How's that Working Out For You? Adventures in Democracy, was Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam

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.

Anne Frank’s Diary at the 8th World Theatre Olympics in Jammu and Delhi — April 1, 2018

Anne Frank’s Diary at the 8th World Theatre Olympics in Jammu and Delhi


About a year ago, Deborah Merola and Rajkumar Pandasani submitted a video of the One World Theatre’s production of Anne Frank’s Diary to the Eighth World Theater Olympics competition. It was accepted for the 2018 festival, to be presented at two of the eleven festival sites, Jammu and Delhi. The World Theatre Olympics is a vast event that takes place every four years. Countries compete to host it, and the Greek government oversees it. It lasts from mid-February through early April, staging over 50 performances including plays, classical, ancient and experimental, and dance and music events. For winning entries, the Indian government pays transportation and expenses for the entire cast and crew to come.

Deb poster

The poster announcing One World Theatre’s production of Anne Frank, one of many erected along the drive into the Abhinav Theater in Jammu. The theater itself can be seen behind trees in the rear. The red carpet is an outdoor performance space where dances, music and village plays were performed. 

We went first to Jammu, which is in the northwest of India, right along the border with Pakistan. The Kathmandu -Delhi- Jammu flight passed along the south side of the east-west range of the Himalayas, which seemed to go on forever. The size and beauty of those mountains is beyond anything I imagined. The peaks extend into the distance as if they cover a whole planet. Yet people live right up close to them — in tiny villages, farming on terraces. The area is called Jammu-Kashmir, or J-K.  Kashmir is up in the mountainous part.  As we descended into Jammu we were above a wide flat plain.  I could see that the land was laid out in villages surrounded by tilled fields. The river courses are natural despite the fact that in monsoon season they must swell over their banks.

village and fields

Kashmir is said to be the most beautiful place in the world. At one time it was going to be “the Switzerland of Asia”. But then came the Partition, in 1947. India and Pakistan were divided along the Line of Control, hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled east to India and Muslims west to Pakistan, and the contested border between Pakistan and J-K, as people call it, became a low-level but persistent war zone. In fact, just now as I looked up “Line of Control” I saw that there was firing on villages in the general Jammu District last night. The report said that women and children ran; men stayed in the villages to watch the animals.The word used by people we met in Jammu to describe this fighting was always “terrorists.”  They were never “Indians” or “Pakistanis” or Hindus or Muslims. It was always just “terrorists.”  Apparently at night the India side of the whole Line is illuminated by a line of lights that is visible from space.

So in Jammu, despite the presence of the Theater Olympics, there were no Western tourists that I could see. Our hotel keeper knew the Abhinav theater (he said there was only one theater in Jammu) but not that the Olympics was happening there. I was not able to buy a SIM card because it is not allowed to sell them to “people from outside” “because of terrorists.” In fact, the security at the airport exceeded anything I have ever experienced. Entering the airport on our way out of Jammu heading back to Delhi my bag was x-rayed five times. I also looked up Jammu and Kashmir on, the US travel advisory, and saw that this is a “Do not travel” area. No wonder! On the other hand, the absence of foreigners was wonderful in many ways. No Starbucks, no western chains of any kind. No Uber. And perhaps because large, old white people were so rare, many families wanted to have their pictures taken with us so when we went out we were constantly being embraced and pulled into family photos, with lots of smiles and thank you’s.

This is all to set the scene at the Abhinav Theater where One World Theater would perform The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Troupe as a Traveling Unit

The One World Theater was founded in 2011 and many of the people involved have been together since then.  They haven’t worked for One World exclusively; there are five “real” — meaning live – theaters in Kathmandu, and people work around in them and in film whenever the opportunities arise. No one in Nepal can make a living working for just one theater. But these actors have cycled in and out of different productions with each other over the years. This means that they have taken on different roles with each other, not just as actors playing different characters but also as stage hands, designers, lighting techs, house managers — all the different jobs that have to be done in order to put on a play. They have both grown together as a group and been able to incorporate new people as time goes by — the actress who played Irina in Three Sisters, for example. Over time, they have become a core group almost like a repertory group.  Traveling together, therefore, did not present the kinds of difficulties that, for example, a touring group of strangers might face.

The whole troupe, fifteen people altogether, gathered at the Kathmandu airport early Tuesday morning. As far as people who would face or not face physical difficulties getting through airports and into and out of planes goes: on the one hand there was Rojita Buddhacharya who would play Anne, and who would leave Delhi immediately after the performance to go join a team of women journalists (she is a science writer herself, with a bi-weekly TV show)  who were planning to summit Everest. On the other hand there was Rose Schwietz, the director of Three Sisters, who was just barely recovering from bad tonsillitis. Then there was Loonibha Tuladhar, who would play Mrs. Van Daan, along with her husband Gopal Aryal who would play Mr. Van Daan; they were bringing their very lively, very cute 3-year old in his stroller. Then there was Alize Biannic, who would play Margot, who had had an important career as a ballerina which was abruptly ended when a dance partner dropped her, crushing her knee. She would be walking slowly, with a cane, or using a wheelchair getting out to the plane.  Alize played one of the body doubles for Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, so her dancing legs, intact, have been immortalized — she would tell this as a kind of joke on herself, without any indication of regret, although it must have been terrible to lose that gift.  Therefore the group as a whole would sometimes straggle, sometimes come together, but in a certain way, just as on stage everyone was aware of where everyone else was, they never lost anyone.


