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“American Factory,” a New Netflix Film from the Obamas, Explores the Challenges of a Globalized Economy

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On December 23, 2008, a group of workers at a General Motors truck-assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio, gathered around a white S.U.V. that had just rolled off the line, snapping photos and holding back tears. In a familiar scene that has played out in industrial cities across the country, the workers had recently learned that their plant, near Dayton, was closing, leaving around two thousand people without jobs; the white truck that they were photographing would be the facility’s last. The plant was larger than the Pentagon; its closure had a devastating impact on the local economy and contributed to a period of severe decline. Automation and the outsourcing of jobs further depressed wages and fuelled unemployment. Then, in 2014, a glimmer of hope appeared. A Chinese investor named Cho Tak Wong (he also goes by Cao Dewang) took over the factory and reopened it as an American outpost of Fuyao Glass, his successful auto-glass manufacturer.

On August 21st, Netflix will release “American Factory,” a documentary about the plant’s second life. The film was made by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who live about fifty-five miles from Columbus and were described, at a recent screening of the documentary at the Museum of Modern Art, as “the godparents of independent film in Ohio.” Reichert has been making films about the lives of regular American people for decades. In 2009, she and Bognar produced what turned out to be a preview of “American Factory,” called “The Last Truck,” a forty-minute documentary that chronicled the emotional final days of G.M.’s Moraine factory. “We made a film about kids fighting cancer, and there were more tears with the factory closing,” Bognar told me. “American Factory” premièred at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and, shortly after, Barack and Michelle Obama’s newly formed production company, Higher Ground Productions, joined the project. The film is the first of Higher Ground’s slate of upcoming releases, and it offers a glimpse of the kinds of subtly political projects that the Obamas will be backing. (Their list includes a bio-pic of Frederick Douglass, a drama about the challenges faced by women and people of color in postwar New York, and a series that will teach preschool-aged children about nutrition.) The film is also an example of a new category of entertainment in the Trump era: stories about the economic dynamics that have led the country to its current state of political polarization.

In May, I saw the film at the MOMA screening, which Bognar and Reichart also attended. The film begins on an upbeat note. Many of the workers have suffered since the closing of the G.M. plant. One says that her house was foreclosed on. “Ever since then, I have struggled to try to get back to middle class,” she notes, adding that she is currently living in her sister’s basement. Another worker becomes emotional explaining that he hasn’t had a regular job in a year and a half. Fuyao Glass, which is headquartered in Fuqing, China, is one of the largest manufacturers of windshields and car windows in the world. Its customers include major car companies such as Ford, G.M., Volkswagen, and Honda. When Fuyao arrives in Moraine, bringing the promise of jobs with it, the community greets it with excitement. “There was a tremendous sense of optimism and hope,” Reichert told me a few weeks after the screening. The company hosts a ribbon-cutting ceremony with seven hundred attendees at the new Ohio facility, which it christens Fuyao Glass America. Senator Sherrod Brown speaks of the “remarkable community effort” that made the deal happen. Cho, through an interpreter, says that the company expects to hire five thousand local employees in the coming years. The plan is to bring in Chinese managers, and to pair American workers with Chinese employees to help them learn their new jobs. “We are melding two different cultures,” a Fuyao executive announces. “The Chinese and the American.”

Almost immediately, though, the differences between American and Chinese business practices become glaringly obvious. The cinematic result is both inadvertently comical and also upsetting, underscoring how many marks American workers have against them in the globalized economy, in which companies can easily shift jobs to places where wages and regulations are weaker than they are in the United States. Although the workers are happy to be employed again, they know that their circumstances are never going to be what they were. One worker explains that, under G.M., she made twenty-nine dollars an hour. Working for Fuyao, she is paid $12.84. “Back then, if my kids wanted a pair of new gym shoes, I could just get them,” she says. “I can’t just do that now.” Early in the movie, an executive explains that the Moraine plant will be staffed with three different shifts with one unpaid, half-hour lunch break. Upon hearing this, one of the American workers asks, “Is this a union shop?” The answer from management is a resounding no.

