The 20th anniversary of Ton Duc Thang’s founding — huge celebrations, thousands of students marching with flags, an amazing display of martial arts. In this picture the people are lined up by faculty. Elegant lunch on the 11th floor, gala dinner at the Rex Hotel the evening previous, following a massive sequence of speeches from important people both locally and nationally,


J club int lang

That, Vinh, Miss La and Dean Hoa go over the interview questionnaire for hotel workers for our project on whether hotel worker jobs are”sustainable,” which we hope to present at an upcoming conference on tourism, development and ‘sustainability.’ The question is, are the jobs of hotel workers ‘sustainable’?  By the way, we just got a letter saying our proposal was accepted. I’m not surprised: they are not going to get a lot of proposals on a labor topic. And our faculty is uniquely set up to do this. So if anyone is going to do this, it’s us. Problem: the cost of registering for the Dec conference, where one of us would preview our incomplete material for purposes of getting feedback, is $100. Joe and I will not be here so it would be others from our faculty who attend. Will TDT spring for the registration fee? We’ll see.

Projects related to research: Joe’s class research

In Joe’s class, students are turning in their papers which are collections of interviews  in which he is hoping to hear stories of “emergent” leadership, workers actually self-organizing to solve a problem at work. Vinh has to do the translation simultaneously, standing up, into Joe’s ear. As best we can tell: one story told of a manufacturing jewelry shop, where the sales staff had been sharing the bonus among four workers. Then the employer hired four more workers and expected the bonus to be shared among the 8. The workers, including the production workers, went to the employer and asked him (he was, incidentally, an overseas Viet who had come back from Australia) to increase the bonus. He refused. There were also new people hired in the production workers group, with the same problem. A senior experienced production worker who did not like sharing the bonus with a new, inexperienced worker, decided to do a slow down. Whether he refused to do his own work or the work that helped out the new worker, was not clear. Whatever happened, the order went out lacking the certificate and manual that usually accompanied the order. The customer complained and wanted to speak to the top manager. The result was a meeting between the aggrieved workers and the manager, in which the bonus problem was resolved.

This is a very good example of 1) a worker taking the lead among other workers, 2) how the initiative falls on the shoulder of some individual person when there is no worker representative to go to for help; 3) how hit-or-miss the process of resolving problems through worker ‘withdrawal of efficiency’ is, compared to collective bargaining, 4) how through this process one problem is resolved at a time, with no guarantees that it will stay resolved if more workers are added or the manager changes or if the current management changes its mind. Nor does the experienced worker, who was willing to do something, get any assurance that his sabotage will not get him in trouble a few weeks from now.

So from my point of view, this is an example of why these workers need an active union presence in their workplace, so that as soon as the failure to increase the bonus comes to the attention of one worker, the union can pick up the issue and deal with it.

However, that is not obvious to the students. The absence of the union is not easily visible to them.

Joe and I are talking about the difficulties of teaching “Leadership” out of context, to people who have to dream up the kind of organization that a union leader would lead, and have every reason, from all their experience and all their training, to believe that there are good reasons why such organizations do not exist. Joe has the idea that this class needs to be taught using stories as the basis, as compared to theories (the Northouse textbook is a compendium of theories one after the other, some even trademarked, which Joe then tries to contrast with theories from organizing). I think he is right.

This is actually research in support of teaching. The best background piece I’ve ever seen about teaching stories and writing is this, in interview with Vijay Prashad about running writing workshops in India:

I just noticed that Mark Nowak, the person who did the interview, is probably the same Mark Nowak the poet who came and taught a few classes at Illinois while we were there.

Presentation on How to Write an Article to Sociology Department

Yesterday afternoon, at the invitation of Mai Le Thi, the Assistant Dean of the Department of Sociology, we made a presentation about how to publish an article in a US or English language journal.

This is the program that Kim Scipes taught in last summer, and John Hudnyk is teaching there now.

We met with about 20 other professors and the same number of students in one of the seminar rooms. First we asked people to tell us their research questions, with the caveat that they should care about them, other people should care about them, and they should be feasible and fundable.

One professor told us that she was studying the impact of eco-tourism on national forests. A student said he was studying the level of criminality in Muslim communities in VN. He went on to start talking about his methodology, and we stopped him when he seemed to be about to talk for 20 minutes. A third person, a student, said that he was studying the impact of intellectual workers on the social welfare and social culture of HCMC. What he meant was managers; people who do not do sew or drive or dig or cut or cook, etc.  We said this was too big a topic. We invited him to have a private conversation with us. Later another man spoke up to say he was studying the level of income of teachers in HCMC, single vs married women. He asked if he could extrapolate from one neighborhood to the whole city, and we said no, but you can do a case study, which Joe talked about.

Then the participation stopped and we went on to discuss my handout which was originally written for Ha Dang. It goes through everything from key words to keeping your discussion separate from your data. The discussion afterwords focused on how to make a bridge between VN researchers and the primarily English-language and US or Canadian peer reviewers. Readers matter down the line, of course, but first the article has to get past the peer reviewers. We said that the bridge is made mainly in the lit review, secondarily in the introduction in which you motivate your research out of your lit review by showing what has been done, what is good and what isn’t, and what needs to be done next.

