Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam: a US Labor Academic at a Union-sponsored University

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Library, Research Club — August 29, 2017

Library, Research Club


Main entrance to the new library. An elevator for disabled students exists. 

We go to bed at night saying, “Well, we did some work today!” Now if we could only get some exercise….

So this post will be about the library, research, and the faculty research program. I have a lot of photos of the library, which I hope will speak for themselves. But the research program? The current state of our role in their research can be summarized by saying that when two complex culturally-rich systems smash into each other, little fragments fly all over the place.


For the protection of the new floors in this hot, wet, climate, people exchange their shoes for slippers down a spiral staircase at the entrance of the library. Joe is a 47; the biggest slippers are 43, which is OK for me. 


A call for proposals

I saw a call for proposals on the Vietnam Studies Group list promoting a conference to be held in HCMC in December-January 2017-18 that was linked to the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. The call came from a Liam Kelley at the University of Hawaii. This was a second or third time around call, so it had a short deadline, Thursday August 31. This was Monday August 27, so that’s 3 days. I wrote him a quick email and he replied that they could be flexible but that it would be a good idea to send in something, which is the answer I hoped for.

The Journal Club at TDT

That same afternoon there was a Journal Club meeting scheduled from 2-4. This meeting was going to be in a “presentation room,” in the new library, equipped with a flat screen and set off from the main floor by glass doors and a code.

The reason the Journal Club has been created is because it is the intent of TDT to become known as a research university. This is in addition to its goal of having all the lecturers learn English, plus teach in English and using the TOP 100 curriculum, which I have described. The astonishing thing is that this seemingly impossible goal seems to be happening.  For example – just a note – Mr. Triet came walking down the road on the way to the Journal Club and he greeted us in English with a truly credible, rather Oakland-ish accent. He has been studying in a class called “Little UK,” where one teacher is a Scandinavian named Anders, from Denmark, who teaches English using African dance. But Mr Triet probably has a particular gift in this way. If you don’t remember, he is not only the Labor Protection (health and safety) instructor but he performs internationally (in Germany, Eastern Europe) as a clown and magician. We have seen several of his performances and he is truly great.

So the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty wants to get organized and do some research and Dean Hoa called the meeting of this LRTU Journal Club to do this. Joe and I decided to propose that we respond to this call for proposals at this meeting.

However, there is the looming issue of where or work should get published.


Lots of high-graphic English signage

The approved lists of places to publish

We have already been made familiar with the TDT official policy, promulgated by DEMASTED, or the Department of Management, Science and Technology,  of “counting” only papers published in journals that are listed on a certain database. First, I understood the approved list to be SCOPUS. I got an Excel sheet showing all the journals on SCOPUS (I forget how I got it). I went through it and did not see Labor Studies Journal or WorkingUSA (now called the Journal of Labor and Society) on it. I emailed the editors of both and asked if their journals were on the SCOPUS list. At first they didn’t know what I was talking about but then they both said yes. Since both Joe and I have published in those journals, we would know how to shape an article for submission. We are also both on the editorial board of JLS. I mentioned this to Ms. Vinh and we did apparently get permission to submit LRTU research to those journals.

But there are other lists, and we also hear that it isn’t SCOPUS, it’s ISI. I have accounts at and passwords for Taylor and Francis, which maybe the same as Scholar1, Wiley, E-Journals at McGill and I seem to remember Emerald.. So what about Sage, the publisher of Labor Studies Journal? I began asking, “What are these lists? Are they in some way an indicator of quality of research? Or are they just a database of all the journals published by a certain publisher?”


Open stacks, reading room — similar to other floors. 

I begin to look into the various lists

Publishing journals is a huge business, one business among many that sees education as a vast, well-organized, rich market, comparable to healthcare. In fact, education can be viewed as a “desperation” market like healthcare in the sense that academics have to publish in order to get promoted or keep their jobs (see the tenure system in the US). The vitality of this market is demonstrated on the one side by the huge loans that people in the US are willing to take out in order to pay tuition, often at second-rate for-profit colleges and universities. It can be seen in the cost of textbooks ($100 or more) and the frequency of new editions (so you have to replace the old one). In micro, you can see it in the moment when I observed, in the mail room at the University of Illinois, a senior professor joking with pride about being asked to pay $800 “fee” in order to submit a paper! There are innumerable ways to milk money out of the free work of researchers, editors and peers who produce these articles. The prices charged to libraries to subscribe to certain journals is so high that some journals are being dropped.

This makes academic research seem like a hustle. But an undistorted (is there such a thing?) research culture, which supports collaborative exploration of matters that are of shared interest to an intellectual community, followed by sharing the results and debating and evaluating them among one’s colleagues (peers) is the product of centuries of trial and testing, and I actually do believe that it can be counted on to produce an understanding of the real world. Thus the true value of good research exceeds anything money can buy. Yes, it has been infested with rent-seeking, but that only distorts it; it does not invalidate it.

If I am a bit hot under the collar on this topic, it’s because of the anti-intellectual wave sweeping the US under Trump, along with his appointment of Perry, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, where he is dismantling an already weakened regulatory agency. (We worked with the union of scientists at the Chicago EPA and heard horror stories about recommendations ignored or disputed by Bush administration – appointed managers.) The news is full of this while Hurricane Harvey dumps three to five feet of rain on the oil refineries in the harbor of Houston, Texas. I also saw that the requirement that employers keep records of worker injuries for 5 years has just been eliminated, to “ease the burden of regulation on employers.” This is like running a bulldozer over a crime scene. (We’ve been watching a lot of police procedurals on Netflix.) It is like looting the museum in Baghdad or destroying Palmyra.


View from presentation room window; that’s Building E across the terrace


I am writing this in the midst of Joe’s class on leadership. The students have just made a presentation and it was really good. I have to say, I am surprised at how good it was. In their written report (in English) there is a section titled “Analysis” which actually does analyze the commonalities among 10 different interviews. This is followed by two exemplary stories. Also, there are a lot of challenging questions from the floor, which appear to be answered by various members of the team, not just one person. Two years ago when I taught a previous version of that class, their reports were full of data and graphics and totally lacked analysis. They were also shy about discussion after the presentation. Something has happened! This is the early face of research.

Back to the research question – leading up to the meeting of the Journal Club.

