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

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

Getting Ready (9) — June 5, 2015

Getting Ready (9)

Getting Ready (9)

We went to Iowa, Des Moines, visiting Joe’s brother Jan and his wife Janice. Everything was green with little breezes tickling the leaves of the giant burr oaks. People ask, “How are things in California?” They’ve read about the drought.

We went to Joe’s reunion at Grennell. When we told people about going to Vietnam in August the responses rang from “You’ll love it,” to “Wow.” His class at Grennell had a group of anti-war leftists, some of whom got tossed out or left college early; now they are welcomed back as notables. He was one of these, treasurer of the underground newspaper, The Pterodactyl, and when he left Grennell after 2 years he became an organizer (regional traveler) for SDS and was deep into the civil rights and anti-war movement. About a dozen of this group came back to the reunion, some of whom hadn’t seen each other for thirty or forty years. Many intense conversations took place, while eating excellent food and sitting in a sunlit, high-roofed dining hall.

Joe’s cousin Neal said “Good luck in Vietnam.”

Katie Quan copied us on this article by Angie Tran:

I’ve just read Mike Yates’ article in Monthly Review in which he talks about war as a factory, the product of which is dead bodies, which get sold to the government to draw down more money for the military and their buddies. He tells the story of the Vietnam war as the story of the production of dead bodies, both Vietnamese and US, and the soldiers of factory workers driven by productivity goals. Reminds me of Brian King’s novel, So Long, Vietnam:

One night I watched broadcast TV with Janice. There was a documentary film done by a Canadian called The Last Train Home. Extended scenes of a mother, father and teenage daughter in China trying to get onto the train to go home to their village for the holidays. Horrifying.

In the meantime, we are trying to contribute to the design of the labor program at Ton Duc Thang, at the request of Dean Hoa. This is a very immediate time-sensitive problem that is closely related to my immediate question, which is “What are we going to teach?” I’ve contacted Lowell Turner at Cornell ILR, Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld at Illinois SLER, Mark Anner at Penn State Global Labor University, and they have all sent forward syllabi. But individual syllabi don’t answer the question, “What do these students need in order to learn how to do what is required of them?” Except for Lowell Turner’s classes, these are all MA programs, not BA/BS programs.

Dean Hoa also asked for information about kinds of math, probability and statistics knowledge that students should have. I have sent out an email to the UALE Listserve asking for help on this and have so far received some promises, but only one actual example of a class session, from Toby Higbie at UCLA – an exercise about visualizing big data that looks very good and different.

A BA is made of 120 units or credits. A three-credit (means pretty much the same as credit) is supposed to be 3 hours per week in class for 15 weeks, or 45 hours, with 1-2 hours outside class for every hour in class (or 90 hours per semester). An undergraduate major is generally 30 units and a minor is 15-20. Apparently, students at Ton Duc Thang can major in labor or industrial relations (I’m not exactly sure what their name for it translates as, since these are different in the US). That means they can have general education classes in other subjects, which can be recommended or required for the major (such as statistics).

When we got back from Iowa we stopped at the Berkeley Public Library, on the way home from the airport, and picked up a bunch of books I had ordered. One of them is Industrial Reform in Socialist Countries, edited by Ian Jeffries at the Department of Economics University of Swansea, published in 1992 by Edward Elgar Press. This just goes boom-boom-boom through a whole set of socialist countries – Albania, Hungary, China, Mongolia, Poland, Vietnam, thirteen in all – and describes the trajectory in each toward increasing openness to capitalism between about 1960 and 1992, step by step. This is full of good information for me. I never really understood what the steps would look like. You hear about what happened with the “shock treatment” approach, but what is the alternative to it?

Here are some ways in which a centralized planned economy can be step-by-step transformed into a market economy.

In the centralized planned economy, input of resources and output of commodities are balanced and determined in advance, at the top level. What is to be produced is fixed in advance. Prices are fixed in advance. Multiple indicators, in addition to just quantity, are established as targets. Meeting the target is rewarded, falling short is punished, but selling excess product is prohibited. One step away from this is to allow an enterprise to sell overproduction on the market, perhaps at market prices, and keep some percent of the revenue. Another step away is to allow the enterprise to come up with different products. Another would be for the enterprise to set the prices for its products. Allowing an enterprise to lay off workers would be another step away from the Soviet-style planned economy.

In the private sector, small agriculture, handicrafts and personal services would be allowed but the enterprise could only employ family members. A step away would be to allow 5 or 10 actual employees. Something like this was happening with I was in Cuba in 1999, when they began allowing artisans to sell from booths in the marketplace.

In the centralized economy, enterprises were funded by the state. One step away from this would be funding from banks.

In a centralized economy, the state would own all means of production. One step away from this would be to return some enterprises to “original owners” (this is what Jeffries says, and I assume that since he’s writing in 1990 he’s talking about factories that were taken over sometime during the 1960s or 1970s, and whose owners or even their heirs are still around). Another way to divest the means of production is to sell shares of it to the workers, individually or collectively. Another way is to auction these off (in Czechoslovakia – 1990) with only citizen/residents allowed to bid on the first round. How you’d manage the auction is something to think about. Another way is to sell it to foreign investors.

In a centralized economy, there would be only one union. A step away from this would be to allow independent unions. Albania, I see, allowed independent trade unions in 1991, and then there was a general strike later that spring.

Jeffries says that at the time of writing (1991), “Vietnam’s leaders draw a clear distinction between political and economic liberalization. Multi-party democracy has been ruled out and political reform has followed the line of separating party and state, ending abuses such as special privileges and corruption, and forging closer links with the people. As in China, stability is considered a prerequisite for successful economic reform and recently there has been a tightening of political control…” (page 41). This was nearly 25 years ago.

Getting ready (3) — May 14, 2015

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.