An American woman of the Viet Nam War generation goes to Viet Nam 40 years later to teach and learn

What’s going on in Nepal? — March 18, 2018

What’s going on in Nepal?

night market

Things shut down early in Kathmandu; this was a lone shop open at about 8 pm on Friday night. You can’t expect to go out and get dinner after a show. But you can buy newspapers at news-stands, some in English and some critical of the government. Nepal has a parliamentary system led by the CPN-UM (Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist) with the Maoist Centre coming in second and the Nepali Congress Party coming in third. It was a monarchy until April 2008, when the monarchy was abolished and King Gyanendra was “demitted” following a surprise electoral victory by the Maoists.  This was following about 15 years of internal conflict, the last ten years of it quite violent. The country was said to “be at war with itself.”

Padan gate

The Patan Dhoka Gate

On Saturday people do not work. We walked around Patan Dhoka and saw families in festive clothes out for a stroll. Here is a young couple in a tea house with their baby daughter. The four men in the rear are going over copies of some kind of document together. On a different street we walked past a tiny tea house where five middle-aged women were sitting around a table in deep discussion. It was striking that they were not multi-generational and family; it was women age 30-40, having a meeting of some sort.


There is at least one good bookstore, near the Patan Dhoka gate, called Dixit. And there are the remains of posters on the walls that appear to be warning people against interfering with elections, or at least with the practice of freely voting. The words “Election Committee” were in English up at the top of this poster.


Taxis and Tickets

We have had a great time getting tickets from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Monday, where we will go tomorrow just for the fun of it and to be in a different place. Getting visas to enter India on Friday was a separate project that involved going to an expediter near the Indian embassy and paying $75 each. It has also been a challenge to get tickets to Delhi and then from Delhi to Jammu in Kashmir. The Safeway travel agency down near the airport does  not take credit cards, but this is the agency that is booking the tickets for the theater troupe.  The Eva travel agency fairly near our guesthouse (I found it just when wandering around) does take cards, but had only one swipe machine shared among its several offices, and I had to go on a motorbike with the travel agent to pay for the tickets. But here is a picture of the assistant to the travel agent.


His name is Sudeep Lama. He will be 21 in a few days. He did not do well on his IELS (international educational level test of English, Math, etc); he got a 400 out of 1,000. Therefore he decided that he should apply to be a Gurkha. He says the British accept 300 young Nepali men every year to become Gurkhas, part of the British army. (In Prashant Jia’s book — see below – she says that many Nepalis serve in Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army.) But there is a test for that too, including a physical test in which you have to do sit ups, weight lifts, and running. It was a hot day when the test was given and therefore many Nepali boys did not do well on the running. In the meantime, he had spent all his energy preparing for the Gurkha test and not on the IELS and did not do well that time either. You are allowed to try three times, between the ages of 17 and 21, to become a Gurkha, and he will soon be too old. So he lives with his parents and they give him some money. He earns $45 per month as an assistant at the travel agency. He says “It is my destiny.” He also works as a coach for an athletic society in return for which he is allowed to use the gym.

Selling land to get a car

The complexity of scheduling and paying for tickets and visas put us into taxis quite a lot. One driver talked to us while we went out to the Safeway agency near the airport which had done our Delhi-Jammu tickets. He paid $20,000 for his car, which is what a car that costs $4,000 in India costs when it gets to Nepal, because of taxes, if you are going to use it for commercial purposes. If it is only for personal purposes, the cost is $16,000. The medallion that lets him use it as a taxi costs 500 R but he says you have to pay 1,000 to get one. To pay for his car, he sold some land that his family owned in their village: land for a car.  “My father is very disappointed in me,” he said, several times. His father and mother were left with just a little bit of land for a garden. The driver got $6,000 for the land.

He then took out a bank loan, a seven year loan. He has now paid two years on the loan. “In five years this car will be mine,” he said. The government confiscates vehicles over 20 years old; in the newspaper today, it told about confiscations of old cars in other cities, and old school buses. They are sold for scrap. So with a car life expectancy of 20 years, he may drive it free for 13 years. His brother also drives it. The roads are mostly terrible so how a car can survive 20 years is beyond me. However, he drove us along one windy road through the city that he said had been paved only the day before, and it was beautifully smooth.

This driver, whose name was Kumar, was willing to talk with us about the government. So far everyone we have talked with says “corruption” immediately and then laughs or says they don’t pay attention to politics. But we were able to get a bit further with him. As we drove, of course, he pointed out places where the road was dug up, piles of bricks and pipe were lying around, and yellow tape ran from one barrier to another to keep cars from falling into holes. This project was started two years ago and just stopped, the money’s all gone! But also: there is now electricity, and two years ago there was not electricity in the middle of the night. And water is coming — there will be pipes coming down from the mountains bringing water that you can drink. That’s what many of these big pipes are for, that you see lying along the road, along the fresh ditches. He points out the road we are on, with its fresh asphalt. Schools? The schools are terrible. There are not enough good teachers. Whenever they can, people send their children to private schools but they are very expensive.

Labor unions? He said that there are many unions but they belong to parties, and there are twelve active political parties right now. For example, there are taxi drivers unions. They do not talk to each other.  (There is a General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, https://www.gefont.org/  associated with the CPN-UML.) Taxis are supposed to — according to the government — use their meters, but the price on the meter has not changed in seven years and it is too little, impossible to live on what you make on the meter. So they go to the government and ask the government to raise the price on the meter, and the government says “Yes, we’ll think about it,” and then nothing. So he is not active in the taxi drivers union.

The government is pretty good right now, he says. Fifteen years ago it was terrible. This was when the war was going on and the Nepalese army was killing people and the Maoists were killing people.  Now the Maoists are the second most powerful party in government. But the government is unstable. So they can’t get anything done. But it’s pretty good. When he votes, he says, he votes for the king.

We are reading a book we bought at Dixit Bookstore near Padan Dacca: Battles of the New Republic: A contemporary history of Nepal, by Parashant Jha. Although it was published in 2014 I am counting on it to bring me up to date as much as possible.

Corruption: an example, with punishment?

In the March 1 Kathmandu Post there was an article on page 2 about “activists” of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal. These two activists – men — stopped their motorbike in an intersection (a “chowk”) and intercepted Gokarna Sapkota, the legal officer at the nearby cancer hospital, as he was returning from a hairdressing salon. They poured diesel on him. He was able to escape by running. The assailants also got away. They are being tracked. An investigation is under way to determine whether or not the assailants lit a match or made any other attempt to kindle a fire. If they only dumped diesel, but did not light it, perhaps the event should be considered a threat. Pamphlets with the name of CPN Chitwan were recovered from the incident, explaining why Sapkota should be punished. Evidently he was unfairly promoted to a post at the hospital and used a vacancy to hire some people in an irregular manner. This party is a 2014 split from another Maoist party. It is registered but has no representation in parliament. Its base is in the far west of Nepal in an area often cut off from the rest by monsoon and snow. It achieves its goals though direct action and banda (strikes).

I include this story because it struck me as such an extreme and desperate response to what looks to me like petty corruption. In my world,  irregularities in promotion and hiring happen all the time; if they attract attention the person may get fired or shelved off into a position where they have no power any more. But there is a process that can grind along slowly and take care of things, as long as there is someone to set it in motion (and complain or file a grievance or write a #meToo message). The culprit typically does not have to fear having diesel fuel thrown on him while crossing the street. However, if there are no alternatives that can be trusted — well, I can understand why something more direct might be necessary. But there must have been a discussion in the planning stages about whether or not to light a match.

Does control work? — March 15, 2018

Does control work?

This is a picture of the airport in Guangzhou, China, where we had a 4 hour layover between flights on China Southern to Kathmandu. Dark, cavernous, empty. Of course it was the middle of the night.


And this is a picture of people trying to get a password to do their email with.  Unlike in an airport in the US, where you simply sit down next to your luggage, open your computer and click through a few links (of course, one of them is “I agree to the terms and conditions…etc.”) – in China, you sit down and try to open wifi; after a while you get a bright orange banner but no instructions whatsoever about what to do and nothing to click on. Eventually someone says,  “You have to go down there,” and  way down the hall a cluster of people will be huddled around a bank of kiosks.


These kiosks are where you get your password. You have to not only insert all your flight information (on a keypad); you also have to scan your passport and put in your home phone number in the US and your email address. What else could they possibly ask for? It is as if they are collecting all the information they possibly can from everyone coming through the airport. The instructions are badly worded and the scanner is not intuitively designed, and the keyboard is slow to come up, so many people tried it (after standing in line while others tried) and failed and just said “Oh well” and went away. Eventually one person made it through and a password came spitting out on a piece of paper, like a movie ticket, from a slot low down on the kiosk. Then that person guided the others through the process.

Once I was into my email I also found that I could not open most links. Links to news sources would simply jam while loading. For a while, incredulous, I tried waiting. Eventually I tried Google and it jammed; I can’t remember if Wikipedia was blocked, but other things were. And yes, I couldn’t get into Facebook either.

Well, this is what we’ve heard about China, isn’t it?

I began looking around and noticing something about other evidences of technology. There was a whole lot of it, but it was not designed to be user-friendly or intuitive. It wasn’t designed with a strong sense of trying to make things easier for the user, of trying to an invisible mediator between a communicator and a receiving listener (What a concept! But so much of communication theory takes this as a basic assumption about the purpose of electronically assisted communication). The luggage carts have touch-screen ipad-type things between the handles, but they’re showing ads. There was a drinking water source where you could get cold, warm or hot water out of a faucet, but there were two sets of controls for each choice and you had to push them both at once in order to get any water at all, as if one was a lock/unlock for the other. This design would have been laughed out of the room in the Bay Area. Clearly, we were in a place where technology is cheap and easily deployed, but that no one cares or even thinks about what the users need or prefer. Instead, there is some creativity (the double controls for the water) but mostly, in the service of control.

By the time Joe had spent $9 for a cup of coffee I was in a bad mood. I wouldn’t have been surprised to be asked for my social security number when pressing the button for a paper towel in the ladies’ room.

All this is to be viewed in contrast with my previous post, about wide-open, bottom-up efforts in the US that we hope will  influence higher levels of society and government through local organizing. I want to mention that high school students all over the country are marching out of school to protest the failure of my generation to achieve gun control — this is after the latest shooting, in Parkland, Florida. I also see that there are widespread plans for registering young voters. These are kids who started learning about climate change in kindergarten, adopted at-risk-for-extinction animals or plants in the fourth grade, etc. And they don’t like being shot.

I am proposing these two extremes: the porous, bottom-up open-to-everyone “trust the crowd” practice of popular democracy, with its disasters like Trump, in the US, versus my glimpse of the level of control of specifically communication that I have heard and read about in China, which corresponds to what I have heard about the control of political or politically sensitive activity there.  I am thinking about these because, of course, the issue of what is politically sensitive and what level of control is necessary or tolerated is alive in Viet Nam. We certainly encounter it frequently. For example, as we discuss preparations and organizing for the big international conference that is to emerge from the Minimum Wage conference, we have to consider what is politically sensitive and what is not.

