On January 11, 1968, around 1,000 workers in Saigon walked off the job, protesting the unfair treatment they faced from South Vietnamese government and demonstrating the lack of commitment to democratic unionism from that government, even as the AFL-CIO pushed them and the U.S. government to make it a priority.
In the aftermath of the partition of Vietnam in 1954 and the cancelled elections by the United States in 1956, the nation was divided into the two, with a ton of tension in the South between the government in Saigon and the countryside that largely wanted reunification with North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, although opposition to Saigon was actually quite complicated and multifaceted. The South Vietnamese government was a mess from the beginning. Ngo Dinh Diem had the backing of the U.S., in no small part because his Catholicism made American foreign policy leaders such as the Dulles brothers and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield feel as if he were one of them. The AFL-CIO was increasingly more concerned with fighting communism overseas instead of organizing workers at home and was fully involved in the U.S. actions in Vietnam, hoping to develop a non-communist labor movement. The biggest problem with these activities and others across the developing world, outside of the interventionism itself, is that the AFL-CIO, like the rest of the U.S. establishment, didn’t know enough about these countries to do anything except in the most ham-handed way that simply reflected preferences of the federation leadership. Meanwhile, all the talk about promoting respectable unionism overseas by no means guaranteed that the governments involved would accept those unions, very much including South Vietnam.
The Congress of Vietnamese Trade Unions was the main South Vietnamese federation. Vietnamese workers were paid very low wages and most of them lived in abject poverty. The CVT could be quite militant, engaging in many strikes. At the same time, it was pretty strongly anti-communist and it wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the state. But beginning in mid-1967, conditions between the unions and the government began to decline. Not surprisingly, the U.S. was involved. A large French electrical company still owned some big power plants in South Vietnam. That year, it agreed to turn those over to South Vietnam, with USAID assistance of $32 million. The idea was to upgrade South Vietnamese power capacity. But the government responded with major layoffs of union workers. The Water and Electricity Workers Union wanted a good severance package for its unemployed members that included several months pay, as well as a 12 percent pay raise for workers still employed. The government completely rejected all of this. The CVT was divided between its relatively moderate leadership and Vo Van Tai, the leader of the younger, more militant faction, who wanted direct action to support these ideas.
The South Vietnamese government started redbaiting the CVT, assuming the Viet Cong was behind it all. Now, of course there were VC and other leftist elements in these unions, but that’s because they were everywhere in South Vietnam and it doesn’t mean they were calling the shots. Prime Minister Ky promised a hearing about if if the CVT held off until after the upcoming elections. It agreed, but a major power outage shortly before the election led to both sides blaming the other and suspicions rose. In December, after the elections, the electrical workers again demanded a cost of living increase, as well as a Tet bonus, and the severance packages for laid off workers. When the electric company refused, the workers decided to strike. For them, it wasn’t only about the money. It was about the fact that South Vietnam was not a democracy and they hoped workplace militancy would help push it in that direction. Strikes began popping up around the country. Airline workers in South Vietnam for Pan-Am and Air America went on strike, as did those at the nation’s largest brewery. On December 30, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a hard-right fascist who combined a hatred of democracy with a love of corruption and who was soon to be famous for executing a man in the street with cameras rolling, decreed that the police would no longer refrain from interfering in strikes and that it would prevent all gatherings of workers, banners, or other displays of worker solidarity. A crackdown was in the making.
The electrical workers refused to compromise and on January 11, 1968, the police cracked down. That morning, 1,000 power plant workers walked off the job. Loan and his thugs marched into the CVT Labor Council building and arrested six of the nation’s major labor leaders. There were some in government, including Nguyen Cao Ky, who seemed to want a compromise, but they could not control Loan, who was engaging in his own power struggle against the government’s leaders. On January 13, the government ordered everyone back to work. The workers refused to comply. Loan and his troops ripped down strike banners and arrested anyone they considered resisting them. Radio Hanoi picked up on all this and began broadcasting support for the strikers. The moderate CVT leaders worked out a compromise, convinced Loan to release the labor leaders in prison and ended the strike in return for a 12 percent raise.
At the behest of George Meany, who was beside himself with seeing all this happen, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, express the importance of both U.S. and South Vietnamese unions to the war. After all, the whole idea of non-communist unionism as an appeal to the workers of the world was just a facade if the nations the U.S. supported didn’t support workers’ rights. But Nguyen Van Thieu basically told Bunker that it was all the VC’s fault for infiltrating those unions and that the militants had to be crushed. He promised to establish a committee on the issue, which was good enough for the U.S. government, but utterly meaningless in reality.
Five days after that meeting, the Tet Offensive began. Leading CVT officers were targets for assassination because they were seen as collaborators with the government and the homes of over 1,000 trade unionists were destroyed. The CVT tried to organize a unit to help fight the VC, but the government refused. And in the aftermath, the government targeted the CVT as suspicious and full of VC supporters. Loan rearrested some of the trade leaders recently freed and arrested others, including the co-founder of the CVT, Tran Huu Quyen. Stories about these arrests appeared in the New York Times and other leading newspapers and became a political problem for the government. The AFL-CIO again intervened and the leaders were eventually released, but physically emaciated, demonstrating how awful prisoners were treated by the South Vietnamese. The relationship between the American unions and the South Vietnamese government was never the same and the optimism that had existed early in 1967 about building independent, anti-communist, and democratic unions had completely collapsed in the aftermath of the repression of the electrical workers’ strike and the Tet Offensive.
After the war, Loan was able to live out the rest of his life peacefully in Virginia, dying there in 1998.
This post is based on Edmund F. Wehrle’s Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO & the Vietnam War, which is a very interesting look at a complicated period for American unions, not to mention for the Vietnamese. For more on the South Vietnamese labor movement, at least from a propagandistic U.S. perspective, you can read this pamphlet released by the U.S. embassy from 1970.
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