I have passwords and accounts at the following websites where journals get peer-reviewed: Francis and Taylor, Wiley, Scholar1, Emerald, and E-Journals McGill. I put all these into a search and found out, more or less, that Wiley owns Sage, that Thomsonreuters owns Elsevier and Emerald, that Francis and Taylor, which includes the Routledge list, merged with Informa in 2004 and consolidated their lists of publications. The ISI list was originally produced by someone named Eugene Garfield at the Institute for Scientific Information, which became Thomasonreuters and is now “Web of Science” which hosts Clarivate Analytics that tells you the impact rating of your research, based on the number of citations that your article gets. Merge, buy and sell, trade journals as commodities.

There are also Scopus and a set of sites called SCI (Imago), SCIE, SSCI and ISI. There is a website to go to if you want to know whether a certain journal is found on one of those lists


Philippe Fournier Viger, if he is a person, is located at Harbin Institute of Technology in Shenzen, which is probably another university that prizes publications in high-ranking English language journals. Also on that website is an ad trying to get people to submit their articles for a data mining activity. For free!
And then here is a blog that makes it look as if I can submit actual questions to people who know about this stuff:



Going out the front door down the temple stepsResearch grp

So, what to do at TDT?

My position, of course, is that the main task for these researchers at TDT is to find a way to enter the discourse – join the discussion, have their voices heard among people who care about workers’ issues around the world. This includes not only academics but also – here’s an example of a place where Vietnamese workers were definitely not part of the discussion – for example, the AFL CIO, when it took its firm stance against TPP.

So now we move back to the Journal Club meeting. Present were the two young women who earned MAs in Taiwan, who are both graduates of TDT themselves, Ms. Vang and Ms Truc, Miss La, Dean Hoa, Mr Triet, Vinh, Joe and me.

Joe and I had a powerpoint. First, we talked about working collaboratively. Then we talked about our first overall proposed project: What are the changes that have taken place in worker education over the last 80 years? Ms. La said that 50 years was more appropriate. She’s right. We discussed collecting numbers (who received worker education, how many, where, etc) and interviewing teachers and workers. We talked about the difference between training (job skills for productivity) and education and the difference between classes for union leaders, union members (who are partly workers and part-time on union staff) and workers. The latter is mostly about the law and how to make sure that the law is being followed.

This was all followed with head nods and smiles but no one seemed excited. It seemed like work.

Then we went on to the Vietnamese Studies Journal proposal, and talked about writing about the workers’ experience in the tourism industry, especially hotels and restaurants (Miss La’s suggestion), maybe picking one major hotel chain that would be accessible in HCMC. Dean Hoa volunteered to work on numbers and demographics; Mr. Triet could work on health and safety issues; others said they could interview workers. Someone volunteered to do a scan of existing materials in Vietnamese about this topic. Of course, Joe and I had in mind the work of Pamela Vossenas at UNITE HERE regarding muscular- skeletal injuries of housekeepers, and the efforts to get CALOSHA to adopt a standard.

More enthusiasm was generated by the conference vetting process. The organizers are going to divide papers, after the March 31 2018 deadline, into “A” papers and “B” papers. “A” papers are those suitable for going out to peer review as is; the “B” papers would be invited to come to a workshop in the summer of 2018 to learn how to make papers more peer-reviewable. We communicated this information to the Club and it was received with curious interest. I would actually hope that the papers from the TDU Journal Club would be “B” papers and get the benefit of this mentoring.

After the meeting, however, Truc (one of the young faculty) came back to our office and asked us to come to Dean Hoa’s office right away, because he had looked up the Journal of Vietnamese Studies and found that it was not on the ISI list. Both Joe and I went over there. Let me summarize by saying that I got quite hot under the collar and made some arguments. His question was, is it worth it for the whole faculty to do all this work if it was going to be submitted to a journal that was not on the approved list? Isn’t that a waste of time? I said, among other things, that for the administration to fail to approve this project on that basis was to put an obstacle in the way of young faculty who were trying to enter the global conversation about the conditions of workers and the role of unions, etc etc.

At the end of my heated presentation, he agreed with me. But there are still steps to be taken.

Two sides to the broad question

For future discussion of this highly charged and important matter, it is critical to keep the broad question of what the lists actually represent (a publisher’s bundled inventory? a sign of quality?) separate from the short-term question of the value of submitting something to this particular conference.

Challenging and discrediting the authority of these lists does not leave one with a practical alternative. After all, there has to be a way for a university that has not been accumulating endowments for 400 years (like Harvard) to enter the global education game (sorry…there are aspects of it that are a game). Also, it’s going to happen, so there has to be a way for it to happen, even if we break a few eggs in the process.

So there has to be some way to give guidance to young researchers, or new researchers, so that they don’t waste time writing for pop-up journals or trying to go to conferences that are really just a perk for people on a big grant. There has to be some quality control. If you don’t read English, and if every time you go to the library to look up an article, they have to create a budget for you to access each journal, what are you going to do? Wouldn’t it be great if you could trust these lists?

Submitting a proposal to this conference is an act that expresses the position that the measure of quality is created in an ongoing way through participation in the discourse, over the course of many years. What is desirable is meeting people, listening to new authorities (and old ones), venturing new ideas, picking up hints in the course of informal discussion, collecting business cards, remembering faces, getting on discussion email lists or into research groups, developing the shared vocabulary (register, discourse, at whatever level) of the discipline, learning the edges and norms of the discipline.

This is the long term, for sure. And the long term is hard to incentivize. From the administration’s point of view, how would you incentivize this? Right now, they are saying that if you publish an article in the approved journals, then the next semester you will get a reduced workload as a reward and can sign up to keep researching, in the hopes that you will publish another article. But lecturers are teaching 4 classes per semester; they are busy. What would incentivize them to carve research time out of their schedules in order to do this? Is it even possible?

To be continued.



The New Wrapped in the Old Wrapped in the New — August 22, 2017

The New Wrapped in the Old Wrapped in the New



Us on the stairs going up to our office in C building. The spots are on the mirror, not on either the camera or me.


Joe’s class starts at 9:25. It is now 9:48. The reason why it hasn’t started yet is because the publicity people came to his classroom right at 9:25 and asked if they could video the class. Why not, sure? I mistook the question, “May we film your class?” to be a question about copyright, permission to record your face and words, as in at the beginning of a theater performance, when they tell the audience that recording of any kind is prohibited. The work of the artists belongs to them.

No, that’s not what this is about. It’s about moving us to a room on the 4th floor of Building A, with fixed but purple cushioned seats and microphones installed in the tables, Joe up on a podium above the room. It’s the same room in which we made a presentation to lecturers two years ago. The computer has to be set up again to show the powerpoints.

