Rich Egeland: A ticket to the fight

What I am posting below is written by a close friend of ours, Rich Egeland. We first met him when we were teaching labor education in Chicago. As you can see from this, he took advantage of just about every labor ed opportunity that came along.

Rich and I were chatting on line about his current adventures in his union, IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) Local 705, which represent the over-the-road drivers, the people who drive those huge trucks all over the country. He himself drives a tanker truck. Every now and then I try to imagine what it’s like to be out on the icy roads of a Chicago winter night, or during a summer thunderstorm, driving a truck around those weather-beaten, cracked and pot-holed freeways. I asked him if he would write something about his life in the union that I could put in this blog.

His union, IBT 705 is a “live” union, not one that has been totally buried under a single regime. IBT 705 actually has elections, and people run for office, and although the activity around the elections gets intense and there are some wild stories of people engaging in physical confrontations, the newly elected leaders do take office and the old incumbents move out of the building, so union democracy actually does happen there. The energy around elections should be seen as evidence of the value placed on actual bottom-up representation of the membership.

Looking ahead at our time in Vietnam: When we talk about the need for bottom-up organizing, grassroots worker representation and all those other things that we imagine will grow out of freedom of association, it’s important to know what the unions that develop through freedom of association may actually look like. In bottom-up self-organizing and representation, the fight is likely to happen right there at the bottom. There’s nothing easy about it. It’s rough, and  education is not the magic silver bullet, either. Rich has been taking classes and now teaching classes for years; he’s got all the education you need,  but it hasn’t lessened the intensity of the fight. He brings his education into the fight and does what he can because it’s his union.

So here is a serious individual, someone who has put a life into this union, writing about his experience. It’s not full of happy anecdotes. Instead, it illustrates what I mean when I say that our system of labor relations, for all our freedom of association, is just a “ticket to the fight.” Read this as being about the fight, and what it takes.

My Union Life

Rich Egeland

Though I did not grow up in a union household, I did learn about unions from my mother and we lived those union ideals. We learned that striking a business was the last resort and one that was never to be taken lightly. We learned that workers will do their very best at their jobs because that is how they support their families. If the company fails, then they are out of work and the family suffers. We learned that an honest day’s work is fulfilling and can bring great joy to the family as they reap the benefits of the worker. Their happiness is my happiness.

She used to take us to picket lines to bring water and sandwiches to the people and made sure that we looked them in their eyes. We saw fear, hope and steadfast purpose in the eyes of these people. We saw the gratitude in their hearts when we gave them these seemingly small items. These gifts of kindness were and are appreciated and the memories of their thankfulness are still remembered by me this very day. My wife and I carried on the tradition of bringing relief items to strikers and their families even now.

My mother’s real parents died when she and her four siblings were quite young. Her older sister was about 11, she and her twin brother were about 9 and her youngest sister was less than a year old. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Edna were my mother’s aunt and uncle so they adopted the twins. If it wasn’t for the good job that grandpa had, I do not know where my mother and her brother would have ended up. By the way, Grandma Edna was a “Rosie the Riveter” at the torpedo plant in what is now the Ford City Shopping Center on the southwest side of Chicago. Grandpa used to go into negotiations knuckles first and Grandma Edna was not far behind in her work place. You didn’t mess with them.

My maternal grandfather was a truck driver (Teamsters Local 705 Freight division, my own local!) and the first time that I rode in his truck was when I was about 5 years old. The noise! The smoke from the exhaust stack! The rumbling of the powerful truck as we rode! I never felt anything like it before in my young life! My grandfather was shifting the old fashioned twin sticks and the manual steering! I knew that I wanted to be a truck driver just like him. As I grew older, I had other opportunities, some of which my grandfather never had but people like him paved the way for the following generations.

I finished high school and went to college ( and subsequently flunked out). I lived in a nice house in the suburbs of Chicago and had plenty of opportunities that others worked and fought for. Then I wanted to be independent so I got out of my parents house and started to make my way on my own.

My first real job was that of a steelworker at Ryerson Steel (Joseph T. Ryerson and Son, Inc.) and I thought that I made it! This was a real job with benefits and since I was engaged, I knew that I could start and maintain a family. It was not a union job then but it was a good place to work. This was a finished steel fabrication house as opposed to the steel making of a mill. We got the steel from the mills and processed it to our customer’s specifications.

I had lots of “capacities” (job titles) which included, “hooker”, “lander” “shearman” “burner” “craneman” and “swinger.” Job titles in the steel industry are the best too. “Hooker” and “lander” are people who bring the steel to you to process. The hooker hooks it up and sends it down the way by use of the overhead crane to the lander or someone who lands the lift. The shearman operates a machine that cuts the steel to a specific length. The burner used a torch to cuts shapes in the steel (my favorite job) as per the orders. The swinger is the truck driver who moves the trailers around and supplies the plant with delivered items.

I wanted to be a truck driver for the company but the management personnel said no. When I asked them why, they had several reasons and none of them made any sense. So I kept asking and they kept saying no.

The plant personnel were in the midst of one of several union organizing drives and I jumped in on each and every one of them. The three drives were unsuccessful and the head chopping ceremony soon followed. I was within an inch of their focus when the attitude changed.

I read the collective bargaining agreement the company had with the delivery drivers and noted that it said “all drivers” and not specifically the delivery drivers. I called the agent at Teamsters Local 705 to let him know that I was doing bargaining unit work and that I did want into the union. He kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t so I asked others who knew about unions if it was so. It was not so, which led me to asking time and again. I’d call up the local 2-3 times a week and sometimes every day, for two years. Now, one would imagine that they would take all comers but not this guy.

One Saturday morning my foreman came up to me and lamented that they did not have any drivers available for a hot load that had to go to the main plant 16 miles away. I told him that I could take it. He asked if I had the license for it and I did so he said I want you to take this load there ASAP. I took the load to the main plant, dropped it and picked up an empty trailer and came back. I kept the paperwork too.

That Monday I called the hall and told them what I had done. Sam was incensed that I took his guys’ work but I told him that I was ordered to, and what choice did I have? That same day my superintendent called me into his office demanding why I took the load and if I didn’t like it there, I could choose a door since we don’t need a f**king union here! That’s all that I needed. I did as my boss requested of me, and I was threatened with retaliation because of my union affiliation. The following Monday I was on the street delivering the processed materials. I made it after almost 3 years of trying! I would not have made it if the foreman didn’t mess up either.

The union agent came by shortly after that and noted that I could get off of his back. That provoked me so I told him that I wanted to be shop steward. He almost dropped his cigar out of his mouth. He said that we didn’t have enough members to have a steward but I read where you have to have 29 members for an election. He could appoint one if we had less. He didn’t like that one but it was the law. He made me his “point man” so he could skirt the issue.

I became the official steward shortly after that because we had an election and a new agent was given to us. Then I became chief steward and then got onto the contract negotiating team. It was a lot to ask but the more I did the more I learned.

We were permanently replaced some years later and I ended up in the tank haul division of Local 705. I still volunteered for anything and everything that the local wanted me to do and the principal officer asked me if I wanted to go to school to learn more about unions. I leapt at the chance! The first year had about fifteen 705 members in attendance. Some of these did not finish the first semester, but I did. I asked for the next session and was granted permission to attend. The following year came and I was one of 3 members who still attended. I asked for more and was told that I could take all of the classes that I wanted just as long as I brought back good grades. All of my grades up until them were A’s so I kept going. These were certificate classes so there was no diploma.

A little while later, the National Labor College partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago so I got the certificates translated into grades and these because credited classes. I kept going until I finally graduated with my bachelors Degree in Labor Studies in June of 2006.

I waited a year and asked the local for the Master’s program. They said yes so I completed my master’s degree in their three year time frame. I asked for the PhD program but have not heard a word since so the answer is no. That’s a real shame too but I went far further than I ever would have though possible and I can thank my grandfather for this feat.

I’ve been very busy with my degree helping anyone, anywhere and at anytime. My own local is keeping me at arms length because they are afraid that I might take over one day. My own International body holds me in disdain as they know that there is no controlling me. They do not have dirt on me so I can’t be pressured to accept their substandard ideals.

