American Factory, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert in 2019, begins with scenes of hope. In 2008, General Motors shut its factory in Moraine, Ohio, just south of Dayton. Nearly 2,500 auto-workers lost their jobs. Counting workers in ancillary local industries, the jobless toll rose to 10,000. When Fuyao, a Chinese auto glass maker, announced in 2014 that it would take over the old GM plant and employ 800, the reaction was relief. “When I started at Fuyao,” recalls Bobby, an African American furnace loader out of work for a year and half, “I was thankful. I was blessed. I was on my knees just thanking God that I had something.” Fuyao brought hope, albeit less the hope of desire realized than of suffering partly curtailed.
American Factory is an extraordinary film. It is impossible to imagine an American company permitting filmmakers the unfettered access to its plant, workers, and managers that directors Bognar and Reichert obtained from Fuyao. In 2008, the duo released The Last Truck, a mournful chronicle of the final days of the GM plant told from the perspective of its soon-to-be laid-off workers. When Fuyao arrived in Ohio, Bognar and Reichert agreed to cover the story, but demanded thorough access and total editorial control. Surprisingly, Fuyao agreed.
Bobby cries when he reenters the plant—each painted pillar, he explains, triggers a memory of his former working life. The massive concrete maze confuses visitors, he says, “but I don’t get lost.” The plant is a home to him—a place he knows, a place where he has agency, a place where he can feel at ease. Humans make homes wherever they regularly spend time; in our society, those of us lucky enough to have jobs spend most of our time at work. The homes we make there double as sites of exploitation.
Bobby is home, but home has changed. Exploitation has intensified. The consequences of international competition have come home to Dayton. Shawnea, a glass inspector, explains that while she made nearly $30 an hour at GM, at Fuyao she makes $12.84—a nearly 60 percent cut in pay. When the GM plant closed, she lost her job, her car, and the ability to buy shoes for her children. Now, she is one of the lucky ones. This luck is relative. On breaks, she smokes outside, barely able to conceal her bitterness.
Fuyao is non-union. At a presentation for hungry job-seekers, one man asks, “Is this a union shop?” “We are not” and “it is our desire not to be,” replies the Fuyao representative. In China, Fuyao’s workers belong to a union affiliated with the Communist Party of China. Its chairman is the head of the local party committee and the brother-in-law of Fuyao founder Cao Dewang, known to all as “Chairman Cao.” The Fuyao Workers Union is what would be called in the United States a company union. “Our workers union and the company are closely related to each other,” the union head explains. “They are like two gears rotating together. We need our workers to fight for Fuyao’s success. We are all in the same boat. Keeping the boat safe means everyone is safe. If the boat sinks, everyone loses their jobs. It’s quite simple.”
It is simple, too, in Dayton. At the plant’s opening ceremony, the record scratches when Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown gently endorses the United Auto Workers from the podium. Fuyao managers are livid. “You all know our stand on this,” Chairman Cao reminds his executives. “We don’t want to see the union developing here. If we have a union, it will impact our efficiency, thus hurting our company. It will create losses for us. If a union comes in, I’m shutting down.”
At Fuyao Glass America, Chinese standards are the norm. “Our customers are counting on us,” a manager admonishes the gathered workers. “General Motors. Chrysler. Toyota. Honda. Whether it’s coming from China or whether it’s coming from Dayton, it’s the same thing. We have to be able to provide them glass at the same level of efficiency, the same level of cost and quality.” There is no choice. “You have the Chinese, who want numbers, on this side. You have Quality, who want customer satisfaction, on this side,” explains a woman worker. “And”—she brings her hands slowly together and, suddenly, claps them—“we’re in the middle.”
Chinese standards are now worldwide expectations. They mean low wages, dangerous conditions, and the authoritarian work culture the labor movement in the US fought for decades to erode. Bognar and Reichert follow John Crane, Fuyao’s American safety director, who divines that furnace workers are exposed to temperatures exceeding 400 degrees. Frowning, the Chinese managers complain to the chairman that “our American colleagues are very afraid of heat.” Bobby is dismayed. “The conditions are not…favorable,” he utters, haltingly. “Doing the same thing over and over again—that wears on you. Body, mind, your soul. Sometimes you think, ‘why am I doing this?’”
