Getting Ready (6)

Getting Ready (6)


An article by Angie Ngoc Tran, who teaches at CSU Monterey Bay: Vietnamese Labor-Management Relations: Restructuring and Coping with the Global Economic Crisis. This is from 2009.

Resolution of the Tenth Congress of the VGCL in November 2008 demonstrates a changing attitude within the party state and the unions towards the pragmatic protection of workers through labor union representation at the factory level—away from the conventional political role of the labor unions in socialist countries—and a concerted effort to strengthen themselves so they can hold on to their power. The four main goals of its five-year plan of action (2009-2013) include: 1. increase the membership by 1.5 million people; 2. improve the capacity of workplace labor unions and provide training for union representatives; 3. pilot-test collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in the Textile and Garment Industries, which employ over 2 million workers nationwide in all types of ownership; 4. allow direct intervention of upper-level labor unions in factory conflicts. These efforts try to strengthen the weakest link—workplace labor union representatives— who are paid by management, and therefore cannot be effective in representing workers.

Posted in SPICE (Stanford Program for International Cultural Education) Digest, Fall 2009

We are now in 2015, so we might assume that things have moved forward from here. That is, the efforts to try to strengthen the weakest link –workplace union representatives – who are paid by management, and therefore cannot be effective in representing workers – have moved forward.

This mention of the pilot-tested CBA’s in the Textile and Garment Industries led me to read Katie Quan’s December 2011 project, Collective Bargaining in the Global Garment Industry: Three Way Bargaining. Done for USAID with the VCCI and CLER at Berkeley. This begins with a history of bargaining in the garment industry in the US, which I definitely wish I had read or at least understood fifteen years ago. It would have helped me understand the contracts under which the Philadelphia workers were working. I did not realize that it was the union that caused the contractors – the people who actually owned the factories and hire the workers – to form a contractors association so that they could in turn bargain with the jobbers, who are the people that design the clothes and own the brands. So the contractors became joint employers with the jobbers, then formed a contractor’s association. Then the unions bargain first with the jobbers (for wages, which are actually paid by the contractors, but also for pensions and benefits, which are paid by the jobbers into pension and benefits funds). Then the contractors and the union bargaining, and then the contractors and the jobbers bargain. So the industry gets re-structured through the bargaining process.

She has a simulation where people take the elements of the industry, including the above plus governments, sourcing brokers, NGO’s, etc and asks them to design a web of bargaining that would restructure the industry in their country so that the interests of various local stakeholders would be satisfied.

The only other place I’ve seen this – where the union restructures the industry – is with FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina, which pushed the growers to form an association so that they could be bargained with.

Dean Hoa sent an email repeating that the majority of their students will be in HR, and also mentioning that they are looking for assistance in developing their curriculum, especially along the lines of what is done at Illinois, McGill, and Cornell. I was able to email Joel Cutcher-Gershenfield at Illinois and Lowell Turner at Cornell, who then passed my request along to three other faculty, and all of them sent along some syllabi. One of the things you can see on a syllabus is how the class is actually organized: projects, discussions, presentations, teams, self-evaluations, etc.

I did a first sort of my labor books, some of which I bought at conferences but never read, to bring to Vietnam. We can have 50 pounds in a suitcase. Richard and Leanna say that you carry a “third suitcase” full of books. I expect we’ll spread them around through several suitcases to make up 50 pounds.

Getting Ready (5)

Getting ready (5)

Still asking, what do we have to teach? What do they need us for? What do we know that they need to learn?

When Joe and I were first informed of the opportunity to do this, we asked why – what could anyone learn from us? We describe the US industrial relations system as broken, for innumerable reasons. The answer we were given was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to learn how to fight it.”  Well, on a day to day basis, on the level of local unions and shop floors, we know how to do that. But is that what they want?

