Back on the project

VN group outside 03:11

The Viet Nam Labor Solidarity Group meets in Los Angeles at the UCLA LAbor Center, March 11, 2017. THis photo includes some people from the delegation, organized by Kent Wong, that went to Viet Nam last January, plus people who have been at TDTU.

VG group March 11 17

A lot has happened since this March 11 meeting. A subgroup has been formed for people who are primarily interested in the education aspect of the project — courses, textbooks, the whole research issue including what journals are acceptable for publication. I have now been introduced, via Joe Buckley from the UK to the research “journal group” that Mike Maurer presented to last month at TDU; they are an “independent” group and seem to have some very advanced researchers and academics among them. We are also working on getting Manny Ness’s Journal of Labor and Society (TJLS) listed on Scopus. The idea is to have a google group into which people can drop things (like Kim Scipes’ recent paper, Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity) and converse without having to CC everyone. This subgroup is called the US-Viet Nam Labor Education Working Group. Amazing how much gets done with different people working on different things.


Trumpcare down

In the meantime, under pressure both from furious constituents (who jammed the offices of representatives and phone lines) and the Freedom Caucus (a cartoon-y group of stout white older men, all to the right of Trump, funded by the Koch brother$ who warned them that Trumpcare had to shed healthcare provision for people with pre-existing conditions and kids 26-and-younger-still-living-with-family, because Trumpcare as currently written did not cut Obamacare enough!), Paul Ryan de-scheduled the vote, thus avoiding the spectacle of Republicans voting against their President. This is being called a victory, but is it a victory for a suddenly activated voter base, or for the Koch brothers? We can hope.

What people in the US think about Viet Nam, when they think about it at all.

We went to see Kong: Skull Island, last night, at the California Landmark theater in Berkeley. It probably accurately represents where mainstream US thought has settled regarding the experience of the war in Viet Nam. Here are some features of the movie, which is big-budget, major stars (John Goodman, Samuel Jackson), very magnificent giant monsters that seem real and alive, bugs, lizards, spiders, octopuses, and of course Kong himself, as big as a mountain and very huggable, by the end of the movie.

  1. The US soldiers are worn out, done with the war, hoping to go home. Big scene at Da Nang air base with people packing to leave. Many of the soldiers are Black.
  2. One of the main characters is a photographer, a young white blond woman, who describes herself as an “anti-war” photographer. Various characters mention how the work of photographers has shaped the US public view of the war. One blames photographers for undermining support for the war.
  3. The lifer military guy (Samuel Jackson, famous Black actor) is a Colonel. He doesn’t want to go home. He loves getting another assignment (to go to Skull Island). He is a killer.
  4. The Skull Island project is somehow funded by a oil or gas resource potential– it’s sold to Congress as geological exploration.
  5. Skull Island is in Halong Bay and the first time the characters see it, they realize they are looking at one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. True.
  6. Once on the island, the Samuel Jackson Colonel becomes obsessed with a) revenge against Kong, for killing some of his men (by swatting down helicopters with his hands), and b) going back and risking everybody else’s lives to find one man whom he has ordered to stay put at the landing site (the guy is dead already). Both his revenge motive and his willingness to risk many lives to save one are seen as bad.
  7. The native people who actually live on Skull Island are portrayed as lovely, gentle people who share everything. However, they don’t talk. They line up and get photographed (very colorful face paint) and nod.
  8. There is a brief did-we-win, did we-lose, was this peace with honor or not? debate. Just a hint of it. So it’s still an issue.
  9. The turning moment in the plot is when the soldiers turn their guns (or at least one of them does) on Colonel Samuel Jackson and refuse an order. This is a nod to the fact that by the end of the war, a lot of officer fraggings were taking place.
  10. The order that Colonel gives is to march back into the jungle (and certainly all die) in order to recover the remains of the one soldier who was told to stay with the downed plane, but who was killed by what looks like a truck-sized grasshopper. This is a nod to the MIA project.
  11. A World War II vet is still alive on the island. He landed there after being ejected from his plane at the very moment when a Japanese pilot, the plane he had been shooting at, also lands. Af first they fight and then they realized how absurd it is and become friends. There are numerous references to the absurdity of war.
  12. The big mistake that drives the whole movie plot is disturbing the ecosystem on Skull Island. The original sin of the movie is ecological.

