Sometimes the universe conspires to bring something important to your attention. Such was the case with the stunning documentary American Factory. In a matter of 24 hours I heard an interview on the radio with the filmmakers, watched it win an Oscar for Feature Length Documentary, and saw twitter light up when producers Michelle and Barack Obama tweeted their congratulations to the directors. So I had to watch it.
The film depicts the life cycle of an American manufacturing plant in Dayton, Ohio. Previously a Frigidaire plant for 27 years, General Motors then occupied the plant for more than 40 years before closing it in 2008. But in October 2016 the plant was re-opened by a Chinese-owned automotive glass company, which promised to bring 2000+ jobs to the factory (nearly as many as held by the former GM workers, but at much lower pay rates). The film chronicles the next three years of Fuyao Glass America.
The film provides us with an inside look at two worlds: the world of Chinese executives trying to work with American workers, and the world of American executives trying to work with Chinese workers and a powerful Chinese company chairman. It shows how extraordinarily difficult it is to build one culture in a company, whether those culture clashes come from nationality, income, personal perspective, or any other difference. The film addresses issues like compensation and its impact on performance and retention. In response to pro-union rumors, all workers are given an across-the-board $2 per-hour raise, and eventually a union is voted down. It looks at differing views of safety. American executives worry when they see workers at the company's Chinese plant sorting broken glass without wearing eye protection and cut-proof gloves. We see that the role of automation allows managers to “cancel” jobs, in this instance by adding robotic arms to make it faster and safer to move glass throughout the plant.
There is also the heart-wrenching tension shown between “us and them” and “you and me.” As pitched as the battle is between the the two cultures and management vs. workers, we also see the human side through the actions and words of many individuals on both sides. One 50-something former auto-worker, laid off by Fuyao after two and a half years, still calls the supervisor who taught him about the glass furnaces his “Chinese brother,” for whom he would do anything. You see an American executive tear up with heartfelt emotion after watching a company celebration in China, which includes hymns to the “transparent greatness” (Get it—a glass company?) of Fuyao Glass, a dance celebrating “lean manufacturing,” and the group wedding of about six couples employed by Fuyao. The executive says, “We are one world. Sometimes divided. But one.”
It’s not as simple as America versus the world, or China versus the world. It’s never as simple as us versus them. The film urges us to question what our differences mean. There are real cultural and generational disparities between American and Chinese workers today, and the realities and expectations of the generations who preceded them. American workers at the GM plant had been solidly middle class. Now, however, worker pay starts below $14 an hour, and they fear the American dream is lost to them forever. The radio interview I heard points out that a communist country seems to have perfected American-style capitalism, complete with their workers’ desire for the American dream, a sentiment echoed by the same “Chinese brother” previously mentioned. He remarks that his generation of Chinese workers now wants “everything. To travel where we want, buy what we want.”
I grew up in a college town in Michigan. In so-called Rust Belt states like Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, I saw what happens after a company town’s major employer shutters its doors for good. It quickly becomes a ghost town, which puts the town’s workers in an extremely dire situation, suddenly unable to pay their mortgages without the good salaries they used to have (and no one remaining there who would want to buy their homes), or finding themselves unable to afford new shoes or Christmas gifts for their kids. I’ve seen the good and bad side of unions. I find myself struggling to reconcile my liberal, progressive upbringing— that believes in a living wage, the power of the middle class, the dignity of hard work, and the need to lift up the less fortunate—with my own experience in business and the need to continually improve performance, the right for companies to make money, and the success of individuals.
See the film if you know what I'm talking about and have wrestled with this same complexity, or see it especially if you don’t. If you’ve ever considered working at a global company, or if you work in HR or in a leadership position, see the film. Heck, if you’ve ever held or wanted a job, see the film. I know I’ll be watching it again, since it deserves a second viewing. Although it may not help answer all of my questions, it sure is important that we keep asking them.