It was a Wednesday evening in July and I managed to find a good parking space at the Teamsters hall in Lawrenceville. Inside the union hall all the windows were open; it was very hot and humid that night and there was no AC inside the meeting hall. I guess the climate was appropriate considering that our topic that night was organizing workers in Vietnam.
Amnesty International was the driver of this particular get-together because they have been publicizing the case of three union organizers who have been jailed in Vietnam. Their names are Tran Quoc Hien, Doan Van Dien, and Doan Huy Chuong. Two of these men received 5 year sentences and one received a 9 year sentence. Their crime? —handing out leaflets and advocating a strike at the Adidas MyPhong shoe factory in January 2010.
The speakers at the forum included Kenneth Miller (local IWW rep), Bill Peduto (Pittsburgh City Councilman), and Fred Redmond (USW VP for Human Relations). But the main speaker was Jackie Bong-Wright from the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers. Amnesty International (AIUSA) is funding and organizing her speaking engagements around the U.S., not unlike what SDUSA did for Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity in the 1980’s.
Ms. Bong-Wright presented a detailed view of the plight of Vietnamese workers. Those workers make about $85 per month, about half what Chinese workers make. Workers have few benefits, long hours, and poor working conditions. Hence, companies like Adidas have actually moved factories from other Asian countries to Vietnam to take advantage of the cheap labor. Paradoxically, President Obama is right now advocating a new free trade deal with 7 countries, including Vietnam. A recent piece in the Washington Post included the following:
“This agreement will create a potential platform for economic integration across the Asia-Pacific region, a means to advance U.S. economic interests with the fastest-growing economies in the world,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Congress in late 2009 in announcing that negotiations were about to begin.
Moreover, importing shoes from Vietnam at lower costs would benefit some in the United States, either by reducing prices for consumers or raising profits for manufacturers that have their operations overseas.
That last line was supposed to somehow comfort the workers at New Balance, the last company making athletic shoes in America.
In addition to the shoe workers plight, over a million Vietnamese workers are “exported” as laborers to other countries. These jobs are organized by unscrupulous employment agencies who engage in what the UN describes as Human Trafficking. Forced by rampant unemployment, these workers leave home and seek jobs outside of Vietnam. They send money home to help support their families. And they also pay taxes to the Vietnamese government. However, despite paying $50M a year in taxes, these workers get no benefits or protections from their government. In many cases workers’ passports are confiscated by their employers making them prisoners in a foreign land. This slave labor network may be the world’s biggest untold story and is not limited to Vietnam. Workers from Philippines, India, Indonesia, and many other countries are victimized while their governments look the other way.
Panelists had various opinions on what can be done about this. Fred Redmond of the USW is directly involved in international union organizing. Most recently he has been engaged in labor negotiations in Africa where American companies own and operate mines. And the USW has been a great advocate for Los Mineros in Mexico where the company police and the military operate in coordination against workers. Obviously, he believes that direct organizing of workers has the most impact.
Kenneth Miller of the Wobblies is perhaps Pittsburgh’s best known anti-sweatshop activist. He has focused his attention on the sports apparel industry where sports fans pay big bucks for team logo apparel, but the workers who make these products work in appalling conditions making pennies. He believes that the obligation to address the situation in Vietnam and other countries falls on the consumer. “We live in a union town, yet we don’t pay attention to the workers who make our clothes. This is wrong. We can’t say, ‘our government should stop this’. They won’t. They created and endorse these trade deals. They set up a tax structure that encourages companies to behave this way. They aren’t going to fix it. We have to do it ourselves”.
Bill Peduto is labor’s biggest advocate on Pittsburgh City Council, but he admits that his power is limited. He can only push local legislation that affects the behavior of city government; he believes that his best effort lies in making Pittsburgh an example for others to follow. He advocates a corporate triple bottom line: corporate profit, worker benefit, environmental sustainability. He believes Pittsburgh could be a leader in this movement. On a personal note, Bill talked about his grandfather who came to America from Italy. He got a job at Columbia Steel in Carnegie back in the 20’s. One day he attended a union rally and wasn’t timid about speaking up during the meeting. His participation was noted by some company men and the next day he was fired from his job.
It would be easy for us to look at Vietnam and be horrified by union organizers being jailed and beaten. And it would be easy for us to point out that Vietnam has a Communist government. But even in America, if you are a union organizer you will be punished— maybe not jailed, but you will lose your job and be blacklisted. Yes, it is illegal to fire workers to advocate unions but it happens every day. Surveys of American workers consistently show that upwards of 3/4 of workers would join a union if they could. And yet union membership in the private sector is less than 10% because workers know the consequences of advocating unions. This is a subject that must be addressed.