So, if you take this as a metaphor for our intervention in Viet Nam between 1954-1975, you can say, “This is pretty much what Middle America will accept as background for a big action movie in which a monster gorilla (Kong) throws a lot of horrible lizards around.”

Ironically, “Kong: Skull Island” was playing in Theater 2 of the California Landmark. In Theater 1, the James Baldwin movie, “I am Not Your Negro,” was playing. In the James Baldwin movie, Baldwin’s writing is voiced by Samuel Jackson, who is at the same moment playing the killer Colonel in the theater next door. You could hear King Kong roar behind the powerful language of Baldwin. I’m not kidding.

But that’s the war – how about labor and politics in Viet Nam today?

Here’s a link to a March 1, 2017 NYTimes article. First, it’s very unusual to see articles about Viet Nam at all, except for stories about US soldier veterans returning to Viet Nam to work through their memories of the war. There was nothing that I saw in the mainstream press about the impact of TPP on workers in Viet Nam, for example. Friends of ours here in the US were surprised to hear about the link to the ILO conventions that would have encouraged the organizing of “grassroots unions”. “You mean TPP might be good for workers in Viet Nam?” a local labor leader said to me a couple of months after we got back.  (I’m not saying that TPP would have been an a unmitigated blessing, but it was being greeted with interest and became a topic of serious discussion.)  I wrote that article for the LERA Perspectives on Work, but didn’t get any responses about it from that.

We wrote at length about the impact of the TPP labor side agreement in this blog back in November 2016.

But here, finally, now that TPP is off the table, finally the NYTimes has something to say.  It asks what is going to happen with freedom of association in Viet Nam now that there is no clock ticking on the ILO Conventions #87 and #98. It does so through the story of Ms. Hanh, who apparently was involved in building the big strikes in 2010. This is a story that could have been told many times, in different ways, during the past 2 or 3 years when TPP was in the news.

I think that this person, Ms. Hanh, was mentioned to us by the man who represented himself as “organizing unions in Viet Nam” who also teaches part-time at West Valley Community COllege near San Jose. He came up to visit with us a year ago and I wrote about his visit. His description of his work seemed to be primarily fundraising, and it was clear that there was a great deal of money available from the overseas Vietnamese community, here in California especially, to spend on anything that would overturn or cause problems for the existing Vietnamese government.

The Workers Who Regret Trump’s Scrapping of a Trade Deal

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Do Thi Minh Hanh, a labor activist, had grown accustomed to being beaten, hospitalized and jailed for her work in a country where independent trade unions are banned.

That labor-rights promise has become collateral damage as the United States turns inward under Mr. Trump. As the new president vows to rip up or rethink relations with trading partners, he could also abandon accompanying pledges the United States has won from other countries to protect workers’ rights and the environment.

Critics of the labor and environmental protections in the T.P.P. and other trade agreements consider them a political sop that amount to unenforceable window dressing. Still, America’s new trade retreat could allow countries like China to set the terms of global commerce — countries that are unlikely to use their economic heft for moral persuasion.

For example, America’s withdrawal from T.P.P. paves the way for China to advance its own Asian free-trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The China-led deal, said Rajiv Biswas, the Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, “is less ambitious in its scope of coverage, and does not include major reforms to labor protection standards.”

American negotiators in recent years have added labor and environmental protections to trade deals as anti-globalization sentiment rose in the United States. Over the past 24 years, the United States has struck 13 free-trade agreements covering 19 countries that include worker and environmental protections. In most cases, the deals merely call for the countries to follow their own laws.

What Is TPP? Behind the Trade Deal That Died

On his first full workday in office, President Trump delivered on a campaign promise by abandoning the enormous trade deal that had became a flashpoint in American politics.

Supporters of these measures argue that they can have an impact. Following the American example, the European Union has started adding similar requirements to its trade deals. American negotiators have also strengthened the language somewhat in more recent trade deals, including the T.P.P.

Those agreements had “real teeth in terms of trade sanctions” said David A. Gantz, a law professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson who is an expert on international trade agreements. “They might have made a real difference had T.P.P. gone forward.”

He added, “These provisions in U.S. free-trade agreements can be more than fig leaves, but with an important caveat: The U.S. government in particular has to be willing to be active in enforcing them.”

That can be tough, given that the country on the other end of the treaty may have to pass new laws to comply, labor groups say.

