A General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio, closed in 2008 as gas prices skyrocketed just before the financial crisis. Eventually, thanks to state and local tax incentives, Fuyao, a Chinese automotive glass company, moved into the former GM plant and started hiring again.
People were pleased to be working again. But relations soured and some workers tried to unionize. Most of this played out in front of documentary filmmakers in Ohio and China, and the result is the upcoming Netflix documentary “American Factory.”
Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio spoke to film’s directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: The film does depict these charming moments of Chinese and American workers finding common ground but then you do see a culture clash — workplace culture clash — we’re not talking about people eating different food. But we’re talking about, well, you know, on a junket to China, a China-based worker, a Chinese worker, says that line to an American …
Unnamed worker in China: You guys have eight days off every month. You have all the weekends. Only eight hours a day, that’s an easy life. These workers only have one or two days off per month. They’re not too happy about that.
Reichert: I think a lot of things started happening, safety didn’t get any better, the work got caught harder. And I think there was also a cultural difference in work life, which is that we found that, in China, if a worker is asked by a supervisor to do something, he or she will just do it. Now American workers are different. We’re prouder. We feel like, “tell me why? Why am I doing it?” Or, “I have a better idea. Why don’t I do it this way?” The Chinese supervisors were in no way expecting that. It was a chafing of cultures that led to a feeling of disrespect. And then they didn’t feel as dedicated to working really hard. I think the Chinese workers felt very dedicated to the company. The company took care of them, they’d worked there for a while, the country was booming and growing and it was all connected. I think there’s that sense of sort of in China, that there’s a sense that our country is booming, our factory is booming, they’re going to take care of me so I’m going to work that extra … I’m going to be okay with working that extra mile. Not that they liked working six and seven days a week. But I think they felt the sacrifice was worth it. And we don’t feel that way here.
Bognar: It’s a challenging, hot environment. And if you’re making $12 an hour — at the beginning, it was $12, now it’s $14 an hour — you can’t really fault someone for not wanting to work those overtime hours or work on Saturday, you know? It’s harder to get investment when you’re feeling like the wages are not what they should be. Some of these folks who used to work in the GM plant, they were making $29 or $32 an hour.
Robert “Bobby” Allen: GM afforded me a great life that was cut off when they closed the doors. We will never, ever make that type of money again. Those days are over.
Brancaccio: It’s so stark, though, in the film, where it looks like some Chinese managers are meeting and one of them is frustrated. He says, you know, can’t we just force them — the American workers — to work overtime? And you hear this, you know, chorus of laughter at that silly notion because, you know, we don’t tend to force people in the U.S. to work overtime.
Reichert: Well, that’s actually … now there is mandatory overtime for actually quite a bit of the plant. They have to work Saturdays or they get pointed. I mean, they could choose not to, but then they get pointed. And after so many points, you’re fired.
Bognar: And, you know, one of the things we hope the film raises is: is this all sustainable? Are we all drifting toward this model of nine to nine, six days a week? Or should there be different solutions to making a sustainable life for working people around the world?
Brancaccio: I should interject that it’s not that all the Chinese employees are vilifying the American workers. There’s a lovely moment where one of your Chinese main characters, in a very reflective moment, thinks about how hard Americans work. Americans often work two jobs, he points out, and it’s something that seems more unusual to him. So there’s some respect there, as well.
Reichert: Yeah, we found that too. You know, I think what we’re circling around talking about is how work life, whether you’re talking China or the U.S. or wherever around the world, for workers is becoming more and more difficult and less and less like supportive of the rest of their life. And I think if we in this country want to have … how do I say it? Like a strong middle class, which we had, for a while, workers have to have some kind of bargaining power, you know? which they didn’t really have in that plant.
Bognar: Leverage, you know?
Reichert: But they have to have bargaining power to have a voice, whether it’s in China or in the U.S. But of course, we’re Americans. So we were very concerned at seeing the union avoidance efforts that were very strong in that plant. And I’m sure you notice it when you saw the film.
Brancaccio: Yeah, there’s a private company that’s brought in that contracts to do this kind of work, that when a union movement is afoot, tries to explain to the American workers why this is not in their best interest.
Bognar: And this is not a Chinese phenomenon. It’s actually something that the company, Fuyao, learned from Americans: when you have a brewing union campaign, the standard practice these days is to hire consultants to sort of try to dissuade the workforce through very intensive messaging and mandatory meetings, to sort of either confuse or dissuade them from supporting their right to organize.
Brancaccio: In the film, there’s a very articulate counterpoint to this. A U.S. worker for Fuyao addresses a union gathering, United Auto Workers, and puts it into perspective about how they have a family member who makes way more money working, I think, in a nail salon.
Reichert: Yeah, these these guys who work, guys and women, who, you know, work these hard jobs, take home, maybe $27,000 a year. Right? And that’s not a living wage if you think about it. Even in Dayton, Ohio, for a family, you have a couple kids, you know, that’s not a living wage. And that’s what people get. But on the other hand, as Bobby in the film says, this is the best game in town. So I guess the film, I mean, you see globalization, for one thing, on a very human scale in this film, you see how it looks up close. But you also see what’s happening, I think, to the American middle class, the American working class, the less and less agency at work, and less and less good, solid security for their life.