Rose airport

Rose Schwietz, only partly recovered from tonsillitis, pushing the prop box through the airport. Behind her, Gopal, father of the 3-year old, and Sajag Rana who would play the dentist, Mr. Dussel.

Raj prop box

At the check-in counter it turned out that the prop box was too heavy; it had to be repacked before it could get checked as baggage. The set design was realistic: props had to include frying pans, enough plates for everyone, empty liquor bottles, and kitchen equipment.

And we re-convened first in Delhi, where we had a layover, and then in Jammu, where a government van arrived to take the troupe to the Ashoka, a government hotel some distance from the city center. Joe and I followed the troupe to the Ashoka and then took a different cab to our hotel, about which more later in a different post, deep in the Hari Shawl Market and near the famous Ragunath Temple itself.

A Different Kind of Play: Not Chekhov

Deborah Merola describes The Diary of Anne Frank as a “well-made play.” This does not just mean that it is well-written; it means that it belongs to a certain genre of play that drew on the classical principles of Aristotle’s poetics adapted to become the standard for popular European plays of the 19th century. “Well-made plays” are carefully structured and written to build suspense, using something that the audience and maybe one characters already knows to create a feeling of dread and sympathy for the characters, whose lives are moving inexorably towards a crisis. In this case, both the audience and the character Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, know that the whole family — Jews in Amsterdam, hiding from the Nazis in an attic in a Gentile friend’s office building – is going to get found, seized, and shipped off to concentration camps and killed.

What links the crisis to the drama of the play is Anne’s diary, left behind after the family is taken. Mr. Frank is visiting the attic where the family spent nearly two years in hiding; he finds the diary, opens it to read, and the play proceeds from there. The audience has to know something about World War II, the Nazi persecution of Jews, and  the ultimate outcome of the war in order to understand what is going on, but there is enough expository dialog in the play to fill in other necessary details. The rising drama of the actual play is the coming of age of Anne, who is 13 when the play opens and 15 when it closes. She struggles with her anxious mother, opens her heart to her father and sister, and falls bit by bit in love with the shy, sweet but timid boy Peter, played by Amrit Dahal, the son of the Van Daan family who share the cramped hiding. They finally have a private conversation with each other, together in his room — with the door shut, despite her mother’s plea — before the end comes.

One way in which the play differs clearly from the Three Sisters in terms of the demands on actors is that the actors move the action forward directly in their dialog. When a character is worried about something, they say so out loud: they wonder where Miep (played by Pooja Lama) is, why she’s late, whether they should answer the phone or not, what time dinner will be. They say what they feel: I am so ashamed, my mother doesn’t understand me, I am hungry, etc. They do not have to create the story line through physical gestures or whole-body movements that confirm or contradict what they or someone else is saying.

This should mean that this is a good choice for an English language play at this festival: lines, clearly and loudly uttered, should be understandable to an audience with some English ability. English is the common language in India in the sense that government business takes place in English, but I was told that there are at least 17 “official” other national languages, and many more that are not official.

Another way in which The Diary of Anne Frank is unlike Three Sisters, which is really about everyone in the play, this play clearly has a main character, Anne. Her beautiful childishness and her personal development is completely open to us, both through her diary (which works to communicate directly with the audience almost like the monologues in Hamlet) and through her actions onstage as she moves from what she is thinking into something she decides to do. Sometimes she surprises us, as when it turns out she has been all along making Hanukah presents for everyone and gives them out as gifts at the Hanukah dinner, astonishing the other characters as well as the audience, but most of the time our emotions track her experience. The actor playing Anne, Rojita Buddhacharya, captures the beauty and innocence of Anne perfectly. Her growing love for Peter is reciprocated eloquently by the actor Amrit Dahal, who plays the character as so shy that he seems to peek out from his own eyes.

Apparently last year, during the first production of this show, Rojita was much smaller and lighter than she is now, and therefore could easily taken to be a young girl; this year, she has been training to summit Everest and is, if not any taller, a lot stronger looking. However, by the magic of theater, she still conveys Anne as a very young girl.  The other women on her Everest team are fellow journalists; she herself has a bi-weekly science TV program in Nepalese.

Preparation for the performance

The day after we arrived, Deborah and Rajkumar came down to the theater and had a meeting with the technical crew of the theater. Meetings were outdoors around tables under the trees. Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin in Three Sisters, will be the stage manager for Anne Frank and is in this picture, listening. There will only be one tech rehearsal and it will take place immediately before the performance, so there will just barely be time to get, for example, the lighting plan in place.  The technical director of the theater is the man in the striped linen kurti who is sitting with his back to me. Earlier, he had come sat at a table with me and Joe and sketched out the shapes of theater stages from the written documents of Indian classical theater, 3,000 years ago.

The measurements and specifications for the Anne Frank set had been sent down to the theater in advance and built on-site. For something that has to be built and set up and then taken down after one performance, it’s a big set: three acting spaces (Anna’s room, the living room-kitchen-dining room in the center, and Peter’s room) separated by doors that have to open and close.

