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

Together, We Are More — June 4, 2017
A Research Stream: Types of support, potential value, research questions — May 4, 2017

A Research Stream: Types of support, potential value, research questions

Phone raceThis is a photo of a race going on among participants in a pre-apprenticeship class at Los Angeles Trade Tech, one of the  LA community colleges. Before you can get into an IBEW-sponsored electricians apprenticeship program there, you have to get a pole-climbing certification. Here are some guys (all guys; hmmmm….) racing each other to the top of the pole where they have to bolt together two cross pieces. I am posting this photo, and one of the apprenticeship instructor (below) because of the discussion of union apprenticeship programs which follows. The argument about women’s upper body strength would not apply to this challenge; women do well in the ironworkers’ apprenticeship program in Chicago because today’s young women often DO have good upper body strength. But you also have to be skinny, and not all these guys were skinny (and some of them were having a problem.) 

Several weeks have gone by since my last post, which followed the March 11 meeting of the US-Viet Nam Labor Education Group in Los Angeles at the UCLA LAbor Center. Because there were several major tasks in the pipeline for that group (the most immediate and important one being the visit of a delegation from the VGCL, which has been postponed until August of this year), we set up a Labor Education committee within which we could take up the various academic issues like mentoring Vietnamese researchers to get help them get published in English-language journals. I now understand that Joe and I will be working with two groups when we go back to Ho Chi Minh City in August (by the way, I got placed on the Fulbright Specialist roster for this project, which I hope will defray some of the costs). One group is faculty at TDT and the other is an independent researchers group based in HCMC and originally convened by Chang Hee Lee, the ILO Country Director, who has assembled a parallel group in Hanoi.

Of course this is pretty exciting for me. More reading and writing!!!!

One of the things we talked about within the Labor Education Committee (briefly, and this was the kind of thing that made it clear that we needed two groups, one to deal with the nuts and bolts of the delegations and the other to talk academics and research) was motivation: what motivates someone to do research and try to publish it? Then follow the questions, what support does someone need in order to do this work? and what social value might this work have?

Katie Quan suggested that when we go to VN and meet with these groups of researchers, I frame my first presentation to be not about one specific article that I wrote that got published in a “reputable” academic journal, but about what kind of support was necessary from my institution in order to get it written, and what kind of social value that research might possibly have had or still have. I thought this was good advice. I think both issues can be linked through the matter of the “research question.” Then, rather than trust myself to do this on my feet when standing in front of a group and watching the clock (and speaking through a translator for many of them), I decided to write it up what I would say and post it, and then let some key people know that it was posted.


April 11, 2017 (revised April 23)

This invitation to present my research to the Journal Club is an honor and a unique challenge. I feel as if I have been invited to defend my work, in much the way I once defended my dissertation proposal, with the difference that now I am a “retired” professor looking back on it. Therefore I have made some notes. I have chosen to organize these notes overall as a narrative. I pay attention to the basic issues of research questions and theoretical framework, but I also describe the financial and other types of support that made my research possible, collaboration, venues where I have published and presented, the social value that my research may or may not have had, as well as a note about my current research question. I hope to explain my own story in enough detail so that colleagues in Viet Nam, where conditions and goals are different, can see what is comparable and what is not.

Looking over what I have prepared, I admit that I am surprised by what I see. Given my early efforts as a novelist, poet and playwright, I would not have predicted that my largest “streams” of research would turn out to be related to the building trades or to higher education as an industry. Both of these streams are a product of collaboration, a concept I will expand upon later.

My conclusion will emphasize the importance of getting the right research question. A research question must motivate you personally and be of critical importance to the world you live in. It must link theory and practice. Practice, which takes place in “the world you live in” is specific to each of us; it is where you are in the global economy, where you are in your academic culture, and where you are in your local political and economic context. Your experience, including your education, has prepared you to formulate this question, and prepared you to contribute to your world by answering it.

In my case, my current research question has to do with what is needed to support the Labor Relations and Trade Unions program at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Students at TDT are enrolled in a program that prepares them for roles in an industrial relations system that is undergoing transformation. Dean Hoa at Ton Duc Thang has encouraged me to work specifically on the question, “What changes have taken place in workers’ education as the employment relationship in Viet Nam transitions under the new economy?” This will be my research question for the next months or perhaps years.

Background: My prior research questions and theoretical orientation

When I was in my thirties I had published two novels that were well-reviewed, if not big sellers. Thereby I was hired to teach writing at several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. One summer I was teaching only one class. A colleague commented to me, “I like the way you teach,” which made me ask myself, “How do I teach?” To answer that question, I decided to keep a journal of my class, challenging myself to explain both what the students did and what I did. The more I wrote, the more questions I had, and found myself going to libraries and bookstores to read about teaching writing. I did not know it, but I was looking for a theoretical framework. Finally, I showed my journal, which was by now hundreds of pages long and full of examples of student writing, to a friend, Kaethe Weingarten. She said, “This is an organizing description.” At last, I knew the name of what I was doing. She also gave me the names of some theoreticians that she thought would make sense to me: Gregory Bateson was one and Maturana and Varela, the Brazilians, were two more. Someone else pointed me to Paulo Freire. I started to study more systematically.

The work of these thinkers was consistent with the work of someone I had met fifteen years before, in college: Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist. Vygotsky demonstrated, in ways convincing to me, that language is the indispensible constituent of social interaction and therefore of learning, both individual and collective; it is the means by which consciousness on the one hand, culture on the other, and encompassing both, history, is continuously created. I recognized in the efforts of my students to communicate in writing with each other and me what Vygotsky may have meant when he said “Word: impossible for one, necessary for two,” and “Language is consciousness in practice.” Bakhtin helped, too. This collective, cooperative approach to learning, that recognizes the essentially social, active character of first speech and consequently thinking, is to be contrasted with “alienated learning,” as McDermott and Lave put it (2006), in which all learners are in competition with all other learners and knowledge is treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Another friend, also a teacher, advised me that I would enjoy graduate school (she meant, “You’re asking too many questions!”) so I applied and got into the Education School at UC Berkeley, first in the MA in Reading program and then, because I developed even more questions, into the PhD program. There I was introduced to the next generations of Vygotskian theory; the work of Leontiev (Activity theory); of Yrjo Engestrom, who founded the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at Helsinki University; Jean Lave, who set out the theory of communities of practice, and of Mike Cole at the University of California San Diego. Cole had studied with Luria in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and worked with Sylvia Scribner in Liberia. He moderated an online discussion group called XMCA (after its journal, Mind, Culture and Activity) that takes up issues related to learning and education from a sociocultural perspective. I still participate in that discussion.

Sociocultural theory, sometimes called CHAT (cultural-historical activity theory) became my own orientation, with an additional aspect: as a teacher, I had become active in the teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, both at the local and state levels. As an activist, I benefited from labor education: non-credit classes that prepared me to be a workplace representative and eventually run for office. (These are classes comparable to the ones taught by TDT lecturers for the VGCL.) It was unavoidable that I learn and adopt a perspective on work – not only the work of teachers, but all work – that recognized the fundamental tension between workers and employers. The Marxist roots of Vygotskian and sociocultural theory generally were consistent with this perspective because they acknowledge a dynamic (dialectical) relationship among the elements of a unit of analysis. Change, for better or worse, is driven by the energies of contradictions within this unit. Under capitalism, the primary contradictions are between workers and employers, mediated of course in language, and the outcomes of those contradictions are negotiated, constituted and stabilized in language, especially written language. Contracts are examples of this.

I want to note here that from the point of view of someone in the US, the conflicts of interest between workers and employers or owners of capital are inescapably obvious, because we inhabit a ruthlessly profit-driven economy and have at least 100 years of recorded experience with collective, bottom-up organized resistance in the form, for better or worse, of labor unions. We have never had a socialist economic system that attempted to resolve this conflict of interest at the level of the government. Thus we have a system of industrial relations that manages conflict, not resolves it. A resolution has an end; management is open-ended and ongoing. Therefore when someone like me looks at Viet Nam, where a person can be both a human resources manager and a union president, and sees the opening up of a socialist economy to market forces, I feel a certain urgency to point out what is coming and convey the lessons of our ongoing collective grassroots bottom-up resistance. “Lessons” implies learning, in the sense of preparing for experience. You can probably see that this leads to a study of how the institutions of an industrial relations regime attempt to balance the power relations engaged in this conflict. This is not to say that we have been successful here in the US. However, there are some things we have learned.

So I graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD, a theoretical orientation that was rooted in Vygotsky, Activity Theory, sociocultural assumptions, and generally Marxist; a research approach that combined qualitative skills (surveys, interviews, direct observation, case studies, document review, ethnographic description and analysis) with my own facility for writing (remember that I started as a novelist), and a conscious pro-worker bias. For example: given a situation in which an employer was trying to change a work process, my interest would not lie in how the employer could effectively motivate and direct his workers to adopt the new process. My interest would like in how the change would affect the workers and how they might learn to organize to protect their jobs, their safety and their labor standards, and how they would fix whatever gains they made in arrangements that were enforceable. Both perspectives reveal driving contradictions, but the one I choose will look at the contradictions that are within the power of workers and their organizations to address.

Incidentally, the field of Industrial Relations, which focuses on the employment relationship, actually recognizes that the relationship engages multiple incommensurable perspectives; when you join the Labor and Employment Research Association (LERA), you are asked to indicate whether you identify as Human Resources or Union. You cannot be both.

Vygotsky and 1936

There is one more point that I must make about my theoretical orientation. Vygotsky’s work was in a discipline called paedology, the study of the development of children’s thought and character. Paedology was part of the department of philosophy at Moscow State University. A concern of philosophy was “idealism” versus materialism; mind and consciousness as something outside of matter versus mind and consciousness as something embodied in and made of matter. This could also be a question about the interaction of heredity and environment. In 1936, the Communist Party Central Committee eliminated Vygotsky’s discipline and its journal on the grounds that it was promoting idealism. From then on, academics in the social sciences and humanities had to work under political constraints (see the reference at the end of this post). Vygotsky himself was already deceased in 1934, before this ban, but because of it, his work did not come to the West until the early 1960s (under his own name, that is – not Pavlov). Since then his work has become well known, in fact mainstream, among educators in the US. It seems that in Viet Nam, based on a few conversations I have had, his work is also known, especially by academics who got their PhDs in Moscow, but it is known in the form that emerged after 1936. In comparison with US social science practices, Vietnamese social sciences apparently reflect this difference, the consequence of a fork in the road that took place over 80 years ago.

If I am wrong or misinformed about this, I would appreciate being corrected.

Now that I have explained my theoretical orientation to my research, I will turn to something practical: The institutional support that made it possible. My purpose in doing this is to emphasize that research needs material support and collaboration; a single unassisted person without resources cannot do much alone.

The support for my research at the University of California

I have had the good luck to have graduated from and worked at two large, well-funded Research I universities, the University of California and the University of Illinois. The support that I describe is, I believe, typical for institutions of that class.

As a graduate student at UC BerkeleyI was part of a team of students who worked on a project headed by W. Norton Grubb, a well known education economist, who had won a series of large grants from the National Center for Vocational Education. His research question was, “Regarding teaching, what goes on in community college classrooms?” “What goes on” is not the same as “What do teachers do?” Typical studies of teaching strategies focus on what the teacher does; we call it “talking heads”. But it is the students who are doing the learning — so what are they up to? Our project was to focus on the whole drama of the classroom, on the assumption that much of learning takes place though interaction among students and their shared use of written symbolic systems (math, images, models, signs, text structures, language) that are posted, distributed, manipulated or created in the classroom.

Community colleges in the US, incidentally, are low-cost working class open access colleges that provide pre-university, vocational/professional and lifelong learning. There are at least 1,000 of these all over the country. Because of my work at the state level of my union, the CFT/AFT, I knew a great deal about the funding and governance of community colleges, especially how legislation affected the experience of teachers in the classroom. This was one of my qualifications for working on Norton Grubb’s project.

Our team’s assignment was to go and sit in classrooms all over the US and write down ethnographically rich (full of detail) descriptions of the classroom, not just what the teacher was doing, but the whole drama. My focus was on the use of literacy – symbolic communication of all sorts, drawing on the Activity Theoretical concept of the “tool.” I did my observations in Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and California. As one of Dr. Grubb’s research assistants, I received a tuition waiver, health benefits, $900 a month and expenses when I had to rent a car or stay in a hotel. In other words, I was for all intents and purposes paid to write my dissertation. Our collective work became a well-known book, Honored But Invisible. http://hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-72-issue-1/herbooknote/honored-but-invisible_71 My contribution is found in Chapter 4, which is a condensation of my dissertation, for which I won the “Best Dissertation” prize from the School of Education that year (1997).

It is important to add that this generous grant-funded support was part of an agreement negotiated between the University and the graduate research assistants’ union, part of the United Auto Workers.