I am returning Bill Hayton’s book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale University Press 2010) to the library today. Hayton is a BBC journalist and focuses on what would make news in the Western press, such as dissent and the rising level of inequality since the opening of Vietnam industry to foreign investments. The Gini index has risen from .33 to .36 between 1993 and 2006, which, he says, is about the same as European countries undergoing liberalization. But he says that these figures don’t really capture the levels of poverty in villages and among migrants (p 24). He has chapters on history, ethnic minorities, surveillance, the Party. His argument is that the Communist Party faces a crisis of control:

Through more than 70 years of evolution the Communist Party has developed a strong ethos of national leadership and of collective responsibility. It has maintained discipline among the elite and kept difference within manageable proportions. Its internal democracy has allowed different interests within society to debate and find some consensus. The biggest question facing the country is whether the Party can continue to play that role as society becomes richer and more diverse. If the Party becomes a tool of the business elite, then other groups, particularly workers, may choose to act outside Party structure (228).

The Party structure, at the present time as far as I can tell, does not include internal organizing for collective bargaining at the enterprise level (see below). Instead, workers’ demands are answered and complaints are resolved by these apparently leaderless wildcats strikes.

Joe and I had dinner last night with Richard Fincher who has just come back from 6 months teaching at Ton Duc Thong, the first part supported by a Fulbright. He is an arbitrator and was teaching dispute resolution. He also works at Cornell ILR, and was in the Bay Area for a conference of arbitrators. I asked him if I could use his name in this blog and he said it was all right.

We walked around the UC Berkeley campus a bit. It was graduation weekend and students wearing caps and gowns and leis, and carrying bundles of flowers, were coming and going all over the campus. It was chilly, though, so after an hour or so we went to a Persian restaurant on Allston Way and had dinner, continuing to talk.

I posed my question to Richard directly, “What do we really have to teach them?” I think I’m starting to get an answer. Keep in mind that Joe and I are labor educators. Labor education is applied. All my teachable knowledge is about how to make some wheels turn, push in a certain direction, get a little change happening. This is why I feel comfortable with Activity Theory, which assumes that all parts of a system are at least potentially in motion and the whole system will need to re-balance. The easiest way to point out how labor education is different from something else is to compare it with labor studies. Labor studies not have to be applied. You can do labor studies and learn to appreciate a well-organized strike or deplore the martyrdom of the four anarchists of Haymarket without actually drawing on what you learn in order to apply it tomorrow. Not so labor education. Labor education is supposed to be useful in making immediate improvements in the work lives of working people. Labor education is intended to move things along.

Another way of putting my question: Where could things in Vietnam move? Where do they want to move? What direction can we push in?

Remember, some of our students will be seeking jobs as human resource managers. This is consistent with the fact that Ton Duc Thong University is sponsored – that’s the correct term – by the VGCL. In fact, it often happens that in Vietnamese companies, the human resources manager is also a leader, possibly the president, of the union. My first reaction when I learned that this is the case (this was several months ago) was incredulity. I thought it was a translation problem. Wrong. It’s not a translation problem. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying things, I suspect that the idea is that in a socialist country, where the government is run by the Party, there is no longer any such thing as class conflict. If there is no class conflict, there is no fundamental conflict between labor and management. And in that case, you can have the president of the union be the HR manager.

Kind of like in our country, where the practice of collective bargaining presumes that labor and management meet at the table as equals. This is a useful fiction at times – for example, when a steward is negotiating a grievance with management, and needs to consciously step into a different role. But in the big picture, it is a noxious myth.

The point at which the assumption that there is no problem with having the manager of HR be the same as the union president would start to fracture would be when companies from Taiwan and South Korea (and the US) start building huge factories in Vietnam and running them as pure straight-out capitalist businesses.

Richard said that the direction in which it would be possible to push would be towards allowing freedom of association. Right now, no independent unions are allowed. Movement toward allowing freedom of association – meaning some degree of independent unionism – would let the voice of workers at the workplace  become a factor in the balance of power. (This is not obvious, and I have to think about it. For example, does freedom of association necessarily imply self-organization?) At minimum, it would mean recognizing that HR and the union do not have identical interests and cannot be led by the same person.