But so much for China; we are now in Nepal, quite a different story. A glimpse:  Here is a photo of a public event, some kind of award-giving ceremony, that is part of a trade fair being held in Patan Durbar, a section of Kathmandu full of old palaces and temples.

trade fair

The three-story brick building on the left (which was renovated and earthquake retrofitted after the 1934 earthquake and therefore did not, unlike a lot of buildings in central Kathmandu, fall down in the 2015 earthquake), is the old palace. The second floor with its carved lattice windows is where the king’s wives spent their lives. The monarchy apparently was nowhere near as exploitative as the Rana oligarchs, a group of elites that ran the country like a private estate and were overthrown in 1951. So the monarchy by itself, with a Parliament and a Constitution, was an improvement.The monarchy was only abolished in 2008 after the Maoist uprisings that began as student uprisings in the 1990s. The Maoists were part of the government beginning in 2007 and the Maoist party chairman, Prachanda, became Prime Minister in 2008. Then party splits, interethnic rivalry and efforts to create a new constitution seem to have characterized the next six years, which is as far as the book we bought at Paten Dhoka bookstore (“Dixit”) takes me. I understand there is a new constitution now.

So far, we have not met anyone who can talk to us in an informed way about the situation. The word “corruption” is used freely. There is a lot of international money moving around, however. We have been told that one third of the national income comes from workers sending back wages from overseas, mostly men and mostly from the Gulf.

The ubiquitous hats are Nepali men’s wear; you fold the peak to represent whichever mountain you want to contemplate today.

Another city view, in Durbar Patan:

cornder dust

Here is a picture of the guesthouse’s excellent cook, making a beans, rice and vegetable dish for us to eat later.

cook 2



Does democracy work? — March 7, 2018

Does democracy work?


I took the train to Los Angeles along with a team of cheerleaders who were on their way to a national competition in Las Vegas. They were both boys and girls, but these girls sat at the table across from mine. I asked if I could take their picture. They asked, “Why?” I said, “So that I could post it on a blog that I share with Vietnamese friends.”  Then one of the girls piped up: “I’m Vietnamese! Do you speak Vietnamese?” I said, “Toi hoc tieng Viet,” and she broke into giggles. “You said that almost right!”

She and one of the others spent the entire rest of the trip — 6 hours, from Richmond to Bakersfield — doing makeup, taking it off, starting all over again.

She herself was born in the US but speaks Vietnamese becuase her parents speak to her in it.


Two more pieces of the puzzle. One, a new play at the Strand theater in San Francisco — one of the ACT theaters, on Market Street. It’s called VietGone and the image is of a motorcycle headed west — this is the bike on which the main character, a young Vietnamese man who left his wife and two kids in Saigon in April 1975, tries to ride west from the refugee camp where he has landed to California. From California he hopes to find a way back to Viet Nam, but of course, at least a that point in history, it is not going to happen. This young man is the father of the playwright, who is trying to tell his parents’ story. It’s a good play. Like Hamilton, it uses hip-hop and rap to engage the audience directly with songs that emerge out of the dialog. It will probably be a commercial success.


The other is a link that was just posted on the VSG list. Part of this program is a good long interview with Bui Diem who was the Ambassador from South Viet Nam to the US during the war. This interview is from 1981.  I found his words riveting. What he says about the impact of the American presence between 1965-1975 explains a lot of what we saw in South Viet Nam ourselves, over 40 years later.

It is part of the Open Vault collection at WGBH in Boston.


When I paste the link above into a new tab, I get to the interview immediately. But the item below is also interesting:

Joe and I are going traveling next week, this time on a completely different tangent, although also in Asia.  I have not decided at this point if I am going to include that trip in this blog.

I put up the title of this blog, “Does Democracy work?” because that question has become louder and louder in my corner of the world. My past posts try to show examples of what freedom of association looks like at the bottom level: the Vermont Workers Center annual meeting, with its fishbowl discussion; the Women’s March, with its organized and unorganized marchers; the Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Oakland, where I put up the photo of people voting; the hotel workers who push the Cal OSHA Board to pass the musculo-skeletal injury standard.

All of these are organizations that are very porous at the base. To join the Women’s March, step off the sidewalk. The regular meetings of the VWC are open to everyone and probably every member would be welcome at the annual membership meeting. True, only members of DSA were able to vote; they were given red cards upon registering at the desk. And you had to have a reason to be at the Cal OSHA meeting, although when Joe and I registered at security we identified ourselves as “Community,” meaning that as part of the public, we had a vested interest in the well-being of workers generally. But the effort in these  bottom-level organizations is to encourage participation, not control access. This has significance for the concept of leadership: good leader is someone who can get a lot of people to do things. But it is enormously time-consuming and hard work: someone like Ellen Schwartz at the VSC is constantly educating, organizing, listening to personal stories, making connections, day in and day out. You can only do it so long before you burn out. And it’s slow. My question is, if the bottom level of a society is organized in these loose, porous bodies that require so much energy and take so long to get something done, does that make such a society just more vulnerable when it is attacked by elements that are tightly, hierarchically organized?



Minimum Wage Conference at TDT, Women’s March, Hotel Workers and Cal OSHA — January 29, 2018

Minimum Wage Conference at TDT, Women’s March, Hotel Workers and Cal OSHA


View from the back of the ferry, crossing from San Francisco to Oakland. 

The Minimum Wage conference at Ton Duc Thang took place and, from what we could tell, skyping in, it was a great success. Among the achievements:  posting the papers on a google drive in advance, so that everyone could read them; bringing researchers down to HCMC from Hanoi; the presence of ILO Country Director Chang-Hee Lee and VGCL retired chief Dang Ngoc Tung, and the design of the program to allow above all, real discussion! Many of the papers, but not all, were presented in English. Therefore although a Vietnamese student from SF State happened to be visiting us that afternoon and did some whisper translation, we mostly missed the discussion.

Any discussion in Viet Nam about minimum wage leads to discussions of collective bargaining (which is what pushes wages above the minimum) which in turn leads to discussions of independent unions, “free” or otherwise, empowered to elect their own leaders (not just the Director of Human Resources from the enterprise), such as might have emerged had the US not backed out of TPP once Trump took over. The consistency agreement under TPP would have required Viet Nam to sign the ILO conventions that protect freedom of association.  Thus the presence of key persons from the ILO and the VCGL is significant.

Here’s the google drive in which the papers were posted, followed by the article that appeared in Lao Dong about the conference. The person standing is Dang Ngoc Tung. On the screen in the background you can see Joe, skyped in, many times life-sized. I had no idea we were looming over the proceedings.


Nguyên chủ tịch Tổng LĐLĐVN Đặng Ngọc Tùng phát biểu tại tọa đàm. Ảnh Nam Dương

Women’s March in Oakland  January 20

After one year of Trump, are we getting numb to the catastrophe? Every day is a new low. Behind the clowning and insults, off-stage, the structure of a government that can do its job is being taken apart.  Odd that this should be the work of an old man; old people are supposed to be willing to do the boring, detail work of maintaining the structure or even improving it, so that something will outlive them. I keep thinking of the man on the 32nd floor — the guy who holed up in that Las Vegas hotel and unleashed a firestorm out the window, onto a crowd of concert-goers hundreds of yards below. Bang-bang-bang, laying down fire. That’s Trump.

So there wasn’t a lot of publicity about this year’s Women’s Marches. I didn’t get any emails or sense anyone doing any organizing. On the morning of the day I googled it and found a website, obviously put up in the last 24 hours, saying where to go and when. We went on our bikes. Joe’s bike cable broke so we spent some time in a bike shop and wound up just standing on the sidewalk on 14th Street in downtown Oakland watching. by then it was about 10:30. People were coming by with their posters and costumes, but it wasn’t a thick crowd.  I thought, “Well, it’s OK, but not as big as last year.” However,  they kept coming. Maybe a thousand, maybe two thousand….maybe more.  And more. Then after a while a row of women in security patrol vests came along in tight formation, shoulder-to-shoulder. I asked, “Who’s this?”  Someone told me: “This is the march.”  All the people who had been coming past for the last hour were the overflow, the people who couldn’t get into the main march because it was full already.  And once the main march arrived, it was indeed huge, as huge as last year. You couldn’t get anywhere near the Frank Ogawa amphitheater; you couldn’t even get into the intersection of 14th and Broadway. Pretty good for no publicity.
 Some pictures:
pussy hats

Pussy hats all over the place. I had bought a skein of pink yarn and some needles, but didn’t get started. I wore a pink scarf.


I counted at least seven full bands; this one was all drummers.


And puppets. Most of the signs were hand-drawn, not organizational.

MWarch bully

The first wave of marchers were mostly couples, single women, or families like this, with their own signs made at home. In the right rear you can see Joe in his pussy hat standing with our bikes.The second wave, the “real” march, had many more organized groups of ten or twenty or more people.

How the Cal-OSHA Muscular-Skeletal Injury Standard got passed

The reason for this section is to illustrate the role of an independent union in improving the jobs that workers have to do, members or not. It shows how many different resources and activities had to be pulled together to complete each step. It involved workers doing participant action research, union staff strategizing and compiling data, academics using social science methodology to produce peer-reviewed papers, and local union leaders recirculating the findings back to the workers and educating them about how to use the findings to protect themselves. the job of the union, in this example, is not just collective bargaining; although the information discovered and systematized in this process became a powerful tool in collective bargaining (with the Hyatt chain, specifically) that was only a part of it.  Notice that this research was not undertaken by the AFL-CIO, which is the closest thing we have to the VGCL, or the Department of Labor. However, it was done with the help of another government agency, OSHA. But mainly, it was built on the knowledge of workers themselves from doing their work and living with the consequences and carried by the commitment of workers to show up, participate and in some cases, confront their bosses.
The General Duty Clause
The most important sentence in the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 is Section 5(a) (1) that says that employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”
One thing this means is that there are no acceptable “occupational diseases” or “career diseases.”  “Career disease” is a term I have heard in Viet Nam. If some kind of work will, over time (notice no time limit on how long it takes) cause harm (as in a “career disease”), then it is the employer’s responsibility to fix that situation. The least effective way for the employer to do this is to create rules; the next least is to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), and the best is to engineer the hazard out of existence.
Another important word is “recognizable.”  You have to show that a hazard is recognizable. That means that there has to be a certain standard against which the hazard, whether it is noise, dust, fumes, cold, moving vehicles, explosions, risk of falling, or stress can be measured.  The campaign by UNITE-HERE was to establish a standard for musculo-skeletal injuries so that the types of work done by room cleaners could be included as a ‘recognizable hazard”.
A standard applies to all workers, not just to union members. If you are represented by a union and put the standard into your contract, you can enforce it more effectively, but you are covered whether or not you have a union.
There is a federal OSHA, (Act, in this case) but states can have their own Acts if they are stronger than the federal OSHA.  California is one of those states. The Board is appointed by the governor. The actual agency is staffed by professional health and safety experts. In California, it eventually  needed a change of governors in order to get a more sympathetic Board appointed at Cal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)
What Hotel Room Cleaners Do
Hotel design, at least in the big chains, began changing in the 1990s.  The changes involved big duvets, lots of extra pillows, fancy scarves spread across the foot of a bed, bathrobes — lots of luxury to go along with higher prices. Bathrooms became theaters with elaborate lighting and glass doors on showers. All this meant more to lift, push and clean.
Hotel room cleaners have to pull up 18 inch mattresses, bend and stretch to make huge beds, fluff up heavy duvets, push 400-pound carts through thick carpets and reach high and far to clean bathrooms, many of which now have glass doors, not plastic curtains. They also work under the pressure of time because they are given a quota of rooms to finish with each shift. In the course of this they incur many kinds of muscle strains and back and shoulder injuries. In order to keep working, many take pain medications.
Out of fear of being disciplined, many work through their federally-required breaks. In fact, the UNITE-HERE project included filing with the Department of Labor to get back pay for workers who had worked through their breaks for many years. Only when workers saw their checks for back pay in their hands did they finally believe that they really were required to take breaks, no matter what their supervisors said.
We learned about the union (UNITE-HERE) campaign to address this problem while we were working in Chicago, probably 2005. The union there represented many workers in the Hyatt chain. What follows below is a description of the meeting in the state of California building in Oakland  in 2018, thirteen years later, where the Board voted to approve a musculoskeletal injury standard. ONe of the reasons for including this event in this post is to emphasize the duration of the project, the kind of commitment shown by the union and the workers, and the level of resources required to carry it out.
The Hearing on January 18, 2018
In California, the musculo-skeletal injury standard was first introduced 6 years ago. It took getting new people appointed to the Board by a different Governor — Governor Brown — to get the standard accepted. The standard was finally accepted on January 18.