Indeed I could run my local but for now, I’m teaching classes, helping others get their jobs back when their agents don’t seem to want to. My phone rings at all hours of the day and night by people who have heard of my helping and though sometimes I am very tired, they do get the help they need whether it is my help of I can direct them to where they can get help. Sometimes it gets difficult as I work 12 hour shifts 5 nights a week but I know that it is appreciated.

I’ve gone all over the country because of my education and have taught classes at various places. It is fun and the look in the eyes of the students always amazes me. They have the same look as the strikers that I remember from way back when. I can thank people like my grandfather for this opportunity and the dedicated professors who helped me along the way. My thanks to them will be using my education and experience for others so that they too can enjoy their lives in the best way possible.


Getting Ready 23

Getting Ready 23

Settled into more or less a schedule.

Beautiful weather here in Vermont. Rain every few days, then the river water gets cold. A couple of days of sun heats up the water. Swimming is easy, whether down in the park where the water is warmer or up at Pikes Falls where it’s pretty cold but the waterfall is worth it. Raspberries are in, every day a quart’s worth. Blueberries will be here in the next few days. Already I can get enough for breakfast every day. The corn is now ripe as far up as Massachusetts, 3 for a dollar at Dutton’s.

Mornings, I read Angie Ngoc Tran or Tim Pringle and Simon Clark’s book, The Challenge of Transition: Trade Unions in Russia, China, and Vietnan, Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011. This is the book that we need to read. Joe found it at the UCB library and has sent for a copy for us to own, although it costs nearly $100. I will provide some excerpts from it later. Then I work on my class. I’ve done 4 draft powerpoint texts, using the textbook as required, going chapter by chapter. It will be possible to get ideas across using this textbook.

Then lots of email. I’ve sent off three papers – one to Adrienne Paavo in Canada, about the Polk women’s labor ed conference; one to Labor Studies Journal, about the big survey I did last winter of labor education programs; one to WorkingUSA about the Metro Strategy and Lave’s Communities of Practice, as organizing strategies. Lots of work, come to think of it. I have a book review to do, an article with Joe on City College for SF Bayview, and then we’re supposed to do two more Steward Updates for Union Communications before we go back to CA. Grandkids arriving in 12 days.

Talked on the phone with Katie Quan today, who gave us introductions to two people, one of them with the ILO.

Here’s something from the Valley Post website, that demonstrates how much explanation you have to include in every communication about unions in the US, due to how little people know and how much misinformation is out there:

This is a website run by Eesha Williams, a local journalist and also author of a really good handbook for people who want to write effectively about the real world and get it out into the public mind – that is, journalists:

We used his book in classes in Illinois.

Notice how in his article about the upcoming possible strike includes explanations, such as, right there in the second paragraph, “Strikes by union workers happen when a majority of workers vote to go on strike.” You might ask, did he really need to explain that? Unfortunately, yes, he did – because one of the anti-union myths that people get drummed into their heads is that unions “cause” violence and workers are “forced” to go on strike.

Also, further down: “Nonunion workers can be fired for no reason.” This is probably the biggest misapprehension of them all – that employers are somehow bound by what is “fair” and therefore can’t fire you without a good reason. Wrong. They can fire you for no reason – unless you have a union.

So Eesha manages to get this basic information into a short article about an upcoming strike. Note that he also does not give the actual name of the business, but he does explain where its money comes from: it’s a “government-funded agency.” Actually, it’s a non-profit healthcare provider. This gives him the opportunity to mention how many people in Massachusetts make over a million dollars a year and could afford to pay higher taxes, and also how prevalent suicide is, making such support urgent.

He does give the websites of both the business and the union. Usual normal mainstream journalists would give the name of the company but not the name of the union. Or they’d get the name of the union wrong, just for the fun of it. Here, he treats them even-handedly although he does quote the union organizer, Jerry Levinsky, whom I know from UALE conferences, a good guy. Nice to see his name out there!

Today, however, there’s another announcement: after 8 hours of bargaining, an agreement is reached and the strike is called off. So it worked!


The weather is great. If I don’t write anything for a while, it’s because every day is just another day like today, which is fine.

Getting Ready 22

Getting Ready 22

This will be about Angie Ngoc Tran’s book, Ties that Bind: Cultural Identity, Class and Law in Vietnams’ Labor Resistance. Cornell Southeast Asia Publications 2013. This is the book I needed to read, although it is too dense for me to have been able to get through before now because I didn’t know enough to have places to hang what she’s telling me. She has interviews, library research, photographs, collections of documents from both Vietnam and in the US, etc. It’s clearly the work of many, many years, maybe a lifetime of trying to understand what happened. She begins the book in the 1920’s, looking at labor protests under the French, then moves to the RVN period (1954 – 75) after the Geneva Conference, and then to the period starting in 1986 when the Doi Moi policy began. In each period, she asks:

Who were these workers? How did they rely on cultural identities (native place, gender, ethnicity, and religion) to bond with each other? How did these ties engender collective action in times of need and desperation? What role did skill levels play in labor mobilization? With regard to class, were workers aware of belonging to a working class with shared interests, and if so, when did they become aware of this? What were their forms of protest, including forms of protest based on knowledge of an use of law? (page 63).

This is a book I should read more than once. In order to get a grasp of it, I am reading it with two concerns in mind, for starters.

One, I’m noting that she’s got some focus on the textile industry. That happens to be important to me because I worked for UNITE (before it merged into UNITE HERE and then split again) in Philadelphia, a city that had at one time been a major textile and garment industry center. This was in 1998-99. Even at that time, we were losing shops every week. What I was told was that in the 1970s the Joint Board (a collection of local unions) had 30,000 members. By the time I was working there, it was down to 1,200 and dropping. Elsewhere I have described the beautiful things that people made in those shops: alligator handbags, Sunday bonnets, men’s full-length cashmere winter coats, drum major’s top hats. Some of the people in those shops were third generation, sometimes working side by side, mothers and sons and daughters. To them, the union was the world of their life. But it was draining away – to Vietnam, and now I see how. In the 1960s’, working with the AFL-CIO and the CIA, the US gave a loan of $6 million AID money to Chinese-American and Taiwanese business owners to set up textile factory in Vietnam – this is just one example, a factory where there was a huge strike that led to a general strike in 1964. The US agency was called USOM (US Operations Mission). It worked with a right wing Vietnamese union, the leadership of which tried to get “militarized” – meaning armed? –  in order to be part of the fight against the communists who were coming from the North. The commnists came to work in factories as cadre and do organizing. Not only US money and “technical assistance” was given to get the textile industry going in Vietnam, but actual tools and equipment were sent over. (Problem: Vietnam had a huge long history of textile manufacture – why did they need US assistance? Probably to modernize. Also, it wasn’t the Vietnamese who needed the industry; it was the Chinese-American and Taiwanese business owners, and their investors, who saw the opportunity and took it.)

So that’s where our industry was going, along with a whole lot of money, and it turned into a war.

The other thing I am looking for is organizing tactics. These organizers were really courageous. There seem to have been about 5 different labor unions or labor confederations in Vietnam in the 1960s (this is when “the war” as we know it was heating up). They are identified as right-wing, anti-communist, left-leaning, communist, etc. The communists were coming from the north, getting jobs undercover in factories, and doing organizing. They would be thrown in jail when exposed, or would have to move on to another factory. They learned multiple languages to speak to different ethnic groups and across dialects. They studied, produced newspapers (changing the name of the newspaper but keeping the same initial letters of the name) and propaganda material, and had women’s and men’s sections. There were also Catholic socialists who would be described as left-leaning.

Some of Trans’ interviews with older cadre who were part of this sound like organizers here. One guy whom she interviewed says:

In Vimytex, as an electrician, I had the opportunity to roam freely around the factory to fix electrical problems, and interact with about 1800 workers…(page 94)

When we’re doing a labor ed class here, and we do the “Mapping your workplace” exercise in order to help people figure out who can communicate with other workers and which workers are going to be hard to reach, we always discover electricians or other skilled utility/maintenance workers who move around the workplace. Or they might be people doing photocopying or delivering mail or emptying wastebaskets, too. So that’s not all that different.

