By Joe Buckley | @joejbbuckley

July 28, 1929 is an important date in Vietnamese history – although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

This date was the day that Vietnam’s labour union, then known as the Red Federation of Trade Unions, was founded. Today, the organisation is called the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), and is Vietnam’s only legal trade union. On Monday this week, it turned 85.

In Vietnam, however, the only clue to this was the billboards which sprung up around the country over the past couple of weeks, containing cartoon pictures of grinning, satisfied blue-collar labourers, accompanied by a number of captions with words to the effect of, “warmly celebrate the 85th anniversary of the founding of Vietnam’s trade union”.

In truth, the air of warm celebration was distinctly lacking. Few people had an awareness of the importance of this date. “I don’t know. Is it a special day?” said one man exercising at Ho Chi Minh City’s trade union-owned swimming pool. A social science student responded with laughter when she was informed. Even in two major newspapers run by the union, Lao Động (Labour) and Người Lao Động (Labourer), the organisation’s anniversary didn’t make the headlines.

There’s something very strange about this lack of awareness, as the VGCL has played a very important role in Vietnam’s history. Its founding was made possible by Vietnam’s early 20th century industrialisation, led by the French colonial government. Industrialisation increased the number of urban workers to just over 20,000 by the end of the 1920’s. This demographic change made it possible for workers to organise into unions.

The Indochinese Communist Party, the precursor to the Vietnamese Communist Party, today’s ruling party, was founded at around the same time. The Party swiftly brought the union under its control, and workers from the union played an important role during the Indochina Wars – while the Communist Party’s main leaders were generally French-educated intellectuals, they relied on the support of peasants and industrial workers to frustrate the smooth running of European colonialism.

There’s also another important aspect to this history, which today’s government likes to keep quiet. But once the Party had brought the union under its control, both played a key role in oppressing, arresting, and sometimes murdering, other rival anti-colonial, anti-capitalist activists and unionists.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that if you’re not especially interested in labour, and labour history, you don’t know much about the history of the VGCL. What is a shame, though, is that not many people have much awareness of what the union does on a day-to-day level.

The organisation certainly has some major and critical faults. Firstly, it’s state-run – independent unions are banned in Vietnam. This raises the very valid question of how anybody can expect the VGCL to truly represent workers when, in its very constitution, one of its main aims is to implement party policy. Secondly, the union does little to protect workers in the informal economy. That is, workers who don’t work for a specific employer, but rely, for their livelihoods, on doing work such as collecting empty bottles to resell, or selling coffee on the street. There are a lot of these workers in Vietnam, and the union hasn’t found a way (or possibly the motivation) to provide them with much protection. Thirdly, union reps at workplaces that are often members of the company’s management, so can act against the interests of workers in favour of the interests of business.

Given all these problems, then, is it any wonder that people aren’t interested in the union? Of course, a legal, independent union would almost undoubtedly be better, but, despite hundreds of wildcat strikes a year, there’s little political demand or pressure for such an organisation at the moment.

Despite it all, however, the VGCL isn’t impotent. Its newspapers can, at times, affect state policy in favour of workers, such as when they successfully campaigned for a rise in the minimum wage in 2005. The VGCL has also been involved in the revision of the labour law over the past couple of years; the May 2013 changes made real changes to favour workers, especially by making it harder for employers to arbitrarily sack them. Very recently, the union helped to implement a law which attempts to begin to ameliorate employment conditions for domestic workers.

A criticism often levied against the VGCL is that it is in a state of inertia. Perhaps the organisation is too much in the hands of the government to ever be capable of becoming a truly effective representative of labour. But it’s too easy to simply dismiss state-run unions as rubbish. They can, and have, done some things – albeit very limited – which benefit workers. July 28 should be a day to consciously reflect on these issues.