I also asked Richard if it was all right for me to quote from the student paper he emailed us earlier in the day. This is a paper by a student from Cornell who was in Vietnam with him, James Lowell Jackson. The paper, dated May 12 of this year (2015) lists contributions by three Vietnamese students, Trọng Nghĩa, Nguyễn Ngọc Mai, and Le Thi May Tam.

The paper chooses two “historic moments” of labor activism in Vietnam, and then moves onto the present to talk about the wildcat strikes. The paragraph right before the conclusion goes like this.

The VGCL has not been idle to these strikes, however. In responding to these strikes, the VGCL and Vietnamese Government has made some efforts in expanding collective bargaining at the enterprise level. The VGCL has worked together with the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to expand the coverage of collective agreements to 60% of unionized businesses[1]. However, despite the increases in the quantity of the agreements, there have been little changes in the actual quality of these agreements as most of these expanded collective agreements simply follow the current labor law. Only approximately 40% of collective bargaining agreements have provisions above the statutory minimums[2]. The VGCL and DOLISA have established strike taskforces in the provincial levels[3]. These taskforces aim to intervene in strikes, encourage progressive employee-employer relations, and monitor factories who are possibly violating labor law[4]. Despite these efforts however, the strike taskforce does not address the true issue at hand that is worker distrust of the union.

The true issue at hand is worker distrust of the union. While I have always (at least for the last 30 years) been aware of the importance of the words “self organization” and “representatives of their own choosing,” in our labor laws, I have tended to forget how easily things might have been different. I think that freedom of association and self-organization and choosing one’s own representatives are inextricably linked. One leads to the other; the first leads to the second.

Here is the language itself, from the NLRA:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection….

If you take this language seriously, then the activities of self-organizing and choosing our representatives become a preoccupation of the union, involving a lot of discussion, meeting, airing issues, education, etc. But these are also the processes that build the power of the union and form its defenses when it comes to meeting the boss. They are the processes that make it possible for the members to trust the union.

How does this translate into a class? In Joe’s case, a class on community mobilization or internal organizing; in my case, a class on leadership?


(The following footnotes are from the  paper by James Jackson. I did not copy the biblography.

[1] Chi and Broek 2013, 792

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fincher 2012

[4] Fincher 2012

Getting ready (4) Comparing Vietnam and China

Getting Ready (4) Vietnam is Not China

If all we know about labor in Asia is that Asia is where many “low-wage” countries produce garments, footwear, technology and just about everything else, that’s not enough. Especially, in order to for me to figure out how and what I can teach, I need to understand a lot more.

Today I will try to distinguish Vietnam from China. As a source, I am using a chapter by Anita Chan from her edited volume, Labour in Vietnam (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2011). In this chapter she compares strikes in Vietnam with strikes in China.

Both Vietnam and China have emerged from a planned socialist economy, are entering the global capitalist economy, and have one party communist rule. Neither country has any autonomous trade unions. China has the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) and Vietnam has the VGCL (Vietnam General Confederation of Labor). Both China and Vietnam have a tri-partite framework for establishing economic policy: the state, the employers’ associations, and the trade union federation.

But these similarities do not mean that the experience of workers in each country is the same. The difference that Chan chooses to explain, which is visible to outsiders, is the number and character of strikes. Strikes are common in Vietnam and unusual in China. In Vietnam, there may be 200-400 strikes every year. In China, there may be a few dozen. (Chan notes that official statistics on strike are available for Vietnam but not for China.)

Understanding this difference is important for understanding the relationship between workers in Vietnam and their union. The generalizations in what follows are based on Chan’s research but certainly oversimplify what she writes.

How do strikes happen?

In China, workers seem to strike whenever anger at working conditions boils over, usually when conditions get suddenly worse. The strikes are not strategically organized. They are short, usually suppressed by police, and often end in violence.