But in the next sentence, he says:

Tran Khai Nguyen (the direct leader of Luru Que) was also an electrician, who established the first communist cell in this factory. But he got caught and (was) tortured to death in Hoa Hoa military detention center (94).

So reading this book does not help me answer my question, “What are we supposed to be teaching? What do they need from us?”

Tran talks about a “class moment,” by which she means “the process that participants undergo when discovering class consciousness during protests” (86). She is still asking about the role of cultural identities in this process, distinguishing between cultural identity solidarity (Polyani – type) and class solidarity (Marxist). I too have tried to look closely at that moment, although I haven’t called it a class moment. I would argue that “discovering class consciousness” is actually learning, so I would call it a learning moment, not a class moment. I would say that what you learn is about class. Using Activity Theory (all this is in my book, in great detail), I would say that what she calls a “class moment” is that moment when the differences of class become sufficiently visible to the learner that they cannot avoid recognizing them, breaking away any false consciousness that they may be invested in. (Tran talks about “thick” and “thin” false consciousness on page 62, “thick” being when the worker sincerely adopts the ideology of the employer and believes that they and he are on the same side; “thin” being when the worker pretends to agree with the employer’s ideology.) I would say that a “class moment” happens when, speaking in Activity Theory terms, the two opposing activity systems become visible, and the “subject” – in the sense of actor, first person, “I” – can see what he or she (or they, since it’s collective) are up against. Sometimes, when the two systems become visible, they are all laid out there including the history, the communities from which they sprung, their laws, customs, resources and above all their purposes. And you can figure out what side you’re on. Other times, it’s just a sudden hint that makes everything clear, producing the moment when someone says, “Oh, I see. I get it.” Like when your boyfriend breaks up with you and you finally realize, “Oh, you really don’t love me, do you? Hmmm, guess I’d better get going.” A moment of clarity.

It’s like the first time you walk into someone’s house who is really rich – really, really rich, and you see that they apparently think it’s necessary to have whole rooms with nothing in them, or a six-car garage, or a “home theater” or a extra apartment for a live-in maid. You say, “Wow, I get it.”  This is what you think you actually need, wow.

Another moment when the whole thing was laid out for me, unfortunately, was when I marched in the Labor Day Parade in Iowa in about 1996. The parade was made up of union workers, all strutting their tools, uniforms, vehicles and flags. The electricians unfortunately had dressed up some of their members as rats, complete with pointy face masks with whiskers. Rats represent scabs, and they had the rats running along beside the float and the good union electricians in their uniforms stood on the floats and pretended to bash the rats with baseball bats. The idea is that the rats were stealing union jobs. Well, the parade took a long route from the State Capitol to the State Fairgrounds, through a poor and immigrant neighborhood. The street was lined with people who showed clearly the impact of joblessness or lack of decent healthcare on their faces and bodies. Lots of Asians and Latinos but also poor whites. I don’t remember many African-Americans, come to think of it. The houses were sagging and the yards were full of weeds. Some people had brought chairs, especially wheelchairs, out onto front porches. Here and there was someone holding a sign: “Lost my retirement,” or “No health insurance.” These were definitely people who lacked union jobs and would probably take anything in order to eat. Imagine how the rats looked from their point of view. The marchers in the parade even threw penny candy and kids scrambled in the street to pick it up.

Eventually the parade wound up at the State Fairgrounds and everyone got sodas and hot dogs. The crowd milling around the food tables testified to the preciousness of union-negotiated benefits: kids with braces and glasses and fancy sneakers, wives wearing tennis skirts that showed off long, strong legs, sandals that showcased pedicures. Shiny pickups in the parking lot. No one in a wheelchair. No one even looked old.

Nasty choreography, but a “class moment,” for sure, although this one was not in a protest. I guess that most of them time, you have to wait for a protest to see a class moment. But in reality, they’re choreographed all the time, sometimes by a parade organized by the Big Labor, sometimes by the guardhouse at the entrance to a gated community, sometimes by a red-lined neighborhood or a city limits sign. Go to a theater performance where the tickets cost $40 or $90 each and it’s all middle-aged white folks; that’s a class moment, too.

Now that we have our specific assignments, we know what we are supposed to look like we’re teaching. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading.

Getting Ready 21

Getting Ready 21

I had sent an email to VInh, asking her as clearly as I could about how the assigned textbooks (the ones listed on their week-by-week curriculum) are going to be used.  Would the students each get a copy of the book to read? Or a photocopy? Or a translation? Or should we teach about the book, critically, situating it (who publishes this kind of book, who buys it, who reads it, what’s it for? For whom, by whom, and for what purpose? etc.)? Or are we supposed to “teach the book” itself, replacing students actually reading the book itself by reproducing it for them?

Originally, the only book in English on my class’s reading list was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I wrote up a critique of it (it’s about how to sell things to people) and sent the critique, along with a some other ideas about how to teach leadership, to Vinh. It would have been hard for me to teach Dale Carnegie without critiquing it. For example, there was a whole section in which John D Rockefeller tries to placate a committee of workers following the Ludlow Massacre by talking sweetly to them, and according to Carnegie, he succeeds. It’s supposedly an example of winning people over.

Then we received a revised curriculum with different books on it.  When she first sent this replacement curriculum I got the two books listed for my class, one by Peter Northouse book and one by Robert Palestini,  via the Link system of the Berkeley public library.

I  read both of the books. The Robert Palestini book is not a good book for a college class. It is not a good book at all, in fact. I think it might have been his dissertation, but it would not have been a good dissertation. It has the aura of a quickie job for an online EDD program, something from University of Phoenix. I’ve read a few of these recently. They look like dissertations, with all the bells and whistles, but they have crummy research questions and don’t produce any new knowledge.  Palestini 10 interviews with football coaches, both college football and professional football. He sets up four “models” of leadership and then tells us which model matches the behavior of each coach. But football coaches are not good examples of leaders, especially not for students who are trying to learn how to take responsibility in a workplace and advocate for workers. Coaches have coercive power over their team members, can threaten them with loss of funding for school, and are famous for abusing students, including sexual abuse in at least one case, Joe Paterno from Penn State, who made headlines last year. Paterno is included in Palestini’s book. To me, college football is a kind of violent show business that is irrelevant to getting an education, and the coaches are simply the managers or bosses of those programs. This has nothing to do with leadership.

The other book, Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice, by Peter Northouse (Sage), was better. However, what I got from the library is the 2009 edition, not the 2015 edition. It was a kind of workbook with exercises in each of the ten chapters which help the student evaluate and assess their own leadership qualities. These exercises looked like fun. It would provoke some good discussions in a freshman communications class. However, all the examples or leaders are from the US (except Nelson Mandela). The biographies are too short to really give an idea of why the person is considered a leader. For example, the bio of Mandela tell us that he endured prison with a good spirit, but never explains why he was in prison in the first place. Third, as usual, the author seems to think that “leader” is synonymous with “manager” or “employer.” Northouse says things like, “The leader’s employees…” or “As a leader, you will want your employees …” If you are an HR manager, you may think of what you are doing as leadership, but you are really managing them, not leading. Leading, in a union context, cannot be ultimately coercive. Union members are not employees. This is an entirely different relationship.

So I read both books and returned them to the library, thinking, “There has been a mistake here.” Then we got an email from VInh today, reinforcing that we are to teach the books listed on the revised curriculum and explaining how to do it. Specifically, I am to teach Northouse’s Leadership Theory and Practice (a 2015, not the 2009 edition) and Joe is to teach Gass and Seiten’s Social Influence and Compliance Gaining. We are to “teach the book”, meaning follow the text chapter by chapter. We are to create powerpoints and send them to Vinh a few sessions in advance and she will translate them. Yes, they want us to use these books.

So I now am ordering  the 2015 edition from the publisher, for about $99, including shipping. When it arrives, I will work up a set of powerpoints that follow the book. Joe is trying to order the Gass and Seiten book. There is a mix-up there because the vendor won’t send to a PO box, and here in rural Vermont, people who live in the village all use PO boxes. You only get RFD if you live out in the mountains. His book also costs about $100.