Next: No official research at UNITE, but a lot learned

I went from graduate school to working for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers (UNITE) as the Director of Education and Political Action for a small Joint Board (local mid-level body) in Philadelphia. I may have learned more at UNITE than I did in graduate school; it certainly was a life-changing experience. This was private, not public sector work; union representation was covered by the 1936 collective bargaining law (National Labor Relations Act or NLRA) that still serves as the model for such laws, public and private sector, in the US. Unions that can function under that law were the model for the proposal to be adopted by Viet Nam had the Trans Pacific Partnership been put into effect in the US. The essence of the law is that workers may self-organize into unions and acquire rights on the basis of belonging to their union — a collective — the purpose of which is “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.” One form of this activity is bargaining. This is to be contrasted with the Vietnamese Labor Code which sets labor standards but does not permit self-organization. Garments and Textiles was an industry that was dying shop by shop every week, but it was a union with a noble and rich history and much to learn. Of course, there was no support for research. I did something you can always do, support or no support: I kept an intensely detailed journal.

It was at this job that I became convinced, through observation, conversations and attempts to support workers in workplace conflicts, that the view of the whole production process from the shop floor was entirely different from the HR office. Workers and employers actually see different things when they walk through a workplace. This is a difference that we will try to teach about at Ton Duc Thang. I also saw how what workers learned in the course of doing their work could be gathered, analyzed and shared; that this knowledge was both an unrecognized resource for the best practice in the workplace and the foundation for solidarity and “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection,” to use a phrase from our labor law. This conviction about the value of the knowledge that workers create but rarely articulate, and which is often invisible to management, became the driving force behind all my next fifteen years of research and publishing, including the book I wrote after my retirement in 2010. Of course, it is true for teachers, too – but for some reason it became most glaringly obvious when I was working with garment workers.

I moved from that job in Philadelphia to Chicago, to the University of Illinois, to be in their Labor Education Program in 1999. This was a tenure-track job that required research and publishing. Both financial and material support was available for research.

 What basic institutional support is provided for faculty research at U of I?

First, I will simply list the kinds of support provided for all faculty at that time, regardless of their status or research projects:

  1. Good computer, a desktop and a laptop; unlimited access to printing. A computer technologist on call full-time to solve technical problems. A private office to work in and meet students.
  2. Full library access, downloading journal articles, etc.
  3. A paid research assistant. I interviewed graduate students who sought these positions because it helped them pay their way through their graduate programs, just as a similar position helped me at UC Berkeley. I was looking for someone who could do library research, literature reviews, and knew something about computer graphics and survey software. Preparing diagrams or powerpoints would be the work of one’s assistant, as would grading papers and hosting small group discussions. Over the years I had three or four research assistants. Anything a professor could think of could be assigned to your research assistant – even doing a lot of the research itself. Labor educators tended to choose research assistants from among the members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the grad students’ union, because they were already fairly well educated with regards to the labor movement. I also did some classes with that union as they were preparing for a sit-in at the administration building, basing my presentation on parallel sit-ins at Harvard and York University in Toronto.
  4. Travel funding. Assistant Professors were entitled to reimbursement for travel, housing and conference fees for two domestic (US) conferences per year and one international conference per year. On this plan I went to conferences all over the US and to the UK and the Netherlands. I received funding for a conference for Activity Theory in Finland and chose not to go, believing that teaching my class was more important. I still regret this choice! The purpose of supporting conference presentations is that conferences are a half-way step toward getting one’s research published. A fifteen-minute panel presentation will generate some comments that will guide the author toward good revisions and possible collaborators. One also makes contacts at a conference that may produce invitations to write chapters, serve on editorial boards, etc.
  5. Flexible time and release time. I was in the Labor Education program, teaching classes for workers. We also taught classes for regular undergraduates in our online program and through a partnership with the National Labor College. We worked many hours mainly because there was a lot of work to do. However, since from the point of view of the University, publishing was more valuable than teaching (or service, our third duty), it was possible to reduce a teaching load in order to complete research. Faculty who were not teaching extension classes might get one or two courses release time, out of a total load of 4 to 6 per year. In addition, our time was essentially our own; you could work in your office or at home, or while traveling, and time management was left up to the individual.
  6. Pay. I should mention pay: I started at U of Illinois at $58,000 per year plus full benefits and ended up at $85,000 per year plus benefits. This seems to have been fairly normal for labor educators at state universities. There was definitely discrimination against women on matters of wages, to say nothing of promotion. In fact, I eventually found out that all three of my women mentors, at Berkeley and Illinois, had had to sue their universities to get their promotions! For my generation of women, that was practically considered normal.

So those are the basic conditions of full-time faculty work at the U of Illinois, without any additional support from outside grants dedicated to research or getting published.

Projects that led to published research

Over time, as one approaches tenure review, a faculty member is supposed to produce a “stream” of research, meaning a sequence of publications, often generated from one or two major explorations, that take up different aspects of the main research question.

Talking about my “stream of research” means going back to my fundamental research question which was (and still is) how workers learn to organize to protect themselves and each other – not what they do, which is what many people study, but how they learn to do it. Most learning theory research is about school learning. Some is about after-school, or informal learning. But both of these assume that the site of learning is friendly to the kind of learning that is needed. But work is not school; people are paid to work at work, not learn. For workers, the kind of learning that is needed is not the same as what the employer wants them to learn, that serves the production imperative of the workplace. Employers want fast, high-quality production; workers want safe, fair workplaces.The workers’ purpose is to make a living while the employer’s purpose is to maximize productivity. These two interests sometimes overlap but are fundamentally in tension or conflict.  Therefore what workers learn is not just different from what the employer wants them to be thinking about; it is opposed to it. Workers learn in the middle of this dynamic because they have to survive. What they learn has to do with power.

Labor education structures this learning and is an activist field. We teach collective decision making, leadership, communication and the substance of law, labor regulations and governing structures. We support our students as they figure out how to practice the skills of their work in a way that does not expose them to exploitation. We teach labor history as a way to build a critical consciousness of themselves as individual working people and as part of the working class. This is a particular consciousness that can either be nurtured or suppressed. Labor educators get involved in the whole range of situations where this learning happens: classrooms, women’s programs, special-issue trainings, apprenticeship programs, union meetings, campaigns, workforce development schemes, the political legislation that supposedly fosters workforce development, and so on. Any situation that encourages that kind of learning is of interest.

When I study a workplace, I ask much the same question that I asked during my dissertation research: “What is going on here?” (As contrasted to: “What is the teacher doing?”) I rely on the same theories, but I never forget that the context of a workplace is not the same as the context of a school. I try to understand the whole context, including the history and customs of the situation I am looking at and the forces that are aligned to constrain it. I look at how workers figure out how to make their work give them a life.

Not surprisingly, most workers in the US do not get access to labor education, and in the current political environment, labor education programs are open to attacks from right-wing forces.

I will now list a series of such projects that I have been involved in, and tell what became of them, what kind of funding they got (if any), whether they resulted in a publication and whether they could be said to have demonstrable public value. When I mention funding, I don’t mean money that I could add to my salary. Sometimes the money came as a deposit into a university account with my name on it, which I could then assign to reimburse specific expenses. Sometimes it was money paid directly to the University of Illinois by an outside entity (such as the Abbot Power Plant project) to support a team that included me. I will try to make clear how any money that flowed from or led to research could be used.

Research question #1: Training for work. What goes on in apprenticeships? The Building Bridges Project

Because of my graduate work observing community college classrooms, of which many were workforce training classrooms (everything from robotics to dairy farm management, but of course electrical and auto repair), I knew something about union-based apprenticeship programs. At a demonstration, my partner Joe Berry met an African-American clergyman named Anthony Haynes who ran a pre-apprenticeship program in Chicago called the Building Bridges Program (BBP). Reverend Haynes invited me to work with them. I was delighted. The purpose of this program, run through a community based organization, was to set up classes for “the hard-to-employ demographic” which usually meant members of minority groups, often men in their 50s, people who had been in prison, and older women. These classes would prepare our students to take apprenticeship examinations and get into the unionized building trades. This program also responded to the fact that many of the building trades, which pay very good middle class wages and offer good benefits, were historically exclusionary on the basis of race and gender. One of the driving internal contradictions of the situation was that as the current generation of tradesmen approached retirement, a new generation was needed; this brought about a moment when dropping discriminatory apprenticeship acceptance practice would benefit both parties. Thus the BBP. There was considerable political clout prepared to support programs like these. Electricians (IBEW Local 134), carpenters (UBC LOcal 1) and bricklayer unions (BAC Local 21) were especially supportive of our project. My role in the team was ethnographer, academic or writer, surrounded by non-academics; a very good role to be in.

After it had been in existence for several years, the BBP won a $500,000 grant from the State of Illinois. I wrote an article comparing a well-funded program that we ran, thanks to this grant, to a poorly funded program we had run earlier, showing how important it was to provide supports for our students – a full “wrap around” program. There were two separate articles in Labor Studies Journal about this project, one of the re-printed in the Journal of Community Practice, both co-authored by Rev. Haynes. Later, I was awarded a $3,000 grant from the Center for Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society to do structured interviews with gradates of the program. I found an experienced woman journalist, Karen Ford, who knew the Chicago African-American community, to do the interviews. Even later, I was able to access $10,000 to put on a conference in California at the University of California Berkeley to which spokespersons from organized construction trades unions and community-based organizations (often threatening a culture clash) were invited. My co-organizer was the UCB labor educator Steven Pitts, who has become known for his work in Black Workers Centers: http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/blackworkersmatter-report/

Getting a reputation as a woman who was concerned with diversity issues in the trades enabled me to make conference presentations including one to the annual women’s conference of the electrical workers’ union, IBEW. This topic, in other words – combining difficult historical contradictions around racism, job training, access to high-paying stable jobs and union representation – spun out into a “research stream” that included multiple journal articles, conference presentations, teaching assignments and finally a book chapter on on-the-job training in apprenticeship programs. This last,  a book chapter co-authored with an apprenticeship instructor named Mark Berchman from IBEW Local 134, is the one that gets the highest number of views on academia.edu. Beyond the writing, of course, this research actually supported the Building Bridges Project by publicizing and legitimizing it. Even today there are people working who would not have had jobs without that program. What should be obvious here, however, is the number of other people who contributed to that stream; teachers, students, donors, members of the Advisory Board, and Reverend Haynes himself, of course, who was listed as co-author on publications. Emanuel Blackwell, a Heat/Frost Insulators Local 17 retiree, was the core teacher for most of our classes and was able to perform what looked like magic with getting our students past the formidable math tests associated with apprenticeship program applications.

Below is a picture of the apprenticeship instructor at the site of the pole-climbing class in Los Angeles. His name is Anthony Sylvers; his card lists him as Power Lineworker Instructor. I post this picture because he conveyed an attitude that I have found universal among apprenticeship instructors: intensely positive, hands-on, hopeful, very clear about the direct line through training from no-job to good-job, and very clear about the fact that it’s the union that makes the job good. I never talk to an apprenticeship instructor without at least briefly wishing I could start all over again.

App instructor SYlvan

Research question #2: What will be the impact of job training-related legislation?

Flowing from my interest in the conditions of work from the point of view of working people, I paid attention to new legislation about work and preparation for work, asking, “What do people learn in job training programs?” “Job training” usually means short-term skill classes, not apprenticeship programs. In the 1990s, as the US adopted increasingly neoliberal economic strategies, there was an effort to cut back the social welfare safety net that supported millions of people. This was spoken of as “eliminating welfare as we know it,” a phrase associated with the Clinton presidency. Among our students at the University of Illinois were the leaders of a local union of welfare caseworkers, Diane Stokes and Steve Edwards of AFSCME 2858, who were watching the carnage (to use a term from President Trump’s inauguration speech) as laid off workers, families, the disabled – turned to our social welfare system and found it disappearing.

The legislation that dealt with these changes came in two parts: one was TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which cut welfare, and the other was WIA, the Workforce Investment Act, that subsidized training. The idea was that people who had lost welfare benefits could get trained and get good jobs. This was a hoax. There was never going to be enough money to re-train all the dislocated workers, nor more than a few good-paying jobs for them to take. The money spent on job training should have been spent on staffing and supporting public schools, not setting up a whole fly-by-night system of private short-term training projects. WIA was mainly a giveaway to employers who got subsidized low-wage workers.

Working with Diane and Steve, we wrote and published an article  in Labor Studies Journal based on research about the impact of TANF both on welfare recipients and on the workers in the welfare offices. I also attended state level and Chicago WIA meetings, learned and wrote and published about job training programs that worked and ones that didn’t. A critique of the WIA legislation was published in WorkingUSA; others were published in non-academic venues more likely to be read by the public. I brought in $5,000 for an analysis of a subsidiary piece of legislation called Ticket to Work, which proposed to double the value of welfare payments to the disabled by paying the actual benefits to a family member who would then care for the dependent as a job. I criticized this idea severely, looking at it from the point of view of the employee whose low-wage employment relationship would be hopelessly complicated and vulnerable to abuse. The agency that paid the $5,000 for the analysis did not like my analysis and asked for, but did not get, its money back.

