In Moraine, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, a former GM plant was bought by Chinese automobile glass manufacturer Fuyao in 2014, a decision that seems routine in an increasingly globalized economic environment. But for the American and Chinese workers employed by Fuyao (many of whom had worked at the GM plant), the shift proved to be quite an adjustment—for some, even life-changing. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary film American Factory (美国工厂) (2019) explores the collision of these two work cultures as both a case study of Fuyao and an examination of wider cultural differences and changing attitudes about work in light of ever-increasing globalization.
With its fly-on-the-wall style, American Factory delves deep into the lives of the American workers in Moraine, the American managers handling changes under new management and the Chinese managers struggling to transition to an American lifestyle and work culture. The film, which also won an Academy Award in 2020 for Best Documentary Feature, touches on issues such as work safety, unionization and workers’ rights, all the while emphasizing the culture shock and, indeed, culture clash brought about by the acquisition.
Perhaps most importantly, Bognar and Reichert also tell a story of what the future of work will look like: a world of globalization, optimization and automation. Where does the worker fit into this? There are no easy answers, but this exploration of Fuyao at least affords us the opportunity to see into this metamorphosis at all levels—individual, union, corporate and global. Viewers often see documentaries as providing answers, but they are really better equipped for asking questions. And one of American Factory’s most compelling questions is “What’s next?”
The story of Fuyao and the Moraine plant is compelling and revelatory. The documentary’s access to every level of the company reveals the full scope of the clashes of culture and class that define this story. Some of the footage is downright shocking, like when an American manager violently denounces progressive Senator Sherrod Brown’s comments on unionization. Extravagant celebrations of Fuyao, lack of safety protocols and discussions over the logistics of fire alarms are just some of the genuinely intriguing details on display here. And while there is a lightness (almost a humor) to some of the film’s presentation, these details paint a serious portrait of the current state of work worldwide.
From a technical perspective, too, the film is well-made, with solid cinematography and editing. The establishing shots of the Midwest connect the beauty of nature with the bluntness of industrial architecture and the struggles of the working class contained within. Through fly-on-the-wall techniques, Bognar and Reichert are able to pull together brief scenes of home life with the daily hustle and bustle at Fuyao. Union supporters protest while union busters concoct strategies to quash union talk in some of the film’s most fascinating juxtapositions, as the filmmakers’ access allows them to intercut footage of both parties.
In many ways, American Factory is a film about divisions. The gaps between the American and Chinese employees, between union supporters and union busters and between workers and management are all clearly on display. With ample opportunity, however, the film tends not to emphasize unity where it finds it. There are examples of Chinese and American workers bonding over cultural similarities and differences, as they each are shown to adjust to the other. And yet there is little explicit connection made between the ways in which both the American and Chinese workers are linked in their working-class status—just as the American workers must adjust to a changing work environment and fragile manufacturing economy, the Chinese workers aren’t any less exploited by the forces at work in their lives. So while American Factory captures some similarities in human-level struggles, it chooses not to pursue these threads as urgently as it does conflict and occasional reconciliation.
Toward the end, the film also delves into a brief discussion of automation and the future of work. Much of the film gestures towards the future by depicting the Moraine plant in a state of flux, eager to see how the conflicts will resolve or evolve. As interesting and relevant a topic as it is, the change comes somewhat suddenly and seems to shift focus drastically. There is little time for the film’s subjects to address the introduction of automation, and it ultimately feels like a tangential story from the one being told about understanding of work amidst globalization and efforts to unionize. It’s a theme important in the grand scheme of what the film addresses, but seems tangential nonetheless.
When looking at a film like American Factory, it’s important not only to understand the film’s perspective, but also the perspective behind the perspective. This film was the first to be released by Higher Ground Productions, a company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama that has also produced the 2020 documentary films Crip Camp and Becoming for Netflix. So while the film is certainly informative about labor in the U.S. and China, it also carries with it the baggage of serving a political legacy.