Well, from one point of view, it’s a lot less work than writing my own class, which was what I thought I was supposed to do. I had actually drafted 9 sessions of a class and sent it to Vinh last May. I probably wasn’t clear about what I wanted her to do, and come to think of it, it probably isn’t her job to do what I wanted her to do.

However, what this probably means is that we do an enormous amount of informal interacting of one sort or another, which is fine and may be more important anyway.

As soon as I get a chance I’ll summarize what I’ve read of the Angie Ngoc Tran book (I’m on page 99) which tells me, basically, that the Vietnamese have a vast amount of history and experience doing organizing under very harsh conditions. The closest I can imagine from US history is the CIO organizing during the 1930s, or maybe the IWW. So it’s not as if they don’t already know what goes on.

We are in Vermont now, settled into the house on Factory Street, walking around the town and saying hello to people. We were last here in April, when we came up from NYC on the train after the AAUP conference. Areas around the house that were cleared down to the dirt, and left bare then, are now waist-high in ferns, Queen Anne’s Lace and raspberry stalks.

Getting Ready 20

Getting Ready 20

Sitting in lobby of non-descript hotel in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Landed at Bradley last night on Southwest after leaving Oakland an hour late, followed by sitting on the tar mac in Chicago for at least one extra hour, so went to bed about 3 am. Going up to Vermont on AMTRAK which comes through Windsor Locks at 2:30 his afternoon. We continue to experiment with ways to get from California to Vermont without having a car or a place to park a car near an airport. Adventures in transportation.

So far, all the people we have dealt with have been great. People are great; weather is hot and humid; planes, trains and automobiles are something to get past.

I have been reading two books, one to sharpen my sense of anticipation, the other to clear my mind. The first is Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. The cheerful, outgoing, enthusiastic tone in which he describes his adventures is an inspiration and a model. He is so interested in the world that he will undergo nearly any discomfort – cold nights sleeping on the ground in the Cordillera, high winds that would blow you off a mountain trek, earthquakes, meals made of strange animal parts, seasickness –to find out what’s around the next corner. On this voyage, he’s primarily a geologist, but his eye sweeps not only the coastline and the ridges of mountains (and he can evidently see them flow into the forms they take today, from what they were millions of years ago, so that we see them too, in fast motion like an animated cartoon) but everything under his feet as well. And he tells us what he hears: for example, the sudden absence of birdsong when he walks from the sunlit edge of a forest into the dark old growth.

Darwin’s job is to see what is there and note it. Literally, that’s his job assignment, his ticket aboard the Beagle. But there are lessons to learn about organizing your research, too. The famous story of the beaks of the finches on the Galapagos is a sharp lesson in the importance of getting your categories right – if your categories go wrong, you can be blinded to what’s there. “Once off the path, your wanderings are endless,” said someone, probably Lao Tze. Darwin notices differences among the beaks, but it is only when someone suggests to him in a chance conversation that the differences correspond to the different islands where he collected the birds (yes, he kills them and takes them back to the Beagle to study them; he kills lots of creatures) that he realizes that he has nearly lost an important piece of information, because he has not been tagging them by island; he’s just been putting all the finches together in one bag. This was one of the critical moments in the development of the theory of evolution, although he didn’t come up with that until later. Mixing up the finches would have destroyed the evidence that the shapes of the beaks corresponded to different islands. As it turns out, he’s only half way through sorting the finches, so the category of the island of origin isn’t lost. But it was close.

The other book is Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, which I read every 10 or 15 years to see what it can tell me. Talk about great books! Written in the early 19970s, published in 1974, middle of the Cold War, early in the embargo against Cuba but during the Vietnam war, it’s about life in an anarchist society on a moon, Annares, which circles a planet, Urras, that feels a lot like Europe. It focuses on the life and work of a physicist, Savek, and his wife and children. He is a creative genius, an Einstein (who figures as someone named Aisenstain who lived 400 years ago on the planet Terra) who is working on a general Theory of Simultaneity, a mathematics that bridges time and space. This book gives you the society of Annares, warts and all, famines, work assignments, children’s dormitories, even to letting us see a public debate about whether or not Savek should be allowed to visit Urras, where he might share his invention.

LeGuin, the daughter of Theodore Kroeber the anthropologist and friend of Ishi, the last California Indian, creates both whole social worlds, complete with histories, in her novels and requires her characters to move through them, encountering every privilege and tribulation that they embody. She imagines the world and then visualizes them. Every time I think, “How is she going to get out of this fix?” she is able to find a way.

Speaking of books, we sent a long list of the titles of maybe 60 books to Vinh, saying that these were books that we would try to bring to Vietnam. They are all contemporary labor books, lots of steward training, organizing manuals, bargaining handbooks, some about low wage labor and global trade. All very bottom-up stuff. We asked her to mark which ones they had or which ones she thinks they’d like. The list came back almost overnight, with many books marked priority #1 and #2. Books specifically about US labor law were not what interested her, but she marked nearly all of the other ones. I was very heartened by her choices. It sounds as if she wants basically all the same kind of stuff that we use in our classes here.

We sent the same list to George Saxton who had said he would pass it to the State Department to see what books he might be able to along on his delegation in November. He warned me that he has no storage and no transportation, so that may not work. We will have to spread as many books as we can around our luggage, keeping under the 50 pounds limit.

Now we’re on the train, going through miles after mile of green fields and forests, up to Vermont. The farther we go, the cooler it gets. However, it would still be nice to have an ice cream sandwich. I go to the café car to see what they’ve got for ice cream: nothing. The attendant says that the train loses power so frequently that anything frozen would melt and have to be dumped.

Getting Ready 19

Getting Ready 19

I was sent a video

August, 2012: Miners at the Lonmins platinum mine in Marakana, South Africa are represented by the NUM, National Union of Miners, which has been MIA from the point of view of the miners. Workers want wage increases and ask to negotiate with employers. There’s a minority union, AMCU, that represents workers at other mines. The Lonmins miners strike. The employer won’t negotiate, won’t speak. Strikers retreat to a “mountain,” a rock outcropping on communal land within view of the mine. The police, at a high government level, and the mine owners, collude. That is, the government, using the police, and the mine owners collude. Some government officials, including those who had been activists in the age of Mandela, are shareholders in the mine if not actually board members. The film uses evidence made available through a Commission of Inquiry, including police footage and footage captured by journalists, plus footage of the inquiry and interviews. One of the journalists who is credited with some of the footage is also visible in the police videos, walking among the strikers with all his cameras.

The miners are armed with sticks and short spears and wear blankets, if they have them. They also sing.

The police basically trap them and massacre 34 of them on August 16.

If you want to see footage of dramatic moments of choice, eloquence, and courage, watch this film. We’ve heard of moments like the ones where the striking miners in West Virginia knelt in the face of armed police; this is a film full of moments like that, and more.

Facing the inquiry later, the people responsible – commissioners of police, etc – respond like corpses as if their skin, right down to the bones, has gone cold. They are like well-dressed dead people.

There was Ford Foundation money in the making of this film: JustFilms and WorldView. There’s a facilitators guide put out by the National Union of Metalworkers SA, which I will try to get. Manny Ness, who was on the list of some 60 people who got the email, said that the director’s name is Rehad Desai; he is also an activist in the Democratic Left Front, which supports a socialist transformation of South Africa. He is at

After the massacre, workers continued striking for 4 weeks, got wage increases of 7% to 22%, and started a wave of wildcat strikes throughout the country.

When something is so emotionally moving that I have to scramble to keep it in focus so I can calm down to think about it, I usually find some part of it to replay slowly several times in my mind, to analyze. In this case I’m thinking of the speech made to the striking miners by the AMCU leader, who comes to them where they are sitting (maybe 1000 of them?) on “the mountain,” the rock outcropping, the morning after he has been on the radio in a conversation with a spokesperson for Lonmins and the president of the NUM. In that broadcast, which is included in the movie, it certainly sounds as if all three – the representative of Lonmins, and the presidents of NUM and AMCU – have agreed to go to the strikers and, in return for them agreeing to go back to work, start to hear their grievances and negotiate. The Lonmins representative does not show up. The president of the NUM comes, but does not get out of the big truck – some kind of armored vehicle driven by the police. He speaks through a loudspeaker and then leaves. The president of the AMCU gets out and comes toward the strikers. He speaks. They speak back and forth. They talk. At one point, he falls on his knees before them. The exchange between them creates a shift in the stalemate and makes it seem as if there can be movement toward negotiation. Thinking about this speech makes me want to cry.