Raj tech mtg Jamm

That afternoon, Joe and I went to a production of Of Mice and Men, put on by a theater group from Rajasthan, in Rajasthani. The moment the play opened the intensity, the wildness of the performance was at boiling hot level. It felt almost operatic, in the sense of big gestures and multi-octave vocalizations, as if some style of some kind of classical training had been applied to this show which in productions I have seen elsewhere is a kind of small, sorrowful tale about people with few choices and few opportunities to love. An example is the scene in which the workers drink and dance. The last time I saw this performed in the US, the workers did a kind of shy, inhibited square dance, men dancing awkwardly with men. Here in Jammu the actors playing Rajasthani workers jumped and leaped and waved their arms exuberantly, with no problem at all about men dancing with and around other men.

mice and men

This is the curtain call for the Rajusthani language production of Of Mice and Men. George is the actor with the red scarf, standing by the hay bale. Lennie stands behind him. One of the comments from the audience afterwards was that in the script, Lennie is supposed to be a big guy. The actor who plays Lennie in this production is tall and skinny; you can see him standing behind (not to the side of) George. When Lennie goes off, worked up into a frenzy, he starts to hop and spin and takes up a great deal of space with his flying arms and legs, as if he is exploding. So it is his craziness that is frightening, not his size. 

The hall was not full, despite tickets being free. There did not seem to be any publicity around in the city. The older members of the audience were all men, as far as I could see. There were some women present but most of them were young, student-age, and seemed to have official roles with the theater, as volunteers, ushers, technical workers, etc. The same situation would be the case in Delhi, with the difference that tickets were not free and weirdly, you had to buy them on line and get your ticket confirmation texted to your mobile phone; there were no paper tickets.

So the One World Theater production took place after one tech rehearsal. There was not time enough to really work out the lighting, so that at one point Anna was reading her diary out loud in the dark. However, despite the fact that the actors were still recovering from their various illnesses, crises or just travel weariness, the show went on and ran smoothly.  It was not a brilliant performance, but everyone did a good job and it was good enough, and people gave it a standing ovation at the end.

After the show Deborah and Rajkumar were called to the stage for a Q&A.

Deb and Raj onstage Jam

Deborah and Rajkumar in a post-show discussion onstage.

Below is one of the village plays, done outdoors on the red carpet. These were all done in the multiple languages of India. I sat next to a young woman who told me the plot of one of these: an old grandmother tries to get her daughter-in-law to abort a female child; the town rises up against the old grandmother. The old grandmother is played by an over-the-top comic male actor.

village play 1

On to Delhi

In Delhi, the Olympics took place at the National School of Drama, the NSD. Below is a food court, surrounded by booths with all kinds of Indian foods and handicrafts. In the rear is another outdoor stage where dances and drumming were performed. There were two regular theaters within a short walk of this School itself where the staged plays were performed.

food ct

This time the Anne Frank performance benefited from the continuing recovery of the actors, plus a smaller stage which meant a tighter set, giving a stronger sense of the degree to which the characters are really trapped in a small space for months on end. Again, the audience did not fill the hall – perhaps due to the lack of publicity and the difficulties about buying tickets, which were only available on the same day, on line or via cell phone. But the response was enthusiastic and the actors delivered a strong play.

After the show was performed, people had a day to relax, go and see other plays, and eat and sleep.

Rose and Hermanta

Here are Rose and Hemanta, relaxing on the day when they did not have to perform or work.

I have not written much about what Joe and I did in this post; that will come next. Mainly, I found AirB&Bs and was able to download and use Uber.

Back to Kathmandu: Planning for the year ahead for One World Theater

Back in Kathmandu, Deborah Merola, Rajkumar Pudasaini, Rose Schwietz, Amrit Dahal and Bruno Deceukelier met together at the Amore Guesthouse to talk about planning for next year. Deborah and Rajkumar are Co-Artistic Directors, Rose is Managing Director and has also been Director and actor; Bruno directed The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later and is slated to direct Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde; and Amrit Dahal is the manager of the budget.

planning 2

In this meeting, the group was discussing the next season, including dates, what was going to be produced, people’s schedules and, of course budget along with potential funding sources for each play.

planning all 5






Chekhov’s Three Sisters at One World Theatre in Kathmandu — March 30, 2018

Chekhov’s Three Sisters at One World Theatre in Kathmandu

One World Theatre is a performance group that puts on a regular season of plays in English and Nepalese in Kathmandu, Nepal.  We came to Nepal because my friend Deborah Merola, founder of One World Theatre, is taking a production they did a year ago — The Diary of Anne Frank –  from Nepal to the Eighth International Theater Olympics in India. This is the first time the Olympics have been held in Southeast Asia. The One World Theatre submitted a video of their production and it was accepted at this huge festival, along with plays from many other countries. We believed that this would be a unique opportunity to see something of India and Nepal through the eyes of someone who is working there and knows the people and the country.

We met Deborah in Nepal, where her theater had another production, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, running at the time we arrived.

We went to see it our first night in Kathmandu. I found it hard to concentrate, so I asked if I could come again the next night and watch both the play and the rehearsal. Even through my jet-lag haze, something about the production struck me as especially moving. Perhaps it was because my expectations had to adjust to seeing dark, young Nepali actors with strong accents playing Russian characters from the 1900s, overtaking this very pre-revolutionary Russian situation and claiming it for contemporary Nepal. The characters were dressed in contemporary western costumes appropriate to a middle-class family and their friends of a professional class like teachers and government officials, but they could have been Nepali, too. Masha, for example, the married sister, wore her hair in a kind of punk, pointy cut.

Chekhov is one of my favorite writers and Three Sisters especially is a favorite play, for reasons I will explain below. So I was excited when the director, a young woman from Minnesota named Rose Schwietz, said I could come to  rehearsal the next night, see the play a second time, and take some photographs.

