brought the signs and a couple of boxes of goodies.

Agreeing on hwhere to picket

We got the idea. People driving past honked.

Marching and chanting

Then it started to rain.


By then it was nearly 10 anyway so we went and had a good breakfast in a Bernal Heights cafe. The sun came out. We took the bus down Mission Street to 8th and Market where the rally was going on.

Rally crowd

The signs and posters make the issues pretty clear. Everybody gets to talk.

girl speaker

The reason why attacks on City College is another way of accomplishing gentrification is because one way to get rid of low-wage or working class people is to eliminate the major social institutions that they depend on. Before this fight began four years ago (2012), City College enrolled 110,000 students. Now it’s down to about 70,000. Where have those students gone? At $46 a credit, City College (and the other 100-plus California Community Colleges) are a real deal, a real ladder of opportunity. But take that ladder away, and it becomes more hopeless to try to live here.

Gntrification sign

A note to our Vietnamese students: All this is “Power Theater.” This is not stuff that takes place at the bargaining table. It takes place on the phone, in hallways, and especially out on the sidewalk and in the street. It’s a way to demonstrate that there is collective power behind the negotiators at the table and they are willing to use that power. The Power Theater part of bargaining takes a whole lot of planning and coordination. It’s just as much, if not more, work than the table negotiations. But it works.

Red T shirt


Southern Vermont Village — April 25, 2016

Southern Vermont Village

After the UALE conference I took the train up from Washington DC to Brattleboro, Vermont, to take a look at our little house up there. Everything was fine.

house and street

Our house is on the left. The building behind it is the general store (D&K) which faces onto the main road, Route 30.

The town sits in a valley where three rivers come together. Of course, this means there is a history of flooding. You can see it written in the changing patterns of riverbeds. I remember the 1976 flood. I remember the sound of the big boulders bouncing along down the river. Then there was the flood in 2012 when Hurricane Irene came and sat on top of the watershed.

Rive rin sun 2

I took a walk early one morning. Here is the place where Ball Mountain Stream  spills into the West River, which is the river that goes through the state park. This is a new vista. Hurricane Irene leveled out the river, cut new curves into the banks, and left boulders sitting in the stream bed much the way a melting glacier leaves big rocks sitting in fields.There are still pieces of metal sticking up between the rocks — half a bicycle here, there a bedspring or a piece of a car, a smashed TV. It’s been three years, though, and people bit by bit are pulling things out of the river and making a pile. For a long time people just didn’t even try.

The flood caused a great deal of physical damage. It destroyed the bridge on the north side of town and wiped out sections of riverbank and road going all the way up the mountain. Long falls of rock still stand exposed along the mountain road. It also took four houses from Back Street –just swept them away. I saw the barn and kitchen of the house across the street from us fall into the water. Someone else who saw the barn fall into the water said it was like watching a candy vending machine: you pull the lever and stuff falls into the tray. Only “stuff” was a washing machine, freezer, lawnmower — all the kinds of things you’d find in a barn.

The flood also cause a lot of social damage.FEMA money from the government came too little, too slow, and with strings attached. Some families whose homes were destroyed simply moved away.  The town had to grieve and repair at the same time, and it was too hard. One young woman who had just broken up with her partner. She and her partner had been working for years on fixing up a home on Back Street. They were both carpenters, tradeswomen. They broke up just as they were moving back in; Tracy was left to move in by herself. Less than a week later, the house was swept away.  Her story became a kind of emblem of the insufficiency of our support system.

Vermont is not an easy place to live. The hills in our area are too steep to farm profitably. In the 1830’s the economy was merino sheep, which was suited to the landscape and caused small farms to consolidate to create big grazing spaces, but when that economy crashed (cheaper land out west) the forests began to move back over the hillsides. The ski industry is now fading as a result of global warming. Vermont is still a great tourist destination in the summer because it’s only a few hours from New York, cool and un-polluted: you can swim in the rivers and waterfalls. People come in the summer to eat fresh local food, swim, play golf at the ski resort, hike in the many state forests. But there are signs all over the place of ideas that didn’t come to fruition, and people moving away.