Another thing to look at is the way the striking miners walk together. They crouch a little, as if they are dancing. They’re holding their weapons, spears and sticks, so it reminds the Western observer (me) of images of men dancing a dance about hunting. But they walk in a line, several abreast, and the line straggles out for hundreds of yards. They keep the line at one point in the film despite being bombarded with tear gas. Later, they are in a line like this when the police start shooting at them.

Take a deep breath. What if we looked at this film and asked, “What does ‘social dialog’ mean?” That’s a term that is used often in the curriculum we are working with in our Vietnam classes. I think they use “social dialog” to mean negotiation.  Dialog means people talking to each other. What does talking to each other look like? What the AMCU leader does is an example of talking. Yes, surrounded by guns. How does the idea of ‘social dialog’ accommodate the possibility of guns?

Also starting to read Angie Ngoc Tran’s big powerful book.

I’m wrapping up doctors’ appointments (cardio, PT, onco, eyes, pharmacy, etc etc etc because I am 71 years old these days and shit happens), ordering prescriptions, putting stuff into boxes to store so that the tenants, Katy and James, can use our closet while we’re gone for 6 months.

From across the hall I can hear wild cheering from Joe’s study; he’s listening to the Madison rally for Bernie Sanders. Sounds like a lot of really mad, happy people. We’ll see. Bernie has drawn huge crowds, but gets hardly any mention in the newspapers, which are obsessed with Hilary Clinton.

Before dinner, I go down to the gym. It’s the 4th of July and a guy who finished up about the same time I do says, “Happy Fourth of July.”

I say, “What are we celebrating?” I’m thinking of “Bombs Bursting in Air,” and a recent email by Mike Eisenscher at USLAW about the war economy.

“Freedom and independence,” he says. “That’s what I came to the US for.”

He came from Vietnam. He tells me that when the Communists came, they took all the books in his house and burned them on the front lawn. He got here through a program that let people who had been in prison for more than three years to come to the US with their families. He said they had 14 houses in Saigon, stolen by the Communists, and the price of bribing the officials to get the houses back was nearly as much as the houses brought on the market once they were able to sell them.

He now teaches at Berkeley and has an office on 4th Street.

I told him what we were going to do in Ho Chi Minh City at Ton Duc Thang University. “We’re going to teach labor relations.” He seemed to think we might do some good. He said that a big problem in Vietnam now, at work, was sexual harassment.

He noted that the President of Vietnam is in Washington right now, meeting with Obama. “It’s a chess game,” he said. They are trying to surround China. He used a word from Kung Fu to describe why the Chinese are building these islands right in the middle of the sea off shore Vietnam. The gesture he made, of striking someone in the hip and knocking them off balance, said it all.

We exchanged contact information.

Sometimes I sit in the front yard, or in the back yard, and can’t imagine why I would ever want to leave and go anywhere.

Getting Ready 18

Getting Ready 18

Actually rented a car, a little white thing. Drove the 400 or so miles down the Central Valley to LA. Haven’t done this for years, not since we came back to California from Illinois in 2010 and went car-free. We usually go by train, taking the San Joaquin 715 from Emeryville or Richmond, a beautiful ride along the Delta. They have tables, wifi, big windows and a café car that is well-stocked at least on the way down, less so on the way up when they don’t have time between runs. The train tracks end in Bakersfield and you have to get on a bus to go over the Tehachapi, but that’s not really as bad as it sounds. Union Station in downtown LA is big, old and beautiful, as good as a movie set, and on your way to catch the city bus to Jake’s house you can walk through Olivera Street.

But this time, since we had a lot of visits to accomplish, we drove. Turns out in retrospect we could have done everything on public transportation, virtually door to door. The Metro goes into Long Beach, stops 50 yards from where Hollis and Leanna live.

Yes, we saw orchards going dry, a hillside of fruit trees starting to lose their leaves, and fields where rows of trees were pushed down, roots in the air, dead branches tangled. Further down, dead branches cut and stacked. The California Aqueduct, full of water, cris-crossed Highway 5. Hand-painted signs saying “Water = Jobs!” and “No water, means higher food prices!” All of which are true, but not the point. And then there would be fields full of rich green stuff. Someone’s getting water, but not the next guy.

Stayed one night with Mona and Martin in Eagle Rock and then headed south to Long Beach where we planned to, and in fact did, engage in a nearly 24-hour marathon conversation with Hollis Stewart and Leanna Noble. They are our predecessors at Ton Duc Thang. They were actually the first pair of labor educators invited to come there to try to teach. They were able to describe and explain things that others have not been able to explain and correct many mis-impressions that we had.

It is not going to be possible for me to capture the twists and turns of this conversation, which included many references to Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air and other historical markers. Joe and Leanna, and probably Hollis too, go way back, although Hollis is from Arizona and did his early political work in community organizing. However, I can say that by the time we left mid-day on Saturday, I felt as if I understood what their experience in Vietnam has been. My experience might be very similar, or maybe not. One thing that is different they are both union-based and community-organization based labor educators, not academic labor educators. I count as an academic even though I never actually studied labor, or labor history, or labor studies or any of this history-related social science in a formal way. I got my labor education from people around me who were involved in a movement but I applied it in University extension teaching. Yes, there were a few union-based classes that I attended: The AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, for example, and a great week-long AFT Summer Leadership Institute, and a couple of UALE Women’s Schools. But my political education has been essentially crowd-sourced.

A funny story: when I first got involved in the union at Peralta, in Oakland, I realized that I knew practically nothing about what everyone else seemed to know, which included the history of the US, the California legislative process, and anything about labor. So I went out and bought a book – Hobbs, Locke and Mill, actually, a huge hardback volume with a dark blue cover and the title in gold. I never finished reading it. Instead, I worked with a team organizing part-time faculty up and down the state. About the same time I was teaching an English 1-A class at Peralta. It was a summer school class that met every day, full of great people – a Nigerian woman, Vietnam vets (this would have been in the 1980s), single moms on AFDC, Oakland blacks, Asian girls – and one skinny white woman who always wore a shabby raincoat, sat in the back row and let her hair fall over her eyes. After a few days I began to really count on this person because after the discussion bounced around the class for a while, she would always come up with the best, clearest possible way of expressing the issue and offering a next step. But this seemed to make her uncomfortable. A few days she would skip class, then show up, then skip some more. One time when she did show up I chased after her after class and said, “Your comments in class are really good – who are you, where do you come from?” She was trying to walk away from me but said, “I can tell what you’re trying to do, but you really need to read Freire.” At that point, I had never heard of Freire.

After that, she never came back to class. I have always assumed that she was one of the Weather Underground people who had spread out all over the country and were trying to start new identities. Talking to me was the last thing she needed. But this is what I mean by crowd-sourced. People tell me things.

Joe, Leanna, Hollis and I agreed that next spring we would propose giving a workshop on labor in Vietnam at Labor notes and at the UALE annual conference.

On Leanna’s advice, I am going to take a different approach to my class. It’s not going to be the story-based approach. I had been planning to find or create a set of stories illustrating aspects of leadership, and build discussion questions around those. But one of the problems with doing it that way are that the stories that I’ve come up with – Wagner Dodge, the firefighter, who lost 15 out of 17 men in a wildfire; Machiavelli; King Lear, some others – are mostly stories that are critical of leadership. They are good tools for figuring out whether the person who is in charge of your project, or your life or your army, deserves your allegiance. This is not what is going to be useful in this class. In this class, people need to recognize and practice positive leadership behavior.

So Leanna suggested using my book, treating the various case studies not as illustrations of how people learn solidarity and class consciousness, which is what they are in the book, but as stories in which different people play different leadership roles. I tried looking at the power plant chapter that way, and saw that there were plenty of ways in that chapter that different people took different leadership roles. All identifiable actions, with consequences.I even have photos.

