Writing this piece, I can’t help but think back on my own family and our history of union involvement. My great-grandfather was a railroadman and my grandfather a newspaper proofreader; both of them were union men. My mother too worked in a union, a member of the teachers and administrators’ association in the school district where my sister and I grew up. I think of these people: one I still talk to, one existing only in my memories, and one nothing but a shadow in other peoples’ stories. I think of these people and a fire burns in my belly as I type these words and reflect on Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s extraordinary new documentary American Factory, which premiered on Netflix on August 21. For many, the traditional wisdom is for film critics to err on the side of objectivity, to strain to remove one’s emotions and subjective experiences from how we engage and evaluate movies. And to an extent, they are correct. To an extent. But occasionally the barriers we make between ourselves and art prove pointless and self-defeating. This anger in my veins tells me this is one such time.
American Factory follows the reopening of a shuttered General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio after being bought out by Chinese glass manufacturer Fuyao in 2014 as part of a wave of Chinese investment in American industry. At first, the community receives the new company—christened Fuyao Glass America and staffed largely with American administrators—with open arms. 2000 families went unemployed when GM left, and the new factory seems like the godsend to keep their humble suburb from deteriorating into another Rust Belt graveyard. What’s more, hundreds of native Chinese Fuyao workers immigrate to Dayton to help with the transition. These too are received with simple working class magnanimity. Early sequences see American laborers teaching the immigrants how to fish for carp in a local river (“You gotta use Chex cereal. C-h-e-x. The fish sure love Chex.”). One local even invites a dozen or so over to his house for Thanksgiving where he invites them to sample American food, ride his Harley Davidson, and most popularly, try out his gun collection.
But this sunny optimism dims as things slowly stop adding up. During an orientation, a worker asks a Fuyao representative if the jobs have unions. The representative snaps back no, saying they “don’t want to be.” Fair enough. But then safety standards start getting loosened, then outright ignored. Workers are made to work for fifteen minutes shifts every hour in 200° rooms. Equipment protocols are disregarded, leaving veteran workers from the GM factory thunderstruck by Fuyao’s carelessness. Indeed, employees start ending up in the hospital with split limbs and debilitating illnesses. Most outrageously, many are summarily fired while still recovering. These safety violations aren’t the results of penny-pinching, corner-cutting middle management, but from orders straight from the top. One telling scene involves Cao Dewang, the Chinese billionaire who invested $500 million in the Dayton factory, demanding that the smoke detectors and fire alarms be removed from his offices because they aren’t visually pleasing. When told they’re required by American law, he asks why can’t they be moved down to floor level so nobody can see them, either ignorant or unconcerned that smoke rises.
But the worst indignities? The workers have their pay cut. One glass inspector laments in an interview that she used to make almost $30 an hour working for GM. Now, under Fuyao, she doesn’t even earn $13. And the workers get unpaid lunch breaks. And only two fifteen-minute breaks every eight hour shift. And they’re constantly berated by the Chinese management slowly usurping the American bosses as they’re quietly demoted and replaced. And, and, and, and, and. Many of the most stomach-churning scenes involve the Chinese managers lamenting the laziness of their American employees, complaining that they’re spoiled, clumsy, and downright inferior to Chinese workers. During one management meeting, one of the Chinese bosses hisses that American labor laws be damned, they should all work Saturdays. The racism is as vicious as it is totally unexpected.
Eventually the American workers have enough, defy Dewang, and organize a union drive with the help of United Auto Workers (UAW). This third act is where the film transforms from an occasionally amusing, occasionally outrageous exposé of the Chinese/American cultural divide into a chilling examination of capitalism run wild. Union sympathizers are singled out by management and harassed with impossible work loads as pretext to fire them. Company propaganda floods the hallways and work rooms. Dewang threatens to shutter the entire factory. And finally, they hire a firm specializing in union-busting tactics to wear down the employees with repeat mandatory meetings where they’re told lies about union organizing. At last the day of the union vote arrives and the employees, terrified and exhausted, overwhelmingly vote to reject the union. Fuyao wins, their profits soar, the workplace environment continues to curdle. To this day Fuyao employees make only $14 an hour, less than the $15 required by federal minimum wage legislation.
American Factory is one of the most striking pieces of documentary political agitprop for organized labor since Barbara Kopple’s masterful Harlan County, USA (1976) which, while covering a coal miner strike in rural Kentucky, famously captured footage of a demonstrator getting assassinated by company thugs. There are no such individual gotcha moments in American Factory, but instead a constant stream of escalating indignities discussed and executed with calculated cool and cruelty. Some of the sequences Reichert and Bognar got of the Chinese administrators insulting American workers and labor standards are jaw-dropping. Did they assume the language barrier would protect them or were they so inculcated into capitalist culture that they thought nothing of admitting they considered workers as disposable?
Yet the ultimate coup of American Factory is its insistence that this isn’t a story about race or culture but about class. Time and again, Reichet and Bognar show that however bad the conditions might be for Americans, they’re even worse for the Chinese. During a sequence where several of Fuyao’s American managers are flown to China for a company meeting, they come face-to-face with the realities of Chinese labor where workers are forced to pull twelve hour shifts with only two days off a month. Employees are made to work with hazardous materials like shattered glass with little to no safety equipment like goggles or work gloves. They’re essentially hostages of the company, forced to live in cramped apartments next to their factories away from their families whom they only get to see maybe once a year during the holidays. The immigrant workers in America fare only marginally better; American labor laws might protect them from pulling “Chinese shifts” but they’re given no extra pay and are expected to live in the States away from their families for at least two years.
Gradually we realize that China’s work standards aren’t the result of a flaw in the Chinese character, but symptoms of a working class not yet inoculated by organized labor. They have yet to fight the same battles American workers did at the turn of the last century, shutting down the entire nation with strikes to end child labor, establish the eight hour day, and secure the five day work week. One of the most moving moments in the film comes during a UAW meeting where union organizer and member of the Ohio House of Representatives Fred Strahorn reminds Fuyao employees of their ancestors’ struggles:
I hear these words and yet again I’m reminded of my mother, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and all the battles they fought so I can enjoy the standard of living I take for granted. I think of the Chinese workers here and in their native land cheated of the same opportunity to work to live, not live to work. I think of all these things and the fire inside rages again. Something must be done; the center cannot hold. It mustn’t be allowed to.