In their Academy Award-winning “The Last Truck”(2009), Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert accompanied General Motors workers through the closing of the Moraine Assembly Plant near Dayton, Ohio. It was a frightening and heartbreaking account of the workers’ precipitous fall from the stability of middle-class life because of forces utterly beyond their control. In “American Factory,”the filmmakers return to the scene: the same factory retooled and reopened by Fuyao, a Chinese auto glass manufacturer where thousands of workers (GM veterans among them) sign up hoping for another shot at the American dream.
The film offers a stunning degree of intimacy with workers and management through the startup of the factory. Fuyao’s chairman, Cao Dewang, and the workers from China are eager to show that a Chinese factory can prosper in the United States—or perhaps, in their view, to show the United States how a factory should be run. Eager U.S. workers are thrilled at the opportunity: “I was on my knees thanking God that I had something,” one remarks.
The film offers a stunning degree of intimacy with workers and management through the startup of the factory.
We meet several workers. Shawnea, who made $29 an hour at GM, now works for $12. Chastened by the loss of her home and car, she is thankful for the job but unable to provide for her children the way she once could. Jill, a forklift driver who after GM closed was reduced to living in her sister’s basement, is now able to rent a cheap apartment. Wong is a furnace supervisor whose two-year assignment keeps him away from his young family. Rob, an older worker, apprentices with Wong and is deeply appreciative of what he takes to be a personal sacrifice, “what they are doing for us.” Rob speaks emotionally of Wong as “my brother, my Chinese brother.”
Setting up a precision production line is demanding: Hundreds of workers must learn complex skills on dangerous machinery that is still being calibrated. Friendships form and cultures clash. Managers complain of “fat fingers” and the workers’ dislike of high temperatures (no mention is made of OSHA workplace regulations).
Friendships form and cultures clash. Managers complain of “fat fingers” and the workers’ dislike of high temperatures.
Chinese expectations are revealed in an astonishing sequence of a U.S. delegation’s visit to Fuyao’s plant in Fujian. There, highly skilled workers labor in 12-hour shifts with only two days off a month. An intimidated American observer mutters “nonstop” to his peers as they marvel at the workers’ intensity. Chinese workers speak wistfully of children they visit twice a year. A year-end festival unites management and workers with a mixture of patriotism and community, beginning with cheers at the chairman’s entrance and ending with the marriage of six young factory couples.
As the American factory struggles, Cao replaces the local executives, interpreting their failure as hostility to the Chinese. The newly installed president lectures the Chinese management team on how to “take advantage of American characteristics to make them work for Fuyao.” But managers chafe at Americans’ refusal to work overtime and weekends (whether they would be paid for that work is unclear). Workers grow increasingly frustrated with orders that are not explained and the dangerous workplace.
U.A.W. pickets and rallies provide the first glimmer of collective meaning for the American workers.
The conflict of a union drive fuels the plot. A forceful speech by Senator Sherrod Brown at the ribbon-cutting ceremony elicits a shockingly unedited response from the company’s American vice president. Chairman Cao is unequivocal: “If a union comes in, I’m shutting down.” The United Automobile Workers begins a formal organizing process for the plant, and Fuyao pays $1 million to a “union avoidance consultant” with whom each worker is required to attend multiple sessions.
U.A.W. pickets and rallies provide the first glimmer of collective meaning for the American workers. “Solidarity Forever” provides a pointed contrast to the Fuyao anthem “Noble Sentiments are Transparent.” Workers are told of their birthright to organize, “paid for with the sweat and blood... of people who have gone before.” The vote is contentious. Union supporters are fired.
Here we catch a fleeting glimpse of otherwise silent workers: people unwilling to risk what they have by voting for a union…or speaking to filmmakers. In contrast to the GM employees desiring a return to normal, these accept much diminished wages and a risky work environment. “I got a man giving me a good job…and allowing me to come to work every day,” says one. Allowing.
These marginal voices may reveal more of the volatile politics of contemporary workers. Speeches by politicians from the right and the left celebrating private investment and promising to stand with them in the fight for unionization speak past the constrained choices they face.
“American Factory” is the first film distributed by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions. It fits well with their desire to put “better stories out there” that can lead to “better answers.” Narrative has always been President Obama’s preferred mode of political change, and “American Factory” tells an important story of one economically successful factory. But it is not quite a human success story. Wages remain low and the factory dangerous (a worker has since died in a workplace accident). Changing the lives of workers requires more than good storytelling. It demands difficult and finely tuned changes to our global economic system. As a film, “American Factory” is a profound success. We await a politics of equal competence.