Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Vincent J. MillerOctober 04, 2019
Workers from China are eager to show that a Chinese factory can prosper in the United States in ‘American Factory’ (photo: Netflix).Workers from China are eager to show that a Chinese factory can prosper in the United States in ‘American Factory’ (photo: Netflix).

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.

More: TV / Economics
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ellen B
4 years 7 months ago

People shouldn't be so desperate for a job, any job that they work in a factory in dangerous conditions. That's why OSHA exists. That's why unions exist. No one benefits when factories in the US become the equivalent of those found in third world countries.

Kent B
4 years 7 months ago

I liked the film much more than I thought I would, with it giving the viewpoint of each side, both very much apart. I can understand the former union workers wanting the same pay and benefits they had before, but that was just what caused the original plant to close. And the Chinese view is about as close to 18th century capitalism as you can find. Profits at (almost) any cost. Throughout, I kept hoping some type of compromise would be reached, better wages and benefits without blowing it the incentive of having the plant here. I thought it was telling that the one person on the film who was most charitable to them, the older man training under the much younger Chinese, was eventually fired for being too slow. I thought I was going to watch this and kill a little time but it drew me in. I really had me thinking at the end.

Nora Bolcon
4 years 7 months ago

It is not union wages that caused our manufacturing to decrease in the U.S. It was combination of American, often Republican, Greed, and the new Globalization of markets, and modern technology and robotics that did this. In fact, as we see with this movie, without unions there is no middle class or human life style anyone would want to raise a family in.

I saw a "Frontline" special on PBS, on this company, and the downfall of Dayton, Ohio, about a year ago. In Dayton many people work 3 jobs and still have to spend their free time in charity run food lines in order to feed their families. They used to have union jobs and protections and benefits.

Chinese workers in China will tell you they love their company's owners even while they are being stabbed by them with forks in front of you because they could be torturing their children too.

When I saw this Frontline Special, I was nauseated by it. I couldn't believe any city in our country could have fallen like Dayton and I had no idea it had even happened. They have four lane roads in downtown Dayton and no cars traveling on them - it is like a ghost city in many parts and some parts of the city have had no grocery store, for miles, for over a decade. These poor people have no place to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. It happened so fast, especially, with our country giving tax breaks in early 2000's to companies who started plants overseas. Many companies took advantage of that tax break and opened up businesses over seas and paid practically slave wages to workers in India and South America and other poor places.

None of this had to happen, and most Americans probably would have supported emergency funding to communities in the U.S. to re-start other forms of businesses, if they realized how bad off places like Dayton, Detroit, various other parts of the mid-west and places like West Virginia, etc. had become. I think most of America really did not know how bad and how fast things had gotten. I can tell you I would have supported FEMA funding to help out these communities. Not all forces of major destruction are born by nature - some are made by man but the destruction is just as debilitating.

Ironically, since so many U.S. companies moving plants to places like India and Mexico, now these countries are starting to unionize and create stronger middle class structures in their countries. So that is the one good thing coming out of this.

I have a lot more respect for companies like Honda and Toyota because they opened plants in the U.S. and paid union wages and were never out of the black financially which proves unions make companies successful, and countries healthier and happier and stronger economically, and it is greed and a lack of concern for ones' brothers and sister's that destroys the same.

America was the success story it was and is on account of unionization. Without unions there is no middle class in any country. Ironically, without a middle class most countries become small and weak economies which results in their having far lesser voice in the world. It is the middle class, not the rich, that make countries important in the world.

My niece was a principle at a charter school and she said to me one day, "Our teachers will come in and stay after school if I need them to do so even without notice and this helps me produce more activities for the students since I don't have to plan things so much and this makes our school better than a public school. " Then she went on "Also, our teachers do this even though they are paid $5,000 less a year less then the public school teachers who will demand notice or overtime to do extra work after hours, so they still get paid well, but they do more under the charter school way." I reminded her that probably the only reason the charter school teachers got reasonably decent pay is because these schools had to compete with the unionized public teachers salaries and benefits (and even so the charters demanded more for less pay or as little as they could get away with no doubt). This is one way that unions help the country overall, as they create a standard that must be competed against which causes private industry to pay better and give better benefits too. The weekend and holidays off are a product of unions who bargained for these issues and got them and private employees started demanding the same thing and threatened to unionize if they did not received them.

We can be so foolish! Americans, of late, seem to take pride in forgetting why we are a great country more than in remembering what truly made us great. It was never greedy employers like Trump! It was people like Henry John Heinz who opened factories and treated their employees right and with respect and gave them benefits even when they did not have to while making quality products that still made the owner one of the richest men in America.

Nancy Wooder
4 years 7 months ago

My life was destroyed when my husband sent me packing, after 13 years we have been together. I was lost and helpless after trying so many ways to my husband back to me. One day at work, I was distracted, not knowing that my boss called me, so he sat and asked me what it was all about, I told him and he smiled and said it was no problem. I never understood what he meant by it was no problem getting back my husband, he said he used a spell to get back his wife when she left him for another man, and now they are together till date and initially I was shocked hearing something from my boss. He gave me an email address of the LORD NOBEL which helped him get his wife back, I never believed that this would work, but I had no choice coming into contact with the sayings that I get done, and he asked for my information and that my husband was able to propose to throw him the spell and I sent him the details, but after two days, my mother called me that my husband was pleading that he wants me back, I never believed, because it was just a dream and I had to rush off to my mother's place and to my greatest surprise, was kneeling my husband beg me for forgiveness that he wants me and the child back home, when I gave LORD NOBEL a conversation regarding sudden change of my husband and he made clear to me that my husband will love me until the end of the world, that he will never leave for another woman. Now me and my husband is back together and started doing funny things he has not done before, he makes me happy and do what it is supposed to do as a man without nagging. Please if you need help of any kind need, please contact LORD NOBEL for help. His email is lordnoblespellcaster@hotmail.com or lordnoblespellcaster@gmail.com

The latest from america

A Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinMay 22, 2024
Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in ‘Cabaret’ at the Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre (photo: Marc Brenner)
The complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust is the central subject of two shows now running in New York City.
Rob Weinert-KendtMay 22, 2024
At center: Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson sits beside Democratic President Joe Biden during the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)
Your enemies are children of God—and that includes the presidential candidate you can’t stand and his supporters.
“Brothers and sisters, humility is everything. It is what saves us from the Evil One,” Pope Francis said at today’s general audience, concluding his cycle of catechesis on virtue.
Pope FrancisMay 22, 2024