The tension between the U.S. and Chinese labor markets has become a hot-button issue as China’s economy grew for decades to become the second-biggest in the world by 2010 (behind only the U.S.). In an increasingly globalized world, the Midwestern labor force is struggling to overcome its staunchly industrial past, as manufacturing employment in the U.S. declined sharply between 2001 and 2010, with only slow regrowth since then. According to the U.S. News & World Report, outsourcing manufacturing jobs to China accounts for two-thirds of manufacturing job loss in the U.S. between 2001 and 2013. China and its increasing dominance in the world economy has remained a key political issue in recent elections, and has also fueled anti-Chinese sentiment across the U.S., blurring the lines between opposition to China’s politics and its people.
American Factory examines Fuyao’s takeover of Moraine Assembly from the perspective of a cultural clash between the Chinese and American workforces. It also broaches the issue of unions and worker solidarity, although it serves the narrative of division more than the one of unity. While Obama has advocated on a pro-worker platform, others argue that during his tenure as President, little was done to help workers and unions across the country, with the reforms he did enact coming late in his tenure. This film seems to have good intentions for depicting the working class, but does not always delve deeply into its most salient issue: the shared plight of American and Chinese laborers and the systems that brought it about.
In the film, while the situation for workers in Moraine dramatically worsens under Fuyao’s leadership, it’s actually a much more complicated story—one that encompasses years of industry in decline, corporate greed and changing international business relations that led to this point. Moraine workers at Fuyao who had previously worked for GM discuss early on in the film how their pay under the new company is lower. While that may be true, GM is not entirely off the hook. The company has had issues since bouncing back from bankruptcy passing on their government bailout money to unions who made concessions during tough times, leading to a 2019 strike. And while that strike was successful, Ohio membership in unions has been steadily declining for decades, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, so Moraine workers may not have been guaranteed a seat at the table had GM continued to have a presence in the area.
As the film does show, the Chinese workers at Fuyao come from a culture that has also struggled to support its workers, although in a more systematic and government-sanctioned way. Perhaps it can be chalked up to simple cultural differences that Fuyao had to settle with three workers after American Factory’s release due to the connection between their firing and their support for a union. But that’s improbable, as China’s workers have been trying for some time to form effective labor unions in their country, as well. According to the China Labor Bulletin (CLB), labor unions in China are run by management, not by workers (a detail seen in the film), and all labor unions must be part of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, an organization with bureaucracy and political ties that make it challenging if not impossible for unions to actually stand up for workers (a detail not seen in the film). The CLB also reports that labor activism in southern China has been subject to government crackdowns in 2015, 2018 and 2019. So perhaps boiling it down to mere cultural dissonance doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Opposing views on labor laws and governmental interference have led American and Chinese workers alike to struggle, although in different ways, and the real story seems to be the worker’s battle against unfair labor practices, changing markets and corrupt governments.
This isn’t to suggest that the struggles are the same or equal, but simply to say that both groups struggle on a human level. American Factory does briefly address this shared situation, as the American managers at Moraine take a field trip to China to see how Fuyao is run there. Seeing how the Chinese workers’ lives are intrinsically connected with their work, they’re impressed with the sheer company loyalty on display and, to a lesser extent, shocked at the lax safety conditions. While this sequence demonstrates serious political and governmental differences, it also shows us similarities between Chinese and American work cultures and human behavior; both American and Chinese managers are shown to care about efficiency over worker welfare, and both are frustrated at how they must give into the latter more often than not in Moraine.
Further, the end of the film focuses on the future of the workplace by looking to Moraine Assembly’s future under Fuyao. Automation dominates in the film’s ending narrative, and while that is an issue worth discussing, it seems to ditch the rest of the film’s emphasis on the work cultures of China and the U.S. Perhaps this isn’t for the film to say explicitly, but it seems that the future of work could also be influenced by the human experiences of workers themselves and the way globalization is radically changing how we think about labor—regardless of its national origin.
American Factory highlights how Chinese business in the U.S. hurts American workers, but it doesn’t stop at the problem: its eyes are ultimately on us all to create the future of labor. “What’s next?” the film seems to ask, offering automation and globalization as possibilities, but also leaving open the possibility for a future defined by a a more human vision. After all, a people aren’t necessarily defined by the politics that govern them, but rather their shared experiences and ever-transforming identities.