“Everyone will say, at every level, that we really, really want to be safe,” John says. “But safe doesn’t pay the bills.” Fears around basic bodily safety prompt the first union drive at Fuyao Glass America. Bobby never had a workplace injury in his life, until, he says, he began working at Fuyao. He thumbs through photos of his shredded finger, stitched from knuckle to tip. The camera pans out to reveal his leg in an orthopedic boot as he hobbles down the hall on crutches. Still, the bills are not paid—Fuyao Glass America is $40 million in the red. “American workers are not efficient, and output is low,” warns the chairman. “I can’t manage them,” he concedes. “When we try to manage them, they threaten to get help from the union.”
The chairman fires his American executives and shuttles the surviving managers to China to see how it is done. The corporate culture at first seems strange, even wacky. Workers live in dorms, far from their families. Morning meetings in the factory have the feel of military drills. At Fuyao’s year-end party, hokey corporate anthems give way to glass-themed musical theater, culminating in a mass wedding under the benevolent hand of the company. These quirks may evoke laughter from American audiences, but the rituals differ little from those nurtured by big non-union American firms during this country’s industrial heyday, as any glance through a corporate history of, say, IBM will reveal. At any rate, cultural differences are quickly bridged when one American manager sobs with joy at the marriage ceremony. “We’re one…big planet,” he stammers. “A world…somewhat divided. But we’re one,” he concludes, with serene assurance. They are one, too, in their determination to wring more out of Dayton workers. Another manager, observing a Chinese factory, fantasizes about torturing his workforce into submission. “The best tool we can use is duct tape. Put it over their mouths,” he jokes. “You can do that there?” queries his puzzled Chinese counterpart.
The film culminates with a failed unionization campaign, defeated with a combination of carrot and stick, but mostly stick. Managers brazenly fire union supporters and brag about it on camera. Mandatory anti-union presentations cow the majority into submission. In the end, more than 65 percent of workers vote against the union. The “no” vote is driven by younger workers who, like their counterparts in China, have little memory of anything but privation. “These young people got scared,” says Shawnea. “Them LRI people scared the shit out of ‘em, that’s all.”1 Wong, a veteran Chinese furnace worker whom the film follows through his budding friendships with Americans, recalls a Chinese saying. “One mountain cannot hold two tigers,” he remarks drily.
The film’s promotional material emphasizes a clash of cultures that supposedly constitutes the major obstacle to a mutually beneficial relationship between the Chinese firm and its American employees. In a short feature that accompanies the film, Barack and Michelle Obama, whose Higher Ground Productions picked American Factory as its first project, posit “storytelling” as an alchemical solvent through which contradictions can be transcended. The raw data of the film, on the other hand, communicates something much different. The major clash in American Factory is not between American and Chinese, but between workers and managers. “Culture” is a poor stand-in for power, leverage, and exploitation, the real subjects of this film, which know no national boundary. As Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite, the best film about capitalism released last year, observed in a recent interview:
At first, I was amazed by the response because I really thought that this film was just full of Korean details, and the actors—their performances were full of very Korean nuances. I kind of worried whether international audiences would be able to sympathize with this story. But ever since we screened the film at Cannes, it seemed that people reacted very similarly to the smallest details—even I didn’t quite understand why. … I think maybe there is no borderline between countries now because we all live in the same country—it’s called capitalism. I think that’s the reason.2
Similarly, a Chinese filmgoer, writing on Weibo, the country’s version of Twitter, captured the essence of American Factory better than its own producers: “Chinese people have given Americans a lesson on what capitalism is like.”3
1. LRI stands for Labor Relations Institute, the anti-union consulting firm hired by Fuyao to intimidate its workers.
2. “Bong Joon-ho on Parasite,” The Black List, October 11, 2019, https://blog.blcklst.com/the-black-list-interview-bong-joon-ho-on-parasite-5fd0cb0baa12.
3. Viola Zhou, “‘American Factory’ stirs mixed feelings in China over working conditions and culture,” South China Morning Post, August 27, 2019.