At the Academy Awards tomorrow, the movie American Factory is heavily favored to win the Best Documentary Feature category. It is a remarkable film and would be a deserving winner. American Factory also just might be the most thoughtful movie ever made on how globalization may impact the future of work.
The movie documents the opening of a Fuyao Glass factory in the small city of Moraine, Ohio and takes place from 2015 to 2017. Fuyao Glass is a Chinese company worth nearly $60 billion that supplies glass to major automobile manufacturers like Ford and General Motors. The factory in Moraine, which is still operating, was Fuyao’s first venture into the US. The plant employs over 2,000 people.
General Motors closed a factory in Moraine in 2008, which the filmmakers documented in an earlier film, The Last Truck. The announcement of Fuyao’s arrival was generally welcomed by the community as a chance for stable blue collar work. In addition to hiring locals, the Chinese company brought over hundreds of workers from China to supervise the Americans. As the film shows, the first several years did not go smoothly for the plant. There were major communication difficulties between the American employees and Chinese supervisors, and an ultimately unsuccessful union drive.
The directors, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, were given a surprising level access by Fuyao to management and employees. They capture a Chinese executive telling the Chinese supervisors that the American workers talk too much, and joke about covering their mouths with duct tape. They also follow several American workers to China to observe a Fuyao factory there and the grueling conditions the Chinese workers face. The film manages to be humane and non-judgmental to all its subjects, from Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang to the struggling workers.
The movie, which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, is now available on Netflix. We spoke with Bognar and Reichert about their film in late January. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
As you were making the movie, I was wondering if any of what you captured made you more optimistic about the future for workers?
Reichert: There are 2,200 more jobs in Dayton because of this factory, and they do have good benefits but the pay is not great. It starts very low. They fought the union very hard. But you can make something approaching a living wage. The jobs are there. That’s a good thing.
Bognar: We were filming there for three years and we met a lot of people. We really got to know these two guys. One is Rob, this gun-toting, Harley Davidson riding, self-described redneck. But Rob had deep empathy for the Chinese folks like Wang, who came to the states to work at the plant, and had to be away from his kids for two years. Rob’s level of empathy, despite stereotypes that he might spark, shows that everyone runs deeper than you initially might think. And Wang also had such empathy for the Americans like Rob, and how hard they work, and how they work two jobs to get by. Those relationships give me hope that all these huge divides can be bridged.
What makes you pessimistic?
Bognar: What gives me pessimism is the way capitalism now works in the world does not lift all boats—like some people might say it should or does. Capitalism right now is a very broken machine where certain kinds of people and class of people are benefitting and everyone else is being squeezed. They are pressured to produce more but they have less security and less pay.
Reichert: The role of union-avoidance companies was a real surprise and awakening for us. Fuyao hired a consultant team whose specialty is convincing the workforce that it would be bad for them to have a union. They had a huge impact, we believe, on the the union election.
Bognar: These companies will be around for a couple decades. There is a well-established playbook and messaging. In the film, they told the workers, “Keep your voice, vote no against the union.” It’s sort of Orwellian in how the language is used to dissuade people from organizing together. That was a big surprise to us. We need to work on American labor laws.
One of the main focuses of the film is the relationship between the Chinese management and American workers. How would you describe the main challenges the management faced?
Reichert: I think the Chinese management style is extremely different. The way their managers approach work and they train workers is very different. The system is a little more like an apprenticeship, where you just watch, and then you are expected to be able to do that task. What we saw, and other people told us this is not unusual, is that the manager can basically tell the workers what they need to do, and demand the worker do exactly that.
If you tell an American worker to do something, they will ask why. They will say that they might have a better idea. They look at the management and the supervisor right in the eye and talk to them like another person. The Chinese management supervisors and management are really not used to that. The Chinese management were also really frustrated with the Americans because they didn’t feel they worked fast enough. They didn’t feel like they did what they were supposed to do right away.
Also, from what we saw, there are not really human relations departments in China that can straighten worker complaints.
Bognar: These are cultural differences. It’s not like we are trying to say that one is good and one is bad. You could argue that if people [in the US] were less individualist, more stuff would get done. You might see a higher productivity level when people are less questioning or individualist.
At the same time, we are two Midwestern Americans, and we love seeing when people question authority. We love seeing when Americans workers ask why they should do something, and want to understand the big picture. That spirit of stubbornness and resistance is beautiful.
One of my favorite moments of the movie is when the Chinese president of the plant explains to the Chinese supervisors that Americans need to be stroked like donkeys, as a way to explain that they need a lot of positive reinforcement.
Reichert: Yeah. When any American sees that their jaws drop. [The president] also says, “we’re better than them.” Which is really bad. He really shouldn’t be rallying his workers by saying that.
What was your experience talking to workers about Trump? National politics does not really appear in the movie.
Bognar: In terms of Trump, we spoke to a bunch of factory workers who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump. Both times they voted for who they perceived as the outsider who was going to come in and make things better. It’s not that they love Trump, but they wanted to give him a chance.
Reichert: We could tell Trump was going to win, from where we lived. He wasn’t an inside politician, and they thought he would shake things up. People would literally say things like, “The union is going to fight for us, and Trump is going to fight for us.” They would be pro-union and pro-Trump. A lot of people are still pro-Trump. They look at the jobs situation. Wages are only going up a bit, but there are way more jobs around.
Speaking of politics, how did the Obamas get involved in the movie?
Reichert: The Obamas saw the movie when it was finished at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. They have a production company called Higher Ground. Their idea is that in their legacy years, they want to spend a lot of time creating stories, film, TV, and books. They chose our film as their first release, and they have a deal with Netflix.
The Obamas were attracted to the movie being a story about the working class. How often do you see the stories of working people on the screen that are honest and not making fun of them? Michelle Obama is a working class kid, just like me. Her dad punched the clock and wore a uniform to work in Chicago, and is from a humble background.
I also think that they like that the film tries to be fair. It is a very divided world and I think that the Obamas want to bring people together and try to create movies and TV shows that let people of different opinions come and talk together in a thoughtful way and hear each other.