Warm-ups, exercises, crises and other preparations before the show starts

Rose and Raj

Actors warming up before the evening’s 5:30 pm performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, done in English, Friday March 16, 2018.  

The way Chekhov writes a scene, the drama (in the sense of the story or plot) moves forward through side comments and sudden brief speeches that seem to come out of no-where. At any given moment, some characters are paying attention to what is going on and some are oblivious, in complete denial but going along with their lives. For example, in Three Sisters the threat that is uttered by Solyony in the first act is disguised as a joke and no one seems to pay attention; then in the last act, it becomes realized in the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbach.  In order to keep so many people on stage from being just a crowd or a jumble, the actors have to know where the story is being told, who is carrying it at that moment, and follow it, playing against the very true-to life, realistically fragmented dialog. It is not like creating a stage picture; it is more like keeping a flow going.

Rose Schwietz opened the rehearsal with a warmup exercise  for the actors that seemed intended to create this feeling of flow and awareness. Later, she explained to me that she based this exercise on an approach called Viewpoints. She began by telling the actors:  “Start by walking fluidly and entering the spaces, finding doors; find doors and step through them. You have the possibility of changing direction, stopping, starting…” The effect was to create spaces that were not only the spaces on the stage; they were the spaces between and among other actors and they changed constantly. The actors moved in different tempos, sank, scuttled, followed, hopped and dropped, avoided each other, blocked each other, walked in fast or slow motion, copied each other, huddled up. First the whole company did it, then five together, six together, and another five.  The photo at the top shows this exercise.

Putting so many people on stage together and encouraging them to move swiftly among each other requires them to be highly aware of each other and respond to each other. This seemed particularly useful for a Chekhov play, where there are often seven or more people on stage.

Then came vocal warmups, with everyone standing in a circle.  Then makeup and costumes.


The actors apply makeup for each other. 

As the play opens, the characters Masha and Irina are found lying on the couch. It is Irina’s 20th birthday; funny hats are on the table and balloons float around and roll across the floor. Olga, the oldest sister, will be with them. Masha hardly says a word for pages and pages in the script; everything about how she is feeling is communicated by her gestures.


Here, shortly before curtain, the actor playing Solyoni (the character who later shoots and kills Irina’s husband-to-be in the last act) participates in a discussion of a crisis that has emerged: the person in charge of sound has not arrived yet. He has to be replaced. The stage manager stepped in as lighting technician. 

The Characters and the Cast

In a town in Northern Russia, somewhere colder than Moscow, live the three Prozorov sisters: Olga, the oldest, played by Kurchi Dasgupta; Masha, the middle sister, played by Kavita Srinivasan, and Irina, the youngest, played by Samapika Gautam, who is really only 18. Masha describes the town as being “somewhere where it’s always about to snow.”

They have a brother, Andrei, played by Bijay Tamrakar and an elderly house servant, Anfisa, played by Surabhi Sapkota. Surabhi is the person shown in the photo above, getting her makeup done.

A friend of the family, a long-ago admirer of the sisters’ deceased mother, the doctor Chebutykin, is played by Rajkumar Pudasaini, a Co-artistic Director of the theater and principal actor. His still-alive love for the girls’ mother, often emerging as sudden and sometimes excessive tenderness toward Irina the youngest daughter, is one of the forbidden passions in the story.

A regiment of soldiers has been stationed in the town. Some of them treat the home of the Prozorov girls as a social gathering place. Among them is Tuzenbach, a Baron, played by Utpal Jha, and Solyony, played by Sandeep Shrestha. Sandeep is the actor standing behind the couch in the photo above. The soldiers come, eat, lie around, flirt and bring a breath of the big world, including Moscow, with them. Then they leave.

A new commander of the regiment arrives and pays a visit during the first act: Vershinin, in this case Vershinina, played by Rose Schwietz. In the original, of course, Vershinin is a man; in this production, after four actors dropped out of the role for different reasons, Rose decided to do it herself, making Vershinin a woman and her love affair with Masha a lesbian affair. This was an astonishing but completely credible choice, and it shifts the emotional center of the play because there is a scene, covering a set change, in which the two women embrace and kiss each other. This is the only happy, tender sex that takes place in the play. All the other passions are repressed: Solyony’s hungry, hyper-attentive adoration of Tuzenbach, Chebutykin’s unrequited love for the girls’ mother, and even Tuzenbach’s unrequited love for Irina, all of them fail to be fully expressed, shared or even acknowledged. Of course, there is Natasha’s giddy affair with Protopopov but as played by Pooja Lama, the affair is more like revenge than love or passion.

Then there is the headmaster of the local school and husband of Masha, Kulygin, played by Hemanta Chalise. The fact that Masha is having an affair with another woman makes Kulygin’s desperate insistence that all is well and that he is happy even more poignant. There is also local official, Ferapont, played by Sandesh Shakya, an almost completely comic role except that he is quite deaf (which is treated as a joke by the other characters, and then reversed and made pathetic by the kindness of Anfisa who takes him into the kitchen and gives him things to eat.)

Andrei, the brother, has a girlfriend. His sisters make fun of Natasha’s clothes and speech, and scorn her as a village girl, but he marries her and she becomes the mother of his children, taking over the management of the house in the process. She is played by Pooja Lama. Pooja pushes the greediness and bossiness of this character to the very edge, and becomes the actor who carries the play the most in the direction of comedy. Her character becomes quite horrible, but not in the way the sisters foresaw. Andrei himself says of her, on the one hand, that she is a good woman, but on the other, that there is “something not quite human” about her.