Ghost house 2

This is a place I think of as a ghost house. It’s on Depot Street, going down to the State Park. It looks out across a beautiful sloping field which leads down to the river. It must have been a stunning, elegant house when it was conceived and built. The three old maple trees that frame its facade (there’s a stump of a fourth, to the right) indicate the expectations of its first owners: dignity and respect. Right across the river would have been the depot where the train from Londonderry to Brattleboro stopped, so this house commanded the hear of the village. There are not many houses in the village that are three stories and designed and built all at one time. Most of the houses look as if they were built and added onto. This is the case with ours.

My parents moved into this village as retirees in the late 1960s. I don’t remember this ghost house as inhabited at that time. There was a woman in town whom everyone knew whose name was Ann; I forget her last name. She was developmentally disabled. The house had belonged to her family, and when she became the only remaining member of that family, the house was sold to a man named Jack Raymond who had bought other properties in town — nice ones, places with good views and good foundations. My father had conversations with Jack Raymond and told me that Jack understood himself to be a bit manic-depressive, or what we would call today, bi-polar. He would get excited and buy things and then never do anything about it. He was a lawyer from Connecticut; I think he still lives there. At any rate, his plan was to turn the village into an 1800’s New England theme park and rent out rooms in these various properties, linking them together with horse-drawn carriages. None of this came to pass. He got as far in the ghost house as putting in a new foundation, including a foundation for a handball court.

ghost house 1

The windows along both sides stand open, but you can’t easily get into the house because the foundation acts like a kind of moat.

Ann was provided with a lifetime residency in one of the houses on Back Street and for years she was a familiar presence in town, taking walks, doing her shopping, going to church. She wore a nice blue wool coat and a hat or scarf in the winter and was very friendly. The house she moved into was swept away in the flood. I last heard that she had moved down to an assisted living place in the next village.

I have always wondered how she felt when she walked past her old home and watched it fall to pieces.

One of the big industries in this part of Vermont now is logging. Here’s a logging truck, the sort that scares the daylights out of bicyclists.

logging truck

Our house was bought by my great Aunt Polly and her husband Austin Ballou  back in the 1950’s. It was their retirement home. They bought it from the Landsman family (I met Beverly Landsman, who died just a year ago). When Aunt Polly died, she left the house to my mother and her sister Margaret. Then my parents lived there for about 30 years after they retired. When my mother died I took it over. All our family comes from this part of the country, going all the way back to the 1600s. As my father would say, they were teachers and preachers and barbers; not farmers, but village people. On my mother’s side they were in the dry goods business down in places like Holyoke. Now that my brother and his family have moved out to California, where I came during the 1960s, this is my foothold on the east coast. I find that I can sleep through the night when I’m there.

16 k dn rm

It’s a comfortable, well-insulated little house. We rent it out now and then to cover the running costs. So far, there have been no problems.

“The Sympathizer” wins Pulitzer Prize for some reason — April 23, 2016

“The Sympathizer” wins Pulitzer Prize for some reason


The author of “The Sympathizer” is Viet Thanh Nguyen.  

I posted this (with some edits) on the Pulitzer Prize Facebook page:

I am completely puzzled by why this manipulative, approval-seeking book won a Pulitzer. It is over-written and hyperbolic, but that may have been overlooked that because of the topic — the Vietnamese community of Southern California and their gaze toward their home country. People in the US who only know about what’s happened in Viet Nam since 1975 through war movies that focus on our guys in the jungle may think there’s only one side to the story and this is it. 

