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[whitespace] Toxic Avengers Theater
Photograph by Larry Brazil

The Ploy's the Thing: Actors with the Toxic Avengers Theater rehearse for a show that they hope will explain to Vietnamese workers the role of labor in the U.S.

Power Plays

When unions attempt to organize Silicon Valley's growing Vietnamese workforce, they find custom, language and history stand in the way

By Traci Hukill

IN A LOW-CEILINGED BUILDING crouched beneath the southern flight path of the San Jose International Airport, a small group of young Vietnamese actors are agitating for change in the way they know best. Having traded in placards for scripts and swapped bullhorns for the vocal projection techniques of the theater, they have embraced an artful form of protest; belying the seriousness of the script's content, their lines pour out in strings of notes that fall on the American ear like the chatter and warble of birds.

Periodically drowned out by the deafening yawn of approaching planes, a bizarre scene is unfolding on the makeshift stage. An electronics assembler named Ngoc, played by actress and playwright Phoenix Ho, mimes the repetitive motions of soldering a printed wire board while a sensitive talking microscope and a belligerent soldering gun wearing a pointed glowing hat debate the young worker's safety. A lecherous chemical fume pesters the girl while she works, making her sneeze and cough.

"The Sad Broken Pieces of Age," performed in English, is a surreal, cartoonish segment embedded in the larger story of Phuong, which is told in Vietnamese. Phuong is a pregnant supermarket cashier who has just been fired for taking too many bathroom breaks. As Phuong's friend consoles her, he relates the story of "The Sad Broken Pieces of Age," finishing by telling her about the importance of understanding her rights as an employee.

Unions ensure fair treatment from employers, he says, and he reminds her that freedom is the fruit of courage and solidarity. In its entirety, Asian Worker Stories lasts about 30 minutes.

Presently the soldering gun in "The Sad Broken Pieces of Age" is delivering a blistering speech that reduces the microscope to tears. Actress Ngoc Mai sniffles demurely and dabs at her eyes. Director Victoria Rue interrupts.

"Mai--how would you cry if this were a cartoon?"

Mai sobs louder.

"A cartoon--" urges Rue.

Mai emits a comic wail of despair, and everybody laughs. Laughter is common at rehearsals of the Toxic Avengers Theater, but to the actors of the troupe San Khau Viet ("Entertainment Theater"), all of whom were born in Vietnam and many of whom have worked in the electronics industry, this is real work. When they perform this play on Oct. 3 at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose as part of a conference on Asian workers, they will be doing so in an atmosphere charged with tension.

At issue is the United Food and Commercial Workers Union's attempt to organize Lion Stores, a local chain employing some 200 employees--most of them Vietnamese, Latino or Chinese--in three stores in Milpitas, Fremont and south San Jose, with a new store opening soon in Saratoga. Last month UFCW Local 428 filed charges against Lion on 14 counts of unfair labor practices at the Milpitas store, including the firing of a pro-union employee and the transfer of three other union-supporting employees to other branches. When the National Labor Relations Board moved to investigate, says Local 428 director Ron Lind, none of the employees of Lion would testify. Lind believes they were intimidated by management.

"It's a pretty ugly campaign," he says.

Toxic Avengers Theater hopes to turn it into a successful one.

Political Stagecraft

TOXIC AVENGERS THEATER, a program operating under the aegis of the nonprofit Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, is all about activism through theater. Last November its players performed a series of 15-minute dramas on Vietnamese radio about the hazards of chemicals in the electronics and nail salon industries. In July the Toxic Avengers visited local Latino churches and presented skits about chemical hazards in the workplace.

But this is the first time Toxic Avengers Theater has joined forces with a union, says program director Victoria Rue.

If at first the two organizations don't seem like an obvious match, their commonality quickly becomes apparent once Rue starts talking about the project.

"The mission of SCCOSH and Toxic Avengers is to wake up the community, workers and the people in general to the fact that they have the legal right to a healthy and safe work environment," she says. "And part of a union's message to nonunion workers is 'Your employer has a legal responsibility to provide a healthy and safe work environment for you.' " Rue believes the many recent immigrants in the Avengers' intended audiences don't know that.