>Workers from UNITE HERE — hotel room cleaners — have come to the hearings every time the standard came before the board.  Some individual workers have been many times. This time they came, too, expecting it to win at last. Before the hearing the rallied in the lobby of the State building.


Once in the hearing chamber, they sat together with their red T-shirts.

UH workers

 The first person to testify was a neutral attorney, pointing out that the standard might allow someone to “go fishing” for data on accidents, leading to more lawsuits. The CAL OSHA staff, which was recommending the approval of the standard, explained that this was actually not the case.  The staff sat to the side of the chamber, below, listening and responding when called upon.


Two people had come on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce; one of them, the woman, asked about the economic impact of the standard. The spokesperson from the CAL-OSHA staff responded with a comparison of the amount spent on unemployment benefits and disability compensation.


The young woman is a representative from the Chamber of Commerce

After almost two hours of testimony, mostly by workers themselves, the Board asked if anyone else wanted to speak. No one did.  Then the vote was called. The vote was unanimous, in favor of establishing the standard.

the vote
Now begins a new task: educating members to know when the standard is being violated and what to do, followed by enforcing it.
Minimum Wage Conference in Berkeley — December 11, 2017

Minimum Wage Conference in Berkeley

bok choy

The beauty of food in its market presentation form: This is at Monterey Market on Hopkins

Joe and I went to the full-day symposium (that’s a good word; the upcoming TDT January 9-10, 2018 will be called a “workshop”, as compared to conference or seminar) at the Institute for Labor Research and Employment (ILRE) on Channing in Berkeley, which is part of UC Berkeley. The primary names associated with this event were MIchael Reich and Sylvia Allegretto, researchers at the ILRE, but they had gathered famous labor economists from around the country to present as well, in honor of the ten-year anniversary of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics, which is a Center at the ILRE (these are all standard terms for sub-organizations within a university). Michael and Sylvia had responded to an email from Katie Quan about the TDT conference by saying they’d be interested in coming, but they needed funding; there is, of course, no institutional funding for the TDT conference other than some in-kind (housing, meeting space, translation provided by the ILO), and in fact the airfare of the Hanoi participants was being subsidized by individual personal donations, so we were confronting quite a clear cultural and economic disjuncture in this case. Dale Belman, from Michigan State, and Ken Jacobs from Berkeley, who were present and participated in the ILRE symposium, also told me that they normally expected to have their expenses covered for such things. I said that tickets actually weren’t that expensive.

This makes me think of a question that I never thought would keep echoing in my memory, but here it comes again. It was asked by Peter Feuille, who was the Director of the Institute for Labor Relations at Illinois. The person to whom it was asked was Joe, who had asked Pete Feuille about where a certain data set about a particular workforce might be found — what government agency, think tank, library, etc was gathering and holding that information. Pete looked at him in amazement and asked, “Who would pay for that kind of information?”

Translation from academic to regular language:  Collecting and sharing information costs money. Someone pays for it. The people who pay for it choose what kinds of information they want to see gathered or shared (or sequestered for that matter). They don’t pay for information that may bring them news that they don’t want to hear, or might provide tools or encouragement for parties that they are in conflict with. Or that they don’t want spread around. So if you are looking for a data set that no one with big bucks will pay for, you may be out of luck (and have to collect it yourself).

The next question would be about whether any data is neutral, but never mind.

So one of my reasons for attending the Berkeley symposium was to see whether our friends at TDT and among the presenters there should wish they were able to afford to bring any of these US researchers to the January 9-10 conference, or to the international conference that is going to be planned for Spring 2019. Do the ILRE researchers have data, arguments, methods, perspectives, ideas that our Vietnamese colleagues can benefit from? (Or should pay to hear?)

bitter squ

I think this is bitter squash, because I have eaten soup in Viet Nam with slices of something that looks like this floating in it.

I promised Angie et al that i would take notes on the Berkeley symposium, so here they are. Since the whole thing will be both published and streamed on the internet (or at least a link will go up on the internet so that you can watch the whole thing) I will not do my usual hyper-note-taking; I’ll just summarize and comment.

But First, Minimum Wage in the US is an Altogether Different Issue than it is in Viet Nam

In the US, most of the research discussion around minimum wage (raising it) concerns whether or not it will result in job loss (employers being unable to afford higher labor costs, and therefore hiring fewer workers). For those who don’t know already: federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour; some states allow a “tip wage” which goes down to $2.15 per hour; “living wages” are estimated to be between $15-22 per hour; many states, cities, districts, etc have higher minimum wages, typically $12-13 per hour, and through organizing and political pressure and the involvement of labor unions representing low-wage workers in industries like food service or retail, $15 per hour seems to be within reach in many places.  This was a dream that seemed impossible only a few years ago, but organizing has made it seem within reach in many plaes.

Research that shows that raising the minimum wage does not result in job loss is paid for by progressive, left-ish think tanks and academic bodies, and is drawn upon by activist and political entities (such as unions — for example, a young policy analyst from SEIU 2015 was sitting behind me and said he would use what he learned for bargaining). This issue (raising the minimum wage towards a decent or living wage vs job loss) merges into issues of social wage, social welfare safety net, socialism, what does a government owe its people? etc etc, and fractures along those lines. By the time you are talking about a living wage and universal healthcare, someone is calling you a socialist.

audience at ILRE

The rear half of the audience. Note technology tree. 

This event was organized on short notice by Sandra Smith, UCB Professor of Sociology, who is the new interim director of ILRE, in order to mark the tenth year of the CWED, Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics.

Although it was not advertised very widely, the event was open to the public. About 50 people came to the ground-floor meeting room and sat in rows in front of a projection screen, a table for the panels, and a podium. You signed in, made a name tag and indicated your affiliation, but you could list your affiliation as “community” if you wanted. The person behind me came from SEIU 2015, the union that represents homecare workers (people who do healthcare for people who are at home, a job where in California the state is the employer). He is a policy analyst and will use the information shared at this meeting for bargaining purposes, to get an increase in homecare workers’ wages.

A few overall comments for Vietnamese readers:

The big issue in the US about raising the minimum wage is, will a requirement that employers pay a higher wage lead to the loss of jobs? Right-wing, conservative politicians say higher labor costs will produce a lower demand for labor, that is, fewer jobs. Employers will simply cut back on workers. This is straight supply-demand economics. Researchers at this symposium believe that supply-demand is not an accurate or sufficient way to look at the world. They are looking for ways to build persuasive arguments in favor of increasing minimum wage. They say that “the new consensus is” that raising the minimum wage does not cause job loss.

No one dealt with the issue of jobs moving overseas. It was all about state-to-state or US labor market issues.

None of these presentations were about trade.

All of these presentations were quantitative. They used many kinds of statistical computer tools to generate graphs and charts and shake out relationships among variables, trying to get closer to the real world than supply and demand. The data sets that these researchers used came from many sources, some government (like the Current Population Survey -“CPS”- or the Census https://www.census.gov/ ) and some “administrative,” meaning coming from another source, such as an employer or university. “Administrative data” is considered more accurate but one of the researchers said that in his experience, they coincide at a larger scale. One gets access to this data by requesting or applying for it.

None of the research presented at this symposium used qualitative social science methodology such as interviews, observation, surveys, ethnographic approaches.

Furthermore, unless I am mistaken, all of them looked at jobs as an aggregate by industry or demographic, not employers. None of them used the employer as the unit of analysis to see how negotiating special wage, tax or benefit exemptions in export processing zone situations changed the picture.

So here are my notes, I have supplied brief explanations of things that are unfamiliar to our Vietnamese colleagues but mostly let things stand as is.

Michael Reich, past Director of the ILRE, introduced the program. He began with his father’s history as a garment worker, then an employer, and his own early approach (with David Gordon) to low wage work with a theory of dual labor markets – that there is a separate labor market for low-wage dead end jobs. He said that he eventually moved from diagnoses to solutions.

The first three presentations are about innovative methods and “the new consensus,” which is that increases in minimum wage help workers but do not cost jobs.

First morning presentation: Minimum Wage Effects Across State Borders: Arindrajit Dube. UMass Amherst.

The old data about minimum wage effects was time series analyses, 1970s-80s. There was the US federal minimum wage and not much difference across states until 1990s. Then new minimum wage research began to use variation across states. But are these really parallel enough to make good comparisons? States differ in politics, unionization, sectoral mix, cyclical factors. In the 1990s, there was no publicly accessible pool of data to use to generate more data points for studies. Thus the importance of long-term gathering and public accessibility of studies/data. So they tried using proximity – what happens if one state raises its minimum wage, the one next to it doesn’t? If New Jersey raises their minimum wage and Pennsylvania doesn’t, in the food service industry, what happens?   Then they tried border comparisons: doing a study of counties that border another state where there is a difference in minimum wage, where workers could travel across a state line to get a higher minimum wage job. Their research population focused on teens, and restaurant sectors, because there tend to be a lot of mininum wage workers in this age group and sector. They found that turnover goes down, earnings go up. Finding: “Moderate raises in the minimum wage help workers and do not jeopardize jobs.” Obama quoted their research in his State of the Union Address, but pushback criticized use of local control groups as methodology. Fast forward to present: the minimum wage discussion now means $15 per hour, with $19 per hour ceiling being used as standard for studies of low-wage workers.

Second morning presentation: Sylvia Alegretto (CWED), Seattle’s Minimum Wage Experience 2015-16. Wage and employment effects using a “synthetic city” comparison methodology

They are doing a 6-city study. Three cities are in CA, where San Jose’s minimum wage went up 25%, then San Francisco indexed up to a policy shift; then Oakland. Now there are 20 different minimum wages in CA. The other cities in the study are Seattle, Chicago, and DC where minimum wage is going up to $15. Historically, minimum wage now is higher than in the past. The problem for economists: how do we compare minimum wage impact? They used a “synthetic” approach. She explains this by referencing the study of the impact of the 1999 cigarette tax, which could by using this approach show the reduction of smoking by 30 packs per person. They computer-searched around the country to find counties that have parallel policies of other sorts. The collection of comparable locations is called the “donor pool.” So the Chicago “donor” pool (areas that could be compared to Chicago) has a lot of spots over the south. The SF and Seattle donor pool shows up a lot in Florida. Now the researchers can look at the difference between the real city and the “synthetic match.” They find the wage effects positive, employment effects hover near zero (meaning that workers made more money, employment did not go down). Future work: We should not see effects in civil service; should see effects in nursing home, other sectors.

