By Helena Worthen
I am about to return to Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, where my husband Joe Berry and I will be teaching in a Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions at Ton Duc Thang University, a university sponsored by the national labor union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). We will be teaching classes in leadership, collective bargaining, contract enforcement and globalization. This sounds a lot like what we taught in the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois. However, the context is different in Viet Nam.
In the U.S. there is a system of institutions, agencies, courts, and unions that work together, for better or worse, to regulate and moderate the fundamental conflicts between labor and management under capitalism. The foundations of this system have been in place since the 1930s. In Viet Nam, the system is still evolving. There are courts of law; a lengthy, prescriptive Labor Code; People’s Committees; provincial offices of something comparable to our Department of Labor, but there is only one union, the VGCL, which represents the whole working class. There is very little of what we would call collective bargaining, which settles a whole range of problems for a definite period, and very few actual collective bargaining agreements. Instead, there is the process of “dispute resolution” that takes up problems on a case by case basis. There are no “independent” unions.
Furthermore, Viet Nam is not fully “under capitalism.” It is a Socialist country with a Communist government, although since the 1980s there has been a move (called “doi moi”) toward opening the economy first to foreign investment and then to other forms of capital accumulation, entrepreneurial activity, and investment. An example of “open” is that Viet Nam was interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If it had gone through, Viet Nam would have become a more significant trading partner with the U.S. As a condition of joining the TPP, Viet Nam would have had to sign the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association (allowing independent unions), the right to organize, and collective bargaining. The people who negotiated the TPP saw these as necessary because the new economic relationships of TPP would require a much tougher, strategically flexible labor union response than was exercised under the one-union socialist system. Indirectly, this would have been good for American workers. When workers overseas can bargain higher wages, workers in the US have less competition because the labor costs overseas go up, making manufacturers think twice about shipping jobs out of the US. Even without TPP, many in Viet Nam today think that stronger unions that include real shop floor worker representation are necessary.
Internal and external pressures are pushing labor in Viet Nam to give conflict the respect that it is due and build grassroots local unions that can advocate effectively to protect workers from the race-to-the-bottom that is part of global trade. The weight of history and the accomplishments of socialism, which brought Viet Nam up from destruction after the American War, press against reform, but the reality is that the kind of union envisioned under socialism, in which workers and employers were theoretically all cooperating for the good of society, has no rational basis under capitalism. The hundreds of wildcat strikes that take place every year are evidence of this.
Billy Henderson’s constitutions and by-laws project
Joe and I are being given the opportunity to teach labor relations at a point in the history of another country when their institutions are still being developed. When I ask myself whether what we are doing has any value, I remember something I learned back in the 1980s when, as an adjunct teaching in a California community college, I got swept up in a period of activism in the California Federation of Teachers (CFT/AFT) and was handed a small job at my local union, organizing other adjuncts. It is a story about doing something that may not pay off until far in the future. It also reveals something about me – namely, my age; I’m in my mid-seventies. At a time when many of my friends are dead, others are suffering illnesses that will kill them, Joe and I both still intact and have lucked into what appears to be the start a whole new professional life.
In the late 1980s, the recently retired past president of my union (CFT/AFT Local 1603, Peralta) was a sweet fellow named Billy Henderson, who was unusually patient and willing to teach me things. Adjunct organizing was a threat to some of the other old-time leaders of the union, but I got help from Billy setting up meetings, creating and distributing a newsletter for adjuncts, speaking at events and other activities that are a normal part of organizing. His other project seemed like an exercise in boredom: he was studying the constitutions and by-laws of different locals and drawing up comparisons. I was puzzled by anyone’s willingness to work on something as dull and procedural as constitutions and by-laws. What motivated him to do that?
An unexpected gift
The explanation was that he was dying. A few months into my job, I got a phone call from the current president saying that Billy needed someone to drive him home from the hospital. Hospital? I was not even aware that he was ill. It was about 8 pm on a weeknight; I told my teenage kids I would be back soon, got in my car and went to pick him up.