It starts out as if the writer had watched the movie “Last Days in Vietnam,” put himself in that picture, and then took up the plot line of the true story of Pham Xuan An (see the book by Larry Berman, 2007) who really was a double agent. Many, many details of the two lives, fictional and real, including the time spent studying in the US, right up until when the narrator flees Vietnam, whereas Pham An stayed and kept his cover as a reporter for Reuters. Nguyen then makes his narrator take a gig as consultant to a movie that sounds like Apocalypse Now, which shows us how movie extras in the Philippines are treated but not what the war in Vietnam was really like.   Finally, in order to keep us engaged, delivers a 70-page interrogation and torture scene that ends the book. Seventy pages is more than you need unless you get off on torture. The narrator is not credible as a real spy, drinks and is out of it too much, is seemingly untrained and undisciplined, and doesn’t really know enough about what’s going on to be a good informant. He arranges the useless murder of an innocent acquaintance and actually does it himself (although someone else pulls the trigger) — not a likely job for someone who is supposed to lay low and survive. The book winds up with him defying his handler’s warning and going back to Vietnam supposedly in order to protect a friend – but there’s no way that makes sense, emotionally or strategically or plotwise.. The whole book is supposedly a text produced while he’s imprisoned in Vietnam after trying to stir up an antigovernment movement through Thailand, kind of a Bay of Pigs effort without the support or planning, which goes bad fast. Some people may find the squid part funny; I found it funny/disgusting and not important to the plot.

However, the book does give a picture of a community that is not written about much – the Vietnamese, especially those who worked for the Americans, who fled Vietnam after 1975 out of fear of what would happen next. Many of them came to Orange County, CA, outside LA and that’s the world he’s writing about. Maybe this book won a prize because it’s about a group of people most Americans don’t think much about. It’s not a flattering picture, though, and it certainly does not appreciate the role they play in California (and national) politics. Disclosure: My husband and I just came back from Vietnam where we taught labor relations for 6 months at a university in HCMC. In the South, we met people who look back with nostalgia on the American days, the 1960s, as a time when there was plenty of money around, which is of course true. Many of these people have family in “Cam,” the Vietnamese word for “orange,” meaning Orange County. The next generation, the grandchildren of those who fled, are now coming back to VN. When they bring money and can speak good English and good Vietnamese, they have a great time. They don’t get captured and tortured; they get invited to dinner parties. The Revolution has prepared a thriving country for them to invest in. There is a much better book that could be written about what’s going on in this community.

I have been participating in a Facebook read-along book group led by Cate Poe, and have been expressing my irritation at this book for some time now. I bought my copy second hand from Alibris, for $10, and when it came I was surprised to see that it had been withdrawn from a public libraryin Jefferson County, Colorado. Since it is a 2015 book, new and expensive, and even had one of those special library covers on it, I wondered what was going on. But I’ll bet someone like me actually read it and said, “What a mess!”

One of the blurbs on the back of he book  is from Andrew X Pham, probably Pham An’s son. This may be intended to clear Nguyen of having drawn from Pham An’s life story in writing his novel.

PS: I got a  message saying that Andrew X Pham is not Pham An’s son; that he’s at

Lunch to Lunch, Land to Land; UALE and Democracy Spring — April 19, 2016

Lunch to Lunch, Land to Land; UALE and Democracy Spring


Demo Spr 04.15.16

Democracy Spring demonstrations at the Capitol; see last section of post for details. The white cloth banners say “A corporation is not a person”.

VN workshop at UALE 4.14.16

Participants in the UALE Viet Nam workshop. From left: Gene Carroll, Don Taylor, Jean Dearden, Victor Narro, Joe Berry, Michael Maurer, Randy Croce, Kent Wong, Monica Bielski Boris, me, Howard Kling, Attley Chock, Katherine Scacciatano, Amy Livingston, Megan Fissel

The second part of this post draws from research by Dang Bao Nguyet.

Lunch to Lunch

The single insight that seems to catch hold when we talk about our experience in Viet Nam is the one about “lunch” – that is, that when our students work for one hour at their jobs they earn 17,000 dong (or maybe 11,000, or sometimes 20,000) and when they go to buy lunch in the canteen they spend 15,000 dong for a bowl of pho. In other words, an hour of low-wage or minimum wage work in Viet Nam will buy you a cheap lunch.

A good lunch will cost more – 26,000 dong, for example – which is the amount that some employers will give their employees to go buy lunch during break. A 26,000 dong lunch will consist of some rice, some veggies and a little bit of meat. There is actually a discussion going on at the national/state level about whether workers on minimum wage get enough calories. Plenty of people think the answer is “No,” but then you get into a different discussion about how productive Vietnamese workers are, whether it’s lack of calories or lack of job training, whether the minimum wage should be increased, etc.