Overall, I was nearly a lone voice in criticizing this legislation, both the TANF and the WIA bills. For me, here was a clear warning signal: for all the millions of dollars that WIA authorized for training for “good jobs,” there was no training in labor rights such as the right to organize, which is where the power to make a job good comes from. The local, state and regional committees that distributed the funds were dominated by employers. The labor representatives were mostly from the building trades, whose demanding apprenticeship programs would not be accessible to job-seekers coming off welfare with low-level skills (thus the connection to the Building Bridges Project). Although there was a constituency that pushed for high-skill, unionized job training through WIA, it faded as overall funding dwindled in the 2000s.

Research Question #3: What is unique and important about Womens’ Labor Education: a teaching lab opportunity

I was the only woman in the program at University of Illinois up until about 2008, which handed me the privilege of directing an annual women’s labor education conference that was richly funded to the tune of $35,000 – to $70,000 one year. This was the Polk Conference, named in honor of a union staffer, Regina Polk, who was killed on the job in the 1980s. I had a free hand to design, staff and conduct these conferences, which meant that I could experiment with curriculum. We had between 35 and 70 women at them, for 3 to sometimes 4 days, depending on our funding. We also held some one-day classes between conferences. I used the conferences for research on teaching techniques rather than research for publication, although a forthcoming book from a Canadian publisher will have a chapter by me about Polk. Here was a situation in which I could ask my research question and answer it by experimenting as if in a lab rather than observing learning in the wild. In this sense, it was research, but it was not research for publication, although I summarize our curriculum in that forthcoming chapter.

Looking back on it, I think that the research that women from our professional organization, UALE (United Association for Labor Education) have done on women’s labor education has not been properly written up and promoted. My colleague, Emily LaBarbera Twarog at University of Illinois, has a chapter on this in a book called Civic Labors: Scholars, Teachers, Activists, and Working-Class History, that I completely agree with.

Research question #4: How do workers use what they know about their own work in dealing with management: Health and Safety at a Power Plant

This was a case study. An old, coal-fired power plant needed maintenance and repair; a new manager came and saw that the workers were not wearing safety protections such as hard hats and gloves. The question the workers were forcing management to answer was, “Are we working dangerously – or is this really a dangerous place to work?” Their refusal to take ordinary precautions despite being punished made management take an action which consisted of asking a group of labor and management faculty to do a study of what was going on. A team of us from the U of Illinois interviewed everyone in the plant; many changes were made. This experience was a presentation at IFWEA in San Diego and then became a chapter in my book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? I can’t hold back a smile about the research process: on the one hand, using graduate students, we did between 40 and 50 interviews, each one an hour long, transcribed and analyzed for themes and key words at considerable cost. On the other hand, as soon as I had been brought onto the research team and heard the plan of what we were going to do, I went over to the plant and asked to speak to the union steward, who sat with me and simply told me the information that became the summary of the whole project, $10,000 later.He had been on the local safety committee for years and of course, all the problems and all the strategies the workers had taken to try to improve maintenance and safety, were all ready to hand.

In practice, if there was a situation like this where some action was required soon, the obvious thing to do would be to ask the union steward what was going on. No expensive “research” would be necessary. But this assumes that the union steward is the channel through which accurate information about the conditions of work are aggregated and that he or she has been democratically authorized to speak on behalf of the workers. That is a different challenge.

Research question #5: How are labor education programs in the US doing? The United Association for Labor Education study of labor ed programs

After I retired, I was given $10,000 to do a study of the status of labor education programs in the US. This involved interviewing the over 40 labor ed programs that still exist, searching out people who could talk about the ones that no longer exist, making a presentation to the Executive board of UALE and then presenting a final paper. That paper is posted on the UALE website. It is probably only read by labor educators, and even among those, only the ones that are concerned about the degree to which the attacks of right-wing leaders and legislators have destroyed programs. I was able to do this project because of my connections with people at different labor ed programs made during the four years when I organized the annual UALE conferences.

Research question #6. How is higher education changing, and what are faculty and faculty organizations doing about it?

My overall research question, which is about how workers learn about their own workplaces and how to empower themselves through collective activity, leads directly to another topic: higher education as a workplace. I share this research question with my husband and work partner, Joe Berry, who has been a contingent faculty organizer, researcher and leader in the movement for many years. Teachers are workers too; our industry, higher education, has been subjected to neoliberal market strategies and our workforce has been casualized just like other workforces. This topic, however, is not a natural to attract support from institutions of higher education which are, after all, the management whose strategies we criticize. The support that we get for this research comes from unions and progressive publications. For example, when Joe and I wrote a study of the way unemployment compensation for precarious faculty is provided, with advice to laid-off faculty seeking compensation, our small book was published by a the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, not by the University of Illinois or even our Labor Education Program. A study sponsored by the National Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and the United Association for Labor Education in which I asked, “What are the working conditions of online instructors?” was published in the journal of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) journal – not an academic journal, but a journal for a union of academics. The social value of research, in  other words, is not identical to its academic value or rather its value within academia.

Articles that Joe and I have written about contingent faculty and higher education have appeared in WorkingUSA, Radical Teacher, Dollars and Sense and various other venues including union newspapers, the local Oakland, California weekly Oakland Post, neighborhood newsletters and union blogs and websites. A debatable generalization is that the less prestigious the place you publish, the more likely that the people who matter to your issue will read it. On the basis of the work we have done on this topic (and other work he has done, such as his 2005 book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower), Joe is invited to be a keynote speaker at conferences all over the US, year after year. In these joint projects on this topic, Joe and I discuss the issues, I do the re-writing, and he does the conference presentations.

Research question #7: The learning process itself, looking at working adults

Ever since my early graduate student days I have been primarily interested in how people teach and learn, especially in how we teach and learn the essentially political lessons about power that are inherent in the employment relationship. As a labor educator, the design of each class is a response to what is known about those particular students, who they are, what their workplaces are like, what their support systems are like, etc etc. Like the Polk conferences, my labor ed classes were more like a collective lab than like a research project, mainly because students would come to class with problems (suspensions, overtime, hazards, abusive managers, etc etc) that needed immediate attention. They would need to leave at the end of class with at least an understanding and analysis of the situation, if not a plan to do something about it. Teaching would come from other students, not just me. Teaching in this context might be compared to working in an emergency room: the victims keep coming, one after another, and will keep coming until you can multiply the ones who have learned enough to take over the teaching. Publishing, based on what a labor educator learns from this experience, doesn’t make for a typical academic journal article although I did publish one in Mind, Culture and Activity and another one in the Innovations section of Labor Studies Journal. Both of these were attempts to extend Activity Theory to workplace learning. Other than that, the lessons learned from this kind of teaching wound up in articles co-written by Joe and myself in a series of pamphlets published by the Workers Institute at Cornell called Steward Updates. These articles are very practical and do not make reference to my theoretical framework. The theory part, along with case studies, wound up in my post-retirement book, What Did You Learn at Work Today?

The research I am doing now, slightly different from what I have done before but still related to the “How do workers learn?” question, is “What constitutes a credible strike threat?”  This research is being headed up by Robert Ovetz at San Jose State and came from a conversation we had when we noted that in many standard labor texts, the number of union members and number of strikes is used as a proxy for the strength of the labor movement. In fact, we wondered, isn’t it a better sign of a strong union if the union can signal a strike threat and force the employer to move in bargaining without having to strike? So we decided to find out what happened if we studied strike threats, not strikes. Robert was able to get $2,000 from San Jose State and hired Gabriela Crowley who is doing the heavy data collection, trying to get a substantial number of contacts at unions where there has been a strike threat but no strike. My hunch, of course: it takes a lot of labor education to raise member consciousness to a level where you really have a credible strike threat.

Finally, the importance of getting the right research question and finding collaborators

I have tried to link this whole history to what I’m calling “my research question” for a reason. For those of you teaching at Ton Duc Thang, or participating in the Ho Chi Minh City Journal Club, Getting clear about what your research question is probably the most important thing you can do. If you do not know your research question, you are like the person in the Zen saying: “Once off the path, all directions lead nowhere.”

There are institutional and national imperatives that motivate research and publishing for Vietnamese academics.  These are important, too. Your research question must not only tap into something that energizes you personally, some cognitive dissonance or contradiction that you feel driven to resolve or push forward. It must have some social value, too. It must be something that can benefit other people. But in order to do this, you need to know what those other people need. Perhaps your potential collaborators are among those “other people.” This is where thinking about your audience of peers and other academics comes into play. Writing up your research for submission to a journal is one thing, but then, after that, comes promulgating what you have learned through your research in other venues – classes that you teach, conferences that you go to, co-authors that you find, publications that are not academic,

A final word: My current research question about labor education in Viet Nam should provide the basis for creating a scaffolding for the design of curriculum for students at Ton Duc Thang. At this point, I don’t know if it will or if I am the person to do it. The whole point of doing research, after all, is to find out something that you don’t know in advance.  One of the things you might find out, when you make that step from theory to practice, is, “I was wrong.” It’s better to find this out early rather than late, by the way.

I have told my story, which in my eyes is the story of someone who has been lucky to have been well-supported in my research and unconstrained in terms of my own freedom to pick my research questions. Now I would like to find out what my story looks like from the point of view of Vietnamese researchers. Does the “social value” that I identify as the practice part of theory/practice seem worth the cost of the research? How much of the support that I describe was really necessary? What kinds of privileges could I have done without, if budgets had been tighter? And as far as political sensitivity goes, how much of what I was doing would be more difficult under our current President #45?

But for now, any help that people in this research group can provide would be welcomed.




Some references for items mentioned above:

Blunden, A. 2014. Collaborative Projects. Brill: Netherlands http://www.brill.com/products/book/collaborative-projects

McDermott, R. and Lave, Jean. 2006. Estranged Labor Learning. Critical perspectives on Activity: Explorations across Work, Education and Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press. Pg 89-122.

ON Vygotsky post-1936 in the USSR: Hiebsch, Hans, Introduction http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Mail/xmcamail.2011_12.dir/msg00047.html

And http://www.archive.org/stream/sovietpsychology00unse/sovietpsychology00unse_djvu.txt

Soviet Psychologies: A Symposium UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA LIBRARIES COLLEGE LIBRARY  Digitized by tine Internet Archive in 2010 with funding from  Lyrasis IVIembers and Sloan Foundation http://www.archive.org/details/sovietpsychologyOOunse

Vygotsky, L.S. 1934. Thinking and Speech. PDF available at:https://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/Thinking-and-Speech.pdf

Back on the project — March 28, 2017

Back on the project

VN group outside 03:11

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

VG group March 11 17

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


Trumpcare down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is TPP? Behind the Trade Deal That Died

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know you can’t actually just join the Democratic Party? — February 15, 2017

Did you know you can’t actually just join the Democratic Party?

b-city-hallThis is the old Berkeley City Hall. The new main offices are about a block away. About 20 years ago, Joe and I got married on the grass among the redwood trees to the left of the picture. It was not raining at the time.

Did you know you can’t just join the Democratic Party? I didn’t either. And so don’t a whole lot of other people.

(NOTE: about a month after I wrote this post, I got an envelope in the mail from the Democratic National Committee, a mass mailer, inviting me to “become a member.” I sent in a check for $15 or $25, I forget how much, and am now waiting to see what happens.) (Note from a couple of weeks later: I got another letter in the mail saying my membership was pending — and also something about my membership being “removed from file” on 4.26.2017 (a date about a month after I sent in my $25 on 3.16.17). A mystery, but no unclarity about being asked to donate more money.  See below.)

Dem C pending

I was at a house meeting hosted by a neighbor the other night.  These are going on all over the US, hundreds and thousands of these meetings in what is reportedly the greatest upsurge of civil society activity in recent memory.  At this meeting people went round-robin listing the different organizations they were supporting, participating in, or organizing, and also events like demonstrations or sit-ins that they had gone to. The list was long. It ranged from church groups to lawyers’ groups to street demos to this group called the InDivisibles or the OurRevolution groups left over from Bernie’s campaign.

No one, however, mentioned being involved with the Democratic Party. This was kind of stunning. We speculated why and realized that as a group, we didn’t know how. But it was the Democratic Party that pushed Hilary Clinton forward despite Bernie’s grassroots support, the Democratic Party that hired the staffers who refused to give Bernie access to the Party contact list, the Democratic Party machine that ran picked who would be on the platform committee (and denied Roseann Demoro from CNA, the Nurse’s Union), the Democratic Party that choreographed the Convention, locking out Bernie delegates (people who were there are still talking about this). So this is an organization that has the power to do good or evil, let’s say.

But how do you get involved in the Democratic Party? The people at this meeting were mostly 40-ish young professionals, some retired professors — educated people. You would think they would know. But no one did. No one could even explain how the structure worked, where the entry points might be found.

(It turned out later that one woman actually did know and had gone to a meeting to elect delegates to the state committee. More about that later.)

Some of us knew about Democratic clubs, such as the Wellstone Club, but someone else explained that those are not the same as the Democratic Party. These clubs actually have to get a charter from the Party to use the word “Democratic.” You can be a member of a Democratic Club but still not “belong” — in the sense of being a member who has a vote — to the Democratic Party.  Seriously?

I had just read Robert Reich’s Seven Hard Truths blog article, in which he said that the Democratic Party is just a shell, on life support,and has to change from being a giant fundraising machine to being a movement, or throw in the towel.


It this group of people who were trying to become politically active had no idea how to engage with the Democratic Party, life support is putting it mildly.