The Americans are not prepared for Fuyao’s way of doing things. The Chinese employees are accustomed to working six or seven days a week at the Fuyao plant in Fuqing. They typically live dormitory-style, several people to an apartment. Leaving work in time to get home for family dinner is not part of their routine. (One Chinese worker explains that she only gets to see her child once a year, when she travels from the factory to her home town.) The company attempts to bring some approximation of these labor standards to the U.S., but the Americans, many of whom had previously been members of the United Auto Workers union, begin to complain about their working conditions. Some workers note that the space between production lines is unusually narrow—something that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would likely deem unsafe. The heat that emanates from the four-hundred-degree furnace is overwhelming. At one point, several Americans watch with skepticism as their Chinese counterparts clean up a pile of broken glass by hand, sorting the shards by color into piles so that they can be recycled. Behind the scenes, the Chinese executives grumble about what they characterize as the Americans’ lack of productivity. “American workers are not efficient, and output is low,” Cho says. “When we try to manage them, they threaten to get help from a union.”

The contrasting views illustrate an economic tension that reaches well beyond Ohio. The United States and China are locked in a battle for global economic primacy, a race which has, for decades, placed American workers at a disadvantage. The tech world, in particular, has made note of the willingness of tech employees in China to work punishing hours without complaint. In January, 2018, the venture capitalist Michael Moritz wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times titled “Silicon Valley Would Be Wise to Follow China’s Lead.” In it, he criticizes the American tech industry for being preoccupied with discussions about political correctness and parental leave, whereas in China such conversations are absent and “the pace of work is furious.” His basic point seems to be that, if Western companies don’t try harder to emulate their Chinese counterparts, the Chinese companies will become dominant.

A similar disparity is on display in “American Factory.” The threat of the U.A.W. coming in and organizing the Fuyao plant drives much of the narrative of the film. Fuyao’s leaders make it clear early on that they will not tolerate a unionized workforce; at one point, the company’s chairman declares, “If we have a union, it will impact our efficiency, thus hurting our company. It will create a loss for us. If a union comes in, I’m shutting down.” But the workers continue organizing, and, as the push heats up, Fuyao brings in a labor-relations consultant whose job is to dissuade the workers from voting to join. The Chinese executives seem baffled by the Americans’ complaints and conclude that U.S.-born workers are lazy.

After the screening, Bognar and Reichert sat for an interview at the front of the theatre. They explained that they had tried to craft the film so that both the Chinese and American viewpoints were presented without judgment. When I spoke with them later, they told me that, in many ways, the contrasts in attitudes and practices come from the countries’ different cultures. They also pointed out that the United States and China are at very different stages in their economic development, with China experiencing steep growth that is allowing millions of people to move from poverty to the middle class. “There was a real sense of mission. It was a national mission,” Bogart said, of the Chinese workers. “They’re on the rise,” Reichert added. “While we’re going from solid middle class to very borderline—lower middle class, really—for large numbers of working people. The feeling is, if you look back to your parents or grandparents, they did better than you’re going to do. We’re getting worse; our culture, our country, our society, are going down. There’s not this sense of this great future, while in China it’s just the opposite.”

One of “American Factory” ’s best-known predecessors is the Michael Moore documentary “Roger and Me,” from 1989, which explores the impact of the closure of several G.M. plants in Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan. The movie brought the struggles of workers grappling with the effects of globalization into mainstream culture. It was also prescient about how the plight of these workers would come to play a central role in the political conversation. It was only fitting, then, that, toward the end of the MOMA screening, as Reichert and Bognar were winding down their interview onstage, a hulking man wearing a baggy jacket and a cap pulled low over his eyes rose to his feet. “Hello, Michael Moore here,” he said. Moore was sitting in the middle of the theatre, and other members of the audience craned their necks to catch a glimpse. “All of your films . . . have had such an important impact on me personally, but also for those of us who live in the Midwest, who grew up in families like that, factory families,” he said. “We usually don’t see ourselves in movies. Our voices aren’t heard. You gave voice to this—to us.”



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !