American Factory picks up the story of a Dayton, Ohio based factory (once owned and operated by GM) now owned by a Chinese investor who has plans to open an American factory for his Chinese Fuyao Glass company which specializes in manufacturing car glass. Thousands of GM workers were left without jobs as well as lost their homes and vehicles at the closing of the GM factory. When Fuyao re-opens the factory, these workers are grateful for the opportunity to work again and are surprised how quickly the old factory is revived with new equipment under the Chinese leadership. Knowing cultural differences and language barriers could be an issue, the Chinese hire Americans to lead the hiring process and manage the workers.
The beginning of the film introduces the viewer to key employees with their stories and hopes for the future. One American worker tells how she lost everything when GM closed, had to move into her sister’s basement, and how grateful she is for the new job. Another American complains about the disparity in wages as she used to make $29 an hour at GM and could afford to buy her kids anything they needed. Her wage at the new factory is only $12.84 and she doesn’t know how she’ll afford things as well as pay bills. A Chinese worker explains he has been working for Fuyao as a furnace engineer for 20 years before he was given the opportunity to come and teach the business to American workers. His assignment will last two years while his wife and two kids remain in China. As the workers learn more about each other and teach one another their languages, they make time to spend together fishing and having cookouts.
The film shows the mindsets of the American management and Chinese as they try to teach one another about the cultural differences each will need to overcome to be successful together. In a meeting with Chinese workers, their cultural teacher explains Americans “let their personality run free, are obvious and dislike abstract thoughts, are casual in attire and attitude, and can joke about their President without anything happening to them”. American management are perplexed by the Chinese wanting door locations and safety issues changed for efficiency and cultural references. They marvel at the Chinese work ethic while trying to maintain American work environment standards.
Management pairs a Chinese supervisor to the American workers in order to train them on the business. One Chinese says, “Americans are slow with fat fingers…need to train them over and over…” while another explains, “due to the cultural and language differences, it’s hard to integrate ideas quickly…”. American workers have a different perspective. American workers feel they aren’t being appreciated or respected as well as question the work environment as being potentially unsafe for them. They refuse some of the tasks asked of them and the rumblings of organizing a union begin.
At the Grand Opening of the factory, guest speaker Senator Brown takes the opportunity to infuse union comments into his speech, blindsiding both American and Chinese management. The founder of Fuyao tells them, if a union comes in, he’ll shut the factory down. A union will slow his production and cost the company too much money. But the union isn’t the company’s only obstacle. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has work place requirements regarding aisle-ways, extreme temperatures, and insufficient exits within the factory impacting production.
The Chinese spend a lot of time reminding their Chinese workers of the pride and heritage of being Chinese, their work is a reflection of their country and culture. It’s up to them to pull through for the company in meeting the goals set. The Americans spend time feeling squeezed between quality and speed as well as not being “heard” by management.
American management and factory supervisors travel to China to tour the Chinese factory, watch the workers in action, and take part in a company celebration. Cultural differences are painful to watch when the Americans show up to their first meeting with the Chinese. The Chinese are wearing button up shirts with suit coats while the Americans wear a range of attire from button up shirts, factory polos with the logo, and a tee shirt with the Jaws graphic on the front. At the factory tour, Americans watch as the shift starts with a “roll call” and pep talk with workers before they are released to their work stations. Americans marvel at the pace of the Chinese as well as how much they work (12 hour shifts with only 1 – 2 days per month) and the tasks they are given (sorting broken glass by color for recycling) using phrases such as “f**king crazy”. In a casual conversation, a Chinese supervisor asks his American equal about American workers being “chatty”. The American, speaking in Chinese, agrees and says, “If we could duct tape their mouths, we’d get more done” while making the gesture of putting tape over his mouth. They both laugh.
The Chinese factory has happy sounding music with propaganda laced words of transparency, prosperity, loyalty to country, etc.. playing for employees while they work. The music continues at the large company party with song and dance presentations celebrating the Chinese culture and business. When it’s time for American to present, music for the Village People’s YMCA begins and the American management team enters the stage dancing loosely and barely in-sync while moving their arms into the YMCA shapes. The large party ends with a mass wedding of about 7 or 8 couples…
Meanwhile, back in America, talk of organizing the union heats up. American workers wear shirts or hats, walk through the factory with signs (a la Norma Rae), and protest outside the company property. Anti-union meetings with employees continue but to avail. The Chinese founder decides, after losing $40 million dollars over the first 10 months of opening and the fear of losing more with possible union issues, to replace his American management with a trusted Chinese CEO and VP. The new Chinese CEO starts things off with a big Christmas dinner for employees and a pep talk, “work together, make more money, and everyone share a piece of the pie” buying him a little more time to turn things around.
The Chinese workers miss their families and the American workers begin to rebuild their lives; however, the struggle between remains as one supervisor says as he walks away from a dispute between two workers, “instead of resolution, they want to blame and in this case, they’re both wrong.” The talk of union flares up again so the Chinese CEO tells workers they all get a $2 raise for working so hard and remind them to “work harder, work longer”. American workers don’t want to be controlled by the Chinese and continue to push for the union becoming targets and are fired for slow output. The Chinese CEO and founder become increasingly regretful for investing in the U.S. as they don’t want to be controlled by the union.
A consulting firm is brought in to tell the workers if they unionize and go on strike, even thought the workers cannot be legally fired, they can be “permanently replaced”. The vote to unionize fails with 848 votes no and 444 votes yes. The Chinese CEO congratulates the workers and tells them he will send the 10 best workers to China for a vacation where they can swim in a pool located at the top of a hotel 50 stories high. American workers do not seem to impressed by the offer.
As the company moves forward, the Chinese founder wonders if he has contributed to the world or sinned against nature, more and more jobs at the American factory are replaced by automation, and Fuyao finally begins to see profits. As of 2018, entry level jobs start at $14 per hour and the American factory employs 2000 American workers and 200 Chinese workers.
What I Liked
The film does not appear to have an agenda or favorable point of view. Americans are shown with hope, expectations for the future, and the eagerness to work together to create jobs and support the community. The Chinese are shown with hope, expectations of the future, and eagerness to work in the U.S. creating jobs and prosperity. The film is fair and honest when both Americans and Chinese show their disappointments and frustrations about the struggle of understanding and working through cultural differences and language barriers. A real eye-opener about the differences in business depending on the country.
It was also interesting to learn what the Chinese really think about Americans and American work ethic. If that doesn’t embarrass you or make you think twice, I don’t know…I’m not saying the Chinese way is necessarily better but that Americans could probably learn a thing or two about humility. A great lesson in cultural differences.
What I Wished Was Better
As an American, there are some tough pills to swallow watching this as I felt many American workers seemed resistant to the Chinese attempt at reviving their economy as well as the lack of respect Americans showed at the first meeting in China with the casual attire. It’s a business meeting people! Dress accordingly! I was also embarrassed by the YMCA bit. It just didn’t seem like the Americans took this seriously. After watching, I wished the Chinese had more positive things to say about America. I’m surprised they stayed in America and opened up two more factories.
American Factory is a culture clash documentary about Fuyao Glass and the opening of its first American factory in Dayton, Ohio. An honest look at cultural differences and a definite eye-opener for me! Available on Netflix. watch the trailer below:
Fun Facts: Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert live near the factory and made a short documentary about the closing of the GM plant. Filming took place from February of 2015 to December of 2017 and released in 2019.