So how do you join the Democratic Party?

I get probably three emails a day from something that seems to come from the DNC, presumably the Democratic National Committee, but while they urge me to support something, they have a button that says “DONATE” and no button that says “JOIN.”

But the day after that meeting someone from that group forwarded an email inviting people to a fundraiser for a woman named Kimberly Ellis who is running for Chair of the California Democratic Party Central Committee. The fundraiser was going to be held in the home of Sophie Hahn, the newly elected District Five Berkeley City Council Member, who lives just two blocks away. I figured it was time for me to go to that meeting and find out something.

The crowd at this event was mostly people 40 and up, well-dressed, white, drinking wine and nibbling on carrot sticks; lots of women. The person who is running for leadership of the CDP Central Committee is a handsome Black woman with short hair, dressed in black tights, boots and a nice jacket. Her speech would have been appropriate for the Women’s March — about how the Democratic Party has to change, catch up with the people, get new leadership especially with women, etc. It was a very “soft” speech in the sense that it would offend no one. Then she took questions.  Much to my satisfaction, all the first questions were about what the Party does and how it does it. The woman next to me and I had already checked each other out on this issue — she didn’t know either! How do you join the Party? How does it work?  If there is an election for Chair coming up, when is that election happening? Who gets to vote? Why don’t we hear anything about it? And who is she running against? So this group of people, who know enough about local Berkeley politics to get invited to a fundraiser, don’t know how the Party works, either.

I realized that I recognized one of the organizers of the event, a woman who has become the Comptroller of the Party. Her name is Hilary Crosby and she married an old friend of mine from college.They were both politically active at the time.  I remember that she had become an accountant, which seemed to me at the time to be a phenomenally practical thing to do with your life. Hilary answered some of the first questions, and what I write below is a mix of what she said and what I have found on line.

One of the later questions asked about the field — who else was running?  It was only then that I began to get a sense of the candidate. She answered with apparent reluctance. First, she said clearly that she was not “running against” anyone — she is running for California and the Democratic Party. She declined to name her opponent, in fact. But she then described what happened after she announced her campaign. She went to Los Angeles (“Got up at 6, took a plane, went to have lunch with them”) to pay her respects (“due diligence”) to two women who are very powerful in California Democratic Party politics; older women, Black, but again, no names.  She said that the first thing she was told when she sat down to lunch was that if she persisted in her campaign her political career would be destroyed and she would never be able to run for anything else ever again. “At that very moment,” she said, “I knew for sure I was going to run, because this is what I am running against.”

Her opponent is a (presumably white) man whose position as Chair of the Party has been glued in place for many years — whether he is the current Chair or just the Heir Apparent I couldn’t tell, but clearly, the idea of a contested election was not something anyone was planning on.

OK. I walked home in the rain.

So here is what I can figure out about the structure of the Democratic Party.  

There are over 7.5 million people registered as Democrats in California. The body that determines what the Party does is the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) that consists of 2900 members. These 2900 people come from three sources:

1. Counties: California has 52 counties. Each county has a County Committee. These committees function as voter registration, education and campaign organizations. Each County Committee gets 4 positions on the DSCC, plus one more for every 10,000 voters in that county who are registered Democrats. So a county with a 400,000 people in it would have 44 positions on the DSCC.  Names of Chairs of these county committees are listed on the website with phone numbers. You can volunteer to work on campaigns by calling those  numbers. This is how you probably get known, to begin with. As far as I can see, people who want to work in the Party get started by volunteering for these organizations. Then if you’re good, or do the right thing, or produce some money, you get noticed and picked up by someone.

2. Assembly Districts: California has 80 Assembly Districts. Every two years (odd-numbered years) there are January caucuses in the Assembly Districts where you can vote for delegates to the DSCC.  These caucuses elect 7 men and 7 women (that’s good!). This produces 1, 12o delegates. Our neighbor, whom I mentioned about, forwarded me the message that alerted her that this caucus was to take place on January 7. The message came from Bernie Sanders:

Vote for California’s Future Slate at the CA Democratic Party Delegate Elections!

Come out and vote for California’s Future to represent Assembly District 15 at the California Democratic Party State Central Committee!

What: Vote for California’s Future Slate for delegates to the Democratic Party from Assembly District 15. 

Where: Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin Ave 

When: Saturday, January 7th, 12 – 2pm (speeches start at 11:30am)

What do I need to bring: my ID and $5 to register to vote (hardship waiver is available) 

Our slate needs hundreds of people to show up between 12-  2pm on Saturday, January 7th at the Albany Community Center to vote for our slate to represent AD 15 to the California Democratic Party. In order to vote, you must be a registered Democrat as of October 24th, 2016 and live in Assembly District 15, which covers the East Bay from North Oakland to Hercules. California’s Future Slate is endorsed by Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, State Senator Nancy Skinner, and the Wellstone Democratic Club Coordinating Committee. 

I wonder how you get onto one of those slates?

3. And finally, elected officials — like Governor Brown, Lieutenant Governor Newsome, and the various legislators in both houses (both houses are dominated by Democrats and all state agencies are led by appointed Democrats) – who are just people who ran for office with the support of the Democratic Party. They are  not the same as the  Party Leaders. The Party Chair (who must be the guy that Kimblerly Ellis was talking about) is named John Burton, and he is indeed an old white guy.

So this is how you get to be among the 2,900 people who run the Democratic Party in California. Regular people who are just registered Democrats apparently can participate in choosing these people by voting for one slate or another at the January Assembly caucuses, in this case, a slate endorsed by well-known local politicos and the Wellstone Club – and Bernie!

So if you are one of the 2,900, does that make you a member of the Party?

No. Instead, I think you are a member of the Democratic State Central Committee. Maybe there aren’t actually any members.

What does the DSCC do? It meets once a year. It endorses candidates and drafts the platform.  It has a 320-person Executive Committee which meets twice a year.The Executive Committee members are chosen on the basis of what positions they hold (they are not elected).  In turn the Executive Committee elects 19 people to send to the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

So the only point at which you can walk in off the street and vote is the January Assembly caucuses, where all you have to do is be a registered Democrat, show an ID, and pay $5. Every other point at which authority and responsibility gets channeled (where 320 people make decisions for 2,900 people, for example) is a point at which you get chosen, not elected- except for the top 19 people who go to Washington.

(Note: Nonetheless, Tom Perez who was a good Secretary of Labor under Obama, and Keith Ellison, a Black man who is also a Muslim from Minnesota, are now Chair and Deputy Chair of the DNC. Ellison was Bernie’s choice. When Tom won, he apparently immediately turned to Ellison and made him his deputy. I watched an online live stream event in which they shared a pair of high stools and said good things to a small audience. So that turned out ok, somehow.) 

There is a lot more democracy at the ballot box than in the Party, apparently. The Party will want to run people who can win. They have to balance that against which candidate will keep the machine running. Hilary was the machine candidate. So this is the process that gave us Hilary instead of Bernie, and then gave us Trump. This and the Russians, it’s turning out!

Direct Democracy?

The chances that an average person is going to be active in the Democratic Party were probably accurately reflected in the experience of the people in that meeting that I mentioned earlier, where no one even know how to become active in it.

The experience of democratic process that I have had all comes from being in unions. In the National Writers Union, part of the United Auto Workers,  chapter members voted for local Executive Board members and Union President, and for delegates to the Delegates Assembly.  This was also my experience in the California Federation of Teachers, where again there was voting for local Executive Board and local Union President, and then also voting on who would go to the annual Convention. Once at the convention there would be direct voting on the floor. I remember the excitement of a tense question, where first there would be a voice vote, and you couldn’t tell who won, and then someone would call for a “separation of the house” in order to eyeball the difference and that wouldn’t work, so then you’d have to do a roll call and officers would walk up and down the aisles while we’d stand there, hands in the air or down at our sides, as the case may be. And then the different officers would call in their counts and they’d get put up on the board, or at least jotted down by the chair, and then the winner would be announced.

Winning, in a situation like this, is really thrilling. It is especially thrilling if the issue is a tough one and the vote is prefaced by days (or maybe weeks, before the Convention) of debate and discussion. I will never forget a Delegates Assembly in the NWU where we arrived for the 3-day meeting and found that most of the other delegates didn’t understand the issue and were taking the President’s claims as fact. The issue was a  constitutional matter: whether the Oversight Committee, to which appeals about elections were referred, had the authority to overturn an election. Debates went on day and night; as the days passed, you could see that the discussions were having an effect, and finally, when the last vote was taken, we won. That was a thrilling combination of persistent discussion and debate, during which several hundred people shifted from one side of the issue to another.

Whether the outcome was correct or even good is another story. There were a lot of other things going on that were affecting the NWU at that time that I wasn’t aware; primarily, the changes in technology that was soon to completely transform the publishing industry.

The path up from the bus stop, and down toward the bus stop, in the rain. It has been raining and raining and raining this winter. Example of infrastructure in need of attention: Oroville Dam, which has overflowed into the emergency spillway, causing 200,000 people to flee the villages in the river valley below.



Late January 2017 — January 24, 2017

Late January 2017

The Women’s March



These women climbed out of windows up on the top (8th or 9th) floor of Oakland City Hall and descended via ropes, dancing to beautiful music sung by someone I couldn’t see. They  used gravity as a positive force that let them bounce gently out from the vertical wall and perform flips and somersaults and make pyramids as they slowly descended. The crowd was simply awed.

This was part of the rally at the end of the Saturday, January 21 Women’s March. Joe and I had front row seats on the Plaza because I’m still walking with sticks, and they had a special entrance for the disabled.


We joined the march at about this point, near Lake Merritt. It had been raining for the last week so the sun was welcome. The mood was gentle but serious. Many, many of the people were young women. Some were with mothers and grandmothers. There were men, too, of course, but it felt like a women’s march. All the signs I saw were home made. I heard that nowhere in any of the 600 plus marches across the US was there any violence — no violence at all.

And somehow I had thought that young women had no idea what the women’s movement had achieved. Trump has certainly created a teaching moment — now they know, if they didn’t before.

This was the sign that Joe and I wore. We cut them out of a curtain and pinned them back and front. “Life is not a rich man’s sick joke.”


After the march, which was huge (60,000 plus) I felt better. Lots of people said that watching Trump get inaugurated felt like knife stabbing in the gut. Like something you’re ashamed to even look at. Watching him try to dance (it’s available on YouTube) at the ball that Friday night was equally heartsickening. A President should not be disgusting to look at. A president should have some grace and dignity. (Look up Barack and Michelle dancing, in 2008, also on YouTube). The cab driver who took us back from the march, a Chinese man, was railing at Trump for making grotesque thumbs-up “Hey lookit me!” gestures to the crowd while dancing.

But before Obama finished, he had pardoned Chelsea Manning and the Puerto Rican independence leader (I’ll get his name). That made me weep with relief. Why not Leonard Peltier?

A look back at Trumps’ first press conference, January 11; before he was inaugurated

The networks couldn’t say no to broadcasting Trump pre-election appearances because they were chasing ratings. He was a celebrity. It was money. People would tune in to be astonished. TV show hosts had to jolly him for the same reason. Even now he’s apparently collecting a $168,000 a year pension from his work as a celebrity, in fact.

But now he goes on TV and it’s not a reality show, it’s a White House Press Conference. Some reviews of his press conference on January 10 called it “rough.” I watched segments of it on various websites. It was an appalling performance of bluster, name-calling, evasion and bullying.

The National Memo, which is a cover-your-ass pseudo-liberal but really right wing channel, excerpted Trump’s interaction with a reporter, Jim Acosta, from CNN. I tried to write down the actual words as they were spoken.

Jim Acosta, who was sitting in the front row center, asked Trump about an early morning tweet in which Trump said the release of certain information by US intelligence agencies was something that would have happened in Nazi Germany.

CNN: ….what were you driving at?

 T: I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful, that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake, out, think it’s a disgrace. I say that. I say that, it was something Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace. That information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public – as far as Buzzfeed – which is a failing pile of garbage – writing it? I think they’re going to suffer the consequences, they already are – and as far as CNN going out of their way to build it up and by the way, we just found out, I was coming down – Michael Cohen he’s a very talented good lawyer in my firm, it was just reported that it wasn’t this Michael Cohen, so all night long, it’s Michael Cohen, Michael Cohen, I say I want to see your passport, he brings his passport to my office, I say hey, wait a minute, he didn’t leave the country, he wasn’t out of the country, they had, “Michael Cohen of the Trump Organization was in Prague.” It turned out to be a different Michael Cohen, it’s a disgrace what took place, it’s a disgrace, and I think they ought to apologize to start with Michael Cohen.

CNN: Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question –

T: No, go ahead, (pointing at Breitbart reporter) no, not you (waving off the CNN reporter)

 CNN: Can you give us a question?

T: Go ahead, she’s asking a question, don’t be rude.

 CNN: Since you’re attacking our news organization. Mr. President Elect, can you give us a chance to ask a question – (other reporters start applauding)

T: No no, not you, your organization’s’ terrible –

 CNN: Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question –

 T: No

CNN: Mr. President elect, can you give us a question

T: Don’t be rude. Don’t. Be Rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake too.

