“American Factory” (2019): Chinese company buys an American glass manufacturer in Ohio, causing a trade war in reverse and indoctrinating employees with Communism

Michele and Barack Obama have formed a film production company, Higher Ground Productions, to “tell stories” that need hearing, according to the couples’ ten minute interview that accompanies the NetFlix release of “American Factory”, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (as interviewed).

The film traces the history of a windshield glass factory near Dayton, Ohio, after it was purchased by Fuyao Glass Industry Group from China, located in Fujian in December 2008.

The new owners placed some employers and line managers from China as workers.  The purchase may have benefited many Americans at first, as the rust belt was reeling already from the 2008 financial crisis, as well as previous plant relocations overseas and to automation. But the Chinese owners took a paternalistic and sometimes authoritarian attitude toward the workers, whom they saw as spoiled and overly individualistic, needing to be rightsized according to the communitarian and group-centered ideas of “The People’s Republic of Capitalism” (as Ted Koppel would call it).  (There is a meme-proverb that they used to characterize US employees, “pet the donkey in the direction the hair grows.”)  The middle section of the film shows the management visiting China, and being indoctrinated somewhat into post-Maoist communism (meeting with party committees).  The company has a motivational concert, with dancers singing motivational songs (that sound repetitious by the standards of western music) before breaking out with the Village People’s “YMCA”, totally unaware that this had been a staple of the leather gay male community in the 1970s.

The company would then fight off an effort by the employees to unionize, giving raises and using “anti-union” consulting companies.  Yet they would become even stricter in terms of performance, firing employees whose movements in a regimented job were too slow. Yet, there were constant safety problems, with exposure of employees to breakage and burn injuries and exposure to excessive heat for short times.

This film, also showing in downtown Washington at a Landmark Theater near Trump Tower and Harry’s Bar, has to confound the debate on the trade war with China, as roles are reversed.  What happens when China wants to use American workers?  It sounds like there is a danger of indoctrination. But, yes, under current circumstances, American companies (especially Apple) are going to have to become less dependent on Chinese labor.  There is also the material of our dependence on China for some rare earth metals.

A “communist” or “people’s” workplace can be very brutal indeed.