Third presentation, Ben Zipperer, Economic Policy Institute (EPI): Effect of minimum wage on law wage jobs – Using a “bunching estimator”

There is near consensus on no employment effects of MW. But much of MW research is focused on demographic groups like teens or industries like restaurants, because teens tend to get low-wage jobs and restaurants provide low-wage jobs. They study employment effects before an increase and then over time after an increase. Motivation: Are we missing the total employment effect on the whole low-wage workforce? Policy work tries to apply estimates from research on teens and restaurant to entire workforce. Does this make sense? This paper tries to study effect of MW on overall workforce, not just teens and restaurant workers. Fact: lots of workers bunch around minimum wage. Can we use that to estimate the impact of MW on whole low wage workforce? Yes – employment effects close to zero. Average wage increase is 7%, spillovers die out about $3 above MW. Spillovers are mostly to incumbent workers. Limited to no spillover effects to new workers.

missing jobs

Seep photo for image of “missing jobs” upon intro of MW. Destruction of jobs below new MW and creation of jobs above. Missing jobs and excess jobs cancel each other out. Actually, the old jobs are the same jobs getting paid more. MW wage increase spillover is only on incumbent workers, and fades out at about $3 over minimum wage.

Discussant #1: Laura Guiliano, University of California at Merced

Previous research has used demographic groups like teenagers or sectoral groups (restaurant workers) as proxies for low-wage workers. So we have to ask, what are good control groups? Nearby cities? Synthetic cities? These approaches are too inclusive and lose precision. They make trade offs between rigor and credibility and transparency/simplicity.

Policy people want answers to the question, “If we raise minimum wage, how many workers will get a raise?” and “How about workers who already get MW or more, what is the spillover effect? How do you deal with higher wage workers getting bumped for lower wage workers? And how about measurement error?”

Internal wage structures are important in relation to the spillover effect. She has figures from day-before fed min wage increase (4.25 – 4.75) and day after, and sees bunching from $5 to $5.25, indicating an internal wage structure. This suggests that an employer, or perhaps a whole industry, has committed to paying a certain amount above minimum wage; that is their structure.

My note: An internal wage structure might be the consequence of a union contract, but this does not get mentioned. The word “union” appears only once in the day, after the last presentation.

Duscussant #2: Ian Perry, CLRE. Employment and CDP Growth from 2011 to 2016 California vs Average of Republican controlled states.

What happens to a state economy when you go to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), cap and trade, and do all these things, and raise minimum wages on top of that. People say, |”Oh, you can’t compare California to these other states.” So he compares the real California with a synthetic California if it had not done all these things. To create a synthetic California, you pick out other states that are parallel in every way except the feature you want to test, and make your comparison. In fact, CA is doing very well economically. They made a YouTube video about this, but I have not found it.



Questions from the floor: How do you measure the earnings of workers who are new entrants, not working in prior period?   Answer: just count the number of jobs in each wage “bin” – count the number of workers in each state in each time period. We are not following new entrants individually; we just look at the change in counts of new entrants. Total wage change for both incumbents and new entrants is similar, although spillover effect exists.

Second panel


First presentation: Ken Jacobs, CLRE – Living Wages at Airports. Airport employment, TSA workers after 9-11.

After 9-11 TSA (airport sercurity) workers were engaging in over 100% turnover per year. Increase in wage to SF Living wage has reduced turnover by 80% and improved worker commitment. But now that the SF City and County minimum wage is rising it will soon be higher than the Airport minimum wage; airport service contractors are now reporting increase in turnover and they are concerned about rising mistakes, poor service.

Second morning presentation: Michael Reich, CWED. He was asked by city of LA, “What would be the effect of a $15 federal minimum wage?”

Most research previous is about effect on unemployment, and discussion is about what the controls are. Now the terrain has changed. We’re looking at wage changes that might affect 20-30 percent of workers, not 6-9%. We also have to look at effects on prices and demand. The biggest effect of MW increases is on consumption due to pass through higher prices, and consumption is skewed upward because the wealthier do the major share of consumption.

Third morning presentation. Claire Montailoux, Stanford and CREST. Effects of higher minimum wages in the US.

The most likely effect will be increase in prices in restaurant industry of 7%; this is variable across related sectors such as food production and retail. It’s not just the price of the food on the plate; it’s all the inputs.

prod and mw

If Minimum wage had grown with output per hour, it would now be at nearly $20 per hour. This is very similar to the famous productivity/wages graph that we use a lot in labor education classes. 

Discussant #1. Emanuel Zaez, UC Berkeley. Some restaurants in San Francisco posted notices alerting customers to increases in price due to the requirement that employers in restaurants provide heathcare access. It’s important to note that prices go beyond actual labor costs. A restaurant that raises prices may attribute it to increase in labor costs of employees but their other inputs such as food or delivery or equipment, all affected by minimum wage increases, also go up.

Discussant #2: Larry Michel, EPI. There have been MW increases, we know that they have minimum employment job loss effects. But MW increases are still too small. We need to talk about it differently. “Job loss” is a mis-characterization of the world. Employment loss exaggerates the negative consequences and mis-characterizes the “employment effects” information. By focusing on “job loss,” we are implicitly accepting that metric of “one job loss is bad so don’t do it.” This is not a world in which you are either employed or not employed. The picture that says, if price goes up demand goes down, does not reflect the world – people are not just either employed or not employed. We have to shift away from that model. Studies suggest that when you increase minimum wage, the labor pool grows. They didn’t worry about this with TPP or any other policy – only minimum wage. So if minimum wage goes up and 25 million workers are affected but 500,000 jobs are lost – that’s 2%. But the lost jobs is where the focus goes. That’s a distorted framework for thinking about the value of the minimum wage. We should talk about aggregate hours reduction, not employment in terms of the unit of “job”. We should talk about the substitution effect, scale effect, income distribution effect.

Questions from the floor: Now the discussion shifts to questions about the focus of the research, and ways that the existing research does not grapple with critical issues. We have not done impact of employment effects by race or gender. Impact of minimum wage on women and minorities. If we are trying to look at the real world, we need to recognize that minimum wage jobs employ a very high percent of people of color, Black and Latino. More than half of the affected workforces in CA and New York are Black and Latino.

Bill Spriggs, Howard University. Immigrants are far more important today than teenagers. This is not like the picture of the worker in the 1960s and into the period the 1970s when everybody’s incomes went up with increases in minimum wage. The profile of low wage workers is very different now compared to then. Back then, low-wage workers were teenagers who maybe graduated high school and it was a first job. You could say they were less productive. Now, low-wage workers are men and women much older with associates degrees. Hard to explain how with technology assisting workers who have high school degrees or associates degrees, you can make the “less productive” argument. (Spriggs will present later in the day on dual labor markets; dead end jobs for women and minorities.)

Michael Reich: There are more business entries when minimum wage goes up. Exits happen too. There is also the aggregate demand question –we translated that into family income and break it into 9 different family income bins. We only get new firm formation going up when the bottom 80% begins to show recovery

Claire Brown: Don’t leave out rural issues. There is a disconnect between people in a city and rural people. People who live in rural areas, not cities, are people who don’t have much money and don’t spend much money. Need to do different kind of research to open this up.

BOX LUNCH: sandwiches, coffee, apples

Lunch speaker: Jared Bernstein, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Four Noble Truths about Getting to and Staying at Full Employment.

Four noble truths of Buddhism: suffering exists, its causes are knowable, it can be diminished, there is a path to diminishing it. Full employment slack exists, its causes are knowable. etc. What is the policy agenda that will get us at full employment? We need a regime shift in monetary policy if we are going to solve this slack problem. Interest rates have been so low that we worry that we don’t have the monetary space in the next recession to lower them further. We should target price levels, not price points. A level has a memory. A level target as compared to a point target says you have to make up all those years when you missed your target. There should be a process by which central bankers – the fed – should investigate a targeting change. We are not ready for recessions; state unemployment trust funds are not in good shape. Helping the states is a good thing to do because they have to balance their budgets every year. We need sustained fiscal stimulus, a full employment fund, direct job creation, infrastructure and the environment. We have never been at full employment. And wages only rise when there is FE across all sectors.

Why did it take the election of Trump to get the economic profession to pay attention to Stomper, Samuelson and Rodriguez? Economics worshipped at the same altar as classical economics, but there is something else in the model and that’s power. Power is at the center of Bernstein and CPI’s analysis. The impacts of trade were forseen. As trade becomes more and more liberalized the net gains are diminished – from tariffs that go from 15 to 10, to 2 to 1 – the assumption is that there will be winners and losers and the winners will compensate the losers.

The problem with jobs programs is that labor force participation is low because wages are low. The deeper question is the institutions that would get wages to go up have been ripped apart. (My note: No mention of what these institutions, such as the NLRB, might be. This is the closest anyone comes to speaking about what, for example, it takes to organize a union.) The importance of this meeting is that at the bottom is let’s agree that we have a mechanism to force wages up. Question: Is that sufficient to move the floor up, and if we move the floor up is that sufficient to move the whole structure?

Discussion of federally funded direct jobs programs: CETA, the example they give, is reviewed now as “working petty well.’ My comments: That was a Nixon-era program signed in 1973. Yes, it did work pretty well. It was criticized and eventually eliminated for being a kind of welfare that put Black and minority people and women into paid work. It was only an early version of the jobs programs that have followed: JPTA and then all the WIA programs, which were essentially subsidies to employers. The discussants mention TANF, which was the welfare reform under Clinton, but not WIA which was supposed to provide jobs for people who were thrown off welfare (this did not happen). However, all of these programs were floated out into the politically volatile world of funding. Create a good program and don’t fund it, it won’t work. Funding depends on power.

It sounds as if they’re talking about a federally funded jobs program for low-wage workers, which would eat up the slack in the labor market for low-wage workers and is somehow related to the assumption that low-wage workers have low skills or need training, etc. There is no mention of partly-employed, under-employed or unemployed high-wage workers – who would be better served by expansions of the public sector (for employment of teachers, analysts, office workers, health and safety inspectors, healthcare workers, etc etc) where there are mid-level wage jobs.

First afternoon presenter: Bill Spriggs, Howard University: Upgrading Skill Use of Incumbent Workers in Low-Wage Industries.“Falling minimum wages favor organizing work along the minimum wage contour”

When Spriggs went to work at Sears after high school they told him, “We pay you 15 cents above MW.” That was retail. There were a cluster of employers that used this. They used the minimum wage as a benchmark and paid just enough above that to attract workers. Today, he still sees jobs bunching around the minimum wage plus a little. These are (my interpretation here) dead-end jobs that do not stair step via promotions up into decent living wage jobs. They are also disproportionately filled by minority workers. Why during the 1970s recovery did the wages of HS educated workers go up? Then in the later recover the wages of HS-educated workers went down? Answer: the share of wage workers that were on the minimum wage contour went up. Employers saw that they could organize work around minimum wage workers. They would create minimum wage jobs. Instead of a $17 an hour technician, they would hire a $8 an hour handler, or two of them, and get the handlers to do the technician’s work. So we see a shift from using higher wage works to using lower wage workers – this is in the face of technological improvements, which you’d think would use the higher wage workers, but they don’t. Instead, you are lowing my entry wage and you are narrowing the type of jobs available to lower wage. A larger share of these are women, and far more Blacks and Latinos also. Very much a dual labor market. These people are not getting the jobs that go up with productivity. These are jobs that only relate to minimum wage, on the minimum wage contour.