Smaller parts include Emily, played by Anu Dahal; Fedotik, played by Rajen Thapa; and Rhode, played by Kundoon Shakya.

An important person who has a role in the action but never appears on stage is Natasha’s lover, one Protopopov, head of the County Council. She carries on with him behind Andrei’s back and perhaps they have happy sex but given her attitude, probably not; probably something more like a cat fight.

All the actors are Nepalese except for Kurchi Dasgupta and Kavita Srinivasan, who are Indian, and Rose Schwietz, who is from Minnesota.  Most are young, in their twenties or early thirties; the oldest is Rajkumar Pudasani, who is in his early forties. Some are students, some work full-time at regular jobs, some do film work or perform with other theater groups.


Kurchi Dasgupta, who plays Olga, the eldest sister. This photo was taken after a long hot day painting on Bev Hoffman’s Wall of Hope mural at the Himalayan Hotel. 


Rajkumar Pudasaini carries the role of Chebutykin as if it was a heavy coat of suffering. At the same time, he can make a laugh line out of nearly nothing; he invites the audience to laugh at him as a form of relief even while being pathetic. He is a very physical actor — often leaning far to one side or the other, crossing the stage quickly at an angle, swinging his legs open and spreading his arms as he sits on a couch, cocking his head sharply. He is only in his forties but he is playing a doctor in his sixties who drinks too much (in one scene, is is actually drunk and out of control). The character no longer trusts his own skill as a doctor; with the loss of his skill, he loses his trust in the meaning of everything else. For Irinas’ birthday present, he gives her a samovar, more appropriate for a wedding present than a 20-year old girls’ birthday. He’s aware and deeply embarrassed by his gift as soon as he sees his action through the eyes of the others at the party, as if he knows it reveals the way he has mixed up his love for the mother and the daughter. Later in the play, when Masha asks him if her mother loved him back, he pauses a moment, lifts a hand as if to touch a butterfly in the air, and shrugs, saying “I don’t know.” This line draws a laugh out of the audience but loses none of the pathos of the truth he is admitting.

In the last act he says “It’s nothing,” over and over again – another example of a character saying words in the dialog which both the character and the audience know to be lies. In fact, what is “nothing” is the critical act of the whole play, the consummation of Solyony’s passion in the challenge to the duel which will kill Tuzenbach. Rajukumar plays against the literal meaning of the words “It’s nothing,” in a way that requires the audience to distrust him even as he speaks emphatically.

Rajkumar is in the green T-shirt in the center of the first photograph, above, doing the warmup flow exercises. He is forehead-to-forehead with Rose Schwietz. In my previous post there is a link to the YouTube video of Arjuna’s Dilemna, in which Rajkumar played Arjuna.

The Story Itself: Four years go by and what happens?

The story is told in four acts. In the first act, the three sisters are celebrating the birthday of the youngest, Irina, who has just turned twenty. She is bursting with happiness and hope, but all three sisters really yearn to go back to the big city Moscow where they spent their early childhood. Their father died last year; their mother has been dead a number of years. Masha, the middle sister, is frustrated with everything. Olga, the oldest sister, is teaching at the high school and is tired all the time. Their brother Andrei, a heavy set loner who plays the violin, is in love with Natasha, whom the sisters laugh at for her unsophisticated taste and speech. Tuzenbach and Solyony have come to celebrate Irina’s birthday, along with Chebutikyn.

In this middle of this first act, Vershinin, the regiment commander, drops by to introduce himself — or herself, in this case. She talks in a sophisticated and elegant manner, and Masha suddenly realizes what an attractive person this visitor is. This is the situation at the end of the first act. In this production, there are two same-sex passions. Masha and Vershinina seem to slip easily and unchallenged into a passionate, physically consummated relationship, and the ultimate outcome is a sad farewell but not the end of the world for Masha. She says, “You get your happiness in bits and pieces.” She at least has had the experience of passionate love. By contrast, Solyony harbors a desperate but completely closeted love for Tuzenbach, expressed only through his twisted, annoying jokes and infantile remarks, tolerated but mostly ignored by Tuzenbach, and the ultimate outcome is the duel in which it is in fact the end of the world for Tuzenbach, who is killed.

The fourth act is four years later. What has happened? That is, what is the story? Irina is four years older and not happier. Olga is now headmistress and even more exhausted, Masha has been having a love affair with Vershinina right under the deliberately unseeing eyes of her husband Kulygin, and Andrei’s young wife, Natasha, who in this production wolfishly gloats over her control over the household, has thrown Anfisa out. Luckily, Olga gets a place to live along with her new job and Anfisa has moved in with her and has her own bedroom. In a very sad scene about the lessening of expectations, Olga persuades Irina to marry Tuzenbach, who has proposed to her, and Irina acceeds, although she is not in love.  Tuzenbach plans to resign from the military and become a manager of a brick factory in an even smaller town. The regiment is leaving; the soldiers, who have formed the social world of the sisters, are going away. Vershinina is going away, too, and has not apparently encouraged Masha to run off with her. Somewhere off stage, between the acts, there has been an encounter involving threats and violence: “It’s nothing!” exclaims Chebutikyn.  But it’s not nothing.  Solyony has decided that Tuzenbach has insulted him and has challenged him to a duel. Tuzenbach leaves to go to the duel without telling Irina where he is going; he asks her to order him a coffee. This is another minor, even trivial line, that carries much emotional weight. Then we hear the pistol shot and he has been killed. The soldiers leave. End of play.