But the thing that catches people’s attention is that the 17,000 dong lunch in Viet Nam is the mirror image of the $7.50 or even $15 lunch in the US. In other words, if you earn minimum wage, even the “aspirational” minimum wage in the US, what it can buy you, basically, is lunch – whether you’re here in the US or in Viet Nam. Not housing, not transportation, communication, education, clothing, entertainment, healthcare, or any of those things – just lunch. A sandwich. If we’re matching minimum wage to minimum wage, Viet Nam and the US are the same. When we’re talking about the race to the bottom, it’s over: For most people we are there, right down there with Viet Nam.

It’s the exchange rate that confuses people. Those 22,000 dong are worth a dollar. So one dollar can buy about five lunches, which makes American tourists feel rich and makes American companies feel that they can buy a whole lot of hours of labor for not very much money. But if you look at it from the perspective of the worker – not the tourist, not the employer or investor – then we’re sitting in the same seat, looking at the piece of purchasing power, asking the same question, “How are we going to make it on this?” – whether you are a US or a Vietnamese worker.

This way of explaining things seems to stick when people we have met listen to it.

There is another way to talk about the match between the US and the Vietnamese economies, however. I got this from reading Dang Bao Nguyet’s research proposal, “Facilitating the agency of landless farmers in Viet Nam as a means to improve the effectiveness of public policy interventions.” We met her in Hanoi in February via a connection through XMCA, the Mind, Culture and Activity email discussion list.

Land to Land: Who was displaced from the land when they built the factory where your job went? 

When we were working in Illinois (1999-2010) we were always conscious of a backdrop of empty factories, boarded up warehouses and train tracks overgrown with weeds. Right in the middle of a town there would be an empty space that had obviously once been the site of the place where everyone worked. There were still churches, schools, shopping, neighborhoods clustered around this vanished thing, but now it was just a piece of flat, dusty open space fenced in and paved over, a ghost workplace. This was how reminders of the American economy fifty or a hundred years ago stayed present right before your eyes. When you go on YouTube and look up labor history movies you see and hear the sound effects of workers streaming in and out of factories of various sorts, bells ringing, trains moving, streets full of people hurrying along. Then you look out the window as you drive or ride through the city and you can hear all those sound effects but instead of seeing crowds of people, you see weeds, empty windows, bare land.

Yesterday I came up from Washington DC on the train, heading to Brattleboro Vermont to take a look at our little house in Jamaica which has been rented out all winter. The AMTRAK route has been changed a bit – it no longer stops in Amherst, Massachusetts. Instead, it goes through Holyoke. Holyoke is where one side of my family is from, on my grandmother’s side. They worked in the dry goods industry and made enough money to keep the next couple of generations in the middle class. I hadn’t visited Holyoke since I was a little girl, going to visit a very, very old woman known as “Cousin Caroline.”

Passing through Holyoke, I could see why it was a place you could make money back in the 1880’s. Holyoke is on the Connecticut River. I could see a dam, canals, evidence of water power, and more abandoned bricked-up factories than I had ever seen in one place before, even in Chicago: streets and streets of them four stories tall, many with the high windows that indicate that people worked there before cheap electricity was available for lighting – not just along the river and the canals themselves, but off into the distance. Factory after factory! It was a shocking sight. Far too many to turn into artists’ lofts or non-profit offices.

So what is the parallel in Viet Nam? If, in the US, you walk through a landscape past empty buildings where the jobs and the people have gone away, what is the matching landscape in Viet Nam?

In Viet Nam, farmland is being claimed by the government through eminent domain to be re-dedicated to industrial parks. In those industrial parks, the jobs of Chicago and Holyoke, Massachusetts are starting up in brand new metal-roofed buildings with huge parking lots, filled with workers and the sounds of machines. It’s as if a giant hand has lifted up the economic activity of one region and planted it down somewhere else, fourteen time-zones away.

But the land where your job went was not empty.

