NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C apitalism giveth, a vast and beautiful bounty. But it sure destroyeth a lot of stuff along the way. Rarely does a sober, even-keeled reckoning come along to illuminate the human suffering of creative destruction while gently acknowledging that this is the way it has to be.
Such a portrayal is American Factory, a heartbreaking Netflix documentary about the gritty truths of capitalism. You may have heard the film, which has been nominated for an Oscar, described as “Obama’s movie.” It isn’t. It’s directed by veteran documentarians Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. Barack and Michelle’s company, Higher Ground Productions, put their imprimatur on the film after the fact, when it was sold to the Obamas’ partners at Netflix. Nevertheless, you can see the affinity, as I’ll explain.
In Moraine, outside Dayton, Ohio, a unionized GM assembly plant shut down in 2008 as demand for the SUVs it produced waned with high fuel prices. The huge property sat there, empty and forlorn, until a Chinese behemoth that makes windows for automobiles, Fuyao Glass, decided to take a chance on it and reopen the facility. Workers who had once gotten $29 an hour and generous union benefits were offered less than half of that. Another way of looking at it: Laid-off workers who were getting $0 an hour were given a chance to come back to work for $13 an hour. Not the least of the film’s ironies is that after an all-American union (the IUE-CWA ran the shop) helped destroy jobs, an American state dangled $10 million in tax credits to lure China in to reopen the place, with non-union jobs.
Yet as soon as the plant gets up and running, what happens? Yep, union organizers start sniffing around. At a ribbon-cutting speech, the fatuous Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) goes off-piste and starts calling for unionization, after which an (American) factory executive is seen cordially wondering whether the scissors used to cut the ribbon could also be used to separate Brown’s head from his shoulders.
Many similarly amazing scenes of candor turn up in the film, in which everybody seems oblivious of the cameras recording their words. The rigid Chinese execs — seriously, the boss is named “Chairman Cao” — are equally baffled both by American customs and by American law. When the union movement starts to build, leading up to suspenseful scenes about a vote on whether to join the UAW even as the plant was losing $40 million a year, the Chinese openly discuss firing union activists, and do indeed fire some of them. Workers say the Chinese managers also don’t seem to grasp that you can’t flush toxic chemicals into the sewers or make the workers do dangerous tasks. One employee, desperate to please, allows that he spends 10 minutes or so an hour in a glass-baking room. It’s 200 degrees in there.
A visit to the Chinese parent company plumbs the cultural chasm. On the shop floor, uniformed workers form ranks and chant in unison, like Marines. Large posters of China’s present and past leaders remind the workers that management is backed by the full force of the state, and that several executives are Communist Party officials. At a New Year’s feast, girls in song-and-dance numbers warble such lyrics as, “Employee relations system is amazing!” The culture pushes every employee toward abject sycophancy in an atmosphere of unchecked propaganda.
So it’s perfectly clear why the Chinese managers back in Ohio grumble about American culture. “Everyone who grows up in the U.S. is overconfident,” an executive says at a how-to-handle-these-people meeting. “Americans love being flattered to death.” The flip side of that is an American woman at the Ohio factory who marvels, “They refer to us as foreigners.” The workers complain that they never get a pat on the back, and that when a manager tells them to do something, they are not told why. Alarming workplace injuries accumulate, too, making the viewer wonder where the regulators are.
Though the documentary doesn’t include this information, OSHA has fined the company more than $900,000 since 2016 for “exposing employees to multiple safety and health hazards,” according to the most recent citation. Fuyao was also fined $120,000 by the NLRB for firing union supporters, and settled for $1.3 million a class-action suit filed by 600 employees who charged the company with paycheck abuses. Still, a job is a job. Toward the end, Chinese managers are shown blandly walking the floor and pointing out which employees will soon be made redundant by automation.
Today the plant employs some 2,300 people and in 2018 it made a net profit of $24.5 million. The adjective “neoliberal,” frequently attached to Obama by his detractors on the left, kept popping up in my mind while watching American Factory. Neoliberal means “grudging capitalist,” and that’s an accurate description of both Obama and this film. It’s disquieting that the economy is always in turmoil, with jobs constantly being destroyed or replaced by lower-paying ones. But there is no reverting to a time when the U.S. had few global competitors; hence, no better system is available. As one forlorn former union worker says at the end, “We will never, ever, make that type of money again. Those days are over.” Documentaries are supposed to capture reality. That is reality.