Without any direct storytelling, in other words, many stories get told. If it weren’t for the title, we might not know which ones to follow. But it’s above all the story of all three sisters, the life chances of young women at that time and place, who are all still alive and together at the end. Irina has been saved from marrying a man she did not love, but only because he is dead; Masha has had the experience of great passion, but is now back with her husband, who accepts compassionately what has happened to her; Olga can be said to be materially better off, but her new job as headmistress is even more likely to be exhausting than her previous one as just a teacher. Natasha, of course, has gone from a shy village girl to the bossy, selfish mistress of a large house, although a house burdened by a mortgage. Perhaps what is most important about this play is the obvious fact that the main characters are women, and that it is about the life opportunities of women in  a society where property and violence belong to men.

bambooOne World Theatre doesn’t own a space at the present time; it finds and rents spaces for performances. Three Sisters is being done at the Kunja Theater, a black box 100-seat theater in what appears to be a bamboo-construction compound called Thapagaun, used for writers and artists workshops. The theater space and entrance are behind me; I am standing on a terrace above the rest of the compound. 

Three Sisters Thirty Seven Years Ago

When Deborah told me that she would be going back to Nepal in March and that her theater would be producing Three Sisters, I remembered the production I saw in 1980 at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) thirty seven years ago, with Elizabeth Huddle playing Olga. The play as I saw it then seemed to be about women trying to find meaning in their lives through work, not love. I had also just begun to be personally shaken by the tremors of the women’s movement. To me too, work was the way out of a trap.  In the first act, Irina, the 20-year old, says:

Work is the meaning of life — it’s goal, happiness, and joy. The worker getting up at dawn to break stones on the road is happy. So is the shepherd and the teacher of little children, and the engineer in the railway…God, it’s easier for a man. Better to be an ox, a horse, anything than a young woman who wakes up at noon, has coffee in bed and spends two hours dressing. That’s dreadful. I need to work, just as I need to drink water on a hot day.

Although I had already had many jobs, I was just discovering “my work” at that time, and Irina’s words hit home.  But Irina is talking about herself individually; when she talks about work, she is really talking about getting a job. Tuzenbach, the soldier of the regiment who is himself a Baron, grew up with a servant who would pull off his boots when he came home from a day at school. Tuzenbach responds to Irina’s mention of work by talking about the stark inequalities of the society in which they all live.

 A powerful storm is brewing — a good one. ..Our whole morbid, boring society will be swept away. I’ll work, and in twenty five or thirty years, everyone will work.

For her, work is individual liberation; for Tuzenbach, it’s revolution. The two themes fused for me into vision of what my own work could be.

The powerful storm that Tuzenbach foresaw actually did happen, of course. Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, wrote Three Sisters in 1900 for the Moscow Art Theater. The  first Russian Revolution began a mere five years later, involved worker strikes and peasant uprisings, won a constitution but did not get rid of the Tsar. The second Revolution started in 1917 and established the Soviet Union, a communist country in which one way or another, everyone really did work.

Mt work at that time was not only teaching but producing theater. I had produced a series of cabaret evenings at Rosenthal’s Deli in Berkeley, drawing on the culture of Yiddish theater, Second Avenue in the early 1900s, and the many talented Jewish performers, storytellers and singers around Berkeley. This led to an invitation to produce the first season of the Berkeley Jewish Theater, where we did five short comic one-acts from the Second Avenue repertoire. These sold out, especially to  groups from old-age Jewish residential facilities, but also got myself and my co-producer, Harriet Herman, accused of blasphemy. I learned something about the difference between what was funny before the Holocaust and what was not funny afterwards. The problematic play was The God of the Wealthy Wool Merchant.

During this time Three Sisters was being produced at ACT and I went twice, maybe three times, once even walking out of a class taught by Jim MacKenzie (a class for aspiring producers,  which I was taking with Christine Taylor). He was the ACT Executive Producer, much loved. He said, as I got up to leave, “You need this class,” and I remember saying, “I need to see Three Sisters more.”

I remember that production as very period, lots of red and gold, not so much Russian as high-middle-class British. Eliabeth Huddle played Olga, the sister with the headaches who becomes a headmistress as the acts go by. I could feel in my own bones the sense of frustration and constraint that the sisters suffer from, and I could understand how Masha, who is married, might fall in love with Vershinin, the commander of an artillery battery that has been temporarily assigned to the small town where they live. But I did not harbor the illusion that my escape to Moscow would come as a result of falling in love with someone. For me, it the combination of finding work, work in something that would contribute in some way to the storm. At first, it was theater; then teaching, and soon, teaching and activism in the labor movement.

Chekhov is Hard to Do Right

Chekhov’s plays are not single-actor star vehicles with only one, or even one main story. Going back to the exercise with which Rose started the warm-up: they require an ensemble, which is why the warmup exercises that the company was doing are so important. The multiple stories in a Chekhov play are sketched in, one hint at a time, as characters talk to each other or speak their inner thoughts in a way that feels more real than real life. This means that everyone on stage is important all the time. Even if a character is silent or has very few lines, the way that character listens to what others are saying, or responds physically to what is going on, carries the story forward. When there are many characters on stage at once, each one has to be responding to and propelling forward the emotional content of the moment. Sometimes that content comes in the lines of dialog and sometimes it comes in other ways.

