What 'American Factory' tells us about the world

Updated: Feb 23

Simon Hannah reviews the Oscar-winning documentary American Factory.

17 February 2020.

[contains spoilers]

American Factory is a 2019 documentary, part funded by the Obamas, about the struggle of workers in a glass factory in Ohio to improve their working conditions. This is a tale as old as industrial capitalism – but what makes it fascinating is how the old struggle between bosses and workers opens a window on the modern world.

China as a global power

The factory building used to be a General Motors plant. It provided work for thousands of people in the working-class town of Moraine, Ohio. General Motors was a symbol of US power and industry. When Charles Wilson was made the Secretary of Defence in 1953, he was challenged because he owned so many shares in GM, and replied that while he could imagine standing up to the corporate giant, he did not think he would ever have to as ‘what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.’

GM's fortunes have changed recently, as they have been unable to compete with global giants like Toyota. So when Chinese glass manufacturer Fuyao buys the plant to make it their first US subsidiary, the locals are over the moon – new work means new jobs.

A central theme of the documentary, then, is the recent reversal of the usual colonial narrative of white Westerners going to the Global South or Far East and building factories there to extract resources and exploit labour. This time, China is the imperialist power – its export of capital is now reviving a run down rust-belt part of the USA. China is clearly a global capitalist power increasingly able to compete economically with the USA.

Meet the new boss…

The Chinese hire over 2,000 US workers, but bring over 200 of their own supervisors. The culture clash over work is startling.  Fuyao Chairman Cao Dewan struggles with the low productivity of the plant, urging his managers to take the matter in hand. The US workers are deemed just ‘too lazy’.

The Chinese bosses fly a team of supervisors over to China to see how Fuyao do things back in the homeland. They are shown workers at the Company HQ singing the corporation song as if it was a national anthem. The HQ is full of corporate propaganda about the benefits of Fuyao and how being a good, hard worker is a positive attribute. One troupe of workers performs a song about ‘Intelligent and lean manufacturing. All industries should adopt them. Finance, service, manufacturing. Intelligent and lean manufacturing.’ It is not a great song for karaoke.

The US supervisor nods, agreeing that the US workers are lazy and do not know the meaning of hard work. We see the resolve of the managers to go back to the US and discipline their workforce at the Ohio plant.

In China the documentary shows you the offices of the company trade union, which is essentially a company union. The union boss is the brother-in-law of the chairman of the company and it is clear that the role of the ‘union’ is to push for greater productivity and hard work.  The power of ideology depicted here is terrifying: in a country run by a supposedly 'communist party', so many workers are shown as passionately loyal to corporations, to their bosses, and to the ethos of the company.

It is important to note that these kinds of working conditions are not unique to China. Long hours for low pay have been common since the Industrial Revolution, and it was not until workers formed trade unions and fought for political reforms that things changed. The documentary reveals that China has become an economic powerhouse through severe exploitation of its workers.

Power to the people

During the documentary, the managers and bosses are shown obsessing over one issue – that the US workers might join a trade union. At the official opening of the plant the Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown makes reference to how Ohio is a ‘[trade] union state’ and ‘proud of it’, which sends the Fuyao managers into a rage. ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ complains one senior executive.

They start to talk about which workers are pro-union or not. They become paranoid about United Auto Workers (UAW) organisers coming into the plant.

But the bosses themselves are creating the desire for a union. The push for greater profits sees the managers at the US plant cut corners on health and safety. People start to have accidents. The workers complain because they believed that when they previously worked at the GM plant there were fewer workplace injuries.

The workers organise and go to the local UAW branch meeting. There is a call to ballot the workforce – if they get over 50% voting yes, then they get union recognition and can lobby more powerfully for their interests against their bosses' demands.

The fight to unionise the plant is brutal and shows how far the bosses will go. They bring in ‘consultants’ from the Labour Relations Institute, a union-busting company that advises capitalists on how to stop their workforce organising. Members of staff are summoned into mandatory seminars and told scare stories about what happens if the union comes into the workplace. Then the bosses begin to fire the most outspoken activists. One supervisor even jokes about how he has made friends with one of the union advocates, ‘but he won’t be here in two weeks'. He laughs.

