Union Puzzle in Vietnam

International Labor Organizing

Vietnamese UnionHanoi There was no question that the Organizers’ Forum delegation debated more ardently than the proposition of the independence and effectiveness of the Vietnamese General Federation of Labor.  At the end of our visit we were clear that their role in Vietnamese society was critical, their voice within government was not trivial, their sincerity and advocacy for Vietnamese workers was sincere, and their independence was constrained.

We had started our trip with a small dust-up with the vice-president of the HCM City labor federation over the existence of wildcat strikes in China where he maintained stern denial and then open interest in other areas.  We then met with the vice-president of the entire VGFL along with the head of their international department in Hanoi at their central headquarters later in the week, where we got an entirely different impression.

It was clear in that conversation that there were strong and arguments going on the run-up to the coming policy congress about essential issues to unions and their members particularly on issues we believed were central around what we saw as “living wages.”  There was dispute covered in the papers around not simply the growth of the Vietnamese economy which has continued to roar above 6% even during the worldwide recession but also about the impact of inflation hovering now above 9% in 2010.    The minimum wage in Vietnam is 1,340,000 dong which is about $65.00 per month for a standard 48-hour workweek.  The very important Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry had argued to us that essentially it was a problem, but “get used to it” and we would have to agree to disagree.  The VGFL position was adamant and unyielding that something had to give on this issue, and that the wage set had to be a wage that would allow workers to adequately live not simply survive.

Other issues resonated with us from our conversations with the VGFL.  Their priorities and problems in dealing with foreign multi-nationals were issues we had in common.  They were particularly clear about the challenges in dealing with cleaning and security companies which was another verse from the SEIU songbook.  They claimed to have 1000 organizers and a goal to grow by 1.5 million members in the next few years from their current membership of about 6 to 7 million.  They  had achieved virtually 100% membership in state-owned industries and operations, but had almost no density in the informal sector but wanted to grow to 70% density in the rest of the formal, private sector.

Outside observers like Chuck Searcy, who we respected as an outside observer without a horse in the race, had the impression that the VGFL was militant and strident.  He reported that he read regularly about strikes and threatened strikes where the government had to intervene and settlement efforts were necessary to maintain labor peace.

On the other hand in our final meeting with PACCOM, the government liaison to NGO’s in Vietnam and our host in most ways, the head of the American desk almost offhandedly shared with us that the VGFL was funded directly by the government, and when I asked if that wasn’t the case as well for the other “associations” that were part of the Fatherland Front along with labor like the women’s union, veterans, and others, he indicated that certainly, they were all funded by the government.

We discussed with the representatives of the VGLF their relationships with the North American labor movement.  They knew Barbara Shailor, the long time assistant to AFL-CIO presidents for international affairs, very well and mentioned that Rudy Porter, the area chief – and long time friend of the Organizers’ Forum – had been there recently with a visiting delegation.  They emphasized that there were frequent exchanges along these lines as well as joint exchanges in unions in California.  They seemed confident that deeper, mutually beneficial relationships would develop.  They were wise and temperate in their remarks.

This whole problem of a state managed “market economy” presents a different kind of alignment between government, business, and labor which challenges the normal frameworks that we are used to leaning on as we analyze unions, therefore creating quite the puzzle for us.  At the same time where the Party and the government are so powerful, who would not want a strong voice for unions and labor in policy for workers?  Unions throughout the USA, Scandinavia, and Europe also get money from the government, so is this a matter of degree or a game changer?

We ended up with no one answer.  I think we have no choice but to fully engage such a labor movement, but there are a lot of apples and oranges out there and it would be a mistake to be confused that all unions are one thing or another.  Given the weakness of our own unions and labor movement and our ability to deliver for workers with the fickle friends in our own parties, I’m clear that we have to be careful throwing rocks from our glass windows at the very least.