In Viet Nam, 55.7% of the labor force is still in agricultural production. Starting in 1986, which is when doi moi began, an average of 70,000 hectares of land per year have been claimed by the government to be used for industrial development. Every hectare that is taken is estimated to take 13 farmers out of farming. That’s near a million farmers per year (70,000 times 13 = 910,000). These are people who have been farming for hundreds of years. They bury their ancestors on that land. What are they supposed to do? A few, of course, work in the new industrial zones. A lot more migrate into the cities where there are more factories. However, over 68% simply have remained jobless.

Nguyet’s research will be “actor-oriented,” grounded in the idea that “the reality of the insider is what counts.” “The powerful outsider assisting the powerless insider is present in many interventions aimed at the powerless,” she says. She is looking at what supports the ability of insiders to exercise agency and how this is constrained or enabled by sociocultural factors.

Job loss or land loss: the shock impact is equivalent and training is not the answer

In spite of a government program to provide training for displaced farmers, only 18% of the dislocated farmers have received training. In the US, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) was supposed to gather up people who had been dislocated by trade and provide them with training so that they could get different jobs. But WIA funding was block-granted to the states, got used for other things, mixed up with welfare reform, and basically fizzled out. Not that it would have helped much anyway: factory workers who had union jobs that paid a bundle (including healthcare and pensions) amounting to $40 an hour found themselves scrambling to get trained as nurse’s aides, making $12 – $15 an hour. This is a familiar story.

What is not familiar to us here in the US is the story of what happens to the people who get dislocated by the transplantation of factory jobs to the industrial parks in Viet Nam. The parallels are not industrial worker-industrial worker; instead, it’s between the laid-off industrial workers of the US and the displaced farmers of Viet Nam. These two sets of people, paired by the same economic policies, may have a hard time finding each other.

Dislocation itself is the problem; loss of continuity, loss of history and identity. Naomi Klein wrote about this in The Shock Doctrine.
United Association For Labor Education Annual Conference, Washington DC

The reason I was in Washington was for the UALE conference. Joe and I were part of a session organized by Kent Wong (see photo at top of this post). Kent introduced the overall project; Howard Kling showed his video, which is in progress; then we talked. I now have a list of 17 people who attended the session and signed up to participate in one way or another. Three of them – Don Taylor from Wisconsin, Monica Bielski Boris from Minnesota, and Elyse Bryant from the Labor Heritage Foundation – all indicated that they want to go to Viet Nam, and Michael Maurer is all set up to go there in December 2016. We also got the endorsement of the Viet Nam project in a unanimous vote at the General Membership meeting:

“The United Association for Labor Education endorses the concept of a bridge-building project between labor educators in the US and labor educators in Viet Nam. One part of this project will be building a relationship between the UALE Women’s Caucus and the Women’s Union in Hanoi, initially commencing with a curriculum exchange.”

Democracy Spring demonstrations

Protesters in circle

Friday afternoon, before the general membership meeting, many of us from the conference went down to the Capitol to join the Democracy Spring demonstration. Several hundred young people had walked to Washington from Philadelphia and were holding a week of protests on the Southwest Lawn against corporate money in politics, among other things. Several hundred had been arrested already. We watched while seven or eight more were arrested. The witnesses stood on the sidewalk or on the grass while the protestors, who had been sitting on the street, were handcuffed and led away. The crowd had been shouting and chanting; as the protesters were being handcuffed and walked away, the shouting became singing. Everyone knew the words and the melodies – “We shall overcome,” for example. It was a spontaneous, solemn ceremony with a message of respect and thanks.

Old lady singer good poster

This old woman had a beautiful singing voice and great lyrics, including a song with the refrain, “What are we gonna do?”









Exams, employer interference with union elections — April 9, 2016

Exams, employer interference with union elections

A few days ago I saw a copy of an exam given to 1oth grade high school students here. I want to offer it as an example of the high value placed in our educational system on recognition and critical interest in multiple perspectives. This was hard to explain to our Vietnamese colleagues. Students in Viet Nam sometimes asked,  “What do you want us to say?” or “What do you want us to learn?” as a way of finding out what the “right answer” to a question was. This example shows what “critical interest in multiple perspectives” looks like in practice. In this example, it involves paying close attention to a different point of view, being able to summarize and explain that other point of view, and then construct an alternative to it and presenting that alternative in the form of an extended argument.

