By Paul Krehbiel
Over 40 young Vietnamese-Americans and six US labor activists met at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center Oct. 25 to discuss relationships between workers in the US and Vietnam, under the auspices of the Vietnam Solidarity Network, in alliance with the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and the So. Cal. Viet Gathering (SCVG). Natalie Newton, a Vietnamese-American with SEIU-721, and a leader of Los Angeles APALA and SCVG, chaired.
Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center and v.p. of the CA Federation of Teachers, explained that Vietnam opened part of its economy in the mid-80’s to foreign companies and private Vietnamese firms. This helped raise people’s living standard, but also brought problems like hard working conditions at many foreign firms. Since workers in all countries are suffering, the solution is to build international labor solidarity to help each other, said Wong, co-author of Organizing on Separate Shores, about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American union organizers.
Newton gave an overview of Vietnam, its government, and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a “free trade” agreement led by the US that Vietnam has joined. She explained that Vietnam has grown from a poor country to a major exporter of rice and other food, electronics, and other products with the help of western capital and know-how. But she warned the TPP will also bring negative impacts to Vietnam’s economy and workers.
Trans Pacific Partnership dangers
Newton explained the TTP will cover 40% of the global economy. 600 corporations are involved in TPP, including Citigroup, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Halliburton, and Newscorp (Fox), while governments and the public are barred. She said the AFL-CIO has opposed TPP because it fails to include International Labor Organization standards and can over-ride laws in member countries. TPP seeks cheap labor and weak environmental laws to maximize corporate profit. Vietnam is aware of these dangers, but has joined because it needs foreign capital and expertise. Vietnam pledges to defend its workers and society from any threats.
Leanna Noble, retired Int’l Representative at United Electrical Workers (UE) in L.A., now with the Garment Workers Center, and Hollis Stewart, former board member of SEIU Local 790 (now United Healthcare Workers) in the Bay area, gave reports on their 6-month teaching gig at Ton Duc Thang Univ. in Ho Chi Minh City. They taught collective bargaining and organizing.
Stewart said Vietnam has industrialized very quickly and has a vibrant mixed economy with a strong socialist sector, and a strong private sector. But, he said, some local industries may be threatened by TPP. He said Vietnam’s unions are active in social issues, including ecology, which is “big in Vietnam because its coastline is threatened by rising seas.”
Noble said labor law and unions are stronger in Vietnam than the US. Vietnamese workers are in unions at rates two to four times higher than here. There are many strikes in Vietnam, most at foreign capitalist companies. The government intervenes to help workers, Noble said.
Vin Hoang, a Vietnamese grad student at Ton Duc Thang University, joined via Skype. She helps organize students, conducts conflict resolution, and facilitates international solidarity. She said the Vietnamese want to increase information sharing with other countries and labor movements. Conferees signed a petition demanding the US gov’t and companies (Dow and Monsanto) that made and used Agent Orange in the Vietnam War pay reparations to Vietnamese, US veterans, and children in both countries who are suffering as a result.
I visited Vietnam in 2011 with a US delegation to study how Vietnam is building socialism. Our book, “Vietnam: From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism,” is available at Lulu’s Changemaker Publications. We learned Vietnam has developed a well thought-out plan to build up its economy and human social system, which together are meeting more and more of the needs of all its people.
Paul Krehbiel is a labor activist and Change-Links staffer.