This is so hard to do right; it was amazing to see this close, small group of actors fulfilling the demands of this kind of ensemble work.

Chekhov was hard even for the Moscow Art Theater. I found this in the Introduction to Sharon Marie Carnicke’s translation of Three Sisters (Hackett, 2014):

When Nemisovich-Danchenko insisted that Stanislavsky co-direct Chekhov’s The Seagull, Stanislavsky admitted that the work initially presented him with “a difficult task, becuase, to my shame, I did not understand the play…According to Olga Knipper the entire Moscow Art Theater company reacted “unenthusiastically” an with “confusion” when they first read Three Sisters. Another actor recalled, “We didn’t know how to play our roles!”

Olga Knipper became Chekhov’s wife and played Masha in Three Sisters.

When Rose Schwietz first read the play, she says (in the program notes): “I hated it. I found it boring, impossible to follow, and full of whining and complaining.”

Chekhov tells the story through the reactions of the characters to each other — or through their failure to react. For example: late in the play, Kulygin stands up in front of everyone and exclaims about how happy and satisfied he is (“I am a happy, happy man!”) and the other characters look at him and say nothing. If the director was relying on the dialog to tell the story, here, how would they know what to do? Instead, the story gets carried by the very blank looks on the other characters faces, and their silence as they acquiesce in Kulygin’s denial.

Another example: in the first act, Masha, the middle sister who is married to the High School Principal and who has been lying on the sofa the whole time so far, reading a book and hardly paying attention, gets up when Vershinin, the commander of the regiment comes to pay a visit and introduce himself (actually, herself in this production). There are now seven people on stage: Olga, Masha and Irina, the three sisters; Tuzenbach and Solyony, both soldiers; and Chebutykin, the old doctor. Vershinin knew the girls in Moscow because he knew their father. At first they don’t remember him; then they begin to. They called him “the lovesick Major.”  Suddenly Masha remembers: “How you’ve aged!” she says. “How you’ve aged!” she repeats, but now she’s crying. Something has happened to her between the first time she says that line and the second.  It’s Irina who notices, a few lines later, and asks her, “Why are you crying?” If Irina didn’t ask that question, we might not notice that Masha has just realized how old she too has become, and how desperate she is for something new and wonderful in her life.

Girls in Russia, Girls in Nepal and “Global People” 

This is a play about three girls — they are all over 20, but they are girls in the sense of young women who have their lives ahead of them, and their dreams of future happiness. It is being performed in a Nepal, a country where violence against women, especially against girls, is a recognized major problem. Do Nepali girls, for example girls in small cities or mountain villages,  have dreams of going to a cultural center somewhere far away and leading an exciting life? That would be an ambition of so many of our students in Viet Nam, who may be the children of farmers and come from villages, but dream of being “global people.” So this play about the destiny of young women is being performed in a milieu where the consciousness of the challenges facing women is very high.

Hemanta Chalise, who plays Kulygin in Three Sisters told me that in fact, Nepali girls do dream of being “global people,” but to them this means often means going to Australia or the US and studying. Australia is the Moscow for Nepali youth. Being “global” is valued by parents: Hemanta said that if a father is looking for a husband for his daughter, he will prefer a young man who has been to Australia or the US worked, to a young man with a college degree who has never been away from Nepal. However, this is a male actor talking about husbands and fathers, not daughters and girls. Just looking at the women in the theater troupe, we can see that they are making a step toward being “global people,” working in English, performing, forming collectives and producing magazines and films, often against the wishes of their families.

The other side of the story, Nepali girls, especially from impoverished villages in the western mountains, get sex-trafficked all over Asia, especially into India. Even in the cities, girls are likely to be violently abused in their families.  During the short time we are here I’ve seen newspaper articles about the murder of girls by their husbands, fathers and brothers.  One article was about a girl who was refusing to marry the man her father wanted her to. So she was stabbed 17 times, then her body was taken to be burned (ghats line the river through the city) to destroy the evidence, but the men were arrested before the could complete the cremation.

Bev Hoffman, the husband of Deborah Merola, is currently organizing and participating in the creation of an 80-foot mural, “The Wall of Hope,” along the retaining wall that faces the street below the Himalayan Hotel, one of the fanciest hotels in Kathmandu (I saw UN and USAID cars parked in their lot). The mural depicts the recovery of a woman from abuse, presumably trafficking or violence of some sort. As we walked along the wall while it was being painted, we saw young Nepali student-age men and women stop to be photographed beside the images on that wall, as if it was likely to become a famous landmark – a photo-op site for upcoming “global people.”


One small part of the 80-foot long Wall of Hope, in front of the Himalayan Hotel. 

On to the next

Even while Three Sisters was running, some of the actors were in rehearsal with Deborah for the reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank, which is to be presented next week at two sites in India under the auspices of the Eighth International Theatre Olympics. Rose Schwietz will play Mrs Frank, Rajkumar Pudansaini will play Otto Frank, and Pooja Lama will play Miep.  Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin, will be the stage manager. Rehearsing one play while performing in another created difficulties for concentration, to say nothing of making a schedule for rehearsals and getting people into the same room together. In addition, the young woman who would play Anne Frank, Rojita Buddhacharya, was scheduled to join a team to summit Everest immediately after the final performance. She was in intense physical training and could only get away to rehearse for two hours a day. On top of that, Rose got seriously sick, possibly from exhaustion both directing and performing in Three Sisters.