The exam was one page. Students would be expected to bring their own paper to write on. They would be given the whole class period (50 minutes) to complete the exam. It consisted of instructions (“Read the following paragraph carefully; summarize the reasoning offered by the speaker, respond with  your own reasoning, agreeing or disagreeing,  and write a careful argument explaining your own position.”) This was followed by a rather long paragraph, perhaps 300 words, which was a quote by a woman who had small children but also works full-time. This woman is saying why it is both necessary and good for her to work full time. She says that she doesn’t think it hurts the children, either in the sense of depriving them of her attention or of leaving them alone in the house sometimes. She talks about their competence and independence and a few other things. Because the paragraph appears to be a quote, it is written in colloquial English as if the woman was really speaking.

This would be a situation that most teenagers would be familiar with, either from their own families or from families of friends. The instructions tell students to write their essay based on their own experience, class discussions and readings for the course. I don’t know what their readings were, but it’s plural — readings.

Things about this exam that would be interesting to discuss with our colleagues at TDTU: The exam responses would turn out to be 3 or 4 pages of handwritten text. No third party or Department of Evaluation could grade them; they would have to be graded by the teacher of the class, who knew what the readings were and what the class discussions had been. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, class size would have to be no more than 30 students, preferably fewer, not 70, in order for the teacher to have time to grade them. The idea of writing from one’s own experience, not referencing an authoritative text, would be interesting. And finally, making an argument: laying out the logical steps of an argument in order to persuade the reader of something he or she might disagree with, which implies disagreeing with the teacher (the reader), would be new.

The US teacher would read these exams looking first at correctness, but not making it the most important; second at how accurately the student has read the long quote; then  the skill with which the student has constructed an argument, and last at the persuasiveness of the argument. Agreeing or disagreeing with the argument would not be an important question.


Another topic that came up in our conversations about labor relations in Viet Nam: employer involvement.  Under law, in Vietnam, employers pay 2% of payroll into the VGCL. This means that a substantial among of the union’s treasury comes from employers. When I first heard about this, I couldn’t believe it.  In the adversarial context of US labor relations, employer involvement in internal union affairs — including and especially providing resources, which would include money — is actually a violation of law. Here is a current election that is going to have to be re-run because of that kind of violation. This is an important election because there is a strong reform movement (and I use the word “reform” knowing that it has a spectrum of meanings) within the Teamsters, which has had problems with mobs, gangs, and general bad democracy for many years:


Among the changes in Vietnamese labor law or trade union law that would be required by TPP is that there be a clear distinction between persons who have the interests of the employers at heart and persons who have the interests of workers at heart. This distinction, gently expressed, recognizes class conflict in the workplace, in opposition to the traditional socialist view that once socialism has emerged, class conflict disappears.


And Journalist Lien Hoang wrote the following for BNA. 

Vietnam Labor Union ‘Happy’ to End Monopoly for TPP

BNA Snapshot

Vietnam Labor Unions

Development: Vietnam General Confederation of Labor will surrender monopoly on association.

Potential Impact: Would allow new grassroots unions formed under the TPP to focus only on employment issues

By Lien Hoang

April 8 — The sole labor union in Communist Vietnam said April 8 that it is happy to surrender its monopoly on association, as required by the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor will retain its exclusive “political” functions, Vice President Mai Duc Chinh said, while new grassroots unions formed under the TPP would focus only on employment issues.

Chinh did not specify these political functions, but the union is controlled by the Communist Party that has run the country since 1975, when the Vietnam War ended.

His remarks signal an expansion of workers’ rights that an International Labor Organization official said would have been unthinkable five years ago. These rights have been the main sticking point for some U.S. politicians who have opposed Vietnam’s inclusion in the 12-nation trade deal.

Relinquishing its monopoly status would be a challenge for the labor confederation, Chinh said, but he welcomed the reforms needed to compete with new unions.