Brancaccio: I mean, it becomes very clear that the reopening of a closed factory does not rewind the clock to the old days. It doesn’t bring back a GM-style job in the old mold.
Bognar: It doesn’t. Not in this current world. Yet, you know, we all talk about the great income, wealth gap that’s occurring. And we talk about the loss of agency of working people. This film doesn’t offer you a solution, but we hope it will at least start these kind of conversations about what we’re going to do about it.
Reichert: But make no mistake, people are glad that Fuyao came to Dayton. It’s jobs, there are good benefits. OK, it’s now $14 an hour. People can make more every year that goes by, or if they work on a second shift, they get more. Some people are making upwards of $18 or $19 an hour, which is approaching real middle class wages. I think yes, the simple idea that, oh, a big plant comes to a city that’s devastated economically and suddenly the city is transformed and workers are doing well again? No, it’s not that simple. That’s not how it works.
Bognar: There are these crisscrossing trajectories going on, you know? For Wong and his family, the last 30 years have been this sort of remarkable upward climb, and he’s going to be able to afford to build a house for his family. He told us that.
Reichert: Back in China.
Brancaccio: This is Wong, the young man who we follow throughout the film?
Bognar: Yeah, Wong is a furnace engineer who can take apart and rebuild this huge, rumbling furnace. You know, he’s been working at Fuyao for almost 20 years. And he’s got great skills, but he’s still a blue collar worker. He comes over to Ohio, he doesn’t get to see his kids for two years or so and he is committed to making this factory a success.
Wong He: I think the most important thing is mutual understanding. We’re under enormous pressure here, a lot more pressure than in China. There was a guy who couldn’t fall asleep for a couple of days. I really admire Americans. They can work two jobs, they can have another job besides working here. I always thought Americans lived in a comfortable and superior life. I thought they didn’t make sacrifices.
Bognar: And we felt and we learned, for a lot of the Chinese folks, it’s a mission. It’s not only a personal mission, it’s a national mission. But then look at some of the other folks in the movie, what they’ve seen over the last 30 years is loss after loss, a great decline. So you’ve got a downward trajectory for them and an upward one for Wong.
Reichert: I mean, again, we’re looking at this big word “globalization.” Well, what does it actually look like, on a day to day basis? And we had a chance to do that, to find that in our own hometown, and this one big factory that has like about 2,500 people working there.
Bognar: And you know, just to focus on Wong for a second, David. When we discovered him, we sort of fell in love with him, because he’s, first of all, he’s so charismatic. And he’s, you know, this sort of very agile, dynamic guy, but his thoughtfulness and his empathy for these blue-collar Americans ran really deep, and we just really connected with him.
Brancaccio: Now we’ll let people see the film to know what happened with the movement toward unionization. But at the end of the film, you see it on screen, the company in 2018 [is] still employing 2,000 workers. It’s profitable that year. I would think the chairman, Chairman Cao, would judge that a success. Do you think the American workers regard it as a success?
Bognar: It depends on who you ask?
Reichert: It does. It does. I think they do make a profit. I think the chairman’s glad about that. It’s not a lot of profit. It’d be really interesting. I’d love to ask him, are you glad you made the American factory? Are you glad for your American factory? Because of course, he has factories all over China, and in Germany, and in Brazil, and so forth.
Bognar: You know, I think for some of the American workers there, they’re very proud of it. And they do feel it’s a success. And for others, it’s been a challenging, hard environment in which to work. Just being honest. And a lot of people have quit, you know, it’s been a very high turnover there. But overall, economically, it has brought a lot of, you know, income and wealth back into Dayton. And we needed that.
Brancaccio: You partnered with some Chinese filmmakers to help make the film. What for? A sense of balance, maybe?
Bognar: We were walking through that factory for months by the time the Chinese filmmakers came on board, we realized pretty quickly on, we’re missing a huge part of the story. You know, we live in Dayton, Ohio. We’re very proud to be from Dayton, Ohio. But our perspective is with the blue-collar, local folks. And then we realized these Chinese folks have come over to Ohio for like a year, two years, they’re not going to see their kids for two years. And they have a big story as well. So it was really essential that we bring on folks who are Chinese and who speak Mandarin.
Reichert: One of the most important parts of that, we needed to be educated about Chinese culture and the Chinese economy. We needed to understand what it felt like. These were people born and raised in China, right? They only recently came to the U.S., and they could help us understand the educational system, the work life culture, when they got to read books after the Cultural Revolution was over, you know, how China’s going from rural poverty to booming middle class, all that stuff that they could help us understand that because they lived there.
Bognar: And you know, we’re trying to make a film that doesn’t look at the sort of amazing, miraculous in many ways, rise of China through a lens of sort of Midwestern American anxiety. You know, even though we live in Dayton, we’ve tried to make it so that all these different perspectives have their voice in the film.