More scattered applause.

 CNN: Can you state categorically that nobody –

 T: No, no –

 CNN: Mr. President elect, that’s not appropriate –

 T: Quiet, quiet – don’t be rude, don’t-be-rude- I’m not going to give you a question –

 CNN and Trump are going back and forth like badminton shuttlecocks, speaking over each other, and reporters in the room are applauding lightly, nervously, in support of CNN. Acosta is holding on, pushing Trump to see how far he will go. When he makes his point, he stops.

It’s hard to actually write down how this goes. Trump doesn’t speak in sentences. He huffs in one-liners, phrases, expletives (“terrible, disgusting, fake”). He likes to mimic other people’s voices (as Meryl Street pointed out). Anecdotes are his one rhetorical form — he knows where he’s going if it’s a 3 or 4 sentence story. Expository language, stuff that explains something – like, who is Michael Cohen?  — is not his way. He talks like an old yenta with a breathing problem, haranguing gossip about family.

Rough? Ragged. This was not a press conference. This was a display of personality. How long will these displays of personality last? As reality TV, people kept tuning in. But as our president? The press corps seems to have understood that this was not going to be a press conference. They pushed him toward the display of personality, to get it over with and warn us what we can expect.

I’ll bet that the deep staters could care less what Trump does as long as they can move their pieces into place. Six hearings are going on at once on Capitol Hill right now. I always thought that the main thing the Republicans wanted was stability, so that capitalism could grind along accumulating capital. How are they going to make a Trump presidency stable? I guess that by keeping him in the foreground they can swamp the media so that we don’t notice what they’re doing in the real world (not on reality TV). Then they’ll stand back and let an impeachment process go forward. They’ll sacrifice him and let Pence, who is a serious politician and, according to many people, much more dangerous, take over. Trump is dangerous because he’s a loose cannon with bad ideas. Pence is a serious guy.

The Future of the Media

Either they’ll cave, get wiped out (like in Russia) or they’ll do their job.

Buzzfeed, apparently has made $25,000 selling online swag such as plastic garbage cans labeled “failing pile of garbage” and has donated the money to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Meryl Streep urged us to support that organization.

City College Wins: The Long Haul

San Francisco City College received its full accreditation for the next 7 years. This is a total win. Telling the story of how we did this would be a good way to answer the question people always ask us, “How are unions doing these days?” It’s a long story. It’s a story that involves every level of government from the college up through the city and the state and into the federal Department of Education. It involves hundreds of people, to say nothing of the thousands who were students and who participated in demonstrations. It is the story of millions of dollars getting thrown around. The story of the role of the union in this victory would be a good story to tell in order to explain to someone why unions are critical players in anything that holds back the rush of money into the top 1%. We started to tell this story to Emmy and Brian, who dropped by last night with Anna and Rosie and some other friends while out for a walk. Emmy suggested trying to get people to collaborate on a book about this struggle. That would make a huge job less formidable. But as Joe says, “Another book project!!!”

Joe has joined Democratic Socialists of America and went to a meeting where they elected local leadership. He said it was a very good meeting, lots of young people; still not diverse enough, however. Maybe I’l join, too.

Finally: Why “labor” doesn’t count

Trump plays the building trades. There’s an old joke: These are the guys who would be happy to build crematoria.


January 2017 Winter Storms — January 11, 2017

January 2017 Winter Storms


One afternoon a few weeks ago,  I joined in with a small demonstration that has been held on Monday afternoons at the top of Solano Avenue. Our friend Harry Brill has been the organizer. That’s Harry, beside me. Behind us are members of the Occupella singing group. It’s called the “Tax the Rich” demonstration. It has some persistence: nearly 5 years now, I believe. Mostly retired professors and teachers. Turns out, according to my surgeon, I shouldn’t have been out walking so much, so that was an anomaly. Since then I’ve not gone on so many walks. It’s more important to do my exercises than try to walk distances.

My knees get better all the time, but it is really slow. Apparently the pain should be pretty much gone at the end of 3 months, or 6, depending on whom you talk to; the healing really takes a year (now they tell me). The body experiences this kind of surgery like a serious car accident. I mainly do my exercises and read. California is enjoying a big storm, two weeks of steady rain, some strong winds. We joke that it’s like Seattle.

What I Am Reading

I didn’t want to read anything long until 4 weeks after the surgery, which took place on November 22, the day Kennedy was assassinated. Up until then, it was mostly The London Review of Books, etc.

But now, early January, I have a longer attention span. Here are some of the books spread out on chairs, floor, sofas and coffee table in the living room.

I will divide them into three kinds. First, books about Viet Nam written by Vietnamese-American authors. Second, books by Svetlana Alexeivitch, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Third, books I read or listen to as audio books, to relax.

Books by Vietnamese-American Authors

 These books give me views of Viet Nam from the perspective of Viet-Kieu, or “overseas Vietnamese.” They in turn help me understand the perspective of Vietnamese we met in Viet Nam who were from South Vietnamese families that had worked for the French or the Americans, or who had come to South Vietnam from the North after 1956 (Catholics, but not only Catholics – Nationalists were among these); they illuminate the attitudes of people who, for whatever other reason, did not flee or escape to the US.

If I think of a triangle with someone at each point, one point would be us, US citizens from the anti-war generation, remembering the 1970s and visiting in 2015; a second point would be the Vietnamese we met there, born in 1995 or 2000, mostly three generations away from the war (noticeably absent are the voices of the Vietnamese generation that corresponds to ours; and the third point would be the ‘overseas” Vietnamese, the ones who made it over to the US after 1975. These books fill in some background on that third point. They help me understand the passionate hunger of young Vietnamese, including our students, to become “global people,” along with the push at TDTU to learn and speak English. I also feel I can better appreciate the moment when, last January, one of our Ton Duc Thang students, a girl with a beautiful voice, sang “Hello, Vietnam” to the Cornell students, one of whom was a Viet-Kieu. I remember the heart-struck expression on his face as he watched he and listened to her.

Nguyen, Viet Than. 2016. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard University Press. This book, which is a collection of essays or meditations, is better than his Pulitzer winning mystery/spy novel, The Sympathizer, but still not very good. See my blog entry on The Sympathizer from last winter. Nguyen is a Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. His writing feels like literary philosophizing. One chapter, On Becoming Human, is about going to the War Museum of Korea, in Seoul. He chooses to focus on the exhibit that depicts the role of the Korean military in Viet Nam. His critique has some edge; it would be a measure against which to compare at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. After reading Pham’s books, which are much tougher and stronger, I feel as if I understand why Nguyen seemed cautious when being interviewed about his Pulitzer, insisting, for example, that he was writing for the Vietnamese community, not for the general public.

Pham, Andrew X. 2008. The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars. Harmony House (part of Crown Books). This feels close to being a book you could trust to be a true story. It’s sufficiently full of accidents, contradictions, and choices made under conditions of insufficient information, so that I didn’t feel as if I am being pandered to. It’s the story of Pham’s father who grew up in the North, in a wealthy Nationalist family; was re-grouped to the South in 1955-56, got drafted into the South Vietnamese army, witnessed every kind of heroism and corruption, kindness and cruelty, spent time in a re-education/labor camp and then escaped in a boat with his family to America. This book was not available for sale on museum bookshelves in Viet Nam.

Pham, Andrew X. 1999. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the landscape and memory of Viet Nam. Picador Press: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Much of this overlaps with The Eaves of Heaven, but it’s a rougher, more brutal book. The story of the father is woven together with the story of Pham who, as a young man who has grown up in San Jose, California, decides to ride his bike north from San Francisco, down Japan, and through Viet Nam. With enough detail to make it seem as if he’s working from the daily notes in a journal, he takes us from Saigon to Hanoi, through the various towns that he knew as a child – Vang Tau, Phan Thiet where he was born, Nha Trang Hoi An, and others. It’s both a bike-riding adventure and a young man’s search for identity story, and it’s powerful and good in both ways. He’s writing about Viet Nam in about 1996, just after the embargo has been lifted but before the opening of the economy to market capitalism had really taken hold. He describes poverty that is much worse than what Joe and I saw last year. The question of how the war has dropped a knife between him, his family, young men of his age group –whether Vietnamese or not – and older Vietnamese rises behind every encounter, whether it’s with corrupt police, girls selling themselves as prostitutes, other European travellers. He goes into great detail about what he eats, where he sleeps, how his stomach handles or doesn’t handle the food and water. Despite being a personal history and a bike riding adventure, two genres that don’t usually build into a revelation, this does.

Some stories only get a chapter or a bit more: one example of a story that looms larger than what he tells us is a quick view of a monster Colonel, father of one of Pham’s girlfriends, a bully who wants to rouse the Vietnamese peasantry into  revolt – and who seems to have shown up again in Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning book. Another powerful, necessarily incomplete story is that of his older sister, Chi, who runs away into the streets as a teenager and becomes a man named Minh.

Lam, Andrew. 2010 East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. Heyday Press. Back in the 1980’s I was teaching English at what is now Berkeley City College. People could take classes there that would count toward a more expensive degree at UCB, just up the street, so many students were getting rid of their requirements at BCC.   One of my students was a young Vietnamese man who wrote a memoir essay that was at least in part about his grandfather’s home in Viet Nam – verandas overlooking rice paddies, the graves of ancestors in the fields. I remember telling him how good it was, and then as months and hears went by, seeing his name in different places – the Nation magazine, for example, and on NPR. Years passed. Now I’m reading a lot about Viet Nam and I get a lot of books out of the library. I open this one, thinking, “I’ll bet this is that kid I had in class thirty years ago.” So I open up a chapter in this book and there he is, saying, “After reading one of my short stories, Helen, my first creative writing teacher, decided that I was to be a writer.” This is on page 39. When I read this, I shouted out loud and passed the book over to Joe.

I have another book by Andrew Lam: Perfume Dreams. Short essays, very well written, about what it is like to be Vietnamese American. From what I can see, this book is a lot like East Eats West. I am glad I didn’t read these books before going to Viet Namhowever.

Svetlana Alexeivich, interviews

The second category of books helps me deal with the election of Donald Trump. These are two books by Svetlana Alexievitch. They are about another period of rapid, profound transition, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Nothing I was reading right after the election that was written for periodicals seemed to go far enough into the real darkness unleashed by the Trump election; it was as if they were written fast, to fill pages that were unexpectedly left blank. They revealed that no one – at least no one who writes for the things I read – really believed Trump would win. But Alexievich really goes there.

Alexeivitch, Svetlana. 2016. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, an Oral History. Random House. These are interviews with people who lived during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, done between 1991 and 2012 to capture the experience of a whole nation that was taking itself apart piece by piece. This is better than typical Studs Terkel interview collections. They are arranged and edited with a stronger hand (you don’t get the feeling that she’s just typing up a tape recording). I can’t think of anything comparable, anywhere. She does some long (60) page interviews and some chapters that are collections of brief excerpts from interviews. She’s got everyone from low-level Communist Party apparatchiks to guards at labor camps to professors to farmers. There are people who are doing well, making big money in the new economy, and people who are heartbroken at the loss of the society they thought they were building.

She won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but not for Secondhand Time.

Alexeivitch opens Secondhand Time with the following sentences (page 3):

Communism had an insane plan: to remake the “old breed of man,” ancient Adam. And it really worked…Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement. Seventy plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: homo sovieticus. Some see him as a tragic figure; others call him a sovok. I feel like I know this person…. We’re easy to spot! People who come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity…

Homo sovieticus: a person who could be both the local union president and the HR manager of a company. Another reason I want to know what people watching the Soviet Union fall apart had to say  is because a curriculum like the one we were originally asked to use at Ton Duc Thang, that teaches students to be good at sport, love education, work hard, be more productive workers and join the union, is the kind of curriculum that would have been designed for that new socialist man, homo sovieticus. It’s not inconsistent with the fact that many of the older professors in universities we  visited had received their PhD’s in Russia.

Training students to become homo sovieticus would be fine if Viet Nam were still socialist, or if these students were not going to be working for FDI firms from Japan, South Korea, Australia, the US and elsewhere. But since our students are going to be working, mostly, in firms that compete in the context of global capitalism, we have to teach them why, if they are union leaders, they can’t also be human resource managers, or vice versa. We have to teach them to begin their understanding of industrial relations by assuming that there is class conflict. Homo Sovieticus would get smashed in contemporary US-style industrial situations. We have to teach them how to advocate for workers and fight to keep the share of the productivity that they deserve, and not assume that the employer has their best interests at heart, or that they are part of a big family that will take care of them, or that socialism will provide for them according to their needs if they contribute according to their abilities.

Another book: Alexeivitch, Svetlana. 2011. Voices from Chernobyl. This is the only book I’ve read in recent months that goes as far into the dark as our whole country has gone politically. This is really a book for the end of times. She puts great art into the editing and pacing of these over 100 interviews so the book has a cumulative rhythm and logic.

The landscape around Chernobyl sounds like western Connecticut; pretty, orchards, small mountains, valleys, little rivers flowing into a bigger river, rich fields full of vegetables, corn and potatoes. But the houses are empty. Chernobyl blew in 1986, under Gorbachev. Today, a lot of the poisoned houses are actually inhabited, by people fleeing the many other wars in Chechnya Tajikistan, Afghanistan. Why not? Everything looks as if it’s fine. Even some birds have come back.

An aside: The descriptions of re-occupied Chernobyl reminded me of Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, in which LeGuin describes a civilization that has started to reconstitute itself. One out of four children are born “sith,” or disabled in some way, and we assume it comes from a nuclear or toxic chemical disaster a few generations ago.

The New Socialist Man and the Harvard Russian Project


Alexeivich’s words about homo sovieticus, or socialist man, reminded me of a treasure trove of an archive that I stumbled upon twenty or thirty years ago when I was trying to figure out how the work of the Soviet psychologist, L.S. Vygotsky, came to the US. There was a relationship between my professor at Harvard, Jerome Bruner, and Vygotsky. Bruner had introduced the just-published first collection of Vygotsky’s work into his social relations class as part of general ongoing support of academic exchange across borders and cultures about psychology. I happened to take that class, back in 1961.

Bruner himself had been part of the Harvard Russian Project. This project was a response to the fact that, following WWII, thousands of Soviet academics and intellectuals were among the waves of refugees pouring into the West, mainly Germany, where they found housing in refugee camps as displaced persons. They came from all over, but mostly Belorussia, Ukraine, and Great Russia. This created the opportunity for a “natural experiment.” The capitalist west, looking ahead into the decades of the Cold War, needed to know if they were facing a different kind of person.


The Harvard Russian Project asked if the changed economic and cultural relationships of socialism could have produced a different psychology that could actually be called “socialist man.” Over 700 people were interviewed. These interviews, along with supplementary materials, ended up in this archive that is now on line.

Another person to look is Raymond Bauer, who was part of that project and became a professor at Harvard Business School. His papers related to the Harvard refugee interview projects are at;


I read a book of his many years ago, which I am trying to find now. His answer to the question, “Is there such a thing as the “new socialist man?” was yes. I am trying to find that book. What I can see online right now is a different book by him, from MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/nine-soviet-portraits. This book portrays nine Soviet role types which he says are “the crucial group to examine in order to appreciate the problems of social control in the Soviet Union.




Finally, books I am reading to relax

Ghodsee, Kristen. 2015 The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfullfilled promise of communism in Eastern Europe. Duke University Press. This unusual book wraps together at least two stories (I’m about half way through). One is the story of EP Thomson’s brother, Frank, who was in the British military and as a Communist managed to get assignments that eventually brought him to travelling and fighting with a Communist partisan group in the mountains of Bulgaria, supposedly preparing the people to welcome the Russian Army when it showed up from the east (I also remember seeing a movie about this, where the Russians show up and everyone is happy until they start looting and raping). Letters from Thompson to Iris Murdoch (of all people) and others were in an archive that the author was able to get into; she also got into archives in Bulgaria where she found documents related to the partisan group that Thompson was connected to. One of the leaders of this group was a girl who was still alive when Ghodsee was doing her research, and many pages include transcripts of interviews with this woman, Elena Lagadinova. The book is much more concrete than the title suggests.

Mann, Thomas. 1924. The Magic Mountain. Vintage, translation Woods, 1995. Alyosha gave this to me to read while I recover. I read it once many years ago and seem to remember bailing mid-book. I think it is supposed to be funny. I think you are supposed to laugh out loud. In fact, today this book would probably be a graphic novel. Every scene is described so clearly, even to the postures and gestures of the individuals involved in a conversation, that you can picture them. But the whole thing is so ironic: Hans Castorp, swaddled in his fur sleeping bag and camels’ hair blankets, taking his nightly rest cure by the orange glow of his table lamp, out on the balcony overlooking the lights of Davos-Platz, high in the Alps.


And then there are Audio Books

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath. Likes to play with ideas that touch down near sciences, statistics, technology. Good for listening to while exercising.

July, Miranda. 2015? The First Bad Man. I stopped in the middle of this one. Narrator is a masochist.

Mantel, Hilary. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Three jewel-like, perfectly written, uncomfortable and chilling stories.

Pratchett, Terry. Dodger. I will read almost anything by Terry Pratchett. This seems to be a sort of young adult novel. One of the characters in it is Charles Dickens, who uses Dodger to solve a mystery. I have also down loaded Going Postal, which I have read once, and the Science of Discworld, which seems to be a serious science series.

Smiley, Jane. Early Warning: An Iowa Family Saga. This is organized like a diary. Takes a whole Iowa family from one end of the 1950s through the 1980s. I listened to this while doing exercises down in the back yard, where the sun shines hot even on a cold day. I also listened to it while going to sleep. The idea might have been pretty powerful, but if you are writing a book that bridges a generation, you have the opportunity to choose something that barely penetrates public consciousness when it starts, but then has a life-or-death consequence twenty years later. You can show how events don’t just happen and pass away, they carve out the future. Smiley completely misses this. It’s as if she googled the headlines for each year and makes sure that one of her characters is on the periphery of some famous events – the Moratorium march, the Jim Jones massacre, the farm crisis. But a dozen years later, these events have not left a mark.

Another photo of the Tax The Rich demonstration. I have heard that there is more civil society organizing going on these days in the US than anyone has ever documented in the past. Makes sense, but you have to organize among people who are not like yourselves.



Knee Surgery — December 11, 2016

Knee Surgery


Living room with rugs pulled up, ice machine under daybed, lots of pillows for elevating legs, yellow pad on which I keep a record of my medications, small Christmas tree to be decorated ASAP

I have not written much in this blog the last couple of weeks, but it’s not just because I was overwhelmed by the election.

On November 22 I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery at the Kaiser hospital in San Leandro. This is a new facility, only a couple of years old. It’s huge, very specialized.They have relocated all the leg joint surgery – knee, hip, whatever – there.  A gigantic facility like this pre-supposes continuity of funding. Kaiser was lining itself up to be the private sector model for Single Payer — now what? We’ve got Trump promising to do away with Obamacare and Medicare.

On my way into the pre-op suite I caught a vista of at least 25 fully equipped stations, all of them empty. Maybe because this was 2 days before Thanksgiving and the surgeons didn’t want to be on call to discharge patiences on Thanksgiving. Maybe there are some days when all 25 stations are full. That would look like, and sound like, a battleground.

Many friends were surprised that I needed knee replacement at all. In the daytime, I walked around like most other people. However, I stopped running for exercise back in 2006, in Chicago. The last 3 years I’ve noticed that riding more than 15 miles on my bike – even my electric bike – causes inflammation of my knees that wakes me up at night. According to X-rays, I’ve got severe arthritis in my knees (and moderate in my hips). Then last July, in Vermont, I took a Latin Dance class from my yoga instructor. It was three nights before the burning calmed down. A couple of days later I got out a shovel to dig up the raspberries. This time I had pain at 3 am that was kind of like solar flares. The flames had blue tips. On the pain scale where they ask you to rate your pain 1-10 I’d call it a 9. Since living in Vermont requires gardening, wheeling the wheelbarrow, etc, I asked for a recommendation from my GP at Kaiser who sent me to a young surgeon (David Junwoo Lee) who said I was a good candidate for a bilateral. It was a brisk, cheerful interview.

I had never heard of a bilateral, but apparently they are doing more and more of them. Several friends said I was crazy.

At first, my surgery was scheduled for February, so that was far enough away I could forget about it. But then I got a call saying he could do it in just a few weeks, November 22nd, right before Thanksgiving. Should I cancel? My reason for choosing “cancel” would be “fear.”

For the weeks before the surgery, I intensified my exercise program. Our carpenter friend Ben built a small yoga deck down in the back yard where the sun lands early in the morning. It was very pleasant to go down there with a yoga mat and my phone, which is loaded with audio books, and do yoga.The sun shone and the various things in the garden were thriving, except for a trumpet vine that seems to have not done well being watered by laundry wash outflow.

Now, post-surgery, Joe basically is full-time helping me. He cooks, shops, does the wash, makes the bed, cleans the floor, brings in the mail, puts out the garbage bins, even answers the phone. If he can carve out 2 hours to do his email, that’s good. Gabi and her family and my brother and his family have helped a lot. Brian came over and gave advice and drove us to my first post-op doctor’s appointment. Luckily, our living quarters are all on one floor. Bathroom, bedroom, living room, kitchen – all close together, one level.

Joe and Katie Quan took care of the presentation about labor, trade and Vietnam that we had signed up for at the Zinn Bookfair on December 4 and it went well. We have found that explaining what we were doing in Viet Nam to people in the US is like peeling layers off an onion, one at a time — and you have to do it slowly. You often have to go all the way back to the economic condition of Viet Nam after the American War in order to find a piece of the story that the other person knows. If you can find someone who has gone beyond that, you’re in luck. The people who came to their presentation were already a bit informed.

It has been raining hard and the days have been dark. Every day I work through a full list of exercises to do and medications to take. I am now progressing well enough to be “off the chart.” I can walk around the house and use crutches, go up and down a few steps very slowly, and have full extension and 112 degree retraction. The PT can’t justify home visits any more.  I still rely on the pain meds, although I’m stretching them out a bit. Their main effect (other than masking the pain) is to make me very short-tempered. I read, do email, listen to music and audio books. I also try to keep up with a little computer language program, Duo Lingo, to learn some kind of Vietnamese which is mind-bogglingly different from English. I can say, “I am forever in kindergarten,” or rather, I can recognize the Vietnamese words that mean this when spoken by the audio ap. Whether I could say those words in a way that any Vietnamese speaker could recognize is still to be tested.

It looks as if we will definitely be going back to Ton Duc Thang next August. I have been in touch with Dean Hoa, Vinh, Vy, An, Nghia and Nghia Vo, and also with the Director of the War Remnants Museum. We won’t stay for 6 months; it will be more like two or three. We will apply for Fullbrights but given the new politics, we aren’t counting on getting anything.

Revenge is a meal best eaten cold

Jan-Werner Muller has a pretty good article in the current (December 1, 2016) issue of the London Review of Books, which is the publication I go to more and more often for the most useful stuff. Muller quotes Michael Moore saying that Trump was elected on a revenge vote, the “biggest fuck-you in recorded history.” But now that Trump is elected, can he govern on “fuck-you”? What does that look like? Fuck who? Probably, the people who voted for him. “Down with everything!” includes “Down with you, suckers!”

Trump ran as a populist, claiming to speak for the “real people” who have been riding the race to the bottom since the 1970s. As a populist, he mirrored and gave voice to their collective, justified and mostly ignored or ridiculed anger. Too many real people in the US suffered material and moral injuries over the last 50 years; the remedy promised by Trump is non-specific revenge. Can revenge work as an organizing principle of government? Muller says yes:

The crucial thing to understand is that populists can govern as populists. . . . The wall might not get built [the wall along the border with Mexico] but that can be made to mean something other than the breaking of a campaign promise. Trump would merely need to convince enough people that it was the enemies of the nation – globalists, Democrats, former beauty queens, whatever – who prevented the practical realization of the imperative of white self-protection. The supply of enemies is inexhaustible (p. 13).

All he has to do to stay in power is to find a parade of people to blame when his policies fail or backfire. Last week he boasted that he had “saved 1100 jobs” at Carrier (air conditioning, heating) in Indiana. In fact, it’s somewhere near 500, or maybe 800 – I’ve seen different figures. He did it by promising $7 million in tax credits to Carrier. Actually Vice-President Elect Pence, as governor of Indiana, was the person who arranged that $7 million. So $7 million for 700 jobs is $10,000 per job, paid for by the taxes owed to the people of Indiana that Carrier should have paid. And all the jobs at a nearby Carrier plant are going to Mexico. In the course of this, Trump blamed the local USW president, Chuck Jones, saying that the union should spend more time working, less time talking, and reduce dues.

Real government is not a calendar of tweets, photo ops, rallies and talk show appearances. Those are government as reality TV show, which is how Muller forsees Trump consolidating his populist base. But in the background he has all the apparatus of real government to play with:

Populists aren’t just fantasy politicians; what they say and do can be in response to real grievances and can have very real consequences. . . They define an alternative political reality in which their monopoly on the representation of the “real” people is all that matters; in Trump’s case, an alt-reality under the auspices of the alt-right.

 In the US, this will probably mean a free hand for K Street lobbyists and all-out crony capitalism; continual attempts to undermine checks and balances (p 14).

My Viet Nam article in the LERA publication, Perspectives on Work, came out and I got a copy. It’s not bad, although it was written nearly 10 months ago. They printed the title wrong, unfortunately: Facing Capitalism: One View of Labor, Education in the New Vietnam, should have been Facing Capitalism: One View of Labor Education in the New Vietnam. Apparently the editor did not recognize labor education as the topic of the article. I had asked them to send me a galley proof but the editor told me they do not do that any more.

Liberal Nihilists

The “dark matter” in this picture – the heavyweight invisible mass that seems to add momentum to every whiplash curve on this roller coaster ride – are what Muller calls “the liberal nihilists.” Some of my friends, especially in my generation, fall into this category; publicly, they are keeping their heads high, but secretly, they are afraid and fatalistic. They live in gated communities, either real or imaginary, and apres moi le deluge.

