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When General Motors Co. in 2008 shuttered a factory near Dayton, Ohio, thousands of workers lost high-paying union jobs. Eight years later, a Chinese glass manufacturer reopened part of the plant, bringing new employment but a very different work culture. The new Netflix documentary American Factory is a fascinating and evenhanded look at the stark differences between American and Chinese work life.
Cao Dewang, chairman of the Fuyao Group, wants to establish an American presence for his glass company. After investing millions of dollars in the Dayton plant, the chairman expects productivity there to catch up with the company’s factories in China. Former GM workers are excited about their new jobs, but are quick to recall that wages were much higher in the former days. Some employees aren’t enamored of the productivity demands of their Chinese colleagues or of the pressures to take shortcuts that could endanger their health.
Fuyao brings several hundred managers from China to train and work alongside the new employees. The supervisors are largely disappointed in their American workforce. One tells chairman Cao on a plant tour: “They’re pretty slow. They have fat fingers. We keep training them over and over.” Another is surprised that health and safety inspectors consider the extreme heat of the furnace room a hazard.
Soon, some workers band together and try to form a union. Fuyao works aggressively to squelch these attempts: Supervisors threaten terminations and hire an anti-union consulting firm to intimidate workers. After firing the company’s American president and vice president, Cao hires a Chinese-born leader for the Ohio plant, hoping new leadership will reverse the factory’s mounting losses.
American Factory, rated TV-14 for some colorful language, might not be what one would expect from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. But directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert masterfully tell this story of two very different work cultures attempting to come together.