Friday, October 18, 2019
I watched the Netflix documentary American Factory, about the labor relationships at a Chinese-owned auto glass factory in Dayton, Ohio. (For anyone unaware, the movie was produced by the Obamas). It’s a fascinating film for anyone interested either in business or labor issues.
The movie begins when the old GM plant is closed in the midst of the financial crisis, throwing thousands of people out of work. The plant is later purchased by Fuyao, a Chinese company. They’re hiring, but at much lower wages than the old factory, and they openly state they do not want any unionization. They are also sending over Chinese workers to work alongside the Americans. Despite the pay cut, American workers in this economically-depressed area are happy for the job; we can see the transformation made in people’s lives.
At first, the American workers and the Chinese workers bond; the Americans invite the Chinese over to parties, enjoy introducing them to American culture, and so forth. But the film then depicts something of a culture clash between the Americans and the Chinese.
The Chinese expect far more obedience from their workforce, longer working hours, and they seem baffled by American regulations – everything from environmental/safety to labor regulation. They openly state they want to hire younger workers (age discrimination!) and plan to fire labor organizers (labor violation!). Americans complain about unsafe working conditions and pollution, and obviously feel as that the Chinese supervisors – unfamiliar with American standards – are unsympathetic to their concerns. At one amusing/painful moment, the Chinese receive instructions from their supervisors about how American workers have unusually delicate sensibilities and need to be flattered into performing.
Later, in a jarring sequence, the American factory supervisors visit China. Among other things, workers regularly perform dangerous tasks without any safety equipment, and put on demonstrations of obedience and satisfaction, in sharp contrast to the increasing dissatisfaction of the American workers. Which isn’t to say the Chinese are necessarily any happier than the Americans – some Chinese workers talk about how they almost never get to see their families because of their long hours – but they are expected to put on a display of unity.
So there certainly are these cultural differences, which the film illustrates.
It does not actually strike me that in substance the Chinese-owned American factory is, in fact, run very differently than an American factory. Which is to say, the Chinese clearly are not sensitive to American laws, which is why they admit to extraordinarily illegal actions on camera; an American factory owner would be more savvy. But American bosses fire labor organizers, and violate safety laws, and demand unpaid overtime, and offer non-union laborers low wages, and replace workers with automation, all the time. In fact, to fight the labor agitation, the Chinese bring in an American consultant. Someone snuck a microphone into the meeting that the consultant held with the workers, and we hear all the standard lines from the anti-union playbook; none of this is unique to Chinese factory owners.
So while the framing device here is one of culture clash – and certainly the Americans and the Chinese experience it that way – it’s not clear that the substantive sources of disagreement would be any different no matter who owned the factory.
And that’s ultimately quite sad. Because we know from the start that the unionization effort is doomed, and the overall picture is one of an economic and legal system that simply is not designed to encourage that every single person be valued, and every single person be given a chance to flourish. Instead, the assumption underlying the system – in both countries – is that many human beings, perhaps most human beings, will be cogs in a larger machine, mere instruments to allow other people to thrive. On the American side, though, the rhetoric is at odds with that tragic reality.