The retail, light manufacturing and garment industries form the staples of immigrant Asian employment in America. In a sense this campaign to unionize supermarket workers is a base-building exercise on behalf of all Vietnamese workers, because in Silicon Valley a problem exists that is even greater than the collective concerns of supermarket employees: an estimated 45,000 of the valley's 120,000 Vietnamese people work in the industry assembling printed wire boards--a process that involves the use of solvents and heated lead-tin solder to bond electronic components onto circuit boards. It is precise, eye-straining work that--as in the play--requires the use of a microscope and subjects workers to irritating fumes.

Unionization has traditionally been difficult in the electronics industry because of its decentralized structure and reliance on subcontractors and temporary workers who lack contract security and grievance procedures.

But it's not impossible for supermarket workers. And, says Victoria Rue, "any piece helps."

Cultural Union

IN GENERAL, ASIAN WORKERS have a reputation for being a difficult group to organize. The reasons are legion. One is that the unions have simply lacked the personnel for the job--people who can speak and write Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino and other Asian languages. Five years ago there were no Vietnamese-speaking organizers anywhere in Silicon Valley in spite of the fact that in nine years the county's Vietnamese population has shot up from 70,000 to an estimated 120,000 at present. Even now there are only two Vietnamese organizers in the valley.

Khanh Tran is one of them. Trained as a French teacher, she fled Vietnam in 1988 and was stranded in a refugee camp in Indonesia for three and a half years before finally reuniting with her husband and daughter stateside. Soon after arriving in San Jose, she signed up with the Campaign for Justice, a multi-union push to organize within the electronics industry, and was promptly brought on board by UFCW to help organize rapidly proliferating Asian markets.

As she explains it, Vietnamese workers, like most groups of immigrants, don't want to rock the boat. And in the case of the Vietnamese, she says, "People come here and they think they have no choice. They think unions here are like unions in Vietnam. In Vietnam, for so long communism controlled the people. Even me, I was a teacher, we had a union. But the union [in Vietnam] is not your own voice. It's a system for government to control everything."

On the other hand, she says, "Now when they understand the law, they stand up for themselves. Now it's not hard. We're able to organize my people because I have the support of the Vietnamese community here."

But Vietnamese usually aren't the only population working in a given grocery store. There are many Latinos and Chinese workers in retail, too, and the result can be Babelian confusion when it comes to trying to organize them. Says Ron Lind, "Owners of stores like Ranch 99 [a statewide chain of Asian supermarkets] and Lion are using tactics employers have used for a hundred years: keeping people divided with language barriers."

According to Lind, the majority of the workers at Lion Food Center in Milpitas signed up to unionize, a step that would have raised the checkout clerk's wage of $7.50 an hour to $16.88 and provided benefits like a pension and sick leave currently lacking at Lion. Lion refused to voluntarily recognize the union, so UFCW filed with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret election--whereupon employee Jose Luis Avalos was fired and three other Latino employees were transferred to other branches. Management posted a notice in Spanish warning employees that they would be fired if they were caught discussing union activity on the job. Metro received a copy of the posted notice.

Lion's management failed to return numerous phone calls from Metro.

In early August, the UFCW filed its flurry of charges against Lion. On Aug. 14, some 50 to 75 UFCW supporters from around the Bay Area held a demonstration outside the Milpitas store.

According to Lind, Lion took none of this lying down.

"They hired their family and friends," Lind says. "The owners convinced some of the key employees they would bargain with them separately if [the employees] would not file charges. So nobody would give statements to the NLRB about the charges."

And owner David Tran retained Littler Mendelsohn Fastiff Tichy & Mathiason--"the biggest union-busting law firm around," Lind says.

Khanh Tran and Lind maintain that the Chinese relatives employed by owner David Tran (contrary to what his surname suggests, he is Chinese) were key to UFCW's stallout. Not only did those employees have the bond of family preventing them from supporting the union effort, they also had powerful cultural directives to support their boss.

Linda Quach, a Cantonese-speaking intern at UFCW, sheds some light on Chinese cultural barriers against union organizing.

"[In Chinese culture] employers have the same kind of authority as teachers and parents," she says, "and if that's the case you can't get workers to challenge them. And I think, partly, confrontation and conflict are not highly valued. I talked to one worker who said, 'We're here in a new country. We don't want to start problems.' "

Cultural attitudes like that make organizing Asian supermarkets tough, but Lind and Tran are optimistic about their prospects with the Lion stores, and they're adjusting their strategy to target all the stores next time, not just one. "We haven't given up on them," Lind says. "We're just regrouping."

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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