This article was updated on Feb. 21 to clarify the sequence of events laid out in the first paragraph.
At this year's Academy Awards, Netflix’s American Factory, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, won for best feature-length documentary. The title should have been “Chinese Factory,” because the only thing American about it is the factory’s location in the small town of Moraine, outside of Dayton, OH. While the documentary opens with the Dec. 23, 2008, closing of what was once a General Motors factory, we are never told the back story of that closing nor the role that Obama administration policies played after the president took office in January 2009, including further bailout negotiations, plant closings, and bargaining with the United Auto Workers (UAW).
|Image from American Factory courtesy Netflix.|
An article in the Sept. 13, 2019, edition of the Wall Street Journal by Mike Turner noted that “despite being one of the top GM facilities for quality, efficiency and production in the country, it was shuttered.” The Moraine plant was a union factory, but many of the employees were non-union (workers cannot be forced to join a union as a condition for employment), leaving many of those workers transfered to other GM plants in the region in difficulty.
In 2014, Chinese businessman Cao Dewang bought the plant. He was known to workers as “Chairman Cao,” a monicker that echoes another chairman whose Great Leap Forward killed an estimated 45 million people in four years. (Some estimates put the total number of people killed throughout his rule to be upwards of 80 million.)
To the out-of-work citizens of Moraine, the arrival of Chairman Cao’s Fuyao Glass Inc. and the re-opening of the plant that would soon employ 2,000 people was greeted with open arms. Fuyao was seen as the “savior” of Moraine and its citizens.
At the plant’s grand opening, however, there were already signs of trouble ahead when Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown spoke to the crowd of Ohio’s “rich history of unions.” Immediately, Chairman Cao made Sen. Brown persona non grata on company property. “If union comes in, it will hurt our production,” commented Chairman Cao. “We’ll shut it down.”
The honeymoon was short-lived, as the employees began their indoctrination into the Chinese way of how manufacturing plants are run. Some 200 Chinese workers were sent from China to Ohio to provide training in plant operations. The Chinese groused that “Americans are slow to train” because they have “fat fingers.”
The working conditions were very hot, as one might expect in a factory where extremely high heat is needed to turn sand into glass. “Our American colleagues are very afraid of heat,” commented one Chinese worker. The American managers, supervisors and the president of the company tried to get Chairman Cao to make changes after OSHA found that the work areas were “too dense,” but nothing changed.
Americans also complained that the work was repetitive—“doing the same thing over and over again,” remarked one worker. “Do we have the stamina and will to continue?” He was doubtful. American employees of the new Fuyao plant, which supplied automotive glass to many vehicle makers in the U.S., were grateful for the jobs but, as one woman commented, “at GM I made $29 an hour.” Now she was earning half that.
Given that “output is first, speed is second,” injuries were commonplace. One injured man commented that he’d never been injured in all his 15 years working for GM, but now after two years at Fuyao, he incurred a severe cut injury.
It’s not that Fuyao doesn’t have a union in its Chinese plants—it has a “union” in the Communist Party headquarters at the plant. I’ve written in the past about how U.S. companies must give Chinese workers a certain amount of time off during the week to attend Communist Party meetings.