Freedom of Association in Vietnam: A Heretical View
Vietnam is a one-party state with a single state-led union federation and significant numbers of wildcat strikes. In January 2021, independent worker representative organisations became legal. The reforms are creating significant excitement among labour watchers and practitioners. This article, however, provides a more sceptical tone. Drawing on Atzeni’s critique of trade union fetishism, I argue that, rather than being a progressive step forward, freedom of association reforms are an attempt to reduce labour militancy. First, Vietnam is implementing reforms while further embedding itself into neo-liberal capital flows and global production networks – the very form of capitalism that undermined trade unionism elsewhere. Second, workers have been using effective forms of self-organised, wildcat militancy for two decades, which has led to significant improvements in terms of wages, conditions and national policy. The current organisational form of wildcat strikes does not easily fit into a worker representative organisation (WRO) structure. Third, because existing forms of resistance have worked, workers have not been demanding independent organisations. Rather, such demands have come from capital. Previous attempts to build harmonious labour relations by reducing militancy through incorporating class antagonisms into non-threatening forms have failed. Consequently, capital has now embraced ideas around freedom of association as an attempt to tame worker resistance.
KEYWORDS: Strikes; unions; freedom of association; Vietnam; WROs
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