Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: An insightful 'American Factory'

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NEW YORK — What has happened to American manufacturing? Manufacturing used to be a larger component of the U.S. economy. In 1970, it was 24.3 percent of GDP, double what it was in 2018. In addition, America's edge as the world's leading manufacturer has also slipped. In 1970, China was the world's fifth largest manufacturer, but by 2010 it was number one.

The biggest reason was a shift in the U.S. to a service-based economy — banking and financial — and the growth of jobs in heath care. Also, the U.S.'s high standard of living has made labor costs much higher than that of other nations, making it much harder to compete with low-cost products made in China, South Asia, and Mexico. And technology has made inroads on the number of workers needed in manufacturing.

An article in The Atlantic entitled "America Is Still Making Things" by Alana Samuels (Jan. 2017) provides a more complex take on the state of American manufacturing: "Of course, the U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, and those losses have reverberated across the country. The scale of those losses has overshadowed areas of growth — but there has been growth. For example, the number of workers employed in manufacturing medical equipment and supplies has grown even as overall manufacturing employment has fallen 28 percent over that same time period."

The article goes on to say that if there is hope it's in the growth of advanced manufacturing, which is highly specialized and requires a talent with computers. That sector is actually expanding, and the economy will need to fill 3 1/2 million skilled manufacturing jobs over the next decade.

A recent documentary, "American Factory" directed by long-time filmmaker Julie Reichert ("Growing Up Female," "Seeing Red," "Union Maids") and Steven Bognar, takes a look at factory labor from a different angle. The film is the first documentary feature produced by the Obamas for Netflix, under the banner of their company Higher Ground Productions. "American Factory" depicts the opening of the Fuyao Glass plant in an auto factory that had been closed since 2008 in Dayton, Ohio (the directors' native town) by a Chinese company that promises investment and hundreds of new jobs. The company is headed by non-English speaking billionaire chairman Cao Dewang (referred to as "Chairman Cao"), and has received more than $6 million in subsidies from Ohio state taxpayers.


Its opening brings a sense of hope to the racially mixed group of workers, though they are making half of what they were paid at GM, who have been struggling economically in a state where unemployment was extremely high. And though it's now declining, it remains higher than the national rate.

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There are clear cultural differences. The company brings over 200 Chinese workers to help with retraining the American workers, who are instructed that they should be conscious that their values and personalities are much different from (superior to?) the Americans. An educational visit to China by some of the American managers conveys how culturally dissimilar the overweight, sloppy Americans are from the polite, disciplined, obediently conformist Chinese, who work long hours, get few days off, and sing songs of unity. They are also more productive and skilled workers than the Americans, acting in accord with a collective vision that provides little room for individuality or free time.

Soon the plant's workers' first bloom of enthusiasm for the job begins to dissipate. Management pursues greater productivity at the cost of safety regulations, and workplace injuries grow. A number of the workers feel Chinese management doesn't respect them (though some embrace the arrangement and a few get close to their Chinese counterparts), and worker turnover increases. Also, the repetitive and high-pressure nature of the work exhausts some workers. One even calls it "soul diminishing."

Cao is totally opposed to unions, and early in the film he rages against Sherrod Brown when the senator speaks sympathetically about the need for them. More than halfway through the film, management is faced with a vote on unionization. Cao pays "consultants" over a million dollars to lecture workers at length on the horrors of unions. And union supporters among the workers are targeted and fired. The election goes against the union (the UAW) as many of the workers who are frightened of having to face a period without a paycheck vote against the union.

The directors' sympathies are with the union and the workers, making it clear that without a union they have no voice. But the film's point of view is never polemical; it even (too self-consciously) tries to humanize Cao by having him wax nostalgic about earlier and simpler times. His moment of self-questioning does not turn him away from his driven commitment to work, profit and Trump's anodyne but ominous slogan "Let's Make America Great Again."

There is nothing new about labor/management conflict, and with only 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S. belonging to a union in 2017, unions, especially in the private sector, are often totally outgunned by management.

The film concludes on a melancholy note with the Chinese management talking of replacing workers with machines in the future. It's a solid film that perceptively evokes the plight of American workers, and illuminates the profound differences between Chinese and American cultures. No one desires Americans to emulate Chinese regimentation and subordination to authority, but developing more of a collective consciousness would allow workers to deal more successfully with the power of management.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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