Doing a lit review here is a real problem because of the cost of journal articles. Spending $30 or more to read an article that you might disagree with, or not even use, is simply incomprehensible.

Give me a theory strong enough

Another place the bridge gets built, and maybe a more important one, is theory.  If you are doing research in sociology and your theory is that there is no class struggle, or that class struggle was solved by socialism embodied in a system of government and society,  and this is also the social system that what your are studying exists in, then you are not going to see class struggle if it’s happening, because your theory says that it can’t happen.  Yet right there in front of your eyes, labor disputes are taking place: mass strikes, for example. So your experience is that you are both seeing and not-seeing something; you are seeing something you cannot be seeing. Cognitive dissonance!!!  Can be either exasperating or motivating.

Joe said this is a forest and trees problem: you need to be able to look at both the trees and the forest, and you also have to see the forest as a whole, a thing that has edges. Where are the edges of the forest? What is out there beyond the edges of the forest? Other forests? What do the trees in those other forests look like?

You are going to have to have a theory that says there is more than one forest. If the first forest is your theory, you need a meta-theory that includes your theory plus at least one alternative. “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world” – Archimedes.  The meta-theory we are talking about is your place to stand.

A meta-theory might say, for example, “Social systems are not like the force of gravity, of which there is only one (as far as we know).   Instead, they are the product of human beings trying to solve problems. They have histories and features and effects. There are, and can be two, or three, or more social systems.”

Simply for the purpose of writing articles that will pass peer review in a western journal, Vietnamese need some kind of neutral meta-theory to speak from, because their reviewers have the mirror image of the same problem: they think their anti-communist and full-out capitalist societies are the natural system,  like the force of gravity.

I think this is why three Asian research pieces i have read recently refer to ‘systems theory,’ with the emphasis on the ‘s’ on the end of ‘systems.’

Pay for Publishing Approach to Research

TDT has decided to motivate people to do research and publish by paying them per article,  although regular faculty have such a heavy teaching load they can’t really get much done. Instead, the university hires people from other universities who have track records publishing to come to TDT and name TDT as “their university’ when they publish. The pay for this is per publication (in addition to a regular salary) which is some millions or billions of dong – I think it amounts to $4,000 or $5,000 — awarded to the author following publication. At the big ceremony on Saturday they honored a man who had 96 ISI publications (I have ranted about the ISI and Scopus lists earlier.) Apparently, if you are regular faculty and publish an article in an ISI journal, you will also get some relief from teaching 4 or 5 classes per semester; maybe one class off, plus the cash.

I have had enough conversations with Dean Hoa and Vinh so that they understand my view of this practice. The various people we are meeting who have taken this deal are not confused about it: they know that by lending their name to TDT they are mis-representing the reality of TDT as a “research university.” But that’s secondary to the opportunity to live and teach and do research in VN; they are more interested in doing their own work than in the public relations of TDT.

Hotel Worker Research for Engaging With VietNam Conference 

We are actually in motion on this topic. Miss La and That have worked on the interview questions, to make them “more realistic” which is good. Miss La has also offered to make contact with some possible interviewees for us.

We got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a hotel worker from another student research project, the one from my class. This was someone who had worked at the Rex Hotel in Vang Tau. Whether the Rex Hotels form a system or not, or whether anyone can start a Rex Hotel, I do not know.  This man had worked as a room service guy on night shift, with no one to back him up while he was running up and down delivering food; then he was a server in the dining room; then he was a security guard. He disliked the night work because he missed his family. He did not get tips; the students shook their heads as if no one would get tips, when I asked about tips. He said that the union did not dare to stand up and fight for the workers.

We saw the Rex Hotel when we were in Vang Tau; a huge palace of a place. The Rex Hotel in HCMC is the same, right near the big pedestrian mall where there are also Prada and Burberry stores.

We have asked the front desk people in small hotels where we’ve stayed — like in Hoi An and now, in Hanoi – who owns these small hotels. So far, everyone has said that their hotel is a family business and the employees, from front desk to room cleaners, are extended family. The room cleaners in Hoi An were three sisters. The owners of the hotel where we are now, in Hanoi, are three brothers — we have been shipped from one hotel to another because of a “water problem” in the first hotel, so we are now the guests of a second brother. I want to know if there are very different regulations for small hotels and big hotels.

Worker interviews in my class

My class has broken into 14 groups, each completing at least one interview with a older worker, the idea being that people who have work histories of 20 or 30 years will reveal, in their histories, some aspect of the presence of the IR system. The plan is to get the bottom-up view of how the IR system in VN (see above about systems) works. Who is touched, and by what? The Labor Code? The VGCL? The prescribed benefits and social welfare requirements? A CBA? An HR manager, who is actually part of the IR system here, to tell the truth? The minimum wage? What aspects of the system make it into the consciousness of a worker, over the course of a long worklife?

