American Factory, produced by Higher Grounds Production in collaboration with Participant Media, was released on netflix on August 21st 2019. The movie, based in Dayton, Ohio, follows the true-story transformation of a General Motors factory to becoming a glass manufacturing plant owned and operated by a Chinese Multi-national corporation. Thousands of blue-collar workers were laid off when General Motors closed the auto plant in 2008. Several years later, in 2014, a Chinese auto-glass manufacturer named Fuyao, purchases and reopens the factory. This development offers hope to many of the unemployed blue-collar workers in the area, some of whom worked years for the late GM plant. The movie intimately and discreetly follows all those involved in this transformation. The viewer personally hears from, and observes, wage-workers on the production line all the way up to the chairman of Fuyao himself. We are exposed to the thoughts, concerns and beliefs of all involved, creating a well-rounded impression of the situation. American Factory declines to narrate the story. Instead, it combines and mediates exceptional moments to tell a story. Through this method the movie offers a perceived neutral lens on the events inside and around the factory.
American Factory is able to show in a very intimate manner the desolation, hope and changes that have been occurring for decades in the “Rust Belt”. It show the plight of blue-collar workers used to good-paying protected union jobs in the once mighty auto industry thrown into a sub-standard foreign-owned manufacturing industry. The blue-collar workers are paid a fraction of what the GM plant paid and are exposed to unsafe working conditions and exhausting productivity standards. It is crucial to remind the viewer, however, that the high quality jobs in the auto-industry were not the results of some imaginary benevolent American corporatism. Rather, these work conditions were the consequences of legendary struggles and sacrifices by thousands of workers, going all the way back to the mythic 1936 Flint sit-down strike. In the movie, the global competition of labor is brought with full strength to the historical heart of the American manufacturing industry an experience common to workers throughout China, Bangladesh, Mexico and the global south generally. The southern United States, where much industry has moved to take advantage of lower labor costs and the absence of unions, is not unfamiliar with this experience either. In this way American Factory, through a seemingly isolated example, illustrates majestically big Capital's trip around the globe to rid itself of organized labor and pit the workers of the world against each other on the production line.
The movie offers the viewer a unique insight into the role of race relations in a transformed global economy. On the assembly lines we witness a constant tension between American workers and their Chinese counterparts responsible for training and supervising them. We are exposed to the deep similarities that define these workers through their friendships, personal worries and care for their families. In the meantime, Chinese workers are defined by a different work culture and managerial expectations. They are asked and expected to supervise and “encourage” their American counterparts to be more productive. This division of power across race lines is a constant feature of life in the factory and trumps the individual relationships that are built. This phenomenon clearly evokes the more permanent use of race, and cultural differences, as a tool to divide workplaces. Let's recall that since the early days of industrialization in the United States, white and black workers have been consciously divided up into unskilled and skilled jobs to maintain racial animosity and consequently, a disunited workforce. American Factory also exposes these racial dynamics in a more corporate context through the tension between American white managers and Chinese managers, the former eventually being permanently replaced by the latter.
The film-makers offer us a unique glimpse of the conditions within a Chinese factory, belonging to the same Fuyao company. In this factory we encounter Chinese workers describing what their job is like year-round: the fact that they get to see their children once a year, work 12 hour workdays, labor in unsafe working conditions and obey a military workplace discipline. The films offers us a glimpse of the “union” in the plant, an organization presided by no one else than the brother in-law of the chairman of Fuyao. These company unions, meant to distract workers from forming their own organizations, are all too common in China. This brief snapshot into another factory carries important weight in the story as it reminds the viewer that these are the workers the Ohio plant is competing against. Furthermore it touches on a sensitive subject for all those who have been following the rare but militant struggles of Chinese workers against these terrible working conditions and state repression. It visually contextualizes the 2018 uprising of wage-workers at the Jasic factory in Shenzhen and the intense government crackdownthat followed. Acts of repression strongly condemned by the 2019 International Labor Organization: Reports of the Committee on Freedom of Association (see p.56).
The latter part of the movie follows the unionization campaign by the United Auto Workers (UAW) to organize the American Fuyao plant. It shows, through very crude footage, the anti-union tactics used by the Chinese company to suppress organizing activity. It is a fascinating and rare exposition of the decisions and actions that a company is willing to take to avoid an organized workforce. The movie may lead the viewer to believe that these tactics correspond to a “Chinese way”, breaking with civil American labor tradition. The belief that United States companies wouldn't act so blatantly in violation of the law and the dignity of their workers, however, is deeply misguided. All corporate interests, foreign and domestic, are taking advantage of the current weakness of American unionism. We can refer as an example to the Wabtec purchase of the locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania previously owned by GE Transportation. Wabtec, an American company, demanded the creation of a two-tier system in negotiation with the union, which would have significantly cut wages for new hires. These same concerns over slashing labor wages is what has caused GM and other auto-manufacturers to shamelessly close scores of plants and export their manufacturing operations to the Southern United States, Mexico and other low wage countries. Full-blown anti-union campaigns including the use of closed-door meetings, retaliation against union leaders, sudden distribution of raises, and anti-union signs and stickers are common features of organizing campaigns throughout the United States. Unfortunately, there is little to no legal recourse for workers during these onslaughts. Ultimately, the union loses the election at Fuyao's plant in 2017 by a landslide 886 no votes to 441 yes votes, a 2-to-1 margin.
American Factory enables the viewer to soberly observe and build an opinion on the transformation of the Ohio factory. It directly exposes the questions of management tactics, race relations, union busting, and, finally, automation, to a large audience not confronted by these issues in their day to day life. It is not meant to offer a hopeful vision forward, or even temporary solutions. It limits itself to exposing the real stories of women and men caught in the storm of global corporate power. The public may reach a different conclusion depending on their hope, beliefs and interests. For the labor movement it can be interpreted as a fatalist story of factory closures, lost unionization campaigns and inevitable automation. We invite the labor movement to reject this interpretation and embrace this story as a sobering, although urgent, call to action. The American “model” of good manufacturing union jobs cannot, and will not, survive as long as it's put in competition with factories from all over the world using cheap labor and demanding higher productivity from its laborers. If American Factory establishes anything, it is the global interconnectedness of the condition of workers in an age of uncontrolled world capitalism. The race to the bottom is well under way, it cannot be stopped at the factory level. Nothing less than an authentic and audacious internationalism of worker's organization will turn the tide. The conditions of the American and the Chinese worker are irrevocably linked to each other, and to the rest of the world.
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