In 2010, a plant that had been vacated two years earlier by General Motors in Dayton, Ohio, was taken over by Fuyao, a Chinese manufacturer of glass for automobiles. ‘American Factory’ is the story of what transpired as two cultures came together to make the enterprise successful.
It wasn’t easy. Each side had to work hard to try and understand the other.
A group of experienced Chinese workers is brought in to teach the work to the Americans. The Chinese do the complicated technical job effortlessly as the Americans look on. It will take time for them to come up to speed.
Some Chinese are skeptical or scornful.
‘Their fingers are fat,’ says one Chinese supervisor. ‘They are lazy’ says another. ‘In China the workers do six (12 hour) shifts a week, with two days off per month. The Americans do only 8 hours a day and don’t like to work the weekends.’
One Chinese executive, after explaining the best approach to working with the Americans, ends by reminding his Chinese audience that they are better than their hosts.
And yet, there is kindness on both sides.
An American worker speaks warmly of his Chinese supervisor and all that the man has taught him. In turn, he invites the supervisor and fellow Chinese to his farm.
We hear a Chinese worker showing admiration for the American lifestyle. He’s had to make sacrifices in coming to the US, like not seeing his family for long periods at a time.
A group of American supervisors invited to China to see the company’s factories witness the enthusiasm of their people, but also are struck by the strict regimentation of the workers. Is that what it has taken for their country to rise so quickly?
Like with their Chinese counterparts, the pressure of factory production on the Americans is demanding and unforgiving, requiring an enormous amount of attention to detail. A mistake and you’re injured. A little slow and you’re out.
American managers have their problems too. At the beginning we’re shown one such manager enthusiastically advocating for Fuyao. At the end he’s been sacked. He’s bitter.
Transplanting to the US the Chinese company’s style leads to mounting grievances and eventually the Americans try to unionize, but the majority vote against it. They want their jobs. ‘All the union will do,’ says one worker – a woman, ‘is keep the bad workers…’
The film is many things, and one that is plain is the contrast between the managerial and worker classes.
We’re told that Fuyao did not become profitable until 2018, all the while paying its employees $14 and hour. When General Motors was the employer, some workers were making $29 an hour. But Fuyao was now the only option available.
Think of the car you drive and the clear and sturdy windshield that helps you cruise smoothly at 80 miles per hour or more, your hair unruffled by the wind. The film shows us the complexity and skill involved in making possible that experience, the many steps necessary to deliver a light panel of glass that will not blow up in your face. And think then of how little the workers are paid.
Thought provoking and humane, we come away from the viewing of the film with a sense of how much needs to be done to build bridges across nations, and across social classes.