A little more than halfway through American Factory, a shift supervisor at an auto-glass plant just outside Dayton, Ohio, orders his line workers to snap to attention at the start of the day. He calls it an “experiment,” and it’s not one received warmly, but it comes from inspiration the supervisor picked up while visiting the parent company’s headquarters in China.
It’s a brief scene, but one that starkly encapsulates the culture clash between new Chinese investors and the people they hire in the United States, the attempted rejuvenation of the industrial Midwest, and how we’ve created an economy built on degrading workers for the sake of chasing more capital.
American Factory, from directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, follows the 2015 rebranding of a shuttered GM assembly plant as the U.S. beachhead of Fuyao, a Chinese firm that you’ve probably never heard of but is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of car windows. It’s in many ways a sequel to Bognar and Reichert’s 2009 short The Last Truck, which tracked the GM plant’s dying days in the nadir of the Great Recession, and the layoffs of 10,000 more auto workers.
Cut to 2015, and the plant is being repurposed for glass production by Cao Dewang, the billionaire founder of Fuyao — his subordinates simply call him “Chairman” — mostly to great praise from the locals, who didn’t have much reason to hope in the intervening six years. For Cao and his firm, its an opportunity to change how Americans view China; for Dayton, it’s the first whiff of economic hope in years, even though Fuyao pays far less per hour, hires only a fraction the workers GM had, and most importantly, is vehemently opposed to unionization efforts.
Still, things get off to an optimistic start. Former GM employees like forklift drivers Jill Lamantia and Timi Jernigan are thrilled to be back at work. Other Ohioans make genuine overtures to welcome the handful of Chinese floor workers brought over by Fuyao into the community.
Bognar and Reichert filmed over several years, enjoying access to factory operations, management meetings, and even American plant leaders’ trip to Fuyao’s home office, which operates like its own closed society, complete with worker dorms and an internal TV network. But the directors’ eyes are respectful, not voyeuristic. Their subjects are simply people trying to make a living through honest labor — the kind of stuff that’s always propped up in blustery political rhetoric but rarely backed up through meaningful political action.
That applies to the American and Chinese workers alike: Fuyao’s Ohio employees, who still haven’t been made whole, see the plant initially as a great second chance. The Chinese laborers toil even longer hours with few breaks and even fewer opportunities to see their families.
Of course, it isn’t long until the bull shows its horns. The appetite for profit overtakes any concern for good management and fair treatment, a situation that motivates a union drive. Fuyao’s response is harsh, but predictable to anyone who’s observed late-stage capitalism. At one point, an American manager even jokes to a Chinese counterpart that if he could only duct-tape the Ohio workers’ mouths shut, they’d be as industrious and compliant as the drones at Fuyao headquarters.
Hanging over all of this is that American Factory is the first release from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. The 44th President does not appear in the movie — not even in the credits — nor does the 45th. But many will see it anyway as a sharp, albeit sly, rebuke from one president to his successor for the latter’s weakening of labor protections, disregard for industrial safety, and naked avarice even as he claims the mantle of the American worker. It might also be a subtle self-acknowledgment by Obama that he didn’t do enough over his eight years to stanch the economic bleeding dropped at his feet.
But American Factory is not a political rebuttal or call to direct action. It’s a lens that spills truth on a part of the country too often mythologized by second-rate rock songs and profiles of old white guys who sit in diners. The workers who populate Fuyao’s Ohio plant are white, black, Hispanic — and, yes, lately Chinese — but their worries are common. They’re all struggling, working hard, and trying not to be done dirty again by a system that’s let them down so many times before.
American Factory premieres on Netflix today.