In Vietnam, workers use wildcat strikes strategically. They happen often. These strikes appear to be leaderless.There appears to be a network of strike leaders who manage to be hard to identify. As wildcats, these strikes are not authorized by the union. Instead, they stop production and then the government or the union comes and talks with the boss, and things settle down, often to the benefit of workers.

Are strikes legal?


In Vietnam, the right to strike is recognized by the labor code but the procedure for getting authorization for legal strike is lengthy and complicated and, according to Chan, never followed. Therefore the wildcat strikes are technically all illegal strikes. But they are not violently suppressed.

In China, strikes are not mentioned in labor law. Therefore they are neither legal nor illegal. In fact, Chinese labor law does not recognize collective rights. All rights are treated as individual.

What do workers demand?

In China, workers who are striking usually demand the restoration of some work condition that they had become able to live with, even though it violated work standards. For example, they might demand the right to work overtime, or they might demand the reversal of some new productivity standard that reduced their wages. They strike over increases in deductions for their dormitory accommodations or the quality of food provided. Apparently do they do not strike in order to raise work standards; they do not strike to win something that they did not already have. They do not use strikes as part of bargaining; there is no collective bargaining.

In Vietnam, workers strike not for things they have lost, but for things they need. The minimum labor standards are usually the same as what employers agree to pay, so strikes are for something above the minumums. However, wage theft is extremely common and companies frequently bail out of Vietnam leaving wages and social insurance contributions unpaid.
To whom do the strikers appeal?

In China, where workers are often migrants from rural areas who come to industrial developed areas and live in dormitories, workers who strike are likely to go out of the factory into the street and seek the local government. Chan notes that the local government, which rents land to the factory owners, is not likely to support the workers. Police are often called. Strikes are suppressed by violence.

In Vietnam, strikes are allowed to take place unimpeded. Striking workers may block entrances to a factory, prevent other workers from entering, and wait for the government and the representatives from the union to appear. Then a discussion takes place among the government, the union and the employers. Often, issues are resolved in favor of the workers. Chan notes that workers live in private housing, not dormitories and are less likely to be migrants from long distances.

Elsewhere, I am also reading that workers in Vietnam are often migrants, like in China.

The Vietnamese Labor Code compared to the US National Labor Relations Act

In the US, we are used to working under a labor code that has been in place for over 75 years, with relatively moderate changes. Looking at it from enough distance to be able to compare it with the Vietnamese labor code, our code is very simple. Our Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes things like minimum wage, the 40 hour work week, regular paychecks and breaks, is modestly prescriptive. The National Labor Relations Act basically gives us two things: first, the right to organize a union (and along with that, right to concerted activity free from retaliation) and second, the power to bring the employer to the table and make them recognize the union and bargain in good faith. Both of these are permissions to do something, not prescriptions about how to do them. They are set forth in fine inspirational language, but the message is basically, “Go figure it out and get on with it.” Overall, the spirit has been that it is better to negotiate an agreement between workers’ representatives and the employer than to have it all nailed down as law.

Of course, this assumes that workers and employers come to the table as equals, which has never been true – but we pretend that it’s true.

The 2012 Vietnamese Labor Code is prescriptive beyond anything we are familiar with. Apparently there is an ILO office in Vietnam that consulted on writing it. For example, it contains details about scheduling overtime (Article 106) and annual leaves, including covering travel expenses (Article 111- 113). It includes what looks like a grievance procedure (Article 123) and maternity leave (Article 157). However, so far everything I’ve read says that it is largely unenforced. Thus the wildcat strikes.

Now I’m trying to understand a situation where a great deal is nailed down in law but doesn’t happen on the ground. The effective level of the union appears to be at the top, maybe national level, or at least at the regional level. There also appears to be considerable distrust of the union at the shop floor level. So what is going to be the role of the students in our classes at Ton Duc Thong? And what are we supposed to be teaching them?