This double-schedule is all happening in an economy and society that does not provide the kinds of cushion and back-up that even people who live as precariously as actors do in the US are used to. One World Theatre pays actors $300 dollars for two months of work; the director and artistic director gets the same as the actors. The budget for the whole production is likely to be $7,000. They only make $1500 in admissions, keeping ticket prices low enough so that students and ordinary people can come (500 rupees or less). Actors have to work at more than one theater or take film work in order to live. Then there are the health problems that come from living in a place where you can’t drink the water; troupe members go to the hospital frequently with infections or other problems. At least the tremendous problem of daily electricity load-shedding has been improved. Up until one or two years ago, there would be a period of time every day when there was no electricity. This might happen in the middle of a production. When the electricity went off, the house would go dark, someone would say “We are pausing for technical difficulties,” and you would hear steps in the dark while someone went to turn on the generator. Then, after the generator got going, the lights would come back on and the actors would start up again. During rehearsals, everyone would bring in their cell phones and plug them in to charge them on the theater’s electrical system.

Of course there are also the normal personal crises.  Just before Three Sisters opened, one actor had a death in the family and had to miss rehearsals while participating in three days of funeral rituals. Another troupe member, the stage manager for The Diary of Anne Frank, got mugged and had some ribs broken. In addition, three of the potential locations for Three Sisters fell through before the Kunja Theater site came through. Rose Schwietz made the decision to play Vershinin as a woman, herself, only after four men who had been selected for the role dropped out.

Nonetheless, the preparations went forward to take The Diary of Anne Frank to India. What could possibly go wrong?










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

What’s going on in Nepal?

night market

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

Padan gate

The Patan Dhoka Gate

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


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


Taxis and Tickets

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


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

Selling land to get a car

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corruption: an example, with punishment?

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

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

Does control work? And Nepal at last — March 15, 2018

Does control work? And Nepal at last

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nepal at Last

But so much for China; we are now in Nepal, quite a different story. A glimpse:  Here is a photo of a public event, some kind of award-giving ceremony, that is part of a trade fair being held in Patan Durbar Square. Patan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Patan is known as the City of Arts; it’s one of the three original cities that are now blended together – there’s Bahktaphur, the City of Agriculture, and Kathmandu, the City of Trade, which is where the government is.

trade fair

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

So far, we have not met anyone who can talk to us in an informed way about the situation. The word “corruption” is used freely. There is a lot of international money moving around, however. There are a lot of NGOs and there appears to be a steady stream of people from Europe and the US who come to volunteer in various capacities: house-building, for example. And we have been told that one third of the national income comes from workers sending back wages from overseas, mostly men and mostly from the Gulf. In fact, the night we left, we saw this with our own eyes at the airport: three flights to the Gulf going out at the same time, and the passengers lining up were all young men with backpacks. Their attitude seemed to be excited. They were jostling each other and laughing. They looked healthy and notably strong. It was hard to match this sight with what I have read about working conditions in the Gulf.

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

Another city view of Patan Durbar:

cornder dust

One World Theater in Patan Durbar Square

In 20016 One World Theater did a production of Arjuna’s Dilemna, which is on YouTube. The set was built right in the Patan Museum. There are eight sections on You Tube. Raj played Arjuna. You can see Alize dancing in this. Rajkumar is on the left, bare chested and gold.

Back at the Amore Guesthouse

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

cook 2



Does democracy work? — March 7, 2018

Does democracy work?


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Women’s March in Oakland  January 20

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

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

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


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


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

MWarch bully

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

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

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

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


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

UH workers

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


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


The young woman is a representative from the Chamber of Commerce

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

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

Minimum Wage Conference in Berkeley

bok choy

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

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

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

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

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

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

bitter squ

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

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

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

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

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

audience at ILRE

The rear half of the audience. Note technology tree. 

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

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

A few overall comments for Vietnamese readers:

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

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

None of these presentations were about trade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

missing jobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Second panel


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

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

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

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

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

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

prod and mw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOX LUNCH: sandwiches, coffee, apples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bears fountain

Berkeley is a special place: The Bears Fountain


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





















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

November, 2017 Research, Vermont WC

goddessesEmotional Labor: Midnight Goddesses

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

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


Message to the VSG list:

Hello —

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

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

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

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

Thank you –

Helena Worthen, Visiting Lecturer, TDTU Fall 2017


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

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

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

Time for some re-cap and background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well. Back to Berkeley.

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

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

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


Marin Headlands, morning fog, from balcony. 


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


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

labr hall

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


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


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

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




End of October — October 28, 2017

End of October

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

all good

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


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

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


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

Earl and Sue


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



ILO Collaboration

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

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

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

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


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

My last class in Globalization

last H class

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


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



Art and Design Department Display

ao dai

An AoDai with incredible embroidery.


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



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

Joe’s last class, on Tuesday

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


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



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

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


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

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

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

Food packaging

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

food pkg

Le Ciel Rouge

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

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

movie pho.JPG

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

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

HCMC Research Group Presentation

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

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

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

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

Sat 1

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

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


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

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

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

piano for use




The Library (2) — October 16, 2017

The Library (2)

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

What is that “whole”?

library barriers

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

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

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

So what is going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about free access is at

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


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

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

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

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

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

lbrary shoe crowd

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

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


What the library keeps in

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

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

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

So what would threaten its existence?

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

The Sixth Floor

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

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

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

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



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

shelf of books

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

books shelv

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

new book donations

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

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

It is an enormous task, but progress is being made

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

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