It is interesting to see how, even though the bosses and their consultants regularly dismiss the unions as a waste of time and bad for workers, they are so actively terrified of their staff forming one. The documentary explains how the company spent over $1 million trying to beat the union in the factory.

Sadly, because of the nature of the foreign ownership, some of the pro-UAW union advocates occasionally come across as anti-Chinese. They mainly want to return to the good old days of GM and the UAW having a cosy corporatist relationship – the American way of doing capitalism, not this new forced overtime model.

The fact that a documentary funded by the Obamas features two Democrat senators both extolling the virtues of the ‘old American way’ of unions, management, and government working together for the ‘good of everyone’ is revealing. Nevertheless, even the old US style of capitalism now begins to look appealing next to the methods of the new bosses at the factory.

At the end, one of the ex-GM workers who used to take home $29 and now takes home $14 laments ‘we are never gonna see those kind of wages again'. This kind of depressed acceptance that the US economy has massively declined with little hope of recovery is what creates a space for people like Trump to lie his way to power. It also shows what happens when workers lose faith in themselves and their power to change society.

Where profit is made

If anyone is confused about where profit comes from, the attitude of the bosses make it clear. Their obsession with forcing the staff to work overtime, cancelling weekends, doing 12 hour shifts, is because they know they need to squeeze as much surplus value out of their workers as possible. Each worker gets paid a daily rate, but they are expected to work longer and harder to make money for the company.

The fight over the length of the working day has been going on for longer than capitalism has been around, but it is particularly important in a factory situation where the longer you can push your workers to produce, the more profit you can make. We see constant efforts by the supervisors to speed up production, even when the workers are complaining that it is dangerous and they begin to refuse to do the extra work. This is a classic feature of productive capitalism.

Karl Marx developed an economic analysis of capitalism that profit comes from surplus value extracted from workers. You go to work in return for a wage. Your end of the bargain is that you produce, say, glass windscreens.

If you get paid $12 an hour and work for 7 hours, you are earning $84 a day, but you might make $150 worth of windscreens. The $66 difference, the surplus value that you have created in your day at work, is where profit comes from. This is why the bosses want people to speed up, work faster, more intensely. If you produce $200 worth of windshields in a day, then they make even more profit.

This is why socialists talk about exploitation – no worker is paid the value of their labour under capitalism because it would mean no profit for the bosses. It is why you cannot really get a ‘fair day's pay for a fair day's work’ – there is no fairness in a system built on exploitation and oppression.

Bosses hate trade unions because they can intervene in the work process and demand that the pace of work be slowed or that there be more health and safety rules in place. They can organise collective resistance such as strikes to force the bosses to make concessions. This independent organisation runs counter to the entire logic of a capitalist enterprise, which is that the workplace is a dictatorship and you should do as you are told.

The struggle goes on

Despite the best effort of many of the workers, the vote at the plant is lost and the union is not recognised. When the vote is counted, we see the managers punching the air with joy – they beat the union.

The workers back at the production line are sullen and defeated. One of the younger workers says there was so much talk at the seminars about the danger of strikes and people losing their income, which caused concern. A number of them no doubt saw their friends sacked for being in the union and got scared.

At a staff meeting after the union's defeat, the president of the company is over the moon. He says that now the most productive worker will get a trip to China to swim in an infinity pool in an expensive hotel. The workers are now going to get an extra $2 an hour – but they must increase their productivity and output.

The documentary finishes with the chairman of the company touring with various supervisors who are pointing to all the workers they are planning to replace with robots. The automation of the factory will be speeded up, as the owners believe that robot arms are more efficient and quicker than human labour.

The struggle goes on, as they say. Another factory, another workplace, different people doing different work. The same old battles being fought out. It does not matter whether the bosses are American, British, or Chinese. There is only the relentless fight over exploitation, the resistance of working people internationally.

As one of the directors, Julia Reichart, said when the film won an Academy Award for best documentary, ‘We believe things will get better when workers of the world unite.’ Very true. We need to make sure that happens.

Simon Hannah is a Labour and trade union activist and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left.

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