Film Review: American Factory

A Chinese manager and a U.S. worker in the film AMERICAN FACTORY, 2019. (Photo via Netflix)

The opening scene of the new Netflix film American Factory shows the 2008 closing of the G.M. auto plant in Dayton, OH, with more than 2,000 workers losing their jobs.  The plant sat idle for years until it was restarted by a Chinese company, Fuyao Glass, which makes automotive windows.

Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert live near Dayton and had documented the factory shutdown. (Reichert, a member of DSA Yellow Springs, made the Oscar-nominated Union Maids and Seeing Red. — Ed. ) They then got extraordinary access over several years from the plant reopening until a union vote in 2017. They show the fascinating culture clashes when a foreign company runs a U.S. plant, and the struggle of workers to fight for decent jobs in the face of global capitalism.

The main conflict of the film is foreshowed early during a Fuyao job fair when a manager says the plant is non-union and wants to stay that way.  At first the workers, many of whom worked at G.M., are happy to have new jobs, but are soon frustrated with their new conditions. Shawnea, a glass inspector, was making over $29/hr at G.M. and now makes $12.84/hr at Fuyao. Jill, a forklift driver, lost her house when the G.M. plant closed and is living in her sister’s basement. 

We meet the Fuyao company boss Cao Dewang  (referred to in the film as Chairman Cao, a nod to the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong), who comes often to  check up on his new plant. At the opening ceremony, when U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown expresses support for a union at the plant, the company management is angry, and Chairman Cao makes it clear he opposes a union there.

There are production problems, and the plant is losing money. Fuyao had brought in hundreds of Chinese staff to supervise the U.S. workers. This sets up some interesting moments when workers from the two countries get to know each other and become friends. But there are also translation problems and frustrations as the Chinese supervisors struggle to understand what they view as the slow pace of work. They are used to much more deference and hustle back home.

We get a glimpse of that when a delegation of U.S. supervisors visits China to tour a Fuyao plant. Production is fast, working conditions are unsafe, and the Chinese workers have 12 hour shifts and hardly any days off.  We hear from a few workers that they rarely see their families. A Chinese manager admits that the workers are unhappy about their long hours, during a frank discussion with a U.S. supervisor about how to get the Dayton workers to work harder. The workers are subjected to rigid discipline, such as lining up and chanting slogans before their shift, and we also see managers singing a company anthem about “transparency.” There is a “union” run by Cao’s brother-in-law, who unsurprisingly believes in labor-management harmony.  At a company party with all the workers, there are some bizarre pro-company dance performances, and even a wedding of several couples of Fuyao workers. 

Back in Dayton, the workers’ morale is low. Injuries are piling up and turnover is high.  The U.S. workers feel bossed and disrespected by their Chinese supervisors. When the union campaign heats up during the second half of the film, the company runs an anti-union program, with “Vote No” signs and captive-audience meetings that instill fear and doubt about the union.   A “Union Avoidance Consultant” addresses the shop. Chairman Cao visits to personally exhort his supervisors to fight the union, and we see discussions among the Chinese staff about how to handle the U.S. workers. Supervisors admit to firing union supporters. There are some carrots, too, as the company gives out a $2/hr raise to all workers.

The film shows some of the union organizing campaign, but I wanted to see more. Aside from workers rallying outside the plant and a meeting at the UAW hall, we don’t really get a good understanding of how the union is running the campaign. Unfortunately, the union loses decisively in one of several recent high profile auto plant election losses for the UAW. One worker who was at G.M. believes that they’ll never see that kind of money again.  This film is no Norma Rae.

After the union loss, Chairman Cao visits the plant again, and his managers explain how they are gradually replacing workers with robots, as some screen text makes a point about the rise of workplace automation. In 2018, the plant became profitable.

Viewed as a labor film, in some ways it feels out of step with the present moment, given the labor movement revival and many successful teachers’ strikes in the last few years. But as a film about work in the global economy, it brings a down-to-earth realism that factory jobs are usually pretty bad, union campaigns often lose, and workers’ lives are subject to the whims of international capital. 

I felt angry that the Fuyao workers around the world are disrespected and mistreated. The company demands that Chinese workers show a quiet, relentless dedication, and U.S. workers should just be grateful for having a factory job. If there is a message to take away from American Factory, it may be that workers too often aren’t powerful agents in their own lives, only subordinates hoping for the best. For socialists and labor activists, finding ways to participate in workers’ organizing efforts is one of our most crucial tasks.    

The final scenes of the film show U.S. and Chinese workers at their respective factories, both connected by the same employer, but a world apart, with no signs yet of the international solidarity they may need to fight the boss and win.