He was just getting dressed when I walked into his room. I gave him a hand, during which he told me he had AIDS. This was early enough in the AIDS crisis that people treated it as a death sentence. The conversation in the car going back became quite personal and intense. When we got to his house he invited me in for a cup of tea. While in the back of my mind I worried if the kids had turned off their lights and gone to bed, I felt that this was a conversation I could not afford to skip.
He said, when we sat down in his redwood paneled living room with a view of the Bay, “I am going to tell you something maybe you can use. It is this: You can make anyone do anything using positive reinforcement.”
Anyone do anything? I doubted it. My experience as the rep for my fellow adjuncts did not fit with that. Positive reinforcement when dealing with an obtuse, narcissistic administrator whose idea of an adjunct instructor was a unit of flexible labor? Who could lay off a woman in her 50s who had been teaching for twenty years at one of our colleges – twenty years without a “permanent’ assignment – and explain it saying, “We need fresh blood”? A human resources manager who refused to negotiate access to healthcare for adjuncts even when it would have cost the District nothing – at a time when one of our leading activists (someone else – that was a period when people were dying all the time) had just died on the floor of his apartment of untreated hepatitis?
Did he really mean that situations like these could be managed with positive reinforcement?
Building the foundation and the framework
Over the years, his claim stuck in my mind. Maybe that was his purpose: to make me keep thinking about him. The puzzle was like glue and it had the by-product of making me think about his other project. Most of the time, constitutions and by-laws are shadow structures. Out in the sunlight, day to day, one can organize a sit-in, a pressure campaign, or run a reform slate for the executive board, but back in the office someone should be going over the small print in the dusty pamphlet that says who can join, who can speak at meetings or raise concerns from the floor, who can run for office, or how often elections should be held. These constitute the structure of the organization into which people can invest energy, trusting that they are not being taken on a fool’s errand.
The good thing about the structure is that when it is right it is hard – hard in the sense of tough. If the structure works – if people are free to organize and take action, if judges are fair, if enforcement is strong – then the structure can be used to push back against the hungriest exploiters.
Billy was combing the small print on behalf of all the California local unions that were part of the CFT. He chose to do this at a time when he already knew he was dying. He was taking care of the big stuff in a way that he would never live to see implemented.
Acts of Adulthood
I am now older than Billy was when he died. Since that time, I have read about Eric Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and understood, in fact, experienced, the way with age one shifts one’s attention from immediate challenges to the structures that lie behind them. Erikson calls this maturity, adulthood, and wisdom. Designing Social Security back in the 1930s or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example – those are acts of adulthood. Yes, passing them required the hot energies of many younger people, but getting the language right took desk work, research, and extensive discussion, institutional memory, and experience.
So now, in my seventies, although I do a certain share of the activities typical of people like me, writing letters and signing petitions to express opposition to our appalling governing clique, most of my thinking and writing energy is spent figuring out how to stimulate college students in Viet Nam to imagine a system of industrial relations that would harness the capacity of capitalism to create wealth in such a way that saves Viet Nam from the crisis of inequality that we face here in the US..
Sometimes I wonder whether what we are doing in Viet Nam can make any difference. Do our students really understand the urgency of needing strong unions? Do they recognize that employers who come to Viet Nam because of the low wages are not joking around and that organizing to improve wages and working conditions is not a simple matter of justice, but a fight? Do they understand that fighting requires organizing, and organizing requires planning and structure? There is such a contrast between the safety and modern design of the Ton Duc Thang campus and the monster factories in the Export Processing Zones; do they really understand that what they are learning in comfort is to be applied in situations where workers faint from exhaustion in the heat? That learning the full range and calendar of practices that go into building a strong fighting union is not something you do overnight? You may be able to call a wildcat strike and put thousands of workers in the street, as a way of dealing with a crisis, but that only produces quick fix to a specific problem. Building a fighting union that can raise labor standards over the long term takes years and deep organizing.
Standing in front of a class of young students in Viet Nam, students who are going to become union staffers or HR managers, I say a silent thank you to Billy Henderson, for demonstrating by dedicating his last months to a boring project, the value of what does not appear to be exciting.
Photo credit: Matt Wong