Thanks to Anita Chan, author of:


Chan, A. 2011. Strikes in Vietnam and China in Taiwanese-owned Factories: Diverging Industrial Relations Patterns. Pages 211-251 in Chan, A. (Editor), Labour in Vietnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Getting ready (3)

A little background: I taught writing, part-time/adjunct, all over the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. I got my first jobs on the basis of having published a couple of novels, but then decided I loved teaching. However, it was “love the work, hate the job,” as they say. The working conditions of contingent faculty, who make up two thirds of all faculty in higher education, are just awful. Today, of course, there’s a movement to organize adjuncts and they’re part of the Fight for $15 group, along with fast food workers, homecare workers, domestic workers and just about everybody else, come to think of it. But back then many unions were focused on full-time faculty, a big mistake while their institutions filled up with grumpy, pissed-off part-timers.

I was lucky enough, back in the 1980’s, to work at a community college in Oakland that took part-timers seriously. One day a full-timer ate my best class. My department head told me (in a whisper) to go to the union. I did. I walked in on our President and said, “You guys do nothing for us!” He didn’t throw me out. Instead, he invited me to a meeting. I went, I saw people debating, treating each other respectfully, thinking hard about a range of problems facing faculty that was way beyond what I had been able to see from where I was sitting. Also, i have to say, it looked as if all the men with any oomph to them were involved in the union. I was hooked. They encouraged me, let me hold some meetings, write and distribute a newsletter, and eventually hired me. They also sent me to some labor education programs run by the union.

I became part of a state-wide organizing effort that took advantage of a change in the law to improve the working conditions of part-timers. I learned about contracts and about how to deal with a grievance. I learned to read small print. I learned how to confront the same people who hired (and could fire) me and get angry at them on behalf of another worker.

Eventually I got blacklisted but I saw it coming and went back to graduate school. By the time I had a PhD I also had red flags of “union activity” all over my resume, so I soon gave up trying to get jobs as straight faculty anywhere. Instead, on the advice of my husband Joe Berry, who was doing labor education at the University of Iowa at that point, i looked for labor education jobs. I got hired at UNITE, the garment and apparel workers union, in Philadelphia. I had the best title anyone could ever dream of: Director of Education and Political Action. Imagine — putting those two jobs into one job title!

That job was a baptism — I’m not going to say of fire, but it was intense – into the world of Post-NAFTA factory work and the private sector. Public sector unions, as my mentor Irv Rosenstein patiently explained, can always go to the public and say, “Allocate more money for this important service!”  Private sector employers do not have that flexibility, with the result that negotiations are much rougher (at least they were then, back in the 1990’s) than in the public sector. (NOTE: This may have been true 15 years ago, but it is not true now, for many reasons.)

I have written a whole journal of what I learned that year, so I’m not going to repeat it here. Maybe I’ll post some photographs. But just imagine: Shops where they make full-length men’s cashmere coats that cost as much as a car; shops where they make alligator doctor’s bags; shops where they make woven straw Easter hats, shops where they make the dress uniforms for the cadets at West Point. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. And people who made $14 an hour back in the 1980s are making $9 an hour ten years later, as the union concedes, concedes, concedes, to try to keep the jobs from disappearing. Bosses are doddering old couples in their 80s who come by only occasionally; the shops are really run by the workers; the sons and daughters of the old bosses are just holding their breaths, waiting to have the chance to sell the whole thing off. How does a union like that fight? Not on the shop floor, except very carefully (and I saw some fabulous, dextrous negotiation going on, especially by a beautiful smart woman named Doll Wilson, may she rest in peace). Maybe in the legislature, as the threat of the multi-fiber trade agreement loomed, for example, bringing in cheap cashmere (remember when suddenly places like Land’s End were selling all kinds of low-cost cashmere sweaters?).

Enough of that. By the time I’d fought enough battles in that job, I got offered a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois, working out of the Chicago office of the Labor Education Program. There’s enough description of that in my book, “What Did you learn at Work Today? Forbidden Lessons of Labor Education,” by Hardball Press.

Joe and I retired from there in 2010 and came back to California to try to calm down. And now we’re trying to learn as much as we can about Vietnam.

