Released 2019. Directors: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar
THE GENERAL MOTORS PLANT AT DAYTON, OHIO, CLOSED IN DECEMBER 2008 amidst the economic downturn. Thousands of people lost their jobs. American Factory opens in sombre tones because to many of the unemployed, their American Dream has died.
Fast foward a few years, Chinese investment arrives and the shuttered plant is resurrected as Fuyao Glass America, an automotive glass factory that promises jobs, growth and prosperity for the local community. The CEO, who everyone calls Chairman Cao, features prominently throughout the documentary and shares his thoughts with candour. When his underlings try to decorate the place with Chinese paintings, he stops them. He says they must “treat it like an American factory.” He hires Americans to the top management and entrusts the business to them.
Ten months into the operations Fuyao cops a loss of $40 million. Cao steps in and replaces the American management with a Chinese VP. Cao engineers a top-level restructure to ensure the factory survives and becomes profitable.
The documentary presents numerous interesting ideas, chief of which is the clash between two ways of working, two approaches to running a multi-million dollar business. The cultural clash is all but guaranteed from the very beginning.
Chinese workers are imported to work alongside their American counterparts. Language is not the only barrier between the two groups. The less experienced locals struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar work culture with ill-defined hierarchy of authority. The foreigners are told Americans are over confident and love to be praised. Some workers step outside their racial bubble and make friends but from what we see those instances are few and far between.
Output is low and the Chinese supervisors complain that his American workers are slow because they have “fat fingers”. A group of Americans are flown to China to visit a Fuyao factory and see firsthand the machine-like efficiency under regimental and propagandistic control. Over a casual conversation a stark contrast is also revealed. In Ohio, the workers do 8-hour days, get the weekends and eight days off a month. In China, the workers do up to 12 hours a day, get the weekends and one or two days off a month.
The crew follow the workers throughout the making of the documentary, and some of their feelings are honestly revealing. Bobby is genuinely thankful to be working after being jobless for a year and a half. Jill lost her home when the GM plant closed and had to live in her sister’s basement until a job at Fuyao enables her to rent her own place. Wong misses his wife and two young kids left in China and shares a unit with several other workers.
On the factory floor, hazards are not uncommon and injuries occur. When workers are deemed to be inefficient they simply get sacked. Murmurs of dissatisfaction become louder and calls for unionisation become alarming for the management. Chairman Cao believes unionisation impacts negatively on efficiency and is prepared to shut down the factory. Fuyao is not a happy place. As someone puts it, you can’t spell Fuyao without FU.
An objective outsider might ask if the Chinese way of managing and American labor practices could find a middle ground to satisfy both sides. Depending on who you ask, I bet you’d get different answers to questions like: What needs to change? How do they get away with flouting safety and environmental regulations? Why can’t a successful company like Fuyao replicate their formula in America?
When Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar started this documentary, they most likely had no idea where it might end up. This is a script that writes itself pulled in multiple directions. Reichert and Bognar clearly try to give a voice to different sides and the documentary is earnest and amenable to a fault. There are no heroes or villains because arguably every person has a point and good reasons for where they stand.
Chairman Cao makes an interesting comment. He tells his top management what’s more important is not how much money they make, but how Americans view the Chinese. The image of his country and his people takes priority. He tells his top management this is an American factory, and “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Yet his idea of an “American” factory struggles with questions of incompatibility and distrust between two powerful forces. It will take a very long road to meet in the middle.
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