Joe has prepared a pretty dense class with a lot of activity, closely timed, including reporting back on the interviews, so losing 20 minutes plus is pretty serious. There is a great deal of chaos at first, with new students (people who missed last time) having to form two new groups, and the other students not realizing that they are supposed to sit in groups. But the class gets going. The camera, I see, starts filming when Joe is talking. It does not film Vinh translating. The “camera” I am referring to is mounted on a frame, which is held up by a thin, tall, strong man; the frame seems to use a gyroscope to hold the focus steady even when he is swooping and dipping around Joe.

But despite this, once the class gets going it feels as if this is actually a better room for the class, at least for the teacher. Joe can stand down low below the screen and walk around.

Except that….. ooops, there is no blackboard. No place for students to write and collectively read material, construct a collective text, work on building an image, etc etc. Lots of wall, but no flip charts. No whiteboard. Joe wants to write “Freire” and “For whom, by whom, and for what purpose?” somewhere, but that’s not going to happen.

The good news is that Thi from Vung Tau is in the class – looking older and sophisticated. When Joe asks a question about the difference between leadership and management, she answers well, in very good English. Composition of the class today: over 50, of whom 8 are young men.

By 10:15 or sooner, the cameras and publicity people are gone. I had actually expected that they would film the whole thing so that students could watch it and take the class or review it that way. I assumed that what they were interested in was the logic and method of the whole thing.


It occurred to me this morning that between Joe’s class (this time around; the Northouse text plus the Handbook that we wrote, combined into a class about leadership from top down, leadership from bottom up) and my class, we’ve created two full classes that are now in the system, being offered on a repeated basis. Not unlike writing a play, that gets produced once here, then there, then in other places, each time with a new audience. You write it once and it is re-produced many times. So we are writing the shows that get produced in these classrooms (or at least two of them), with enrollments of 80 and 90 students. We are also writing guest lectures for Miss La and Mr. Triet’s classes, and an arc of 6 simulations about collective bargaining that will be offered on Thursdays or Fridays later in the semester.

I think this is what Dean Hoa actually meant two years ago when he would say, “We want you to help us create a curriculum.” This plus all the material Leanna and the UALE people have gathered, which hasn’t been integrated yet.

Website, E-Learning

More technology adaptation: the e-learning website is up and running, so for my class the whole Katz, Kochan and Colvin book is being scanned and all my powerpoints, class plans and extra handouts are being posted. Students will have a great deal of material to read on line. Will they do it? Yesterday Joe and I reviewed and edited the website blurb for the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty and sent it back to Vinh and the two new teachers. The new text, at least at the moment, describes the subject matter of the Faculty as being interdisciplinary and designed to prepare students for work in unions, enterprises, and government. This is comparable to what I heard while doing the interviews with labor programs back in 2014 – I’m thinking of Cornell and Athabasca – when I asked, “What do your students do?” Answer – they go to law school, into government, into unions, into businesses as HR managers, and into NGOs. Missing here in VN is the NGOs.


I will have to take a lot of pictures of this library. It has a name: INSPIRE. From outside, you see a huge orange column, wrapped in blue and gray tile, and bands of blue windows. The actual entrance is like walking up to the top of a Mayan pyramid, only in bright orange, blue, gray, and wood. Before ascending this tower you have to go down a narrow spiral staircase to the basement (which we are told is open 24-7, for students to study all night) where you put on some soft gray clogs, which we are assured are washed once a month.

The library inside is a dream of lime, lemon, cream, glass, smooth bright floors, labels in English. We go into a “presentation room”, one of many which we can apparently book, with a flat screen TV and risers made of bright smooth wood, in a “c” shape. The young man who delivers the presentation shows us the home page of the website of Hollis, the Harvard University website; tells us that the TDT website and software were designed in Israel; that the interior of the whole library was designed by industrial design students at TDT (and it is the most student-friendly hive of spaces that you can imagine), and that books are filed on shelves in alphabetical order by title, because the title is easier for the students to read (bigger letters) than author. This stumps me for a while until I go into my email to send a message to Dean Hoa and see what happens when you look someone up by “Nguyen.” Our group includes two other Asian men and a young woman from Estonia who is here for a year and we are told we do not have to take a test. It may take a month to get a library card, however. The young presenter assures us that someone will deal with all our needs and questions. A goal, working with Julie Brockman at Michigan, would be to set up some kind of international partnership for improved access to academic material.

There is a museum in the library. At its center is an architectural model showing the future of TDT. That whole piece of land beyond the second canal, it turns out, is going to be TDT. That land that was being bulldozed and excavated and drained two years ago, and now is overgrown with head-high tropical grasses (elephant grass?) is going to be full of giant white university buildings. The vision is gigantic. It makes the existing TDT right now seem tiny. There will be more dormitories, of course. ONe of the big buildings is a Finnish-Vietnamese high school, being planned jointly with Finland.

Construction has been held up by “red tape,” says the library presenter. We had also heard that RMIT was going to build on that land.

Weirdly, this place does not really feel foreign any more. Is it because there is so much new, high-tech stuff? So much evidence of hard work towards developing this into a real major university? I don’t think it’s just that. I think that having read the Appy book, American Reckoning, helped me find a place in the history that has brought me here. But also, the traffic doesn’t astonish me this time. The food of course – pho twice a day, with something with rice and spinach soup for lunch – is a change from what I eat in the US, but it does not feel foreign. Maybe a little too much fish.

Last Sunday night we had dinner with Vy and An. They have grown up a lot. They wore elegant little dresses (a particular Vietnamese style that depends on being slender) and have interesting jobs. An left the furniture store and is now a vegan and at her new job (something about social media that has a lot of connections with France) she is assigned to create a “green office,” which she is taking very seriously. (We went to a vegan restaurant.) Vy, who gave herself a trip to Hanoi last spring by herself, teaches in a pre-school but is applying for an HR or purchasing job. They looked older; I felt older; I am just glad they are both well.

The Big Difference

The biggest difference is that we are actually teaching collective bargaining and using that term. I don’t hear the word “social dialog” around at all. Joe’s class, half Northouse and half our Handbook, really got down to the contrast between corporate and union perspectives today, explicitly. You could see that when the students reported how they filled out a version of Fred Glass’s contrast table (his is about communication; Joe adapted it to leadership). There must have been a sea-change somewhere. We are doing collective bargaining simulations (a series of 6, with only 3 dedicated to table skills), two classes in CB in Miss La’s class, two in Mr. Triet’s class and session of my class in Vinh’s class. Then we will be meeting with faculty to discuss research, and it seems as if we will be able to devise a research project (such as how labor education has evolved here over the recent past) which will involve them. If we have their participation, this research might actually be possible.

The photo below is the air conditioning unit, which inspires me a lot, too — maybe as much as the library. This morning it was groaning and overflowing, with torrents of water pouring down the steps.




First day of semester, August 2017 — August 16, 2017

First day of semester, August 2017


The semester starting at TDT is like a huge machine coming to life. Outside our door starting soon after 6 am there were classes in the swimming pool, tennis classes, something else in the background, martial arts in the gym. Lots of mothers sitting on the benches while the young students found out where their rooms were. Suitcases were all over the place. The cafeteria ran out of food — nothing left but eggs and bread! Next to our room is the copy shop, which was going great guns into the night; I could hear them pounding the leaves of whole books into glue-backed covers, boom boom boom! and can vouch that they go home at midnight. Our classes will be huge — Joe’s is 70 but the first day it was 45, mine was supposed to be 99 and was 82. 

Joes 1st class

Joe’s first class, on Tuesday morning, went very well, after the technology got set up. About 45 students showed up, overwhelmingly young women.

As an exercise he asked them to make a list of the characteristics of good leadership. the winner above all was “democracy” or “democratic.” We didn’t actually expect this. Hmmmm. Things are moving along.

Vinh translated for both of us. There were two microphones. She stood in the back of the class.

My class, today, also went well. I’m using Katz, Kochan and Colvin’s Labor in a Globalizing World (I think I’ve mentioned this before) and trying to get students to focus on “Who is ‘us'”?  WHo can act? Who judges? Who enforces? And follow those questions through the various IR systems that we study. We will start with trying to understand the work experience of the elders of some of them. There were 82 students in the class, who formed into 13 groups. Here are some pictures of them doing the first group exercise: figuring out what else is produced at a workplace other than the product — things like jobs, benefits, a place to meet people and make friends, a way to make a decent living — etc.  The idea was to make the maximum list, then divide it into things that workers want and things that employers want.

group d 2group dis 3Group disc

Then they went up to the board and sure enough, they got it!!


We drew lines from things on the “workers want” list to items on the “employers want” list, and back again, to show how come things are a shared concern — things like training and health and safety. But wages and profits did not get a connecting line. A good job is a place where there is a lot of overlap. In a bad job, anything from slavery on up, including some of the bad workplaces in Viet Nam, there is little or no overlap. Very little of what workers want is also wanted by the employer. My argument is that labor wants the maximum number of their needs to be negotiable — to be in the “labor peace” zone, where the two lists overlap and you don’t have to be fighting all the time. When the way these issues are handled are settled through negotiation and agreed to in some enforceable way, there is labor peace. Workers want that because they want to have steady jobs and a decent life. Employers want it too, but not if it cuts into profits, so unless labor takes up some of its economic weapons, everything but profits will go by the way. So what are these economic weapons? Both sides have them, and they can use them to manage the size of the zone in which there can be labor peace. Sit-ins, strikes, demonstrations, lobbying, political leaders, public shaming, going to court, showing solidarity — these are the weapons of labor. On the employer side, capital flight, lockouts, layoffs, replacement of workers with automation, and then individual penalties like demotions or suspensions.

Now we can talk about the way countries develop IR systems to regulate the conflict between workers and employers over these issues.

Their first assignment is to interview an elder worker and see if they can understand his or her work experience using the questions, Who is ‘us’? Who can act? Who judges? Who enforces?

We’ll see what happens. These students are very sharp. Also, I notice that they come to class with pens and notebooks. This is new. Two years ago, students didn’t take notes; they had phones but no note-taking equipment.

Wednesday after my class we went swimming (pool open for lecturers from 5-6 pm) and then took the 86 bus into center city, the Ben Than Market. I had heard abut the diggings for the new Metro but what’s going on there surpassed my imagination. It’s a vast mess, but the Market is still there. We at dinner on a balcony at a Hue Food restaurant up an alley  overlooking the market. On the way home in a cab I began to have a very sharp sore throat, which I attributed to the pollution, but it turned out I was actually sick and spent the next 36 hours on my back in our room, sniffling and feverish. Vinh brought oranges, Ensure and kiwis and some kind of Vietnamese oatmeal.IMG_0121

It’s all good.

Sunday morning after sleeping nearly 18 hours, maybe more — August 13, 2017

Sunday morning after sleeping nearly 18 hours, maybe more


Coffee shop in the Duong So 8 neighborhood; houses worth $1M, occupied by state employees and businessmen. Along the river; across it, we could see the orange-red tower of the new TDT library. 

Friday was very full. We “the foreign experts” have a very fancy, brand new office over in C Building, room 206. Four comfortable armchairs, beautiful dark wood desks, new computer WITH PRINTER, padded desk chairs! And the elegant tea set that I thought only Department Chairs had. View right out onto the new Library, of which more later.

We met with Vinh at 8:30 am and she set us up with TDT email accounts and then dove into Joe’s class, which is a combination of the Northouse-text-based Leadership class (all management-side perspective) and the Handbook that we wrote with Vinh last time but never quite finished (it needs another swipe of translation and some cuts, plus Joe is hoping that Vinh and Ms. La will put a chapter on VN labor history in the front.) I learned the email system while they went week by week through the class. I mention this because this is a different way of vetting the class than last time. Very cooperative and productive, and Vinh has VERY good, fresh and positive teaching ideas.

Classes still have to be submitted and approved by the representatives of the Ministry of Education and Training office, so everyone being on the same page about the purpose of each session is critical.

Dean Hoa came by about 11:30 and organized us all to go to lunch, via taxi, at a very good Hue-style restaurant down in a neighborhood somewhat to the southeast. We were joined by Kim Scipes and Valerie (Vandy) Wilkinson who is here in VN on a research venture and wanted to report on her teaching experiment last March with the English teaching faculty. She teaches in Japan, and had never encountered a situation in which she was asked to teach a group of 300. She split the groups into 60, drew 90 for each group, did 6 different presentations and managed, using “dojo” one-on-one conversational exercises, to actually get some participation despite the size of the group. She took this plan back to Japan and used it in an engineering program, then wrote it up and will present it at a conference in Romania!!! The theoretical value of this process was a little opaque to IR people but it is a recognizable unit of analysis for sociocultural-historical people. We ate phenomenal food; Vinh and Dean Hoa ordered something that was encased in lotus blossoms.

Then back to the office where I went through the same vetting process about my class, with both Dean Hoa and Vinh. My class was originally approved based on a different text; last April, when I started working on it, I decided I would just plunge ahead and “do it first and apologize later” rather than try to get permission for something pretty fancy. I chose the 2015 Katz, Kochan and Colvin text on Labor in a Globalizing World. I sent Dean Hoa a copy and he approved it; from then on, I simply wrote the class the way I thought it should be done. We sat together with Vinh and went through the whole process. I was very happy that they both approved the class student research projects  which begin with interviewing the oldest working person in their family. Vinh stepped forward to pick up the aspects of comparative labor relations that are specific to Viet Nam, which will be a share (30 minutes plus) of each class. The overall result is that our approach was approved, including making the Katz book the official  class book, but Dean Hoa has to re-submit some paperwork for approval. I have a lot of work to do this weekend (I had not finished the powerpoints) and Vinh volunteered to put them on the TDT logo slides for me, which is asking a lot, since she’s supposed to be away and busy all weekend.

Altogether it was quite exciting. I felt that an entirely new level of flexibility and possibility had been achieved, in the matter of accommodating the MOET approval process and allowing innovations from someone from outside. I have also NEVER had a Dean be as genuinely interested in the design of a course I was teaching! Mostly, as long as I took care of everthing, they were happy to know nothing about what was going on.

Friday night we had dinner with Kim Scipes at one of the street food places across from TDT, then came home and crashed. Saturday (yesterday) we sat with our computers all morning, trying to get our classes under control, and then took the bus to the Lotte Mart to spend some of our 9M dong wages! I bought a pair of comfortable leather sandals with thick padded soles, for about $48, much like the ones I bought last time which I  now wear daily, but which cost 900,000 dong or $39. Followed by dinner at the Beef Noodle place that is always a fallback favorite and a short walk around some of the streets surrounding. Almost every street front seems to be a coffee shop now, with lots of greenery under the awnings.

Changes, the appearance of new wealth

Which leads me to the issue of money and wealth. In the nearly 2 years since we were here, there seems to have been quite a bit of money flowing around, at least in this district. The physical plant at TDT is maybe 20% larger, with two new buildings including the library which specifically is like something from a Hollywood movie. There are other signs: more cars, compared to scooters. Only a few silver bikes, ridden by old women carrying loads of various kinds of goods. Seemingly less traffic overall, and less pollution (maybe we just were out at the wrong time.) The Lotte Mart is significantly up-scaled! The upper floor of the market has been re-habbed into a high-end coffee pavilion with wooden floors. The lower level is fully built out into a deli where people are sitting and eating. The fish market is where the fruit market was. And all the little shop spaces are full — no empty ones. While it’s true that some of the checkout clerks still look as if they didn’t get enough good food while growing up, the general appearance of people is healthy and well-fed. Fewer women wearing “women’s clothes” are on the street –there were so few that I started noticing it. Also, the sidewalks seem to have been cleared. I read something that said there’s a campaign to get small vendors off the sidewalks, with a controversy thereabout, but it sure is different to be able to walk along the sidewalk instead of having to go into the street and dodge traffic.

Then Monday we got another perspective on the sidewalk-clearing issue from a friend who lives here and speaks Vietnamese. He says that the way it works is that someone makes a phone call and says they’re on their way, so everyone throws all the tables and chairs back into the restaurant and people help the vendors try to clear things away, but if it’s not all clear when they come, “they” being police, things just get swept away.

We had dinner last night at 24/24 Pho down the street. Nghia took us to this two years ago. Taxi drivers eat there, and sure enough, there were taxis pulled up on the sidewalk. Two years ago it had concrete floors, a few tables, and a metal cart out near the sidewalk where the pho was cooking. A bowl of pho was 25 dong. Last night we saw a place with white ceramic tile floors, walls that went from floor to ceiling and were clean, maybe freshly painted, there were at least 2 new long shiny aluminum tables with plenty of chairs plus two long wooden tables, real furniture, with chairs. The cooking table had been moved back into the shop and sat on one of the nicely-made wooden tables. The young man who brought us the pho, which was excellent, looked well-fed. A child about 4 years old came hopping down the spiral metal staircase from what must be a living space above. And the pho was now 35 dong.


Notice the huge pots on the stove. That’s how you make pho. It cooks forever.

So maybe the economic growth rate is spilling some money into the denizens of District 7. How far this goes we can’t see, and I can only guess what is going on in the mountains and outer provinces. The big worry, of course, is inequality. In the US I am so used to seeing everything get worse as inequality increases. You just know that streets won’t get re-paved, libraries will have to rely on private funding, parks will charge fees, no one is repairing the bathrooms in public schools. To see things actually looking better makes me blink. But what else is going on? Is it possible to manage inequality?

Christian Appy’s Book, American Reckoning

Last point, and then I’ll quit — On the way over I read Christian G. Appy’s 2015 book, American Reckoning: The Viet Nam War and our National identity, Penguin/Random House. This is an essential book for Americans. It places the Vietnam War in our history in a way that makes sense to me in a way that nothing else has. It tells a coherent story about US national identity starting post WWII (my era; my dad fought in the Pacific, in the Navy) and up through Obama, with the “Vietnam experience” as the pivot around which our economy and culture tilted. It is a much better way to understand Trump voters than, for example, the awful Hillbilly Elegy. Appy wrote Patriots, a compendium of interviews with people from all sides of the war; out of this he taught a class in the Viet nam war at Amherst, and you can tell that he has really hammered this topic through conversations with students, many of whom probably had no idea how their own sense of being American had been formed by the Vietnam war. This is the first time I have ever read a full history of the last 60 years in which I could place myself consistently as a participant and actor, warts and all, and the lives of people I’ve known, from draft resisters to college classmates to hedge fund hoppers and people who couldn’t tell whether they were for or against the Iraq war — all into one coherent story. I really hope that everyone on this list buys that book and reads it. I feel that it changed my sense of who I am here in Viet Nam –it kind of drew a boundary line around myself as an American. Maybe it’s putting things a bit strongly, but I feel less guilt and more admiration; it frees me to smile when I think of one particular student who, when she came up with something that must have taken a whole lot of work, whispered just loud enough for me to hear: “That’s why we won.”

Ha Do came by and picked us up to go to a lovely coffee shop along the other side of the river, and tonight we will get together with Vy and An. In the meantime, I have to make a whole bunch of powerpoint slides.

RIVERThe curved rooftop shape in the distance across the river is the gymnasium at TDT.

Back to Viet Nam August 2017 — August 12, 2017

Back to Viet Nam August 2017

Last image from San Francisco, taken out of the window of the bus as we go to the Viet Nam consulate to get our visas (business, $110 each): it’s an ad for “FREE CITY,” which refers to the fact that for San Francisco residents tuition at City College is free this semester (and for the future, too, maybe). This was an idea that actually occurred to Alyssa, recent past president of the AFT2121 teachers union, out of the blue. What do to for an encore, now that so many of the battles against the ACCJC seem to have been won? What would winning really look like? Well, it would look like a whole lot of students coming back to CCSF and being able to afford it!! So a whole lot of lobbying and arguing and organizing took place and it happened. Apparently, the phrase “FREE CITY” is well known and seems to mean not just free tuition at City College but also that the college has been liberated and maybe the City itself is experiencing some new freedom.


Then we packed (I forgot several important items) and took a Lyft to the airport (this is new since last time) and got on China Airlines to Taipei. I was listening to the book about Daniel Ellsberg — The Most Dangerous Man in America by Steve Sheinkin — on my phone (this is new — using Overdrive from the Berkeley library to download books). I listened, at vegetarian airplane food (good) and slept until dawn broke over Taipei:


.. a feeling of being nowhere in space and time, among a lot of other travelers floating here and there … and then a quick 3 hour flight to HCMC where we easily went through customs and out onto the sidewalk in front of the airport, where we waited only a few minutes before Vinh came running up, very excited and happy to see us.

I have too much work to do to prepare for my class to spend much more time on this, but  here are a few things. It feels overwhelmingly familiar. But they’ve done a lot of work. Everything seems a bit, or a lot, upgraded. Here’s a photo of the new library as seen from our fancy new office (four armchairs, two revolving desk chairs with arms, nice heavy wood furniture, new printer and computer, good internet and air conditioning):



The orange and blue are just a hint of the explosion of color once you get inside. It’s kind of French; makes me think of the Pompidou Center when it was new. Makes me think that it might win prizes for architecture. You climb brightly colored stairs to the entrance (like climbing the Mexican pyramids). But at the top, you have to put on slippers to go inside. You also have to take a class and pass a test before you can use it. We are signed up to get the training a week from yesterday.

The work dedicated to making Ton Duc Thang a top-ranked university seems to be paying off in more than just physical plant, however. They have hired two new teachers — lecturers –for the Labor Relations and Trade Unions program, young women who comes with MA’s from Taiwan. They introduced themselves as Rose and Vivian. They are going to hold a research workshop that Joe and I will conduct. I’ve see one of Dean Hoa’s research papers so far, and talked a bit with Vinh about the topic for her dissertation. We got up Friday morning and went to our new office and met first with Vinh about Joe’s class (working out all the why’s and wherefores of the combination of textbook chapters with the chapters from our Handbook). Then Kim Scipes (yes, our friend from Chicago) and Vandy Wilkenson (from Japan, from XMCA, who teaches English and had a research project at TDT) all went to lunch with VInh and met Dean Hoa at a Hue-style restaurant. This was followed by my meeting with Vinh and Dean Hoa about my globalized labor class, which, as a completely new class with a new main text, took quite a lot of discussion but worked out well. I was very glad that I had made a decision back in April, when I started working on it, to try to really do it right according to my way of teaching. There is an important co-teacher role for Vinh in it, which she stepped into happily.


More computer work — getting on line in various places, getting a TDT email address, figuring out what has to be done in the next couple of days, getting keys – and then we went swimming. The same fuss about male bathing suits, but the Swimming Pool Boss let us swim!  Dinner at a place down the street where we ate last time, the place where a giant eel escaped from its tank and the chef had to run all over the restaurant chasing it in order to kill it and cook it! – except that like everything else it has morphed and become more complex. It seems as if there is a lot more money here than there was two years ago. Joe noted more cars, compared to motorcycles.

I am going to spend some time recommending Christian Appy’s book, American Reckoning, The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Penguin, $18.00). I couldn’t put it down. The magic of it is that it makes sense, it tells a coherent continuous story that carries us all the way from the end of WWII through Viet Nam and into the Reagan and Bush years, the Iraq War and up into the Obama presidency. I have never heard this span of history told as one continuous story that made sense, that carried me along in a way that I could find a place for myself at every point. I was saying, “Yes, that’s what it was like! I didn’t know that but now that you mention it, it makes sense, I remember wondering about that…” Etc. I feel as if I’m looking at Viet Nam today with new eyes.

I actually finished it on the Vietnam Airlines flight into HCMC. I am extremely glad that I read it; it helps me understand my own feelings about the war, the men and boys I knew who fought in it or fled from it, and also my parents’ role as protestors at the time.

Enough. I’ve been up since 4 am. Joe is still asleep. I’d better wake him up and go get breakfast and coffee at the canteen next door. Then I have to sit with my comptuer and do powerpoints.

One, two, three, what are we fighting for …. — July 28, 2017

One, two, three, what are we fighting for ….


That’s Country Joe McDonald sitting down in the middle. He’s the one who wrote:

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,

Whoopee! we’re all gonna die –


And sang it at Woodstock. This should link to the Woodstock video.



Notice that the kids — that means people like me at the time; I wasn’t there but my best friend Betsy was there with her husband whose band Quill played; I was out in California leading a different part of the same life — notice that the kids in the video are not smiling. They look worried, and we were all worried. On the one hand, there was all this great music everywhere, playing in stores, parks, in people’s apartments; on the other hand there was this war going on all the time.

So last night we went to Freight and Salvage to hear Country Joe and his band; of course it’s different people in the band now.


He is a year older than I am, so that’s 74.  Amazingly, his voice is still great. He sang loud and clear through the whole long show. This was one of a series of 50th anniversary performances. The first part of the show, he came on stage alone and talked and sang some songs, including the “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag,” above.  For the last verse, he put down his guitar and just sat back in his chair and let the audience sing the whole thing while he soaked it up, smiling.


The audience was made up almost entirely of people my age, me and Joe. Lots of long hair and sandals, but in fact, a very healthy looking crowd. Other than some people who looked as if they spent too much time sitting and looking at their computer screens, these are people whom you’d meet if you were hiking in Yosemite.

At the end of the show he said he never thought he’d be playing this music again. He seemed very happy to be surrounded by this music. True, he sat down in his chair during a lot of the show — but his voice was loud and strong.

He grew up in Berkeley; his mother was Florence McDonald, on the City Council. His parents were Communists; in an interview he said that he rebelled against them by joining the Navy. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said, quoting a friend who reportedly took off all his clothes and jumped into a cactus bush.

The concert was a bitter sweet love fest, some dancing, a lot of memories. He did one Trump song — “Come out Donald with your hands held high” — and, for an encore, did “This land is your land, this land is my land.”

Going back to Viet Nam in about 10 days now. I’ve been working on my class since May or maybe April and I’m looking forward to trying to teach it. It’s complicated: what I’ve basically done is prepare a set of scaffolds that go from powerpoints, which are intended to provide focus to class lectures; then behind them is a class plan with discussion questions both from the text and as applied to Viet Nam; behind them are summaries 3 or 4 pages long of each chapter in the text; behind that is the actual text, Labor Relations in a Globalizing World, by Katz, Kochan and Colvin. In addition, there are some articles about IR systems in general.

Everything but the text itself will be up on a Google drive.  I got the impression that someone was going to scan the book and put it up too, somewhere where students could get at it, but I’m not sure about that. I will wait until I get there to confirm certain things that may be technically and technologically tricky.

For the students there is a three-part research project having to do with designing an appropriate IR system for Viet Nam.

Kim Scipes has been there this summer teaching Qualitative Research, but not to the same students that I will have. Kim says that his students wrote essay exams in English, but that they were not a “select” bunch like the ones to whom I taught the cross-cultural leadership class back in 2015. Joe and I are going to be doing research workshops with the LRTU (Labor Relations and Trade Unions) faculty. I will start with a focus on the importance of the research question. You want a question to which you really don’t know the answer; a question that can be answered in the real world; a question for which the answer, once you find it, will make a difference.

I do not know how to avoid being tough on these matters. I can be complementary and respectful and sincerely impressed and grateful in many situations, but once I get started criticizing someone’s writing, I don’t have any flex. It’s either right or wrong, it’s either just fine or not good enough. “Just fine” is a higher standard than “publishable,” too. There’s a lot of crap that gets published.

We’ll see how this goes.

June 26, 2017: Mapping apple trees in Southern Vermont — June 30, 2017

June 26, 2017: Mapping apple trees in Southern Vermont

cars on hillside.jpgThe hillside above the Coleman farm, on the day of Ralph Coleman’s Celebration.

Ralph Coleman died in November 2016. By noon today, when the celebration was scheduled to start, there were hundreds of cars up in this field. He was a farmer. He cut lumber, made maple syrup, and officiated at weddings. He was licensed to inseminate cows with bull sperm. I’m not sure what he grew, in addition to a lot of different kinds of vegetables. Hay, probably, and other things to feed cattle. His brother was the dairy farmer, not Ralph. He was a father and husband, army veteran, college graduate and deacon in the church. “Farmer”  has a very broad meaning up here. You know how the word “geography” as an academic discipline has grown to encompass all the ways we occupy and make use of the surface of the earth?  Maybe farmers practice applied geography. . In this village there is usually a handful of tent-pole people like him, men or women, who stand at the center of a network of families and friends. The networks interact, overlap and intermarry. They are both the centers of gravity and the gears of change. Their names are on old dirt roads. There is Coleman Hill and Coleman Pond Road, for example. Then there are the roads named for the Ameden family, the Chapin family, Worden family, Gilfeather (this is the guy who bred the Gilfeather turnip) and others.

Some friends and relatives of Ralph’s made a map of the old apple trees on Ralph’s farm and his brother’s adjacent farm which were once both part of their father’s farm, just uphill on the mountain. Some of these apple trees were over 100 years old. I had noticed them, the various times I drove past on my way to visit Ralph and Kathy. They made you wonder: black knotty fist-like things with bright green wands sprouting out of thick dead limbs. Turned out there were 24 different kinds of apples in that orchard, including some that were “natural,” in the sense of being a variety that had not ever been documented. They gave this map to Ralph as a gift the week before he died.

Originally, of course, this whole area was Abenaki, a Native American tribe that has only recently won “registration” status.  Over time many Abenakis married into settler families, so it’s not unusual to meet someone from around here who is at least part Abenaki.  We have friends in the village who fit this description. As a people they were also decimated by settler battles and then back in the early 20th century, by the eugenics movement (that’s another story). But mainly, for the last 200 years, Vermont has been a long way from major battlefields. Vermont sent the highest percent of men of any northern state to the Civil War (where they died of diseases to which they had no previous exposure or immunity), but the battles themselves didn’t happen here. You could have an apple orchard planted 100 years ago and it would still be here. Houses have burned, fields cleared for sheep have gone to woods, floods have changed the shape of the valley, but nothing has been bombed into ruins or flattened by war machines.

Therefore things have fallen down or been abandoned to decay but nothing has been purposefully destroyed for the purpose of erasing it. The ancient roads are still here.  You can consult history, here. You can see where the old railroad went, where the bridges were. You walk along in a forest and there’s a wall and nearby, a cellarhole. Yes, things have changed, but the past is not gone. There are Abenakis here, too, the original people who lived here — not many, but some.

Here is a photo of the stone steps, built by who knows who, that lead down to the pool below the Pikes Falls waterfall. How long have they been there? They could have been there as long as anyone wanted to climb easily down the steep slope to the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, and that would be a long time.

PIkes falls stairs_1

Here is a poem about what can be done in the absence of war. I wrote it a while ago, six years after my mother died. No one was living in her house, the little house where I am now, at that point. I had come to check things out one late fall when the leaves were off the trees and everything was gray and cold. The war of that moment was our invasion of Iraq, which was already a disaster.  People in Baghdad were up on the roofs of their houses watching “surgical” bomb strikes get closer and closer.Within days of our invasion — hours, actually — the museum had been looted. That was nearly 15 years ago; this month’s city to be destroyed was Mosul.