Nancy Augustine, who was the shop chair at Osan Brothers in Boyertown when I worked in Philadelphia at what was then UNITE, just happened to call me that very morning – at 8 am, which was early for me, but it was 11 am for her in Philadelphia. Nancy was the young woman who led the action that forced the boss to pay people their vacation money. I dedicated my book to her and to Penny Pixler, of whom more another time. Osan made pants – thousands of pairs of men’s pants. They employed about 125 people. The two brothers who owned and ran the factory were really low-life characters, as many owners and supervisors were in shops that were just barely limping along in a dying industry. Nancy led this action, and then lost her job in a layoff (the factory re-opened making American flags) and wound up working in a non-union grocery store.

I’m going to use the story of her leading that action in my class. People were angry and upset, actually in tears, when they got the news about their vacation pay. She reserved a VFW hall on a river out of town (a good place for a bar), and sent around a call to bring people there on Saturday afternoon. I brought boxes of union T-shirts up from Philly and met her there, along with the BA for that shop, an older guy with a terrible cough. I can go look up his name; I think it was Jerry. He was a good guy who had been a real old-style organizer back in the day. He was excited – he said, “This makes me feel alive again.” Out of 125 workers, at least 50 showed up at the VFW hall.

The main characteristic of them was that they were fearful. Fearful of talking, having an opinion, doing anything – but they were also between a rock and a hard place. Traditionally, the shop – all the garment shops – would close during the first two weeks of July and worker would get paid for the two weeks in advance. People made reservations down at “the shore,” meaning along the Atlantic coast in New Jersey and Maryland, in RV parks and campsites, and paid deposits, and looked forward all year for a time of not going to work. But the brothers, this time, said they couldn’t pay two weeks, only one. That meant people wouldn’t have enough money to go on vacation. They’d have to cancel their reservations and lose their deposits. This was like driving full speed head on into a brick wall. What would the kids do on the hot summer days? The alternative was to express displeasure. But for a fearful individual, expressing displeasure is terrifying. Nancy started the meeting, talked, walked up and down in front of them, told the whole story – how much money the Osan brothers were making, the big house they’d just bought, the effect on everyone’s families if they had to cancel vacations, what the Osan’s might do next time if we let them do this, and how different it would be if everyone stuck together. Sticking together meant wearing a union T-shirt on Monday. One point she made was that two weeks’ vacation pay was in the contract – all they wanted was for Osan to honor the contract. She talked for 20 minutes or more. I didn’t talk – I sat there in the back with my heart in my mouth. Neither did Jerry (I think the old BA’s name was Jerry.) We watched. But when Nancy held up a black T-shirt that said UNITE on it in red, Jerry and I stood up and held up more T-shirts.

“Don’t you want to wear one of these on Monday?” Nancy was saying. Maybe one or two people said yes. Then more. Eventually, everyone took one – “Here’s another one – give it to someone who wasn’t here today and tell them to wear it on Monday.” People took two. As they walked out and went to their cars, they were holding up the T-shirts and trying them on.

On Monday, Nancy called me, ecstatic. Most people had worn their T-shirts. As garment workers, they not only wore them but decorated them – ribbons, cut-offs to reveal navels, sleeves slashed and fringed. Nancy said that the Osan brothers opened the door of their office and looked out at the shop and said, “Oh shit.” And slammed the door.

What happened next was a bit ugly. Vince Osan called a meeting. At the meeting (I was there) he pled poor, warned people that he’d have to close the shop, told them that they should be grateful to have a job. Then Nancy spoke, and reminded people that all we were doing was asking them to honor the contract. Then there was a vote: yellow ballots with YES or NO on them. The way Nancy framed it, the question was, “Should Osan honor the contract?” We counted the ballots right then and there. The YES vote won.

Osan paid the full two-weeks vacation money, but it wasn’t over yet. Lynn, the daughter of John Fox, the President of the Union, was eager to be in charge and wanted to make everything nice. She was also the vice-president which means she was the person slated to step in when John retired. He had written a constitutional amendment to make sure that the vice-president became president if he retired mid-term.  Lynn came up to Boyertown and tried to make it seem as if the vote hadn’t taken place. But it had. Nancy, I and Jerry were all in that meeting and Nancy caught Osan lying a couple of times and actually confronted Lynn, too.

No happy endings to a story about a labor dispute in a dying industry, where everyone is making less money than they need to live decently and the Osan’s themselves were not really getting rich . But the morning of the black T-shirts, when scared people did something brave, and the morning of the votes, when the same people wrote down “Yes” and told the boss he had to honor the contract, were a big deal. It was possible to say, “We won.” Jerry, who died only two weeks later (he was a compulsive smoker and had had raging lung cancer for a long time but avoided doctors) said it was the happiest moment he could remember.

That shop where Nancy worked is not all that different from the shops in Vietnam, and one of the things that Vietnamese workers experience is failure to pay their Tet holiday money that enables them to travel home to their villages.

Getting Ready 17

Getting Ready 17

Went to a meet-up of the Ho Chi Minh-San Francisco Sister City Committee in San Francisco this afternoon. It was held from 5:30 to 8:30 pm in the bar of a boutique hotel, The Rex, at 562 Sutter Street, a couple of blocks up via cable car from Union Square.

The host is a man named George Gaston. I had emailed with George previously about finding a way to take books to Vietnam. It’s very expensive to mail books – it cost $15 to send one paperback – and we have a lot of books to send. We’ll take as many as we can in suitcases, but there’s a 50 pound limit. George will be organizing a delegation sometime in November. He said I should make a list of the books and he’d send it to the State Department and they’d let him know which books were OK and which weren’t.He said they don’t like to approve books that are out of date. Maybe he can take some with the delegation.

Between 8 and 10 people showed up at the meet-up at one time or another. They were all men except me and one young Vietnamese woman who works in tech here in the city. Average age probably in the 60’s. A sense of looking for something — jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities. We sat at a round table and ordered glasses of wine from the bar. One man, who had been in Vietnam in the 1970’s and several times since, spoke Vietnamese and demonstrated this with the two young Vietnamese men. Joe and I had tea. The Japanese consul dropped in and said hello.

The first person I talked with said he didn’t think there were any unions in Vietnam. Other people agreed with him. Another man said that there was no minimum wage in Vietnam. This was a man who runs a company that employs between 75 and 100 people. He also said that there were no strikes. He said, “If someone wants to strike, I tell them not to come to work.”

Another person said that one of the things the TPP was going to do was “standardize” labor laws in different countries of the TPP.

I asked him how he knew, since the text of the TPP has not been made public.

They talked about how beautiful Ho Chi Minh City is, with skyscrapers. None of them knew where the people who built the skyscrapers got trained. One young man was quite interested in the idea of building trades apprenticeship programs. He did say that Intel has built a training facility there.

You could compare this many social situations I’ve been in in the US .

Everybody was basically nice guys.

George passes out membership forms and a beautifully printed small book, Speakpeace: American Voices Respond to Vietnamese Children’s Paintings. The paintings are reproduced in full color; planes,bombs,rivers, bodies, doves, some kids with amputations. On the right side of the page are poems written by American children in response to the paintings. No discussion.

We said good night to everyone, and thank you, and went and had some pasta at Roxanne’s Café up the hill.

Getting Ready 16

Getting Ready 16

Reading about youth employment yesterday was an eye-opener.

I know that when I land, I will be overwhelmed with what I see. I am trying to prepare my expectations so that I will be able to make sense of what I’m looking at quickly. Or at least get started in the right direction.

This morning, when I saw an article on-line from a website forwarded by Bill Creighton, that described a new street in Ho Chi Minh City that has been closed to traffic and now holds cafes, art exhibitions and clubs – the picture showed well-dressed teenagers dancing – I thought, “I know something about these kids.” As well as something about the kids who are not going to clubs and dancing in the street.