Onward, as usual.

Getting ready (2)

My first post seems to have been posted.

We bought tickets yesterday. Vietnam Airlines, $524 one way economy. It’s a 19 hour flight with 2 hours between planes in Taipei. Leg room? Hmmmm….Two checked bags which will be mostly full of books, because they are trying to build their library there. Mailing books is prohibitively expensive – it cost $34 to send one copy of my book plus some Steward Updates.

I got my shots yesterday, too — Typhoid, tetanus, diptheria and pertussis.Our hepatitis is probably OK from having gone to Peru in 2008.  Met with my GP and made plans about pills, etc because I’m 71 years old and doing fine, but with the help of various pharmaceuticals. More than you wanted to know, but it’s all part of getting ready. Other parts of getting ready including finding a map, noticing where New Zealand is, reading Anta Chan’s Labour in Vietnam, reading the actual labor code (very, very different from our NLRA and our FLSA), reading as many other things as I can (although I absorb slowly) and trying to imagine what they really want from us. Joe will be teaching “Community Mobilization,” which sounds more like internal organizing. I will be teaching “The Art of Leadership,” which is something every labor educator has taught over and over — but what does it mean, if your workers are in a state-owned-enterprise (SOE) and the head of the union is also the HR officer?

Major, profound differences!

In my book I was trying to hammer home the importance of paying attention to the actual social relations of people at work — if you want to find out what they know and how they learned it, you have to understand what are the social relationships of the context in which they are learning. Are they at a job where the basic assumption is one of fairness and democratic participation? That’s one set of social relationships. Are they at a job where every ounce of strength is being squeezed out of them for a little reward as possible? That’s another set of social relationships. What they have learned and what they know, and what they know about how to act together, how to undertake concerted activity – these will differ depending on the context. If you want to step into that context and try to teach something, you have to know what the context is — right?

But in my book I was just talking about the US. Work in the US varies from fair and decent to sweatshops and virtual slavery, but at least the over-arching context is the same. It’s capitalism, constrained or Wild West, depending. You can point to a baseline and say, “This is what’s supposed to happen.”  The chances of you getting to how things are supposed to be depend mainly on what you and your allies are willing to do.

Now I have to learn something entirely different, a set of social relationships that are grounded in something essentially, intentionally different: socialism. Something that I know only as a topic to be talked about and written about and argued about, not lived on a daily basis.


Getting ready

bouga bons

Joe and I will go to Vietnam in August. We’ll be going to Ho Chi Minh City, which was Saigon. We’re teaching for one semester, about five months. at Ton Duc Thang University, which is a university created by the trade unions, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor. Joe will be teaching “Community Mobilization,” which sounds like internal organizing. I will be teaching “The Art of Leadership.”

I am going to try to blog what happens.

To begin with, I have to learn how to blog. I’ve spent a couple of hours looking at WordPress and Blogspot. Wikipedia says that Blogspot has been blocked in Vietnam. I don’t know if WordPress has been blocked. But that’s why I think I’m going with WordPress.

Yesterday we bought our tickets — $524 one way each. Vietnam Airlines, a 19 hour flight with one plane change in Taipei. Leg room? Hmmm… Two checked bags, 50 pounds each, which will be mostly books.

I got my tetanus and TDP shots at Kaiser, talked with my GP, made other appointments. More than you wanted to know, I’m ‘sure, but it’s part of getting ready. Other parts include looking at maps, reading the Vietnam Labor Code, trying to second-guess what the art of leadership looks like there.

I made a huge point in my book about the importance of understanding the actual social relations of work on a particular job if you want to understand how people learn, what they learn, and how to interact with them as a teacher. While I was writing it, I was only thinking about the social relations of work in the US. After having just scratched the surface of reading about the social relations of work in Vietnam, I am overwhelmed by the thought of trying to learn a whole new set of social relations and figuring out how to act like a teacher in the midst of the people for whom they are the reality.

Let me see if I can post this somewhere. Once I post it, I will have to see if I can find it.