Judging from the interviews that have come in so far, there is a wide gap during a worker’s work life when only the employer’s voluntary willingness to “follow the law” creates any stability. Most interviewees say that there was no “union presence” at their work. Some credit the union with solving a problem typical of the problems HR would solve in the US system: getting permission to go home for a funeral, or getting an accommodation for a back problem or a maternity leave.

I will post my first level analysis of these interviews. What I would say so far is that the economic energy is going into starting your own business, which takes place pretty much informally (family employees) or in semi-regulated in ways that haven’t settled down yet and create terrific money-making opportunities for clever creative entrepreneurs. Employees in these companies have a tough time.  By contrast, the huge FDI employers  — garment, for example — get managed indirectly by the government through setting of the minimum wage; thus setting the minimum wage is almost foreign policy.  The best conditions appear to be at jointly operated companies: a Vietnamese-Russian company, for example. The employees in SOEs (schools, hospitals) say their work is stable but very low pay; they do it because they love it and believe in it. But these people are old.

So if you were trying to reverse engineer the industrial policy of VN by looking at these three streams, you might say that by letting entrepreneurs make the most of the growing economy, the government creates a safety valve; the big money is in the FDIs which stay in VN because of the low labor costs, and can threaten to leave; and the SOEs will continue to provide stability to aging workers until that generation is gone.

The idea of my class is to get students to be able to tell worklife stories — what is it like to be a worker in Viet Nam these days? I may be forcing the assignment into too rigid a framework, by requiring them to tell the story in terms of the ways that the IR system touched or did not touch the people they’re interviewing. But that’s the class I’m teaching. The big step, which is yet to come (as of October 1, with 3 more classes to go) is to get them to find parallel worklives in other countries in order to show how those stories differ – and, since this is a class in global labor (industrial relations, really) they have to show how the IR system in each country affects the experience of workers.

So far we’ve had 2 presentations that compare the worklives of people in Viet Nam with the worklives of people in another country. A group that interviewed a teacher in VN presented about teachers in Finland. A group that interviewed a garment worker presented about garment workers in Bangladesh. I have not seen their written reports yet; I caught as much as I could from Vinh’s mouth-to-ear translation. Whether we have pushed past the story into the IR system of each country, I can’t tell.

But to go back to the Archimedes “give me a place to stand” paragraph, just getting these students to know that there are other systems out there is the point.

The Hansae system: a salad of communication

In our simulation session on Friday when we reported the Hansae project, I drew the who-did-what-to-whom-when diagram on the board and added, in red, a little red circle representing me and Joe, with arrows to Jeff Hermanson and then to the TDT students and then one from the TDT students around the outside of the whole thing back to the USAS students at Cornell.

Looking at that diagram, I thought that this would make a good article. The point of it would be the different kinds of communication that were active in this system. Most of the writing I read in Mind, Culture and Activity or on the XMCA list treats “communication” as if it was all one flow of information or feeling — just the transmission of something. In the Hansae diagram, you could see how different kinds of communication are actually different kinds of acts: threats, contracts, “signatory” commitments, laws, organizing, teaching, reporting, influencing, etc. Each arrow marks a different kind of communication with a different consequence. It would be cool to sort all these out and explain how they are all different, even though they are all just flows of speech (in two languages! So the translation plays a role, too).

I think it was David Mamet who counted the ways speech could be used on stage to move action along: a threat, a promise, a lie, an argument, a curse…a few other things, not many. The point being that these are words that do something. They are action, not exposition, it’s not just filling in information.

And one more thing: I was riding on a bus coming in from the airport in Detroit. This was a few years ago. Only me and a couple of other people on the bus. I was reading Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, which is a very pretty small mint-green book with a big title.

Click to access austin_1962_how-to-do-things-with-words.pdf

The bus driver saw the title and said, “Isn’t that true!” and began to tell a story about something he had done…

Vietnamese language class moment to remember

Speaking of language:


The criss-crosses over the words “Lien Xo” express the emotion of the teacher, Co Lee, who wanted to make the point that the Soviet Union was a thing of the past. One can no longer identify oneself as “Nguoi Lien Xo,” because Lien Xo is gone. The word for Russia is “Nga.”

We are up in Hanoi now. I read an article in the Viet Nam News about miners; it’s a perfect case study for explaining “elasticity” for my class.

Enough for today!!!!






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.

One thought on “Research

  1. helena,

    hope all is well with you & joe. been keeping up with your work.

    i had a stroke early this week. left side is completely paralyzed. being moved to a rehab facility on monday. recup could take up to a year. a lot will depend on me. please keep me & my boys in your prayers. thanks!

    Karen Ford Freelance Journalist & South Side Weekly Columnist Author of Thoughts of a Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman (TotalRecall Publications), available on,,, Barnes& and Co-author of The Professional Black Woman available on and The Professional Women’s Network ( Co-author of Black Lives Have Always Mattered (2 Leaf Press) available on and Please Like my author page on Facebook,

    “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” Red Smith

    “Never accept that you are who you are ‘in spite of your circumstances.’ You are who you are because of your circumstances.” Karen Ford

    “The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain


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