“In case they are better than our traditional trade union, then we are happy if workers join the other ones,” he said at the Vietnam Leadership Summit in Ho Chi Minh City.

Worker Friendly

The Southeast Asian country limits civil liberties, from expression to assembly, but it promised to liberalize union rights so it could join the TPP.

Some Democrats in Congress and labor organizations in Washington have cited labor concerns as a reason to kick Vietnam out of the TPP. Yet some Vietnamese policies are more worker-friendly than those in the U.S., from paid maternity leave to overtime restrictions.

“I think Vietnam does a lot to protect labor because it’s a socialist country,” Benjamin Yap, a panelist at the summit and senior partner at law firm PBC Partners, told Bloomberg BNA. “There is an inherent feeling they need to protect the worker.”

Wildcat Strikes

Both the employer and the employees pay union fees in Vietnam, but ILO Country Director Chang-Hee Lee said the union should represent workers, not the government or businesses. The TPP is supposed to reduce employer meddling in unions, as well as facilitate strikes and collective bargaining.

Vietnam’s TPP labor negotiator, Nguyen Manh Cuong, told Bloomberg BNA there are plenty of strikes in his country. However, Lee said, they’ve all been wildcat strikes, and Vietnam needs a legal mechanism for such union activities.

“It is the most glaring example of malfunctioning in the industrial relations system in Vietnam,” Lee said in a speech at the summit.

Uncle Ho

But he also told Bloomberg BNA that Vietnam’s great progress on labor rights has been “a surprise.” In the past, he could not even discuss the right to organize.

In his speech, Lee said the ILO’s support for equal work opportunities matches the ideals of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist revolutionary and founding father of modern Vietnam. Across the country, red-and-yellow posters implore citizens to work hard, in the example set by the leader known as Uncle Ho.

Vietnam maintains steady raises to the minimum wage and makes it hard for companies to fire workers. Unemployment is usually the lowest or second-lowest among TPP states, according to World Bank data.

The trade agreement has been signed, but not ratified, by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam.

Efforts to join the TPP would help Vietnam comply with the three remaining fundamental conventions of the ILO it has not signed, out of eight total, Lee said. They cover freedom of association, collective bargaining and forced labor.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jerome Ashton at



Chicago, Labor Notes, Bernie in Wisconsin — April 6, 2016

Chicago, Labor Notes, Bernie in Wisconsin

I have begun to write this blog mainly for our students and friends in Viet Nam, to try to show them in concrete terms what life in the US labor movement looks like.

John at streetcorner

John Weber, muralist, walking up Ashland toward the Mexican restaurant where we’re going to have dinner. This was last Thursday. We were in Chicago for 5 days to go to Labor Notes, a huge labor left conference that happens every two years. This neighborhood is called Pilsen; it was once full of immigrants from Central Europe, now it’s Mexican and Latin American. There are murals all over the place, many explicitly political in various ways.

I’ve got two hours in Kansas City between flights going home from Chicago to Oakland. I’ll take these two hours to write up something about the last 5 days. The Wisconsin primary is taking place right now; the banner line on the TVs says first exit polls will be available “in a few minutes”.  But “a few minutes” have gone by, plus some, and I am going to have to get on the plane and be in the air when the results come out.

Labor Notes is both a monthly newsprint magazine and a conference held every two years. It is based in Detroit but now has an office in New York. A small staff of about 7 very dedicated people do all the work. When I first started going to Labor Notes , there were perhaps 300 people total. This would have been in the 1990s. This past weekend’s conference had nearly 2,000.

The people who come are labor activists, often from reform movements within the giant unions that may be suffering from a lack of democracy. Some times these people have won an election and are now in leadership positions. Sometimes they are struggling, trying to organize and run against an entrenched leadership. Two years ago the new leadership of the ATU brought over 100 people. The Postal Workers, who elected a new President two years ago, brought a lot of people. People come from very small groups, small political organizations, and from large ones. Sometimes 5, 10 or 20 people from some union come together. They may split up and go to the many sessions or they may all stick together and go to the same session. Sessions range from semi-classes on specific topics (grievances; health and safety in the fast food industry; understanding TPP) to sessions out of which some kind of commitment to action is supposed to emerge.

teacbers from bus

The Chicago public school teachers were holding a one-day strike. As we rode up Ashland on the bus, we passed two schools where the teachers were out picketing. Lots of yelling, shouting, cheering, horn-honking.

