December 30, 2019 – This documentary film gets right in the middle of a culture war and a union versus management fight and anxiety over globalization and automation in the American Midwest. It is a case study in what is happening in manufacturing in many countries, including the United States.
Documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert decided to make this film as a kind of followup project to their 2009 film “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” The GM Moraine Assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio (a suburb of Dayton, was a subject of that film. This film, “American Factory” tells the story of what happens when a Chinese company, Fuyao, takes over the plant and turns it into a facility for making auto glass.
The chairman of Fuyao, Cao Dewang (everyone calls him “The Chairman,” sort of like Chairman Mao) promises to invest millions of dollars into Moraine and provide thousands of jobs, but insists this will be an American factory. Town leaders and workers looking for jobs are elated. They welcome The Chairman and his company with open arms.
The wages are less than half what they were at the GM plant, but most people who want to work there are just happy to get any kind of steady job. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a senator mentions unions and the Fuyao company officials are furious. They do not want a union at the plant. The Chairman says he will close the plant if the workers unionize.
Union organizers get to work, and some workers are receptive. When management finds out who the union activists are, they are fired. The company brings in a high-priced firm to give anti-union presentations to the employees, who are compelled to attend the sessions.
Workers complain about unsafe working conditions, such as working in a room where the air temperature is 200 degrees. Workers also complain about the fast pace of the work, lifting heavy materials, and long times between breaks. The Chinese who are in charge feel the Americans are fat, out of shape and spoiled. Among themselves, the Chinese say, “We are better than they are.” They certainly are willing to work hard and work for long hours, and work for more days a year for less money. That is what they are used to.
For most American workers, they are in it for the money, to pay the bills, nothing more. The Chinese have more loyalty to the company. They view the company almost like a family and are dedicated to making the company profitable. The film also takes us to one of Fuyao's glass plants in China, where workers from Ohio visit. The Americans are astonished at unsafe working conditions, the long hours and how little the workers get to be with their families.
Back in Ohio, the glass plant is looking more and more like a Chinese operation every day. Not only are the pro-union workers being fired, but the American supervisors are also being let go. Soon Chinese are dominating the supervisory positions. If you have a suggestion, or a complaint, it will not find a sympathetic American ear.
This film shows what globalization is like. In order to compete, companies are operating more like the Chinese, keeping hours long and wages low. Soon even these manual labor jobs, bad as they are, will be going away as automation eliminates more and more unskilled jobs. Those fat paychecks for factory jobs are becoming a thing of the past.
I saw this film on the Netflix streaming service (it is a Netflix film). It is followed by a 10-minute featurette, a discussion of the film with Barack and Michelle Obama, along with the directors of this film. American Factory is said to be the first film produced by Obama's new Higher Ground Productions company. This film rates a B.
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