Who are the people who are on the minimum wage contour? When the relative prices change, then the low-wage path is not favored and this helps the workers who are pushed into the mw contour because of gender or race.   This affects the structure of the jobs that are offered. If I am going to have workers that stay longer, I want you to do different thing. This is taking persons with the same skills and doing using them differently . FedUp campaign. Workers in the 1960s with a HS degree who got minimum wage plus 15 cents, are the same workers who today, with an AA degree, are getting pushed in to minimum jobs. And this is because they are women, black, Latino.

(My note: a very visible instance of this is in education and healthcare, where many parts of a high-skill job like nursing or teaching were unbundled and then a workforce is trained using 1 year or 6 week certificate programs to do one piece of that bundle. Programs like this were typical of WIA job programs.) When we read that X number of “new jobs” were created, they are jobs like this. They do not have “career ladders.”

Second afternoon presentation: Linsey Rose Bullinger, Indiana University. Does the Minimum Wage Affect Child Maltreatment Effects?

37% of children are the subjects of investigations by Child Services (a govern,ent social welfare agency) during their lifetimes. The researchers used state data and found causal relationship between increase in minimum wage and reductions in child maltreatment. The main change is a 9% reduction in neglect; strongest in ages -1-5. Again a 9% reduction in neglect for ages 5-12. No changes in other forms of maltreatment (abuse, need for removal from family, etc). So an increase in minimum wage by $1 decreases child reports by 10% especially among child and school-age children.

Third afternoon presenter: Will Dow, UC Berkeley: Minimum wages and Health

Presenting a survey of what work has been done on health and minimum wage. In many ways, increases of $1 in minimum wage would produce health effects (longevity, reduction in infant deaths, etc et) that would save billions of dollars currently spent on transfer payments.

Discussant #1: Arindajit Dube – these presentations show a broadening of the outcomes and mechanisms behind minimum wage effects. However: A large percent of inequality can be attributed to inequality between firms. High person-effect people get into high-firm effect firms – a double labor market . Can you upgrade the jobs without changing the people – can or do firms do that? Upgrading the skills of incumbent workers?

Discussant #1: Rachel West – Center for American Progress; Downstream effects on children.

Comments from the floor: The problem with arguing in favor of a $1 mininum wage increase on the basis that the benefits in terms of health and longevity and etc will reduce the need for social programs like that provide money supplements to low income families (like welfare, SNAP) is that the likelihood is that there will be cuts in public programs before any increase in minimum wage goes in. However, claims like this have worked when people in the room like larry Mishel talk to legislators. If they think that raising minimum wage will reduce transfer payments, they support it. Others think this will backfire. Here someone says, “Berkeley is a special place.”

The discussion and the day concludes with talking about what kinds of research need to be done.

Bears fountain

Berkeley is a special place: The Bears Fountain


Berkeley is a special place #2: Voting on one of two resolutions at the Sunday Dec 10 general membership meeting of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (EBDSA). 





















November, 2017 Research, Vermont WC — November 13, 2017

November, 2017 Research, Vermont WC

goddessesEmotional Labor: Midnight Goddesses

We land in Taipei in the middle of the night. Two years ago, this airport was just an endless white-walled tunnel with the occasional sign “Transfers.”  Now the temporary walls are down and it turns out they were building a palace of duty-free merchandise, all the big brand names, and it goes on forever. We ask 3 young women at an information desk where to find a pharmacy because Joe has a bad cold. Given the size of this airport, how far away do these young women have to live? What is their commute? Who pays for their uniforms? When do they get home? When do they sleep? Did they know each other before they worked together? I have been reading a book about hotel workers in China, women’s emotional labor.

They don’t know the word “decongestant.”  I hike to the pharmacy, buy some, bring it back and show it to them. In return, they let me take their picture.


Message to the VSG list:

Hello —

Can I please get some information about the practice of paying research subjects in Viet Nam? What is normal social science research methodology here?

We are working with a group of lecturers at Ton Duc Thang to produce a research paper to be submitted to a conference on tourism, and have run into the expectation that interviewees will require payment. We are trying to interview hotel workers in order to answer the question, “Given that tourism is one of the rising industries in Viet Nam, and that the industry itself is expected to be environmentally sound and sustainable, are the jobs of hotel workers also sustainable?”

We have been told that “the three managers who are lined up to be interviewed would need to be compensated for their time, about 500,000 to 1,000,000 dong each and that they’d need to be interviewed first before they would let us interview the workers who also would need to be paid about 100,000 to 200,000 dong to compensate for lost work time.”  A million dong is about $44.00 US.

I realize that there are a number of problems raised by the above, but if I could just get some feedback focused on what is normal social science practice in VN regarding payment of research subjects, that would be appreciated.

Thank you –

Helena Worthen, Visiting Lecturer, TDTU Fall 2017


One of the managers, apparently, is the VGCL rep himself. I assume it’s a man, although it could be a woman. So the union rep, who is probably also an HR employee, is asking for $20-40 in return for allowing himself to be interviewed about the conditions of workers he represents. He will then pass on the names of workers whom he will allow us to interview. But we have to interview him first.

My message to the VSG list (Vietnam Studies Group)  is a follow up to a message from Daniel Helman, who has taken over the Journal Club at TDT now that we are back in the US. (It’s Saturday morning here, and it’s the first day that my brain seems to have recovered from jet lag.)

Answer from the VSG list about paying interview subjects: Yes, it’s normal. One response addressed the value to the researcher of a successful research project, and said that value should be passed along. “How much is the publication of this research worth to you?” in terms of career, income, etc? Well, it’s true: TDT is paying people to write papers.  He mentioned a pig, as an example of a gift. The other, from someone who had worked on a census, talked about the price of a person’s time taken from working hours.  They usually either paid interviewees or at least gave them a gift of some sort, such as a box of cheese.

Time for some re-cap and background.

The research project known as “The Journal Club” for the lecturers at the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty was an experiment. There were, in fact, two research questions. One was, “Are the jobs of hotel workers sustainable?” — in the sense of being a job you can do for years, sustaining a decent life, as compared to a burnout job that you can only do for a few years. That was the question that the paper was supposed to answer.  The second question – my question-  was, “Is it possible under current conditions for a faculty to develop and complete a research project and write a publishable article?”  The answer to this second question, as of now, is “No.”  However, “conditions” is a moving target, so it’s not over yet.

Ton Duc Thang has been promoting itself as a research university and hiring visiting academics to come and do research at it, and now there are enough “foreigners” on board that they make up a visible minority in the faculty lunch room. I have met people from Australia (good friend John Hutnyk), Krysta from Estonia, a man from Bulgaria, a woman from Czech Republic — but she’s teaching Czech language, because they have a close relationship with Charles University there), someone from Ukraine, an Irishman, and others. They come on these one-year contracts, for an undisclosed salary (there is apparently a non-disclosure item in their contracts, which is doomed to be frequently violated since western academics will assume that non-disclosure clauses are illegal; just for the record, Stephen Rosenbaum was offered $2,000 a month) plus the promise of a cash reward if, within a year, at least one article in an ISI journal gets published.

Since the ISI-Web of Science-SCOPUS database is very tech-focused (although with some exceptions — see my earlier blog post on this) the chances that a social science article is going to find a publisher on that list is limited, but even more of a problem is that you can’t research and write up a good article in a year, much less move it through the peer review process and then down the pipeline into a decent journal in that time frame.  You can probably do that with a tech article, at least if they are like some of the ones I saw while poking around on behalf of someone researching electronic transmission for cell phones. These were published in journals that came out frequently, with many articles of only 3-4 pages, full of equations.

That’s why getting tenure at Illinois, a 6 year process, demanded 2 articles in “good” journals (of which they recognized two, but never mind about that).

Having done peer review I know that when the peer reviewer gets the article, they are given a 6-week deadline or maybe even a 3 month deadline, and many peer reviewers don’t even make those deadlines. So imagine a researcher at Ton Duc Thang — one who was really using the research capability of TDT to do their work, not the capability of some home university that provided full journal article access – trying to do the research, analyze the findings, submit the article, wait for the review, do the revisions, and then wait until the pipeline cleared and their article made the light of day –the idea that this can happen on a one-year schedule is simply nuts.  To say nothing of the lack of full text access to articles through the library. Either it’s nuts, or Dr. Ut, who appears to be mogul of the research department at TDT, doesn’t understand how things work, or else there is something else going on. (I think the latter is the case; see earlier post on the announcement of TDT as the #2 university in Viet Nam.)

But in my pursuit of the answer to question #2 — namely, is it possible for real faculty members at TDT to achieve the research goals publicized by the university, under current conditions — we designed the optimum low-threshold situation possible for a project. We saw an announcement of a conference: “Engaging Vietnam: Tourism, Development and Sustainability,” to be held in HCMC in December of this year. Proposals due August 31 (it was about August 20 when we saw this announcement); conference in December; then the paper deadline March 31 2018, and some papers from that group to be selected to get tuned up to make it through the peer review process for consideration to be published int he Journal of Viet Nam Studies. Very well-sponsored conference involving the U of Hawaii, Oregon State, some place in Australia, a bunch of Vietnamese universities, etc. http://www.engagingwithvietnam.net/conference-program

So I wrote up a proposal, got it approved by our team, and submitted it and we were accepted. That was early September. The idea was to have meetings in the faculty office every other MOnday afternoon from 2-4 to check in on progress. Right away, I drafted 3 survey protocols — one for union reps, one for managers, one for workers. The idea was to get 2 or 3 of the union reps and managers, just to hear what the “official” line was — we didn’t really care about what their work lives were like or whether their jobs were sustainable; we wanted to know what they thought these were like for workers. The protocol for workers was more flexible and open-ended. We spent a meeting in mid September going over the protocols, translating them into Vietnamese, and making the questions “more realistic.” Then the idea was to go out and do some interviews. Maybe just a few per week. Everyone had copies of the papers with the questions, so that was not a problem.

Which was followed by meetings through September and into October with no interviews accomplished.  Daniel did some google searches for Vietnamese language journal articles and came up with a bunch, of which I could read the titles or abstracts of about 44 of them and the full article of one that was translated into English: they were all versions of the same study of motivation of workers, each one in a different hotel, trying to find out what factors would keep workers “satisfied” and motivated. They all found that approval by supervisors and sense of belonging to a team were motivating factors whereas punishment and money did not have much positive effect. They all looked like survey data and they were all in the service of management, to help management find positive ways to motivate workers.  Nothing about whether the jobs were any good.

At my end, I started reading some English language articles about hotel worker jobs generally. Just off the top of the list that was available was one about “emotional labor” for women in hotels in China (that was a book actually; see the Midnight Goddesses above). Another was about what happened when stress was included in New Zealand Labor Law as a hazard, requiring employers to address the sources of stress rather than making it the employee’s problem (through counseling); the engineering vs PPE situation. I presented these at our last Journal Club meeting, to show that in the English-language literature about jobs in the hotel industry, the questions that were considered appropriate topics of research were much broader, less instrumental than how to motivate workers to stay in their jobs without paying them more. The New Zealand article, which interviewed 35 people (same as our target number) was a close enough parallel to what we were working towards so that our faculty could recognize that we were in the same ball park. The idea was that, if our interview subjects described their work as stressful  (and hotel work is famously stressful –that’s just a given in the English language research) then we would have the beginnings of a framework for comparing their jobs with a general theory about hotel work. And if they insisted that it was not stressful — well, that’s information.