“Any trade agreement must have strong labor provisions to mitigate a race to the bottom,” said Sharon Waxman, the president of the Fair Labor Association. “But what we find is that trade agreements are often wrongly viewed as a substitute for national laws that protect workers’ rights and ensure they are compensated fairly.”

In a 10-page side agreement, the T.P.P. would have required Vietnam to criminalize the use of forced labor and broaden enforcement to apply to cases of debt bondage. On labor unions, workers would be allowed to form their own grass-roots unions that could bargain collectively and lead strikes. Vietnam has started drafting some of these changes but timing on their execution is uncertain, said Oliver Massmann, a partner at the law firm Duane Morris Vietnam. A separate trade agreement between Vietnam and the European Union will also target labor conditions when it takes effect in January, but it lacks the stronger enforcement measures of the T.P.P.

Vietnam’s economy has taken off as China’s labor costs have risen, sending factory owners to look for cheaper labor elsewhere. Labor activists say many of its factories have improved from the blatant sweatshops that prevailed in the 1990s, prompting companies like Nike to impose monitoring and compliance standards on suppliers in Vietnam.

Still, Vietnam remains plagued with labor problems. A 2015 survey of its garment industry found that most of the factories that were inspected suppressed independent unions and failed health and safety checks.

On the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, a sprawling, three-million-square-foot factory compound owned by South Korea’s Hansae Vietnam makes clothing for big Western brands and retailers like Nike. A pair of large strikes prompted labor groups to inspect the factory multiple times last year.


The factory floor of Woodworth Wooden Industries in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. A side agreement with the trans-Pacific pact would have required Vietnam to allow workers to form their own grass-roots unions, bargain collectively and lead strikes. Credit Christian Berg for The New York Times

One veteran seamstress from the factory said the situation had generally been improving as the factory added cooling units. Sometimes workers faint because they are sick, she adds, complaining that it is often difficult to get sick leave from managers. She requested to speak without using her name because of worries about losing her job. Another veteran worker, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Nguyen, said that overseas buyers might stipulate improvements that needed to be made, but factory management did not always follow through.

Nike, which once accounted for 9 percent of the factory’s output, has imposed penalties and cut its purchases to 3 percent. It continues to discuss conditions with Hansae, a spokeswoman said via email, “recognizing that the issues at Hansae are complex, systemic and require sustained diligence to correct.”

Hansae — which has acknowledged some problems but called others “rumors” — hired Gare Smith, a lawyer with the Foley Hoag law firm in Washington, to work with its Vietnam plant to improve its worker complaint system. The work culture is also an issue, he said: “Are managers buying it and running with it, or are they rolling their eyes and ticking boxes?”

Currently worker groups are controlled by the government, which generally forbids strikes and other labor actions to avoid political or social instability. Ms. Hanh, the labor activist, said she had been cautiously hopeful that the T.P.P. could help. “The T.P.P. had a part about labor unions,” she said. “That would have given me a legal base and made it easier to convince workers to join.”

A diminutive 32-year-old who discusses jail stints, beatings and labor slogans in the same matter-of-fact tone, Ms. Hanh first awakened to Vietnam’s labor problems as a young teenager, when she took a bus to the country’s interior and sat next to a woman who worked at a cashew factory. The woman told her that workers at the plant were paid so little they had to steal nuts for food.

In Vietnam, organizing is done quietly. To pave the way for one strike at a shoe factory, a colleague spent weeks in the area talking to workers and building contacts. Ms. Hanh wrote fliers and taught a core group of workers how to organize and strike. She counts the resulting January 2010 strike of 10,000 workers as a victory because it resulted in big pay raises for workers, even though she and two of her colleagues were thrown in prison.

Released four years later, Ms. Hanh found grass-roots organizing had become much harder. She said she was often followed now, making it difficult to meet with timid workers. One of the last times she went to a worker protest, in late 2015, she was beaten by police. Now, she said, she devotes most of her time to campaigning on social media and raising concerns with big Western companies.

She was skeptical that local authorities would have complied with the toughest labor protections in T.P.P., adding that chances were good they would have sought out loopholes. Still, she says, the pact could have given her a tool to use when pushing labor issues with lawmakers and factory bosses alike.

“I would have used the clause of T.P.P. about the right to form independent unions — unions that are not controlled by the company and the government,” she said.

“Maybe now because of Trump, our dream about independent unions in Vietnam has yet to come true,” she added. “But we will still try to help the workers, because if they fight alone they will not succeed.”

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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