Trump’s strategy for dealing with the liberal nihilists is to keep us confused by, for example, inviting Al Gore to come visit him in Trump Tower and then threatening to appoint the chair of Exxon Mobile as Secretary of State.

In the meantime, the deadlines created by climate change will draw closer and pass. Behind the curtain of the reality TV “government” show, Trump’s buddies will try to pack their suitcases with everything they think they might need to make it through the anthropocene.

People who are not liberal nihilists: Message from USA Labor Educators and Leaders Solidarity Network to our friends in Viet Nam

This was drafted by Leanna and Hollis, discussed by the rest of us, revised and approved on 12.04. 16. These people are not liberal nihilists. Note the links to readings at the bottom.

Statement from “USA Labor Educators & Leaders Solidarity Network” to Vietnam Friends

Dear Sisters and Brothers of Vietnam,

We write to you to express friendship and solidarity at a challenging moment for the United States. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, because of the undemocratic election rules, Donald Trump will be our next President and the Republican Party will now control the Congress and be in position to control the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

First, we assure you that our strong commitment to solidarity between labor, academic and people’s organizations in Vietnam and the USA will continue regardless of who is President of the USA.

The role of the USA in international affairs in the coming four years is completely unknown. It is likely, however, that the USA will NOT ratify the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Donald Trump represents a huge threat to unions, immigrants, communities of color, diverse/different religions, women and all who support peace and justice. As labor educators and trade union leaders, we will face many challenges in the immediate FUTURE, but remain strong in raising consciousness against corporate power and the global race to the bottom.

The kind of democracy we have in the USA requires of us local organizing and grassroots activism. We are each doing all that we can individually and collectively.

We attach a list of readings that you may find helpful in learning about the recent USA elections and its potential impact.

We send to you our heartfelt solidarity and a deep commitment to continue to work with you for a better world for the people of Vietnam, the U.S. and throughout the world.

Onward for justice and peace!

Rick Bales

Joe Berry, retired labor educator, City College of San Francisco and University of Illinois, union leader AFT 2121, City College of San Francisco

Julie Brockman, Associate Professor of School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, Michigan State University

Elise Bryant

Richard Fincher, Mediator and Arbitrator

Michael Mauer, American Association of University Professors

Leanna Noble, retired union organizer and labor educator

Katie Quan, UC Berkeley Labor Center

Kim Scipes, Associate Professor of Sociology, Purdue University Northwest

Hollis Stewart, retired union leader and labor educator

Angie Ngoc Tran, Professor of Political Economy, Global Studies, CA State University, Monterey Bay

Kent Wong, UCLA Labor Center

Helena Worthen, retired labor educator, member, National Writers Union UAW 1981


Suggested Readings:

Quick Reflections on the November 2016 Elections, Bill Fletcher, http://billfletcherjr.com/2016/quick-reflections-november-2016-election/

Democrats, trump and the Ongoing Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit, Glenn Greenwald, https://theintercept.com/2016/11/09/democrats-trump-and-the-ongoing-dangerous-refusal-to-learn-the-lesson-of-brexit/

What Donald Trump Wants to Do in His 100 Days, Amita Kelly and Barbara Sprunt, http://www.npr.org/2016/11/09/501451368/here-is-what-donald-trump-wants-to-do-in-his-first-100-days

How Will a Trump Administration Lift Wages for the Vast Majority of Americans, Lawrence Mishel, http://www.epi.org/blog/how-will-a-trump-administration-lift-wages-for-the-vast-majority-of-americans-statement-of-lawrence-mishel-president-of-the-economic-policy-institute/

Revenge of the Forgotten Class, Alec MacGillis, https://www.propublica.org/article/revenge-of-the-forgotten-class

Labor Leaders Deserve their Share of the Blame for Donald Trump’s Victory, Micah Uetricht, http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19621/labor_leaders_deserve_their_share_of_the_blame_for_donald_trumps_victory

Why Trump Won the Electoral College Vote, Garrett Brown, http://stansburyforum.com/why-trump-won-the-electoral-college-vote/

In Trump, Extremism Found Its Champion and Maybe Its Demise, Adam G. Klein, http://theconversation.com/in-trump-extremism-found-its-champion-and-maybe-its-demise-67765

Still Trump, Black Panther Party exhibit, 3 summary points — November 12, 2016

Still Trump, Black Panther Party exhibit, 3 summary points


There are protests all over the country, but it’s not clear how well thought-through or coordinated they are. Many are anti-Trump but not pro-Hillary. The peaceful ones are about immigration, Black Lives Matter, and climate change.

Thousands of East Bay high schoolers flood Berkeley streets protesting Trump victory

There are also clusters of violence. I’m getting emails from the University of Illinois offering “safe” discussion group locations and a hotline for reporting violence or bullying. Today there was an announcement of cyber attacks on the U of Illinois email and website, and it is true, my email is acting funny. Friends on other campuses have told me about attacks on women wearing a hijab, vandalism, etc. The attacks are not pro-Trump. They are expressions of rage by people who  now think that they have license to behave like Trump. If the President can be racist, misogynist, insulting, and encourage violence (like assassinating Hillary), so can we.

A lot of the elite media (Washington Post, NYTimes, New Yorker) are publishing somewhat conciliatory opinion pieces. As in, “It’s not so bad, he seems to have a transition team of fairly moderate Republicans, etc.”


Locally, the candidates that we supported won. Jesse Arreguin will be the next Mayor of Berkeley, beating the well-funded  Laurie Capitelli, the apparent heir. Sophie Hahn will be the District 5 rep on the City Council. Most satisfying was the election of a young black woman, Shannell Williams, to the Board of Trustees of San Francisco City College. She was a student leader at the time that the accreditation attack began and has remained active and vocal all through the fight. She won with more votes than any candidate for the Board had ever received.

The top California legislators publicized a defiant statement promising to protect Californians and the rights and freedoms that we have here. They put it out in English and Spanish. This is specifically related to Trump’s threat to deport people but it is also more general:


The petition to secede from the United States is going around and getting a lot of signatures. The inside front page of today’s Chronicle had a long article supporting it. California has a Democratic governor, legislature and Congressional delegation, and went for Hillary 65% overall, 70-80-90% in the Bay Area.

These last two are challenges hurled at Trump the person. They are not directed against Trump supporters. In fact, the anger behind these initiatives is like the anger of Trump supporters.

Where is my community?

The neighborhood we live in is very white.The whiteness of my neighborhood makes me nervous. I have to go downtown Berkeley to even see a Black person.  Oakland, however, is mixed. (There is a big fight going on over gentrification in Oakland, which would price out the multi-ethnic and African American neighborhoods.)

A lesson that is coming home to me because of this election is that I need to find my community and get more involved in it.

Yesterday, Friday, Joe and I went to an exhibit at the Oakland Museum celebrating 50 years since the founding of the Black Panther Party. I went in hopes of seeing something that would help me understand grassroots organizing. It’s is a powerful and well-designed exhibit. The Black Panthers emerged out a redevelopment project that leveled an old Black neighborhood in Oakland, replacing it with office towers. It coincided with the Viet Nam War where disproportionate numbers of young Black men were sent to die fighting. The Panthers did deep community organizing, armed themselves, trained and scared the daylights out of white people. Their organization had chapters all across the country. Many of their leaders were jailed and shot.


The long videos accompanying the exhibit are especially good. So are the galleries with the blown-up FBI files on the wall.


One lesson that applies right now, from the Black Panthers, is that they had a program. They weren’t just doing whatever came next. They worked out a 10-point program. In the exhibit, the actual sheets of yellow legal pad paper with corrections in pencil are arranged in a glass case, under a big wall on which the whole program is written.


The other lesson, which is more obvious, is that the kind of community organizing that they did involved intense, detailed planning and many, many people — all kinds and ages of people.  They had not only their famous breakfast program for kids; they also had medical emergency services and transportation, a newspaper, assistance for old folks, home repair collectives – the exhibit includes a “how to set up a plumbing repair service” booklet.  And of course they had their military drills, which were on the one hand a form of public dance and on the other hand real self-defense program, with guns and ammunition. Some of the most famous photos of the Black Panthers show them walking into the California legislature with their rifles.

We were there on Friday evening when entrance to the Museum is free after 5. Coming out of the exhibit, we heard music and found the main  foyer where there was a sound system and stage, long tables for eating, and a full bar. People — whole families – were dancing under the lights in the entrance. Up on the street a line of a dozen food trucks were selling wonderful food. Little kids, babies, old women, old men, couples, all colors and ethnicities mixed up together. You could see the direct line of descent passed down from the Panthers. I thought, “I’m glad I’m here.”

Only a few blocks away, last night there was a protest with people burning tires and garbage in the middle of the street.

This picture was taken early, before the crowd got really big. But you can see people dancing and eating.


Trump and TPP: Why trust him now? 

Questions from friends in Viet Nam are about TPP.  I wrote back to one of them, forwarding a typical anti-TPP message, this one from Tim Canova at Progress for Change:

But let this be a wake-up call.  There is no time to waste in organizing against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the disastrous corporate giveaway that the political establishment may still try pushing through the upcoming lame-duck Congress. 

Some Senate leaders have indicated they may not bring the TPP up for a vote in the lame-duck Congress.  But now is not the time to trust in their sincerity or to let our guard down.  We must put a stake through the heart of the TPP and the anti-democratic agenda that it represents.

If passed, the TPP will outsource millions of our service jobs, raise prescription drug prices, endanger the open internet, and undermine our food safety, health and environmental protections.

This is the US progressive left-wing moderate argument against TPP.  As you can see, there is nothing in it about freedom of association, independent unions in Viet Nam or anywhere else. People in the US do not know anything about the Viet Nam labor side agreement. To us here, TPP is all about being a “corporate giveaway” that will send US jobs to low-wage countries and will allow corporations to sue countries and governments for “loss of future profits.” Bernie’s post-convention group, OurRevolution, calls for celebration of the death of TPP: “Dead in the water.”

However, since TPP favors corporations, there is every reason in the world for the Republicans to support it, and Trump will probably do whatever the majority party in Congress (Republicans) want on this one. TPP favors corporations in two ways: one, it allows US corporations to ship jobs overseas. But this is actually less important than the other part: like NAFTA, it enables corporations to sue governments if they (the government) takes actions that impact “future profits.” LIke increasing minimum wage, for example. Corporations can actually sue governments if the government takes an action that protects its people but impacts “future profits” – whatever they may be estimated to be — of a corporation.

Trump changes his mind whenever he thinks it will make a good TV photo-op moment or tweet. Since TPP is good for corporations in the US, it is very likely that Trump will change his mind about it and support it. The Clinton emails released a couple of weeks ago show her staff trying to figure out how to shift to respond to anti-TPP pressure from Bernie and they sure don’t sound committed to the new position. Would she have stuck to her position if she’d been elected? Probably not. On this one, Trump probably won’t either.

TPP, Viet Nam and Freedom of Association

It’s important to un-link freedom of association in Viet Nam from the current version of TPP. I personally agree that Viet Nam needs active, fighting unions in order to push back against FDI (foreign direct investment) companies. If the VGCL can re-make itself to accomplish that, great!! After all, it has a powerful history of being able to mount and carry on fights, going back to the French and the slavery conditions in the rubber plantations. But now I have been told that 90% of the people working at the VGCL are doing Party work, not organizing among workers. We in the US have plenty of similarities to this. It is very hard for a big bureaucratic union to re-create itself. I can not think of a single example from the US where a big, bureaucratic union  has been successful at re-inventing itself. Sending people who have spent 20 years at desk jobs out to salt in non-union workplaces? Look at the big breakaway in 2005 when SEIU, IBT, UFW and UNITE HERE left the AFL-CIO supposedly to re-create themselves as “organizing” unions. Some success, yes, but far from what we hoped for. 

I think that the form of unions proposed under the TPP side agreement is a good start, but has to be re-designed according to Vietnamese culture and history and values. The good thing about the side agreement is that it frees up grassroots level unions to self-organize and fight back against employers, which in the long run will bring wages up in Viet Nam and make Viet Nam less attractive to corporations that want to go low-wage. So if freedom of association produces grassroots fighting unions that drive wages and working conditions up in Viet Nam, fewer jobs from the US will relocate there, and that will be good for US workers. But that is not part of the discussion here in the US. Also, it is a long shot and no US worker who is trying to figure out how to pay next month’s rent and groceries is going to be impressed. 

Right now, the Republicans are saying TPP is not going to come up. Here is a link to a conference in Ho Chi Minh City for Nov 14. Note the segment on labor law:


Boiling it down to three points

Today is Saturday the 12th. I dreamed last night that my car had been stolen and my purse had been stolen, and that the officer at the fire department (why did I seek help from the fire department?) told me I needed a lawyer to get them back.

I think I can summarize what has happened in three points:

  1. The pain is real.
  2. The fact that Trump will be president is a function of the electoral college.
  3. Hillary won the popular vote, but that’s not what matters.