But by the end of October, no one had done a single interview. This is despite week after week of people making a commitment, down to naming a specific day, on which they would do an interview. I actually got quite upset about this and spoke angrily in several meetings. One problem seemed to be that people were waiting for me to tell them to start interviewing. Vinh had to calm me down and influence me to change my behavior, which I tried to do.

Oh well. Back to Berkeley.

The question remains, however: is the university administration, by pushing lecturers to do research, setting them up for failure? If they are teaching 4 classes per semester and there is no budget or support for research, no graduate students to do the first sweep of lit reviews,  set up a nice database, start the coding, draw the diagrams etc etc — how are they supposed to do it? At the same time as they have to learn English and teach in English? At what point does someone say the emperor has no clothes? Or just keep their mouth shut, and  get cynical.

I was asked, “In the US, aren’t there some professors who do research and others who just teach?”  True; but that’s not what you expect to see as the basis for calling something a “research university.”

No wonder the best researchers I know are not university-affiliated. Do Quynh Chi, Ha Dang, Ha Do — none of them connected to a university.  And then there are the “research institutes.” Apparently all the arms of government have research institutes.


Marin Headlands, morning fog, from balcony. 


Saturday in Berkeley: Met with Stephen Rosenbaum at Peet’s this morning — he got a sudden offer to do a 16-month gig in Myanmar and therefore turned down one of the $2,000 a month full-time positions at TDT, but hopes he can pick it up later.


One week in Berkeley, then to Vermont to check on the house after about 10 different renters had come and gone, and to enjoy some cold air. It’s been down in the 10’s here. Drove up to Barre on Nov 11 to attend the Vermont Workers Center annual membership meeting. It’s held in the old Labor Temple, built by Italian socialists in the 1890s — Italians because, once railroads came to the granite and marble mountains of Central Vermont, allowing the quarries to not only cut but also carve the monuments that would get shipped all over (including one for Leland Stanford’s mausoleum) – they needed carvers, and the only people who really know how to do that are Italians. Italians who happen to be socialists.


labr hall

The building is now a national landmark. Down in the basement are some sculptures done by the Italians:


The meeting began at 11:30 am, followed by lunch followed by various types of discussion. This type is one of my favorites. It’s called “fishbowl” with a “tag-in” element to it. there are two concentric circles, one big and one small (about 5-7 people). The people in the smaller circle pick up a topic: a campaign issue, a problem, a proposal. They talk it over. When someone sitting in the outer circle decides they have something to contribute, they step up to the inner circle, tap someone on the shoulder, and trade places with them. Here is Lily explaining the process:


The Vermont Workers Center is a progressive political organization but it doesn’t run or support candidates for election. It organizes and mobilizes and educates. Many members are young people, in their 20s and 30s. The big issue right now is getting Act 48, which was a state of Vermont law to establish single-payer medicare-for-all inVermont, funded. It was all set to go and then in 2014 the Democratic governor pulled the plug on the process. As an organization, it is trying to re-make itself as member-driven, dues-based, and bottom-up, after having gone through a crisis when the previous Executive Director quit and set up a different organization with a different legal status so he could do direct electoral work —  and took a lot of the foundation funding with him.

Back in Jamaica: A few bright sunny days, but very cold. I took a walk down toward the river,came across a pile of debris left over from Irene, the flood in 2013.




End of October — October 28, 2017

End of October

Last Saturday was my birthday: 75, according to Vietnamese counting, but 74 the way I count.  Joe with Ha Do’s help made reservations at a restaurant named Zenbay, not too far from TDT, and we invited some friends including An and Vy, John, Vinh and That from our faculty, Mai the Assistant Dean of Sociology, Joe Buckley, and Ha Do of course. The food was great and the setting gorgeous, up high on a terrace as the sun set. Many conversations took place at the table. Not everyone knew each other before the meal; that was in part the point.

all good

From the left: Vinh, John, Ha Do, Joe Buckley. Me at the bottom of the table. Down the right side: An, That, Mai, Joe, Vy.


This is our last week. The next entries will be a mix of big and little items. We have had a busy week.

Earl Silbar and Sue Schulz from Chicago were in town for 2 days as part of a 5-week tour through South Asia. We went over to their hotel- the Intercontinental –  Sunday morning to visit. Sue was going out on the walking tour to the Cathedral but Earl had been getting sicker and sicker day by day and stayed behind in their room. When we went up there, it didn’t take us long to persuade him to go to the French Hospital, where they took blood, did an x-ray and CT scan, discovered double pneumonia and checked in him.


They pumped him full of antibiotics and kept him until Thursday afternoon but is now better enough to be allowed to go join Sue in the new hotel in Koreatown (District 7, the Bien Vien which has several buildings, 280.000 per night) that the tour guide set up for them while the rest of the tour went on to Rangoon. Luckily they have plenty of insurance of various kinds. Thursday night he felt well enough to go out to dinner at the Beef Noodle place  Pho Kim Hung at 510 Nguyen Thi Thap.

Earl and Sue


The small fuzzy creature under the bushes is a puppy, one of a little of 5. Two are brown, two are black, and one is a very pretty with black and white spots. The mother is one of the skinny mean-looking yellow-brown dogs that roam the campus. They appear to have been born and actually live in a hole dug under the steps. The security guards feed them by sharing street food with them in styrofoam take-out containers. Any attempt to get near the puppies will send the mother dog into a mania of shrill barking. She barks at night, too — Maybe when someone goes their rounds. It’s often about 2 am and it can go on for an hour, making sleep impossible. No one is petting the puppies or training them. Now I see how the dogs on campus got the way they are; less domesticated than the cats that prowl the canteen under the tables, un-pattable, and not pretty. Feral, not friendly, not pets at all. But one of the men who staffs the management and maintenance of the dorm told me that the dogs “belong” to the President — the president of the University. “He likes dogs,” I was told. There are indeed more dogs here this year than in the past, probably a dozen that just wander around. Another person says that the President thinks the dogs keep us safe.



ILO Collaboration

Thursday morning there was a small ceremony in which Chung-Hee Lee, the ILO Country Director, signed a cooperation agreement with Ton Duc Thang, represented by Dr. Vo Hoang Duy, to cooperate on 1) Holding an industrial relations summer school for researchers and teachers every year, like the one this last summer that Greg Murray and Do Quynh Chi led; 2) Provide textbooks from ILO — written materials — to TDT Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Union; 3) send professors and scholars from the ILO (recruited from Australia and other overseas places) to hold classes with faculty at TDT and 4) have internships at the ILO for PhD candidates from TDT who want to do research. Chung-Hee Lee noted that it was not common for the ILO to have this kind of collaborative relationship to do labor research in a country.

Dr. Vo asked if I had any comments on the agreement and I said that it was hopeful and possible and opened a good path in the right direction; also that in order to develop Vietnamese faculty researchers, the library had to provide access to international journals and the workload for faculty had to be lightened.

After taking a quick tour around the campus Dr. lee came back to the conference room where Daniel Helman, joe and I were waiting, and he asked us what exactly we were doing at TDT; we reported our teaching and research projects. He also asked whether there were a lot of other foreigners on campus — especially Europeans. In fact, there are — we have met a Ukranian, an Estonian, several Brits and Aussies, some from India, and today I met a man from Bulgaria. Lee made it very clear that the ILO objective is to develop Vietnamese researchers. He mentioned his years in China; over the course of 6 years the world of labor research there had gone from being in the same condition as Viet Nam now to being as good as anywhere,with its own good journals.

The challenge goes all the way down to simple data collection: there is no one single office in Viet Nam that collects and organizes labor statistics. It is all spread around the country in different offices where it is used at the functional level but is not ready to provide a basis for research. He noted that the ILO does not have the capacity to be VN’s BLS.


This is consistent with information from Katie Quan about her upcoming training at Hansae to follow up on what we did last month. She is going to do a train-the-trainer session (maybe more than one) and asked for names of Vietnamese people who might be good.

My last class in Globalization

last H class

Their final activity was responding to the question raised by the authors of the textbook, Katz, Kochan and Colvin: “Is there a role for national IR systems in a globalizing economy?”  They considered this question and three alternatives to national IR systems:  a global system run by a tri-partite organization like the ILO, a global system run by global unions or GUFS or world federations ot labor; or a global system run by multinational corporations.  Only three or four students took up the argument that multinational corporations were going to be running things, but they had a lot of evidence to support their points. They were clearly the voice of the realists. The discussion got quite heated and students were really debating back and forth, until the bell rang.


In every hallway there is someone sitting at a desk with a book in front of them. These are the people who can call someone to turn on or off the air conditioning, fix the microphone or the power point projector, supply chalk, and who also keep the books in which there is a record of the class.  I think the man in this picture is a professor.



Art and Design Department Display

ao dai

An AoDai with incredible embroidery.


A history of Asian women’s fashion. To the right, another display of the same for Europe.



Three large prints: Title, “Three Friends.” Very real-looking, faces that look real.

Joe’s last class, on Tuesday

Joe did a lecture with exercises using Andy Blunden’s Origins of Collective Decision Making. At the end, he gave the students a set of decisions and asked them what kind of process would be appropriate. They appeared to have got the idea!  The numbers represent groups.


It so happened that his last class was also a demonstration class, to demonstrate western teaching methods. The people in the back of the classroom are other lecturers. General response was “Good. ” They only saw the first half of the class, but they liked that he began the whole class with a group exercise and report from the floor. In a separate room during break, a real discussion about the challenge of working through translation developed.  I was happy to hear that their concerns about oversimplifying and losing valuable class time are the same as mine.



Last week when I went to the library to see the 6th floor, I offered to do an open mini-talk, kind of like a book club reading, because I wanted to demonstrate and also experience what it would be like to move a book from the special restricted collection out into the room where they get processed to go into the main collection. I suggested The Odyssey, and the young librarian Mr. Truong ran into me in the faculty dining room on Tuesday and reminded me, whereupon we set it up and he announced it and 20 plus people showed up.

Most of them were students from International Business, with one Electrical Engineering. We did the story of Odysseus and Polyphemos, the Cyclop. Mr. Truong found about 15 copies of the Odyssey scattered among the restricted book shelves. They read a lot of the story aloud, taking parts for Odysseus, Polyphemos, the Cyclop friends and the sailors who try to get Odyseus to control himself when they are trying to escape. I then narrated the final homecoming scene, making guess at the  number of axe heads through which the suitors had to shoot the arrow. They liked it.


And these books have now been liberated into the general collection.

Next up, Little Women? Or Capital? Classics, of course.

It was not possible to move from this reading exercise to the “Achilles in Vietnam” significance of the story — and that’s the Iliad, anyway.

Food packaging

Other end-of semester display, this one from the industrial design department, all about green packaging for Vietnamese food products. I do not know what would be inside these little green packages.  Most of the other displays are more self-evidence: coffee, cashews, etc.

food pkg

Le Ciel Rouge

Friday night we went over to Koreatown with That, met An there who had bought tickets ahead of time, and went to a movie. As usual, we were almost the only people in the theater. (Our most recent experience was at Blade Runner, perfectly horrible movie, at the Lotte Mart last week.)

