What Happened When a Chinese Glassmaker Opened a New Factory in an Old GM Plant

Aug 21 2019 |
A scene from “American Factory.” | Netflix

Beth and Jeff talk “American Factory,” which examines a plethora of manufacturing issues.

Netflix made the documentary film “American Factory” available for streaming on Wednesday. The flick is garnering a ton of attention for the company backing it — Higher Ground Productions, which is run by Barack and Michelle Obama — and it is a likely Oscar-contender, having nabbed the U.S. Documentary Directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

American Factory is the work of Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who chronicled the closing of the General Motors (GM) plant outside Dayton, Ohio in their 2009 film, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Their latest picks up the story in 2015, when Chinese glass manufacturer Fuyao was preparing to open a facility at the old GM site, even hiring on some of the factory's former employees.  

Bognar and Reichert captured incredible fly-on-the-wall footage for American Factory, telling the behind-the-scenes story from the perspective of the plant’s workers — both American and Chinese — as well as management. They follow the facility’s progress as management aims to hit production goals and workers cope with some new realities and cultural differences.

AAM’s own Jeff Bonior and Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch both had the chance to see the film before its premiere on Netflix. The duo discuss it below — and fair warning, there are some light spoilers.

BETH: Jeff, I am so excited to finally have the chance to talk about this documentary! I saw it earlier this summer at a preview screening. I don't know what I expected going in, but I left feeling A LOT of emotions. It's the sort of movie that stays with you for days.

JEFF: I was fortunate to see “The Last Truck” about six hours prior to my screening of “American Factory.” This new film is so important for Americans to understand the cultural differences between the United States and China. It is all too obvious in American Factory. The amazing thing was the unlimited access the filmmakers had, and the lack of censorship I would expect from a Chinese enterprise.

BETH: Before we get into the U.S.-China differences, can we talk about The Last Truck? Because American Factory is really its sequel, in a way. The Last Truck examined the closure of the old General Motors factory, but also highlighted the loss of good-paying, union-represented manufacturing jobs and the larger middle class. Now with American Factory, it looks at what's next. Yes, there are these jobs and that's great! But they aren't unionized and don't come with a lot of the same benefits that those old GM jobs did (and the pay is much lower). The people taking them are excited to work, but the cracks show immediately. There are big questions about the future of work, especially for the working class.

JEFF: Having been born and raised in Detroit, I have had many family members and friends work at auto plants in union jobs. It was disheartening to see what happened at the old GM Dayton plant. When Fuyao came along, there was a glimmer of hope that the glass factory jobs would produce new prosperity. It wasn’t long before the old GM workers discovered that it was a new global world, with Chinese policies unfamiliar to them.

BETH: Right. The film examines some of these. Not just the salaries, which are lower, but also things like safety regulations and just the general treatment of employees.

JEFF: Exactly. The Last Truck was heartbreaking and tore you down, but American Factory offered a glimmer of hope. While people were thrilled to find new jobs in Dayton, it wasn’t long before they realized the mercantilist attitude of a Chinese-owned company. It was high-tech China clashing with working-class America.

BETH: Given the stereotypes we have about China and the government’s control of information, what was so amazing about American Factory is the access that the filmmakers had. I mean, I expected to hear from the American workers, but they also were regularly allowed to film in meetings with management and with the Chinese workers.

The Chinese workers are depicted very sympathetically — they have been sent to this strange new place to work, away from their families, without any real sense of what might come next. They work long, hard hours, too. Meanwhile, the management just wants to get the maximum amount of product out of its workforce with little regard for their personal wellbeing. That I expected from the Chinese, but it's also worth noting that there were Americans working in management, too.

JEFF: The access the filmmakers had, along with a lack of Chinese censorship, was astounding to me. It presented a real objective look at the differences between American and Chinese manufacturing. What was startling, and quite disappointing, was the attitudes of the Americans hired to be part of the management team. They drank the Kool-Aid.

There’s a scene where Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown attends the plant’s opening ceremony and voices support for any efforts to unionize. The American managers were the most upset, with one even wishing he could hurt Brown! A directive quickly went down that Senator Brown should never be allowed to return to the Fuyao plant. It was so anti-union and, to me, anti-American. These American managers were out to save their own butts. For me, of all the differences between American and Chinese manufacturing, the belligerence toward Sen. Brown’s fight for working men and women, just spoke volumes.

BETH: It really did speak volumes. What made me most sad about this story was the race to the bottom, so to speak. The problems did not arise between the workers themselves — in fact, the American and Chinese workers forged friendships and got along fine. Some even called each other family, and they really did respect one another. That part of the film was very touching.

But the Chinese officials didn't understand things like the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, and basic safety standards. They were legitimately puzzled by why these things exist and why the Americans expected them. Then the American managers just went with it. There really is a lingering question in the film, I think, as to whether those basic rights — which previous generations fought long and hard to win — are things U.S. workers can keep in the future if we want to compete globally. That is a tragedy. We shouldn't be racing to the bottom, we should be aiming to lift everyone up.

JEFF: That is an excellent point, Beth. With a little compromise, I feel the American and Chinese workers could have worked together in harmony and could have learned from each other. This would so positive for both countries. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the Chinese Communist Party. The film does not create anger toward the Chinese workers. It is the management style that infuriates me. A great opportunity is being missed here because of ideology.

There really is a lingering question in the film, I think, as to whether those basic rights — which previous generations fought long and hard to win — are things U.S. workers can keep in the future if we want to compete globally. That is a tragedy. We shouldn't be racing to the bottom, we should be aiming to lift everyone up.

BETH: Indeed. I do hope a lot of people take the time to watch this film. It really does showcase some of the reasons why working people are losing out, and why the middle class is shrinking, why these issues are such a big part of our politics right now. I mean, some of the workers at the Fuyao plant are working for half as much money as they did in similar jobs at GM… and that factory closed 10 years earlier! 

JEFF: The film conjures up a variety of emotions but should be viewed by every working American, and not just in the management space. This is what we’re up against by ceding manufacturing to China.

I don’t see the average Chinese manufacturing worker as all that different than the American workers. They are just used to playing with a dangerous set of rules and working under unsafe working conditions, low wages and poor benefits. As Americans, do we want to do the same, or do we want to fight to maintain workers rights and expand them to others?

BETH: It will be interesting to see what the reaction to the film is from people who don't follow these issues as closely as you and I do. 

JEFF: I think it will probably “run the gamut from A to B” as Dorothy Parker once wrote about a Katherine Hepburn performance. But seriously, I hope folks come away from this film with the same variety of feelings that I had, even if it is just the open access allowed by the Chinese to let this film be made in the manner the filmmakers intended. There are many lessons to be learned, but the bottom line is that we are all here to make a better life for ourselves and our families.