I also read two chapters of a Verso book given to Joe by Steve Hiatt last week, Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. The author, Hsiao-Hung Pai, has been traveling in rural China. The news, for me, is the vastness of the waves of migration as very poor people, who farm plots of land too small to survive on, seek any kind of job that will pay them. They migrate not just to big cities. There are apparently factories everywhere. One chapter that I read described a brick kiln in the north, outside of Tianjin, where 150 workers make mud bricks by hand, shaping them, burning them, and setting them out to dry. These workers, men and women, sleep on piles of bricks in brick shacks and are not allowed to leave the worksite except for 3 months in the winter, when they return to their homes. They are prisoners of the kiln. This kiln, and four others like it, is owned by the village chief who is also the richest man in the village. Hsiao-Hun Pai’s book puts the desperate lives of migrant workers in front of you more vividly than even that Canadian film I saw, “The Last Train.”

Vietnam is not China. Vietnam is trying to hang on to socialist ideals – I think. But Vietnam has internal migration, too.

Today’s reading is Better Work Vietnam: Garment Industry 5th Compliance Synthesis Report, produced on 10th October, 2012. It comes from the International Finance Corporation, the ILO and an Australian Agency for International Development. The research method was 137 factories, four on-site person days at each factory, management interviews, union and worker interviews, document reviews, and factory observation.

As usual, I find out things that I should have been clear about a long time ago: There were two important laws, not one, adopted in June 2012, the revised Labor Code and the revised Law on Trade Unions. Apparently, at the time of the writing of this report, there was serious discussion of increasing the minimum wage by 35%. The new Labor Code covers collective bargaining, unfair labor practices and “opens the possibility for establishing grassroots trade unions for groups of enterprises collectively.” (See that ILO article about concessions and enterprise bargaining.)

Overall, the garment industry “provides jobs for nearly 2 million people” and increased in size 38% between 2010 and 2011 (p 3)

The factories covered in this report employ 179,740 workers. On average, each factory employs 1,300 workers. Seventy seven percent of the workers are women. Most of them are young women migrants from rural areas – girls.

Better Work investigates in two main areas, fundamental rights (freedom of association and effective recognition of the right to CB; elimination of forced or compulsory labor; abolition of child labor and discrimination); and national labor laws (working conditions – compensation, contracts and HR, OSH and work hours).

The most common areas of non-compliance in national labor law continue to be in occupational health and safety, overtime hours, paid leave, and failure to hire enough people with disabilities.


129 factories were out of compliance in providing toilets, drinking water, lockers, etc. 99 were out of compliance with labeling chemicals and hazardous substances. OSH management (things like PPE and training) was at 75% – non-compliance. There was 94% non-compliance in overtime. Among the factories that were assessed a second or third time, overtime non-compliance (NC) was worsening.

The Do Quyng Chi article on Employee Participation that I read yesterday said that the cases where there were grassroots unions, with worker-chosen representatives, were the ones that had the greatest capacity to push for compliance.


The Better Work program also found several additional instance of child labor, nine factories in which workers under 18 years old were working more than 7 hours per day or 42 hours per week.

What do they do when they find children in factories? It seems that we’re talking about 12-15 year olds. They try to get a local organization to put the child into a vocational training program. In the meantime, the factory is supposed to pay the child’s wages and for training. So far, no success. One girl acquired new documents saying she was of age. The youth employment paper I read yesterday noted the lack of vocational training programs.

In Core Labor Standards, non-compliance findings relate primarily to differences between Vietnamese national law and international conventions in the area of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

For the Core Standard of CB, non-compliance was 38%. At 27 factories, there was no Labor Conciliation Council (p. 15). All 137 factories have enterprise level unions associated with the VGCL. However, no factories allowed access of the union representatives to workers in the workplace. None paid their 2% (domestic) or 1% (foreign) contribution to the union fund. At 70 out of 137 factories, workers could not meet outside the presence of management. The Better Work report says that this “stems from the historical issue that most union officials at the enterprise level in Vietnam are also part of the management of the enterprise (p 12)” This is the union president/HR officer overlap. Paying into Social Security and Other Benefits had a non-compliance rate of 19%.

However, for the 77 factories which had previously been assessed, there was some improvement in freedom of association and collective bargaining compliance and handling of grievances and disputes. There also appeared to be improvement in payment of minimum wage although there is widespread use of multiple payroll records.

“Factories that have made the most significant changes are those in which management and union have been working with Better Work to improve social dialogue and workplace cooperation.” There seem to be management-union committees and worker involvement in these instances.

The factories investigated are listed by name on page 26. I don’t recognize any of the names. They are not brands; they are manufacturers.

I continue to be looking for the structures, whether existing or just mandated but not existing, where freedom of association is necessary, worker representation is possible and where a group of workers might be expected to self-organize.

Everything I read notes that the capacity of the local (enterprise) unions to negotiated or enforce labor standards is no good. Everything mentions the need to develop strength, trust and structure at the grassroots level (although those are my words). Of course, I am reading what comes my way. But there’s a pretty general consensus, even in conversation, that “freedom of association” is something that is needed and it’s the direction that things need to move in.

Not so simple, I expect. But I have not yet seen how this will play out.

Getting Ready 15

Getting Ready 15

Today’s the longest day in the year. June 21. Starts out chilly and foggy so you want to wear socks and a sweatshirt. By noon the sun is blazing. It’s also Father’s Day.

We went to SF and found the Vietnam consulate, on California half a block above Van Ness, where a super-competent young woman processed our papers so fast we couldn’t tell what she was doing. It cost $180 each for 3-month, multiple entry visas. They’ll come in the mail.

I’ve got most of the house bills on automatic withdrawal now and have tested the online payment procedures for the tenants and they seem to work. How money flows along invisible threads through the air is beyond me. An example of how fragile the whole thing is was when the ticket agent, Carolyn, emailed our tickets to, which is not my email address. But it does happen to be the email address of someone named Holly Worthen, who is not only a shirt-tail relative and descendant of Charles Worthen who left New Hampshire in the mid 1800s and went west, but this Holly Worthen also happened to be working in Oaxaca just when Joe and I were about to visit there, and we met her – and Holly was my childhood nickname! So Holly forwarded our ticket confirmation to us.

Julie Brockman, who works with Michelle Kaminski at Michigan State, had a Fulbright to Hanoi and is coming back with another one to Ton Duc Thang, although probably not until Spring 2016. We exchanged emails and she called me and we talked and she sent me a lot of papers. The eye-openers were the ILO papers. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t read them first, because I wouldn’t have bothered to do a lot of other reading if I had.

One reaction to reading them was to decide that we should bring not only books, but music and literature. Maybe the DVD of Yes Sir! No Sir! for example, and CDs of John Fromer and Anne Feeney. And a copy of a couple of local satirical papers, like the Santa Cruz Comic News and the Pepper Spray Times. Certainly something from Labor Notes. And Labor Beat. Because these are all tools for organizing. Satire, jokes, music, drama.

In my reading pile as of now, where I am trying to understand situations there in which the need for leadership or the opportunity to self-organize might arise, or be suppressed:

  1. The VGCL National Education Campaign Train the Trainer Curriculum, translated by Vinh. 21 Topics in 12 sessions. This looks like a comprehensive extension training program. It includes a session on how to structure and prepare activitives of groups of unions (internal organizing?); democracy at enterprise level; conducting conferences (meetings?) and voting procedures; communications skills, and plenty of others.
  1. Jan Sunoo’s 25 FAQ’s about IR in Vietnam. I went through this and marked all the items that might be a place where someone could step forward and practice some leadership – for example, in item 6, when: 6 months after a new enterprise is set up, the higher-level union (normally the provincial union) visits the enterprise and organizes the first union meeting in which they appoint the members of a union committee. After 2 years, union members organize an election in which they elect new members of the union committee. Legally, both rank and file members as well as management are permitted to nominate officials….


Then I marked the moments when Joe’s internal organizing or community mobilizing class might be relevant. The two sets of moments of potentials for activism coincided almost every time. Which tells me something about our classes – not to worry if they overlap a lot, from different perspectives. I marked mine in yellow and his in pink. They coincided most of the time, only a few exceptions.

My class is about someone preparing to step forward and take some action. Joe’s class is about the relationships that make that work. Lots of overlap. And, it’s all about trust. A network or web of trust.