The movie was Le Ciel Rouge (Red Sky) and it was new, French-made, in French with VN subtitles, about a love affair between a Viet Minh girl who has been captured and is being tortured by the French. Then a young red-haired French soldier releases her and then deserts from his unit, travels with her high into central and northern VN and eventually joins with the Viet Minh himself. He acts as bait to scouting parties of French soldiers by coming forward into open fields and announcing himself, which leads the French to come running out towards him, Whereupon they get shot down by the Viet Minh who have been  hiding. Eventually he himself is captured by the French. We expect him to be shot on the spot, but instead they tie him up and the last moment of the film shows the girl, Thi, who has managed to sneak past the guards. She is close by him, almost invisible in the high grass, and will untie him and then they will both escape. Terrific images of wild central and northern mountains.

movie pho.JPG

We went and had pho afterwards. That and Vinh said that the movie was a ‘Landscape movie” to show tourists about the landscape of Viet Nam and increase tourism, with love and war for a plot.  Some history, but it was French soldier, not a US soldier. Probably not much chance for a landscape movie about love during war to be made about a US deserter, as a way of showing off the stunning mountains of northern Viet Nam.

There is also a wonderful, chilling Vietnamese book with a title something like “Lost,” which is about a young North Vietnamese army soldier who, only a week or so into his duty, gets separated from his unit in the mountains and found by a montangnard clan. First they imprison him for a while, then slowly, as months pass, induct him into their way of life. He becomes one of them and is respected for being able to shoot accurately and kill jungle beasts that they can eat (wild boars, for example). Their “work” is to receive assignments to go down into valley villages and murder chieftains who have gone over to the enemy. With them all this time is a US soldier who is, compared to them, huge, and is treated as a beast of burden. His job is to carry heavy things, like the clan grandfather, from one camp to another. This soldier has some kind of illness, maybe tuberculosis, or maybe it’s a wound, which eventually kills him – they take his body to some place where it will be found and leave him there. Not a “landscape” story for US viewers.

HCMC Research Group Presentation

Joe presented on how higher ed unions in the US developed, beginning with the NEA as a management lobbying group in 1857 up through the founding of the AFT in 1916 and the way teacher unionism developed outside the law (and still does) — with no enabling legislation in state after state, as a result of teacher activism and behaving ‘like a union” even when there was no legally established path. The link to the present is the continuing degradation of higher education under the pressure of global neoliberalism, of which contingency is a symptom.

The announcement of this event went out about 10 days ago to the general research group. In other words, late, as far as I am concerned, because people plan weeks if not months in advance — or do they? But the day before the Research Group meeting we heard that a meeting had been called by the university  which all lecturers were required to attend. It was going to be a 2-day meeting. This meant That, for example, could not come.

However, Saturday morning in fact Vinh and Dean Hoa did come. We had a very good group that engaged in a good discussion afterwards.  Central ideas included how the NEA had to get the managers out of the union after the rise of the real union, the AFT, and how the 1960 NYC strike pushed forward the enabling legislation for CB.  Lots of talk about the VGC and what kinds of working conditions issues might be bargained for higher ed teachers in VN.  Vinh not only showed people where to sit and poured the tea, she also asked the three best questions: What states have the best CBA for higher education? Why don’t Harvard and Yale have unions (since we were talking about quality)? And would most adjuncts prefer flexibility or a full-time job?

A man who is a compliance officer from IKEA came and wants to join the group. There was also a man who teaches labor history at TDT, who doesn’t have much English, but was accompanied by a man who does, who is doing research on garbage workers in HCMC for a social welfare/community development group. He says that garbage workers are invisible, have no way to access social benefits, are below the radar of the labor code. I sent him a link to various Martin Luther King Jr videos about Memphis and the sanitation worker strike.

Sat 1

So tonight That will pick me up on her scooter and take me to some place where we will get our nails done.

Here is me, after a shampoo and facial, with pink finger and toenails, about to have my entire face shaved with a straight-edge razor. They use a razor instead of wax; wax is for men. My eyebrows got shaped, too. I am very happy with the way this turned out; I will go back to this salon, which is on Van Luong Street nearby, when we come back to Viet Nam.


VAn Luong Street is long and narrow; on Saturday night it is wide open with coffee shops, salons, music, many scooters zipping around like a country fairgrounds; a sense of Saturday night fun everywhere.

Tomorrow afternoon we fly back to Berkeley. We arrive Sunday night about 9 pm.

Last picture: the pianos “for use” on the bottom terraces of the TDT towers. Someone is always playing them. I have never seen one without someone playing it — at least not on this trip.

piano for use




The Library (2) — October 16, 2017

The Library (2)

Sitting in a “presentation room” in the new INSPIRE library, looking at the array of security tools attached to the door to the room, I thought:  These are not just barriers to keep people out and to limit or control access. They are also defensive, to keep something in, – to protect the integrity of some whole.

What is that “whole”?

library barriers

In a presentation room: One of those buttons opens the door from inside, so you can let someone in to join your group. But if you step outside yourself and the door closes (beeping all the while) and no one is in the room to let you back in, you will have to go find a librarian with a card to let you in. Another set of buttons is the climate control. Yet another probably has something to do with the password for the computer screen that is set up (and can’t be moved) directly in front of the white board – which you can’t write on until you get the markers from a librarian. Using the room means booking it in advance, and the door unlocks electronically so if you have booked for 10:30 and come at 10;29 the door will not open.

However, the fact is that despite a thousand features that cry “Hard to use!!! Do not even try!” this library is the most attractive place on campus.  It is jammed.Students love it. They are everywhere, using everything — the booths, the pillows, the computers, the elevators, the windows, the lockers in the basement, the front entrance with its grand staircase (see photos from August posts) which is the photo op venue of choice for graduating seniors. They pose for boyfriend/girlfriend photos next to it. They even seem to dress up a bit to go to to this library. And the cafeteria has the best food, albeit a bit more expensive, on campus, so there is always a line out the door. When we go to the library cafeteria, students offer us chairs at a shared table. Their manners are dressed up, too. I can’t help noticing that there are no other lecturers around, however. I wonder if there is some rule about this that we are unaware of?

That, come to think of it, is one of our basic questions about interactions in Viet Nam.

So what is going on?

I am used to city libraries that are quiet, so overstocked with books that some stay on trolleys forever, smell a little moldy, but whose main purpose, expressed in every physical design or staffing decision, is to get the books out the door. Share information! Give it to the curious reader, quick!! Even the 12-year old who wants to read a sexy novel — check the book out! Show them how to use the computer, forgive the overdue fine, manufacture the library replacement card in a matter of minutes (we have been here 10 weeks and do not have library cards, although we have been photographed and sent in our application). When I walk into the Berkeley Public Library, I see smiling faces like front desk employees at a 5-star hotel: How can I help you? How can I shovel information in your direction fast enough? Want to order something from somewhere else? We can get you things from all over the place!

When I am not treated like the user they have been waiting for all their lives — as at the UC Berkeley Library, where the librarian had to tell me that as an alum, but not a faculty member, I could not have online access to journals – I feel as if my patrimony has been swiped. But I go to the U of Illinois library, on line or by phone, and there I am again: welcome home! How can I help you? The message I get from even the physical design of a city library in the US expresses the mentality and vocational passion I associate with all librarians — the truth shall make you free, and here’s as much truth as I can pile onto you, as fast as possible.

In the libraries I am used to, the only security is the electronic eye that makes sure that any books you’ve got in your backpack as you leave have been checked out. There is no security on who comes in.

That was a digression. I have not even come to the point that I started out to make: that I realized that these barriers are not just to keep people out, but to keep something in.

So the real point is access, but not access to the building

Here is a place that is loaded with barriers to access, yet students are sucked toward it as if magnetized. They are not bothered by these barriers. I think that one of the things that draws them toward it is the sense that it is a safe place. That is rather like the whole campus; the fence around it, even along the canal, that opens only at the guard gates, where a friend of ours who tried to drive in with a motorcycle was stopped and had to call us on his cell phone.  And late at night (meaning 9 pm) when I walk back to our room from my Vietnamese class, there are girls out playing badminton or hackey-sac under the streetlights; no sense of any kind of threat or lurking danger.

Still asking the question about the relation of this library to the whole that it has been created to represent and defend: How about faculty? Faculty are under great pressure to publish. True, the only journals that “count’ are ISI/Scopus journals, which reminds me a bit of the U of Illinois. But the pressure on the university to demonstrate its success as a model (public but autonmous in the sense of fiscally independent but receiving large amounts of money such as for buildings from the government nonetheless) by ranking high on the basis of published articles is enormous, and this pressure gets passed down. Since current faculty are teaching huge workloads (four or five classes per semester, with 80-90 students per class) their chances of being able to get research done (much less learn how to do it) are faint, so the university hires academics from other universities on year-long contracts and then counts their publications as TDTs for the purpose of rising in the rankings. We have talked with some of these “foreign” faculty and they themselves are not confused about what is going on. On the other hand, our presence has a secondary effect — it interleaves the body of the teaching workforce with people who are in the habit of doing research and who generate discussions. Like the journal club, of which more later.

The library  (and the university) has not found a way to get around the high cost of “buying” access to journal articles. We told them about JSTOR and the “free article” function (thanks to Aron Swartz).

More about free access is at  https://about.jstor.org/news/celebrating-open-access-week-2017/?cid=soc_tw_JSTOR

But even that is limited. So researchers based here are pretty much boxed in.


Recently a set of rankings of universities was published in the University World News bulletin and TDT came up #2 in Viet Nam. We  learned when we were in Hanoi that the research group that did the rankings was funded by the World Bank and the United Nations. The study was carried out by some economists on the basis of an assignment from MOET (Ministry of Education and Training — note loss of accuracy due to translation problems here). Apparently all government agencies have their own research centers. These research centers were originally totally-government funded but now have to search for their own funding, which they get from places like the ILO, the UN, Oxfam, Scandinavian NGOs, etc. )

The reason for the survey which led to the rankings was, apparently (and we have heard this plenty of times to be sure that it is a generally held opinion) that the quality of teaching in Vietnamese higher education was “so bad.” The research, then, was intended to be positively provocative: to stimulate a discussion that would reflect on the problem. “We are from a command economy for 50 years. These universities are so safe, they do not work hard or learn new things.” The research on rankings was done entirely on the basis of  whatever was available on the web; no one came around to any of the universities and did observations, etc.

But what kind of information about a university is posted on the web?

Back to the tension between access and the powerful attraction of the library

I got irritated about having to put on the special shoes down in the basement, and showed my irritation to the young woman who came to let me in past the 2nd floor gates with her card. Realizing she did not understand my irritation, I backed off as fast as I could and asked her if she was a librarian. She said yes, although it  turned out she was a freshman studying business administration –but yes, she was a librarian, as if it were a vocation, loved the library, had worked here ever since it opened in August, and would like to spend her life here. She said,”When I read a book, my mind becomes empty!’ and the most beautiful smile spread over her face.

lbrary shoe crowd

These are students lined up to get keys for the lockers banked in another room in the basement, into which they can put their street shoes when they exchange them for the plastic shoes that they will wear when they enter the library.  When the library opened, there was a man at a desk who handed you the right size plastic shoe and you left your street shoes on the floor. Then there was no man, but there were plastic baskets labeled by shoe size, which soon did not contain shoes of the correct size. Then there were the banks of lockers, and people started leaving both their personal and their plastic shoes in the lockers. Then there was another desk, with special cubbyholes for the lecturers who are supposed to be able to get shoes faster. At this point I lost track (see line above). Now it appears that lecturers carry their plastic shoes around with them in a bag and switch them elsewhere.