Teavhers on break

At Sweet Maple, the breakfast place on Taylor where we were planning to meet our friend Reverend Haynes, there were teachers taking a break from their picket line duty. The whole place was full of red T-shirts. I remembered the stories about the big strike two years ago: “Chicago was full of red T-shirts.” Joe is congratulating them.

People also come to Labor Notes as individuals. Joe and I came because it’s a place to learn what’s going on, to see friends from all over the country (especially Chicago, where we worked), and because I planned to meet Tim Sheard, who published my book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? and who had reserved a display table for his authors. I was going to talk about my book and try to snag some more readers and writers to do reviews of it.

The increase in attendance at Labor Notes this year is a measure of the increased activism in the US labor movement. As things get tougher, some people feel more ready to fight. Often, they have to fight their own unions if their own unions have withered and become sleepy, fat bureaucracies. Many of the stories told at Labor Notes are about how a group of activists took power and then faced the challenges of leadership. One of the books on display was Bill Barry’s, “I Got Elected – Now What?”

 I could tell some wild stories about reform movements that succeeded in getting control of their union but then faced other challenges.

I went to a session in which young Chinese labor activists talked about strikes and the political climate there, and a session on TPP in which the people actually balanced the question of loss of US jobs with the problems of nationalism, and the need to make connections with labor movements in TPP countries. Some of the strongest speakers against the blinder of nationalism were workers from manufacturing plants in the Midwest who knew from personal experience about job loss.

On Friday afternoon, before the conference started, there was a Labor for Bernie meeting in the hotel across the street. There were about 300-500 people there. Bernie’s communications strategy guy, who had been president of the Communications Workers of America, spoke, emphasizing that although Bernie could conceivably win the nomination, the fight was going to have to continue beyond the primaries and might involve establishing some kind of ongoing organization that would continue to push for the priorities that he stands for. Lots of talk ensued; a woman who had been secretary of the Labor Party, which collapsed under its own constraining by-laws back in the late 1990s, warned against establishing something too rigid — too much of a party, not enough of a movement.

Labor for Bernie 1 Sal

One of the discussions going on at the Labor for Bernie session. There were 300 or more people there. 

It was impossible to take a picture of what the crowd of two thousand or so looked like when we gathered in the Grand Ballroom for the plenaries or the banquet. So here is a picture of one individual session. This was a session on handling grievances that focuses on doing it in a way that activates and organizes members. You should compare this with the simulation sessions that Joe and I did at TDTU when we were talking about contract enforcement: solving problems that affect one or a few people, and solving problems that are really about protecting the union and its power. The point of showing this picture is to indicate how many people came to this session. (There would be 8 or 10 sessions running concurrently.)  Most of these people are experienced activists — stewards — but you could tell from the questions that they asked that some of them were new to their responsibilities. They came from all kinds of different industries and had all kinds of different levels of academic preparation (this is in response to a question asked of us in Viet Nam about whether blue collar workers could lead a union).

Grievance session class

One last thing, to illustrate a contrast that I find hard to put into words. The picture below is of a Viet Nam War memorial, of sorts.The gray, carpet-like shimmering canopy installed above the escalators is made up of thousands of dog tags, each one representing a US soldier who died in Viet Nam. They all move slightly when the air moves.

dogtags in library

This is at the Harold Washington Library, a beautiful useful building on Van Buren and State Streets. There are some wall postings that explain the installation and also a touch-screen table that has quite a few photographs on it as well as maps, explanations, etc.

But overall, the impact is cool. You can pass under the canopy and not wonder what it is. It could just be an elaborate light fixture. It feels, I’m sorry to say, kind of perfunctory, more like an idea than a message. Looking at it, I felt my heart retreating into some of the distance that I felt about Viet Nam before going there.


And when I got off the plane in Oakland I got a message on my phone that Bernie had won in Wisconsin.