American Factory Stops Short of Class Conflict

'American Factory' gives us some glimpses of a union-busting campaign in real time. But it shortchanges this story of class conflict for an apolitical one about a “clash of cultures.”

A still from American Factory. Netflix

American Factory premiered on August 21 on Netflix, and it arrived just-in-time for viewing during the long Labor Day weekend. It proved to be a popular recommendation for trade unionists and labor activists. The documentary made by veteran filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar tells the story of the reopening of a former GM Assembly Plant by Fuyao Glass in Moraine, Ohio, and the failed campaign by the United Auto Workers to organize it.

The heart of the film is an old and familiar tale of union-busting replete with Fuyao firing UAW activists and the hiring of a union-busting law firm. But the most effective weapon in the company’s arsenal proved to be the threat to close the plant if the union won in this economically distressed region. Reichert and Bognar told the back story to the GM plant closing in an earlier 2009 short documentary The Last Truck: the Closing of a GM Plant.

American Factory is probably the best advertisement streaming right now for Bernie Sanders’ Workplace Democracy Act, which would shift the legal terrain toward unions. However, union-busting is not the primary concern of the film’s distributors, former president Barack Obama and his partner, best-selling author Michelle. The film takes a quick pivot towards a discussion of automation, and its possible impact on worldwide employment in the near future.

This awkward ending — based on the briefest discussion of replacing workers with machinery by Fuyao managers — is notably at odds with the thrust of American Factory. It reduces the class conflict in the plant to apolitical “storytelling” — where no one is at fault and we are all bound by impersonal economic forces — and “culture clashes.”

The film begins with the closing of the General Motors Plant in 2008 in Moraine, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio soon after the start of the Great Recession. At the time of the plant closing, nearly 2400 workers were employed by GM and the closing had a devastating impact on the surrounding community. One of the great strengths of both The Last Truck and American Factory are their profiles of former GM workers and what the loss of a well-paying union job meant: workers lost their homes, their cars, and their friends.

So, when Fuyao Glass announced that it intended to reopen the shuttered plant in 2014 it was greeted as a savior of the community. Fuyao, the largest maker of glass for the auto industry internationally, is led by its Chinese billionaire and company founder Cao DeWang. DeWang is referred to as the “chairman” throughout the film and is greeted by Chinese workers with a deferential bow of the head. By the end of 2016, Fuyao invested nearly $1 billion in the United States, employed 2,000 people at the Moraine plant alone, and put $280 million into the Ohio economy, along the way collecting generous tax breaks.

Fuyao brought a small army of Chinese workers, technicians, and management staff to get the plant up and running. It paired Chinese workers with Americans — a fair mix of African-Americans and whites, men and women. Possibly as high as one thousand former General Motors workers were hired. Making glass for the auto industry is a dangerous and environmentally unfriendly business. Yet the American workers, many of them in their forties and fifties, enthusiastically take to their new jobs — it’s a chance to regain what many of them lost when GM closed.

Despite the cultural and political divides between American and Chinese workers — after all China is still formally a “Communist” country and Sinophobia runs deep in the United States — many developed not just good working relationships inside the plant, but also outside of it. My favorite example of this — because it’s so bizarrely American — is the one American worker who invited several Chinese coworkers over for Thanksgiving dinner, and, after the feast, had them out to the backyard to squeeze off a few rounds from his favorite handguns.

American Factory is pretty good at showing that there is not some insurmountable gap separating American and Chinese workers. However, fear of a nationalist backlash appeared to be on DeWang’s mind. He hired many Americans for senior management positions for Fuyao’s US subsidiary, including its president, vice president, its human resource department, and plant-level operations. When it is suggested that an iconic image of China should greet guests in the office lobby of the plant, DeWang nixes the idea, “We don’t want to upset them.” He also insists that this is an “American company.”

However, there’s tension from the very beginning between American workers and Fuyao over union representation. At an orientation for prospective employees, one applicant asks, “Is this a union shop?” The American human resources manager responded, “We are not. It’s our desire to not be.” Later at the opening ceremony of the plant, US Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) stunned the assembled audience when he declared his support for the right of Fuyao workers to vote on a union. Dave Burrows, vice president of Fuyao Glass America, angrily blurts out, “Who the fuck does he think he is?” and covertly gives him the finger.

Meanwhile the reality of the work life takes hold and initial hopes turn to frustration and anger. Work is dangerous and monotonous, with a skyrocketing rate of illness and injuries. Jill, a forklift operator, testifies at a UAW union meeting that a coworker was fired after being in the hospital for week but didn’t call in: “That could have been me.” Shawnea Rosser, an African-America woman and former GM worker, laments the much lower pay she is making at Fuyao, about half the hourly wage she made at GM. But most workers appear to be happy to be working, despite the deteriorating conditions in the plant because of a production push by Fuyao.

The American plant is lagging behind the company’s main production facility in China. Fuyao flies a small number of Americans from the plant supervisory staff to China to get a firsthand look at the work culture there. It is here that we get an introduction to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” Fuyao’s Chinese workforce make a fraction of the US hourly wage, work twelve hours a day, have few days off, and are subject to suffocating conformity enforced by their “union” and a Communist Party cell in the factory, which in both cases are led by Cao DeWang’s brother-in-law.

However, soon after returning to the United States, DeWang sacks the top management staff and puts in his right-hand man from China. Meanwhile the UAW had succeeded in getting enough support to call for an NLRB supervised election; though their strategy to win, if there was a strategy, is not at all explored in the film. One is left to think that a combination of the region’s strong union tradition, exposing the factory’s low pay and dangerous conditions, and support from a handful of pro-labor politicians would be enough to win. Not addressed at all is the UAW’s disastrous organizing record in the auto industry. Three months prior to the Fuyao vote, for example, the UAW lost a crucial election at Nissan in Mississippi, a crushing blow to its future.

Fuyao’s scheming to destroy the union is on display during the film in manycringe worthy scenes. The UAW didn’t have a chance with the strategy they were pursuing and lost the vote overwhelmingly, by nearly two to one in November 2017. Within weeks the most active union supporters are weeded out of the plant. A week after the premiere of American Factory, the NLRB ruled that Fuyao illegally fired three workers for supporting the UAW organizing drive, and ordered the company to pay them $120,000 in back pay. But it didn’t order a re-run union recognition vote. Fuyao Glass America remains a nounion plant.

In the ten-minute interview that the Obamas conducted with the filmmakers, the former president sums up what he sees as the major lesson of American Factory: “If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you know what their story is, you can forge a connection. You may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together.” What does this empty blather mean, except to accept your lot and make the best of it? So, whether the filmmakers intended it or not it the film leaves the door open to anti-Chinese xenophobia. Dayton voted Republican for the first in decades in 2016, when Trump was running on a such a program.

In spite of this, American Factory has many fascinating parts to it that are well worth watching. Of course, Obama’s role in wrecking many auto worker communities through his bail-out of the car bosses gets no mention at all.