I will represent this tension, the tension between access and protecting what is inside the library, with the following photo.  A tug of war, favorite game, just outside our dormitory room: the guy in the green shirt is I think the director of sports, and he is also quite a famous martial arts practitioner.


What the library keeps in

First, it keeps its own existence. It’s new, and a couple of months ago, it didn’t exist. There was a floor in one of the buildings that was called “the library” when we were here in 2015-16, but no one treated it like a library. This is completely different. Furthermore, the existence of this library is necessary, because you can’t have a TOP 100 university without a library, and it even has to support research because TOP 100 universities are research universities, so there has to be a public face of some sort that affirms a commitment to research even if the actual permanent faculty don’t have time to do research and the visiting faculty who are getting paid for publications are using the resources of other universities to do their work. But this library has to be here. A university can’t be a research university without a library. And it’s new. How many of the old city libraries in the US that i am comparing it with are less than 100 years old? And how about the Harvard library at 400 years, or even the Berkeley library at a a little over 100? They have hundreds of years — this library opened in August.

So, if we follow the logic of Viet Nam’s national ambition to produce its own well-educated, internationally respected college and university graduates, and TDT’s ambition to be a leader among Viet Nam’s universities, including reporting such high numbers of journals published by faculty in ISI/Scopus journals that it gets ranked as #2 in the nation, everything leads to the fact that there must be a library and it must be a research library.

So it has to exist, period. The status of the university depends on it.

So what would threaten its existence?

It’s not just that, as I was told, the presence of a library also attracts adults from the nearby neighborhood of wealthy Korean managers, who want to get in and use it. It is also that just about everything about the library — except the requirement that patrons of the library put on those shoes before entering — is politically sensitive, and therefore could threaten the existence of the library, or at least damage it seriously. Which is the explanation for the photo of the tug of war, above.

The Sixth Floor

I spent that first morning with the two young men librarians and then Joe and I went over there a second time to take them up on their invitation to visit the 6th floor. I have heard about the 6th floor. It is the place where 6,000 to 8,000 books – more than are downstairs – are stored. Certain people, like us, can get permission to take a book out from the 6th floor. But why are those books there?

We changed our shoes (the librarian had special pairs ready for us) and went up to the 6th floor in the elevator.

I assumed that they would be locked up because they are “politically sensitive” but that’s a gross simplification.  These are books that have been donated, in one way or another. Yes, one source of donation is from the big library that the Americans built in Saigon, filled with books that promoted, in all different kinds of ways, the American way of life and political system. I have heard this described as “The CIA library,” and also the US AID library, also known as the Abraham Lincoln Library. The story told to us by the librarians is that at the end of the war, many books were taken from the library and piled in the street and burned, but some were saved and these are the ones that were saved.

Quite a few of them are 1950s and 1960s liberal democracy books. Some are really good books:



Others are just anti-communist ranting. But they are all mixed in together. Looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers you can see that a lot of them are Social Science (300-399) and History and BIography (900-999), or at least that’s how they were classified back in the 1960s, and then there’s one in the picture that’s Religion (200-299). But this library does not use the Dewey Decimal system, as I mentioned earlier, and they shelve the English language books by title, not author. So the information provided by these numbers probably doesn’t make much difference.

shelf of books

Then there literally thousands of books that are donated by a US NGO that the librarians say is run by overseas Vietnamese (Viet-Khieu), who raise money to buy books and send them to the library. These are the ones that look new and don’t have Dewey Decimal System numbers on them. Among them, Clan of the Cave Bear.

books shelv

And the Republic of Plato, all right, and Showdown in Gucci Gulch, along with  Derek Bok’s Universities and the Marketplace.

new book donations

I got quite emotional when I saw Little Women, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Plato’s Republic on the shelf. The idea that those books would be sequestered for any reason started to get me upset. I began explaining what these books were and why they could not possibly be a problem.

But that was also when I understood that political sensitivity is just a small part of the problem. There are 15 library employees, total. Many of them are young students, or at most in their thirties. Only a few read English, and those are busy doing other things. They can’t spend all day sitting and reading Little Women to see what it’s about, much less try to figure out whether or not it would fit into a curriculum somewhere.  Someone has to actually look at these books one by one, find out something about them, and make a decision about releasing them into the general collection. Just because friendly people in the US sent them here doesn’t mean that they can  go right out into the general collection. That’s just not going to happen.

It is an enormous task, but progress is being made

Then we went across the hall to the room where books that have been approved are shelved and are one at a time getting entered into the database and given an electronic sticker so that they can be checked out. I am very happy to report that the shelves of  English language books that have been approved has a lot of books on it and they are good books; it’s as if someone who knew what they were doing had done the selection. For example, there were five or six side-by-side that have to do with African American history or literature — Zora Neale Hurston, for example, was there.

This is not a job that anyone else can do. A friendly American volunteer cannot spend a day on the 6th floor and come up with forty books that are “OK.” While I don’t know who is doing it, it’s getting done, and done right, but slowly.

Hansae news, Lan’s article, class projects — October 11, 2017

Hansae news, Lan’s article, class projects

In our Journal Club meeting on Monday, when we got back from Hanoi, Dean Hoa told us that his contact (the HR Manager named Thinh) at Hansae said that they enjoyed our session very much, that it was “exciting” and that they have suspended the class for a week in order to allow a new election to take place for union leadership.

We also heard from Jeffery Hermanson that he heard “from the company that they were happy with the training, and from the WRC that they are close to a final agreement.” Amazing.

My class

So now back to our classes. Joe and I each have only two classes left — we leave Viet Nam in a little over 2 weeks.

First, I distributed a photocopy of Lan’s article in the Global Labor University Column, in which she talks about the causes of wildcat strikes.  My point was first to draw the attention of students to the GLU as a place to get advanced education, and second to note that there is an internal discussion going on about the strategic direction of the VGCL.


In case this link doesn’t work, it was published on Oct 5, 2017, in the Global Labour Column, a newsletter of the Global Labour University.

I have been anxious about whether my students would be able to do the whole country comparison assignment, even though it’s not due yet, so I just put it up on the board and asked to see who could do it.


It says: Sit in your research groups; compare Viet Nam and the country you have chosen, by answering the following four questions: Who is “us”?  Who can act? Who judges? Who enforces?  That’s all they had to do today. But for their final submission, I want them to thread these questions through the work life history of the “old worker” they interviewed.

They went at it, drawing tables in their notebooks.

groups 2

group 1

Six groups were able to do the assignment: two had done the US, one did Finland, one India, one Bangladesh and one Cambodia. I cannot comment on whether what was posted is exactly correct, but that’s not as important as the fact that they were able to distinguish different answers to these fundamental questions, and that they could see that countries make their own IR systems out of their history, culture and economic situation both internally and externally.

“My” is US and Anh-Do is India.

Goup US2

goup 5 India

The one immediately below is US.

Group X

Group #1 did Finland.

Group Finland

Group #12 did Bangladesh.

Group 12 bang

And Group #9 did Cambodia.

group 9 Cambo

I then asked if anyone could give advice to other students about how to do this difficult assignment. One reason why it is difficult is because my four questions– “Who is us? Who can act? Who judges? Who enforces?” are not answered anywhere, at least no where that I have seen. They are essentially comparisons, from the workers point of view, and as my old boss at Illinois (Peter Feuille) once asked, “Who would pay for that kind of information?”  So you can’t get answers to these by hoping someone will tell them to you.

Huy stepped up and told people about a website called “Workerdiaries.org” (let me check that — all I can find right now is http://fashionrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Garment_Worker_Diaries_Bangladesh_Interim_Report.pdf), and then a young woman stepped up and told people about Labourstart.

speker 1 Huyspeaker 2

Then, after running through some slides on collective bargaining (we really need a whole class, a whole semester, on collective bargaining) we were going to talk about mediation — because we are following the Katz, Kochan and,Colvin textbook, and their experience is very heavy on mediation. However, mediation happens where conflict happens, and where conflict happens is different in different systems. So we had to go back to the slides from early in the course on theories that frame different IR systems and take another look at the way Katz, Kochan and Colvin describe the “unitary” and “conflict” theories.  The students had to create a new version of the “unitary” theory in order to make it fit with Viet Nam.  I asked them to do this by thinking about what things were like between 1975-1996, and then compare that with 1996 – today, when Viet Nam is open to FDI employers and investors who basically operate by the free market system.  Believe it or not, the students were able to do this — at least two of them. Huy was one and I’ll have to get the name of the other, a young woman, who knew exactly what she was talkingabout.

To sum it up: the mediation that Katz, Kochan and Colvin talk about takes place at what they refer to as the “functional level” of the IR system: where collective bargaining takes place. Mediators are often called in to resolve problems in collective bargaining that are related to communication, information, expectations, etc. In a country that does not have effective collective bargaining, mediation takes place at the workplace level (below the functional level) when specific problems cause a disruption of work and require prompt resolution, and as far as I an tell it is done with an ad hoc committee of local or provincial VGCL, employer, People’s Committee members, and worker leaders. Mediation also takes place at the top level, what the authors call “the strategic level,” where the VGCL interacts with the Party, the VCCI, MOLISA, and other top-tier entities.

I distributed a copy of the Accord that was prepared as a result of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, as an example of mediation at the strategic level. This was referred to in the Katz book but I wanted them to see the whole thing, especially the section on Governance and enforcement.





Hanoi, Oct 6,7,8 — October 8, 2017

Hanoi, Oct 6,7,8


The Women’s Museum had an exhibit of costumes worn by people practicing a kind of performance art in which they channel the spirits of aspects of the Mother Goddess, who (according to the caption on the exhibit) has four embodiments and a cast of characters including mandarins, princes, princesses and a domestic servant or page (his costume is the first on the left). People dress themselves in these costumes and perform dances that interpret the spirit, and they distribute “benefits’ which can be money, lottery tickets, fruit, etc. The audience gathers — according to a video of one such event, it’s a small room in a temple or even someone’s house — and it goes on for 6-8 hours, after which participants feel refreshed and relaxed. A small industry employing 3,000 people makes these costumes.

lake mtn.JPG

On Friday we went with the Hanoi Bike Collective folks out some 20-25 K to the NW of Hanoi, through the flower villages and a lot of other small towns, to the village of Chu Thay where there is the Thay pagoda, up on the steep mountain above this lake. The very top is crowned with terraces and small temples and carvings of dragons.

top of mtn

We used google maps “walking route” to set out going back to Hanoi, and found ourselves on streets like this one. That’s Dang, checking my bike. Pronounced Dzjang.


Google maps also put us onto streets like this one. I learned something about the Red River Delta mud: it is active mud that actually grabs you and sucks you down. This is Guil, owner of the bike shop, from Catalonia.


Rice noodles, drying.

rice noodles

More checking of bike performance issues, after we got past the mud.

pedals and gears

Rice, not ready to harvest yet.


Saturday afternoon, following up on an email from Chuck Searcy, we found our way to a cafe over near the Opera House. It’s called the Salon Van Hoa, Ca Phe Thu Bay, 3 Pho Ngo Quyen, Ly Thai, To Hanoi tel 098 535 0598.

Upstairs is a small meeting or recital room for cultural sharing. The participants were people interested in film generally, and included some well known directors. The man with the microphone, speaking, is Duc Hoa, who was the Vietnamese partner of Lynn Novick from the Ken Burns movie. Most of the people in the room had not seen the movie, although it is apparently available on Youtube.