Then, a bunch of papers from Julie:

  1. Employee participation in Vietnam / Do Quynh Chi ; International Labour Office, Industrial and Employment Relations Department. – Geneva: ILO, 2012

1 v. (DIALOGUE working paper; ISSN: 2226-7433; 2226-7840 (web pdf) ; No.42)

This is a 2012 Working Paper, very relevant to what we’re going to teach.

It’s based on a study by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI). Changes in labor law in the 1990s were intended to allow and enable worker participation, but the unions “could not live up to their mandate.” Because of labor strife (wildcats), some employers on their own set up forms of worker participation. This paper studied these cases. The author asks which of three approaches to employee participation work best. The three approaches are: 1) let the work team leader speak for the workers (work team leader being the leader of a production unit); 2) let the leader of an official union group speak for the workers; and 3) let the workers choose their own representatives. Not surprisingly, #3 was the one that reduced the number of labor disputes. The author, a woman, has six case studies of employee participation.

From page 22:

Among the three models of indirect employee participation mentioned in this study, the last model of workers’ representatives proved to be most effective, especially in the cases of Shang Hyung Cheng and Ching Luh. Interviews with workers from these two companies showed that they were relatively satisfied with the current system of grievance- handling and representation although the wages that these two companies paid were not the highest in the region.


The two bodies that appear to be debating forms of employee participation at the enterprise level, including whether to allow elected worker representatives, are MOLISA (Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs) which is their Department of Labor and seems to have a lot of other responsibilities, and the VGCL. They are debating what will or will not become part of the Labor Code. This paper pre-dated the 2012 new Labor Code.

  1. Another ILO paper, 2009. This one not so closely relevant. More relevant to bargaining in the US.

Haipeter, T.; Lehndorff, S.

Collective bargaining on employment

Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009 DIALOGUE Working Paper No. 3

collective bargaining / collective agreement / employment security / employment / employability / wages / hours of work / driver / case study / Germany 13.06.5

The practice of linking employment and competitiveness in collective agreements through “concession bargaining” opened the door in some countries to tradeoffs which undercut industry standards (intro, page iii). Table 1 compares the kinds of concessions agreed to by German vs US firms. On the issue of equity within the workforce, the German cases distributed burdens equally among core workers, whereas the US showed unequal distribution to the benefit of “senior workers”. Cases from France, UK, Germany, and Ireland (and others) gave examples of cutting hours worked in order to save jobs and enable the unemployed to be hired. To be effective, the practice must be linked to public subsidies, training, and involvement of state. Decentralization and deregulation: the paper says it is often hard to tell which is which, both are to the benefit of the enterprise (as compared to workers). There is a warning about enterprise-based bargaining in this, but I don’t see how we can use this directly.

  1. And then this one, which was the real eye-opener. This really helps me understand WHO we will be looking at when we start teaching.

It’s from 2005/09, Employment Strategy Papers, Employment Policy Unit

1 :emp/pol/ch/Vietnam (10.10.05) (This is another ILO paper from the Hanoi office; they acknowledge financial help from the Korean government)

Youth employment in Viet Nam: Characteristics, determinants and policy responses. By Dang Nguyen Anh, Le Bach Duong, and Nugyen Hai Van. Big study of over 7,000 persons age 14-25 based on Vietnam government surveys.

My comment: Since lack of employment among young people is related to social instability (as in the Arab Spring revolutions); unemployment among the huge youth population in Vietnam (30% of the population is 10-24 years old, 15-24 makes up 23% p 2) is an urgent problem. This paper ends with policy recommendations.

Youth unemployment rate is 14% but accounts for 45% of all unemployment. 67% of youth work in the countryside on small family farms or in the informal sector with attendant safety and health hazards (drugs, trafficking). When they come to the cities, they can’t find jobs. They lack vocational training and preparation for work; they do not have the skills to get jobs in manufacturing in the cities. High economic growth rates have brought higher inequality, polarization and unemployment rate; HIV/AIDS and drug use are spreading rapidly among young people in Vietnam (p 28)

The turn toward a market economy (Doi Moi) in the 1990s had a major impact on youth. Traditional roles give way to consumption of brands, greater inequality,fascination with IT,early entry into workforce for females especially; increased migration from rural areas, tension between traditional values and new lifestyles. But rural youth are unprepared for work in the cities. “The distribution of technically qualified workforce is skewed against the countryside. The agriculture-forestry-fishery sector accounts for nearly 70 percent of the workforce but only 14 percent of total professional skilled workers” (p. 8). Also: “Only 5 percent of young people from ethnic minorities have ever had vocational training, compared to 21 per cent of the Kinh majority counterparts (8). Competition for jobs prefers older, work-experienced adults.

Labor force participation among youth has decreased by 14% (p 9) between 1993 and 2002, but may be because youth from well-off families prefer to go to school (where, however, they are likely to study things that won’t get them jobs later). Unemployment among those in the labor force has increased at the same time. Notes the “relatively higher need to work for survival among rural youth, and the pursuit of education among single urban people” p. 12.

The youth most likely to be working today (as compared to in school) are married young adult rural minorities. But the kind of work they are doing is agriculture/forestry/fishery work (table p 12), low-wage, survival work, no future. The youth most likely to be unemployed today are single, urban Kinh teenagers (13, 14). The inexperience of young job seekers and the inadequate system of education and training continue to harm young people in the changing labor market today (14)

Sounds to me as if in Vietnam you can’t go to school AND work. No part-time 10-hour a week jobs that you can fit around your school schedule. This answers my question (in part) about whether or not our students have ever worked. If they are in school, they are not working. If they worked, they can’t go to school.

Wow, look at this: “The higher the education, the less likely it is that the young people are working.. ..young people with university degrees currently looking for suitable employment suggests that this group of university graduates significantly represent today’s unemployment problem…the supply of academic degree holders has actually exceeded the demand of employers and society…the higher the status, the lower the likelihood that a young person is working or looking for more suitable employment, other things being equal…This suggests that youth from better off families tend to be in higher education and enjoy better living conditions, which do not require them to work…”(pg 20). Jumping ahead to page 27: “An excess of teachers and a shortage of workers.”

“In fact, the family in which a young person lives is the strongest predictor of his or her future in the job market” (25).

Section 8.2, Policies: “Employment policy is a fundamental policy of the Vietnamese State (25). Then lists large-scale programs, but none is about youth employment. There is a new strategy, however (2010) with 5 points, including training, science and tech education, fighting crime and social evils and building up the political stance, revolutionary ethics and socialist patriotism (27)

“…the foreign sector has not been able to create decent and productive jobs for young workers. Many of these workers decide to leave factories and manufacturing areas due to low incomes, lack of social protection, poor working and living conditions…The comparative advantage of Viet Nam such as low labour costs and a hardworking and well-educated workforce has been declining rapidly” (p 28).

This helps me understand why 80,000 people would have hit the streets in the recent big strike against the change in the social security laws, that were going to make people wait until ages 55 (women) or 60 (men) to quit their manufacturing jobs and get their social security, instead of being able to take what they had accumulated in one lump sum and go home and raise rice in the countryside. This strike was successful, by the way.

All the time I’m reading this I’m thinking about the union-based construction trades apprenticeships. No mention of anything like that. I felt like calling up Emanuel Blackwell or Mark Berchman and telling them about this. Is it possible that the whole system of union-based apprenticeships exists, but just got left out? Who does construction in Vietnam, and where do they learn to do it?

The whole role of community colleges or something that fits into that category is missing, too.

This post will only be of interest to a very few people, but I needed to get it up there. It sure opened my eyes a bit.


NOTE written in March, 2016: A TDTU student who was in my cross-cultural leadership class has made a comment on this, so I went back and read it. I laughed at the statement,

Sounds to me as if in Vietnam you can’t go to school AND work. No part-time 10-hour a week jobs that you can fit around your school schedule. This answers my question (in part) about whether or not our students have ever worked. If they are in school, they are not working. If they worked, they can’t go to school.

It turns out that many of the students in our classes do work while going to school. We found this out by doing a questionnaire. Some of them work very many hours per week, 20-30, and make 14-17 thousand dong per hour. We were never able to find out exactly how much time they were able to spend studying, although our best guess was “not much.” Partly because they didn’t have books to study.