But when I came up to the door of this little house in Vermont and put the key in the lock I found that the key worked and the door opened. I was overwhelmed by what a unique gift that was.  In this world where houses were being blown up, doors kicked open, for me to be able to travel a thousand miles, walk up to a door, put a key in a lock, turn it, open the door and go inside and close the door behind me and find everything just as I left it was something like a miracle. Not like an apple tree that has been fruiting for 100 years, but similar.

Here is that poem:

OCTOBER, 2005. My mother’s house in Vermont is an old cottage on a river-stone foundation in a river valley village under a mountain. Before my mother, it belonged to my great-aunt. For now, it stands empty, but I have the key. Wind has blown the trees bare. There is ice on the roads, snow on the fields. Two thousand U.S. dead in Iraq, so far.



I. Travel a thousand miles or more

Take out the key, open the door

A lamp on the table

A cloth on the table

The rooms are chilly but it’s all there.

See what is possible In the absence of war.


Rain, snow,

Rain, snow,

Rain, frosted gray leaves on the yellow grass,

Slush, weeds, brambles, dry raspberry canes,

Out back, a cold barn full of old things put up there by people long dead, and beyond that is the river, while up on the mountain there is a graveyard

Where these same long dead and the newly dead are still resting.

They have not moved or been moved.

 See what is possible.

See what is possible in the absence of war.


My key turns in the lock

Because we agreed

That this key should turn this lock.

The agreement, not the key

Opens the door.


Things I need here: Matches. Paper. Dry wood. Blankets, although blankets will not substitute for matches, paper and wood, or vice versa. Light, preferably electric, or if that fails, kerosene or candles. Something to eat. Cooked, if possible.

I have these things! Here is a section of the New York Times from last summer. Here is wood that has been on the porch for a couple of months, protected from rain and snow, and even more wood that has been brought into the house and dried, and some more that my father put down in the basement before he died, twenty years ago. There is a big bucket of good kindling.

In the bedroom there is a blanket chest and in it there are blankets, threadbare but plentiful, some of them woven by people who lived in this village back when people spun and wove, and sheep grazed on the mountains.

The stove works, the oven works, the toaster works. Even the refrigerator, which uses too much electricity, works. If I want something else to eat, I can go out the front door and up the street to the store and buy it and come back and cook it. It’s all here. Nothing has been disturbed.

See what is possible.


Up on the street, in the store, I run into Betsy. She and Bill were friends of my mother. Betsy tells me, “Bill misses your mother. She was such a wonderful musician. You know, we have given up singing. He has given up the flute.”

I say hello to Bill who has been waiting outside in the car. He says, “I have given up the flute and we have given up singing with our singing group. W will never have to go out on a Wednesday night again, never! Never drive down the mountain in rain or snow or whatever! Never again!” He seems happy, or at least proud.  He bangs the steering wheel with his left hand. “You know what?” he says. “I was just in there – “ he gestures to his right, in the direction of the town offices – “to see if there was any space left in the Wyndham Hill graveyard. They said it was getting pretty tight up there. Back when I didn’t think about those things, there was plenty of room. Too bad, it’s near us and would be convenient.”

In the absence of war, an old man can decide to give up the flute and choose his own gravesite. See what is possible.

All around us, ordinary life goes on:

Jenny’s son has a wheat allergy and has taken up smoking.

A tree fell on Grant’s car last night when he was driving up Route 30.

Susan’s son will join the Navy.

The town hall has been painted the original color, red.

Holly Kron has brought the general store and will start selling hot “to go” items as soon as she gets her license.

There is a special scholarship for the children of volunteer firefighters.

Woody shot a moose and ate it.

The names on the gravestones tell who is lying beneath. It is not only the rich whose names are written down and remembered.

 See what is possible.


There are the three rivers: big, small and tiny, that flow together through the town. There are three bridges. One was nearly washed out in the flood of 1976 (we are due for another). Three rivers, three bridges, three roads, and the rooftops, the church steeple, the smoke rising from chimneys, the flock of birds circling in the wind, the snow, the clouds over the mountains, the sun on the clouds.

From a distance, in this case, from Chicago where I have a job, a thousand miles or more away, the village is so little, covered in snow, surrounded by mountains under a gray sky; it is like a picture.


Now look at this other picture: it is a book with a photo on the cover. The photo shows an old woman who stands in front of her house. Like my house, there is a mountain in the background but it is a different mountain, a different country, yet there in the foreground you see the same snow, the slush, the gray weeds and brown brambles, just like here.

She is wearing a knitted hat, a sweater, a coat, boots, red gloves and an apron and over it all, a shawl. She looks out of the picture at me.

The photo is about her house, which has been smashed by a bomb. Chechnya, where the young and the old lie unburied, the mass graves unmarked. Where no old man chooses freely to give up singing, to stop playing the flute.


In a quiet world, the the lock and key keep something in place.

The lock stays with what stays, behind the door. The key travels.

Do you have it? No, I have it. This is the key.

When this key turns in that lock, that door opens.

Put the lock on the possibility of an uninterrupted life. Put a lock on the choice of an old man to give up playing the flute when he decides it is time to give it up. Put a lock on the graves that show the correct name of the people buried beneath, the graves they have chosen. Put a lock on the three rivers, On the basic necessities, On the lamp lit at evening, On the cloth on the table, On the chilly rooms, On the door of the house that has a roof intact and a wood stove inside, Blankets and kindling and even a piano, “He misses your mother, she was such a wonderful musician.”

Put a lock on her memory, Betsy’s memory of my mother, the musician. On the door of the future. Put a lock on these, and give the key to those who will come. Tell them, “We who placed the lock, agree with you that that is the key.”


You can go now. Take the key.

When you come back, everything that you left behind will all be here. See what is possible in the absence of war.


Food at Ralph's

Food at Ralph’s celegration, plus a grill, a cooler of drinks, and a dessert table


A current photo, with students from Ton Duc Thang

Here are two students from Ton Duc Thang who came to the US and are studying in San Jose, preparing to go to college here. They are both named Mai, so one is called Judy, and they are sisters. Judy is studying law and Mai is studying labor studies.  They drove up to Berkeley one weekend. Both of them have been in the US for nearly a year – maybe more — and their English is quite good. They were able, for example, to tell me that the word for “demonstration” and “strike” are the same in Vietnamese. This is the kind of thing we should know.

Mai and Judy and I went into the City to go to a concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. On the way back, we came out of BART and a young photographer named Matt Wong was taking pictures for his portfolio. Here is our portrait:

me, mai and Judy


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 as a research assistant, 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.”