GLOBALISATION / High tech China clashes with working-class America in the first documentary from the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions

The General Motors plant was shuttered just over a decade ago in Dayton, Ohio, amid a financial downturn and less demand for the fuel-guzzling vehicles coming off its production line. More than 10,000 locals were left without jobs. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert documented its closure for HBO in their 2009 short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, and the precarious future faced by its soon-to-be-redundant employees. Now, the pair have returned to the scene, for the feature American Factory.

The plant was bought by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, and the directors chart its 2014 reopening as an automobile glass manufacturer, Fuyao Glass America. The film was picked up, after the fact, by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company for Netflix, and is now entering the last stages of the Oscar race as a feature-length best documentary nominee.

Those days are over

«We’ll never make that kind of money again — those days are over», says one former General Motors employee, resigned to the realities of his new climate. As the film opens, many starting at Fuyao are simply delighted to have a new prospect. Jill, a forklift operator, had been living in her sister’s basement after the bank foreclosed on her house, struggling to keep afloat since redundancy. Still, the pay discrepancy between the past factory and today’s is huge. Shawnea, a glass inspector, is on $12.84 an hour at Fuyao — less than half her rate at General Motors, and she feels the pinch sorely, no longer able to just go out and buy new gym shoes for her kids whenever they are needed.

American Factory is a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall study of a new era of globalised capitalism, in which workers are increasingly seen as dispensable as their jobs are taken over by machines. The tension between the competing interests of employee rights and the pursuit of profit above all is greatly exacerbated by a clash of cultures around values as fundamental as individualism vs. dutiful submission to the collective effort. It «needs to be an American company», but «successful», we hear, raising the question of just what is negotiable in squaring these expectations. Faced with Chinese norms of factory culture, the American workers might as well be on Mars.

Faced with Chinese norms of factory culture, the American workers might as well be on Mars.

Cao Dewang (known as «Chairman») is quite hands-on, with frequent visits to the Ohio plant. His frustration with the Americans he deems unmanageable rises to the fore as the company initially fails to make a profit. Initial breakdowns in understanding are played as comedy (a U.S. team ordered to change the opening direction of a door on the revamped building, bemused at anything beyond pragmatism, struggle to disguise their exasperation at the added expense.) But it’s soon clear that there is such a gulf in operational styles, deep-seated problems and resentments are all but inevitable.


«Stroke donkeys in the direction their hair grows, or they’ll kick you», is a proverb by which one consultant hopes to attune Chinese staff to the manner by which good performance can be coaxed from their U.S. counterparts. Since Americans «love being flattered to death», and have grown up over-confident, they need to be pandered to with encouragement, the argument goes. Results so far have been disappointing. «They’re pretty slow — they have fat fingers», comes the judgment from the factory floor.

American Factory, a film by Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert

While the Chinese think the Americans as simply lazy, negative consequences of the normalisation of grueling, unsafe work conditions hit. Fuyao takes a number of its American managers to observe workings at its plant in Fuqing, Fijian Province. Workers stand to attention and number off with an army-like precision (a shift supervisor’s awkward attempt to implement this back in Ohio is comically shabby). Their readiness to receive orders extends to the obligation to do overtime whenever asked. «I’m tired, but I have no choice», says a mother whose shift is already 12 hours long, and who can get home only once per year to see her child. At a company celebration, a synchronised troupe sings the praises of «a corporation with lean manufacturing» in a propaganda-style spectacle which suggests every aspect of life is subsumed by an idealised imperative to work. All employees are members of the Union, we hear — but, as it’s closely aligned to the company and communist party, it is another organ of control.

Back in Ohio, the spectre of unionisation compounds division. Bobby, a furnace off-loader, worked 15 years at General Motors with no injury. It didn’t take long at Fuyao, where safety measures are regarded as indulgent pampering by the Chinese owners, and routinely flouted. In a strategy to avoid the United Auto Workers gaining any clout, a union avoidance consultant is brought in to scare the staff before the pending vote.

«A mountain cannot hold two tigers»

American Factory does show cultural exchange positively a handful of times. Furnace supervisor Rob says engineer Wong, who taught him new skills to enable his middle-aged re-entry into the workforce, is «like a brother». He recalls fondly having Chinese workmates over for Thanksgiving and letting them fire his guns. This is not, however, couched as a saccharine tale of global harmony. It’s a curious-minded, yet cautious vision for our times; of a polarised world cramped with rival needs and interests. «A mountain cannot hold two tigers», is another Chinese proverb that is voiced. Fuyao now turns a profit — but the vote to unionise for worker strength was lost. Not everyone can win, it seems.