The pain: People voted, as they say, with their middle finger. They are angry because their real life conditions are insecure, bad and getting worse. They see the rich getting richer. They feel like they are on a speeding-up down escalator headed toward a trash compactor. They know it’s a lottery, and they’re mad. These are the consequences of inequality. It’s not the objective conditions of someone’s life that produce this anger. Poverty, in a country where people are more equal to each other, does not in itself produce this sense of outrage. You can be content and live well on little, but not if you are being constantly tormented by incentives to consume and the sense that you are being publicly shamed and robbed. That causes pain, and a healthy response to pain like that is anger.

The electoral college: The electoral college process was invented soon after we became our own country and its purpose was to buffer the selection of top leaders from the popular vote. Its message is that you can’t trust the people. You can’t trust direct democracy. Well, it works.

The popular vote: Hillary actually won. But that doesn’t really matter, and not because it doesn’t make her president. Even if the electoral college were not a factor, and if she became president based on the popular vote, we would still be looking at a country  divided against itself and boiling in a fever of fear and resentment. If Hillary had won, the voices of those people probably would have been silenced, at least for the time being. They would have been scattered out into a few million individual voices. Cranks, wackos, Fox News types. But with Trump winning, those voices have made a collective point. Now the two sides can see each other in the light of day. Take a good hard look: this is us.

Trump — November 11, 2016


There is no way to avoid returning to this blog.

I worked at the polls on Tuesday, November 8, in Berkeley. Our polling place was in a Methodist church a few blocks away from our house. We met there at 6 am to  set up all the equipment. The instruction booklet was 164 pages long. The touch screen system alone was like setting up a whole home entertainment center and must have cost thousands of dollars but you had to have it in case someone blind, deaf or needing to use touch instead of writing wanted to use it. The polls opened at 7 am. We had a line out the door for a while


By 7:30 pm we had had 191 people coming through. These were people who wanted to vote in person. Some brought young kids. A couple of parents brought older children. One angry mother brought her twenty-something daughter who looked as if she had been rousted out of bed after a night of partying. Probably more than half of the people who vote, vote by mail, so that 191 was less than half the people in our precinct. Only a few people who were not mail voters failed to show up and vote at the poll.

When you come in, you say your street address, we find you on a list organized by address, and we cross you off that list. The next person asks you your name and gets you to put your signature and address on an alphabetical list. Your party is listed on the page where you are listed by address. That’s the paper with the ruler lying on it. I only saw one person listed as Republican. There were maybe 20 people listed as Independent. All the rest, Democrat.

We did not have internet in the polling place so I was not keeping up on the reports coming in, for example, from the East Coast where the polls shut 3 hours before ours do.

At about 7:30 I went outside to see if anyone else was coming. A man was walking his dog. I said, “How are you doing?” He said, “I’m scared. I was so upset I had to go walk the dog.”

This was the first I heard that Trump was winning.

I felt like a knife was in my stomach. I went home, couldn’t stand hearing wise pundits make smart-ass remarks or even sensible left critiques on TV. I watched ABC, corporate news if there ever was any, where at least they just let a photographer pan a camera slowly across the faces of people at Hillary’s headquarters. They were mostly young. Many were crying. Mostly, they just sat staring. The emotions described the day after — “shocked,” “shattered”, “astonishing” – could be seen on their faces. Very little hugging going on. It wasn’t like a murder or a horrible accident, where you can turn to your next door neighbor and hug them and get comforted. This was worse. Blackout.


Next day I made it a point to talk with everyone I met, on the street, at Kaiser hospital where I was going for some tests, at the library downtown. For everyone, it was a bad, bad day. Grand-daughter Isabelle, like many her age (and rightly so) was in tears. These are tears of betrayal and fear. For them, climate change is the big issue — the Arctic has melted this year so much that a cruise ship is going through, and the fisheries offshore are nearly dead. The chance to put the brakes on the end of the world has been pissed away. It’s going to be Mad Max, all the dystopian movies they’ve watched come to life. Students at Berkeley High and Albany High, and others as the idea caught on, walked out.


By Thursday the emails are piling up. Instead of fundraising appeals, my inbox is now full of “What do we do now?” messages. A few people from Viet Nam have communicated: “What happened? How did this happen? Can you explain your electoral system?” And:”What will happen with TPP?”


Many of my friends are compiling reading lists or articles, books, podcasts, things that we will read from and learn from. I am doing this too. In Paris, where daughter Gabi has gone on a quick visit to a friend, they went to a museum exhibit on revolutions and came away feeling better. Joe and I are going to the Oakland Museum tomorrow where they have an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers.

There are a number of theories being floated about where the Trump phenomenon came from.


Silo-ed media

Silo-ed media. People don’t all read one or two newspapers any more. Some people listen to talk radio and watch reality TV; others read the New Yorker, the NYTimes, the London Review of Books, the Atlantic, etc.  People have their individual news feeds and they see and read what they want to see and read. They un-friend people they disagree with and re-post things they agree with. So do I. All the elite media were passionately pro-Hillary, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist (except as a curiosity). See the photos of “voters” (including several Trump supporters) served up as objects d’art in a recent issue of the New Yorker. A weary dirty tatooed coal miner in his pick up truck, suitable for framing.

I read the elite media, so I was shocked when Trump won. I didn’t believe it possible. If all these elite media (the power papers) are pro-Hillary, what could go wrong? Plenty.

Bernie could have won

Bernie could have won. The enthusiasm for Bernie was real. People trusted him. His speeches and messages gave real information about who we are and what the problems are. People loved him. He could have engaged the Trump voters – on the issues, such as inequality, he was hitting the same points only intelligently. The moment he turned it over to Hillary at the convention, the fire went out. The campaign went from fighting for what you want and believe in to second-guessing what you have to fight for in order to win.

The Democratic National Committee definitely undercut Bernie’s candidacy. I would like to know where Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the DNC who was caught doing this and had to resign, is now. I see that Bernie is proposing Congressman Keith Ellison, a black Muslim from Minnesota, as the new DNC chair.

Many supporters of Hillary, while Bernie was still in the race, liked Bernie but thought he wouldn’t win so they played it safe by supporting Hillary. Playing it safe is not a good strategy for winning a fight if the opposition is equipped with enormous power that it is willing to use ruthlessly. There is no safe strategy for winning in a situation like that. The safe strategy is losing. I actually am glad, in a way, that Bernie chose to step out of the fight at a point where he still had his health and his job and could live to fight again.


Hillary’s campaign was too much about fear and fundraising

Once Bernie went back to his job as Senator from Vermont, everything I got from Hillary’s campaign was fear-mongering pleas for money. These were one-way email messages, no reply possible. Sometimes I’d get a message from the DCCC saying that if I gave $5, someone else would give $20. With that kind of backup, they didn’t need my $5. And all the subject lines were panic.

What about support from women for Hillary?

Women my age understood how her experience had marked her — how women who graduated in the 60s and 70s often had to travel with a more powerful male partner in order to survive in the intensely sexist world of business and politics. But to men, and to younger people, this was invisible. That  would have taken a whole feminist critique that never happened. Can you imagine where teaching that curriculum would have had to start, in order to explain that? Young women today have no sense of what it was like to be a smart ambitious girl in the 1960s and 1970s.

The big unions played it safe, too

The big unions — SEIU, AFT, NEA, UAW, AFSCME — endorsed Hillary.  Some did it early without even consulting their members  (although some claimed they had). This turned them into gears in the Democratic machine, which didn’t inspire trust or enthusiasm. Instead, it inspired resentment. So many union voters, feeling betrayed, (this is post-election demographics hindsight) just went for Trump. The AFL CIO hung back and didn’t endorse anyone for a long time,which sent the message that they didn’t want to offend anyone until the convention, where Hillary would take over and it would be safe to endorse. “Playing it safe” is not a good strategy for a union. Unions like to have reputations for being able to mount a good fight. “The Union that Plays it Safe” is not a motto that unions want.

Voter suppression

Many people couldn’t vote.  There were many different kinds of voter suppression going on, from long lines at polling places, threats of intimidation of voters by Trump people, machines that didn’t work, the requirements for voter IDs that make it so if you can’t find your ID, you don’t bother, and all the constraints placed on people who have been through the criminal justice system (unequally black men) like not allowing people charged with a felony to vote. This varied state by state. In California, we don’t require ID at the polling place. But so many people have heard about “Voter ID” that many people came to our table and pulled out their driver’s licenses. “Voter suppression” is a big factor. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was weakened in 2013 (http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-election-day-2016-how-did-the-weakened-voting-rights-act-1478670026-htmlstory.html) resulting in 13 states where there were new restrictions on voting.

Suppressed or not, many people didn’t vote, including African Americans

We’ll see, but it looks as if African Americans did not vote proportionally to their numbers. Supposedly, the Clintons had the black community wrapped up. But I have heard that there was a “You take us for granted” pushback going on. Memories of Bill Clinton playing the sax did not override memories of welfare reform and the spike in mass incarceration.

Polls were simply wrong

A woman in my yoga class has a son who works for a major news website and is in charge of designing the model that integrated the reports from all the different polls. She says, “He says that they got the model wrong.” Poof. So the 85% chance of winning that Hillary had last week was….not actually there.

So there’s two different things: what happened and what will happen. I am still thinking about what happened. I’m not yet ready to think about what will happen. To me, Trump is a grotesque toad-like gloating monster who has clearly shown himself to be racist, misogynist, bullying, a sexual predator, a flip-flopper liar, etc etc. He is ridiculous. No one could take him seriously! But then he wins. Once he wins he is just a monster.

Of course I also couldn’t believe people would vote for Schwartznegger, the body-builder actor with the Austrian accent who became Governor of California. He would have been President of the US, or at least run for it, if he had been born in the US. And then there’s Ronald Reagan. And Putin has made himself into a celebrity, apparently — photographed riding a horse bare-chested!

How do I feel about being an American?

One thing that is different for me today: I am beginning to think hard about what it means to me to be an American. I am thinking about what part of my identity “being” an American — meaning a US citizen, not a Mexican or a Brazilian, who are also Americans – actually is. I remember a year ago, sitting up in the bleachers in the soccer stadium at Ton Duc Thang, with Vinh, watching what looked like military exercises performed by students as part of some mass celebration. I remember feeling that the military exercises made me feel sick. It’s one thing if you’re a small country that gets invaded. It’s another thing if you come from a big country that has a history of invading other countries and fighting wars on the territory of other people’s countries and killing lots people that way.


Believe it or not, I may have always taken my identity as an American to be something neutral, kind of like being white. There are Americans, and then there is the rest of the world. There are white people, and then there are all those diversity people. In the last 20 years I have had some experiences, while traveling, of understanding that I could be disliked because I am American, and that this is well-justified. I have also been lucky enough to have had the experience of distrusted and excluded because I am white. Also justly. Really thinking about it is something I am going to be forced to do seriously now that I am a citizen of Trump’s America.

If I was in a small country that was over run by a violent invading country, it would be clearer to know who the enemy was and how to fight back. If this were Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Hungary in 1956 –  or Viet Nam, for that matter – I would know who was the enemy. But how about this – when the enemy is us? It’s kind of like rape: by the time it’s happening, it’s too late.






Vermont, looking ahead — October 4, 2016

Vermont, looking ahead



This is the view from Overlook Trail in the Jamaica State Park, near our village. The colors are olive-y and yellow, with only a few splashes of brighter color. We’re waiting for rain; scarlet will come later.

Our apple trees don’t make pretty apples, though they are perfectly good for cooking.


A closer look, if you’re interested…


And this…



Yesterday I was clearing out some goldenrod and other stuff from behind the raspberries and found a monster wild grapevine draped and twisted up over two medium-sized smokebushes that turn purple and red at this time of year and two trees, an ash and a maple. The grapevine had ripe grapes on it — blackish purple blue, small, as little as kernels of corn but round of course, and stronger tasting than anything you can buy in a store. I picked them and brought them in, boiled them, strained them, added just a bit of sugar and got a syrup that tasted like pure essence of grape. Stronger than grape soda or grape candy. Bears go crazy for these. We bought vanilla ice cream at the store next door to dilute the intense grape flavor enough to make it edible.

Last weekend the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam up at Ball Mountain, released water to raise the flow of the West River, which runs through the park. Kayakers from all over the East came to ride down the river, some going as far as the Townshend Dam ten miles below. The amount of equipment required for this sport is enormous. The skirts on this woman’s outfit snap onto the rim of the seat of the kayak, keeping it from filling up with water.


A pickup truck carries boats and paddlers up from the parking lot, along the railroad right-of-way, and deposits them at the end of the trail just below the dam.  They gather along the shore before pushing out into the current.

jellybean kayaks.jpg

What does all this have to do with Viet Nam? Well, I’ve been loading papers onto Academia.edu all day now for four days. It’s a tricky website, but it seems to be working. It’s interesting to see what I’ve been up to for the last 15 years. I have also sent some emails. Joe and I have brooded over various ideas. I am reading the new book by John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam, published by Monthly Review, written to voice a perspective that is in angry opposition to the “noble cause” perspective of the Commemoration, an event apparently designed to last through 2025, which would be 50 years since the Americans left.

I’ve looked for and found Nghia’s blog:

It is at:


We are now looking ahead a year instead of back a year.