I just watched the Oscar-winning documentary, The American Factory, on Netflix. It was gripping.

Filmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert documented what happened in the years following the 2008 shutdown of the (Moraine) General Motors plant outside Dayton, Ohio. It is the first film release of Higher Ground, a company started by Michelle and Barack Obama.

The empty, disabled manufacturing plant that once was home to 2,400 American workers, would become the U.S. home of Fuyao Glass America, a global, automotive glass manufacturing company. It is a dramatic, insightful film by Bognar and Reichert, who had unlimited access to the employees and the managers.

A Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, invested as much as a billion dollars to grow the U.S. company and retrain the Americans they hired to work with hundreds of Chinese assigned to the U.S. plant. The American Factory is more than a business story, it also is about distinct cultural differences among the workers and the hierarchy. It depicts interaction between the Americans and the Chinese in the Chinese-owned plant – their perceptions, misconceptions and undeniable differences.

The film reveals how people with diverse backgrounds see the future, the place where they (often) are forced to work tirelessly, and how management sets high goals. An important part of this story is the clash between the company and the United Auto Workers (UAW) as they attempted to unionize the workers.

Dewang/Fuyao resisted vigorously as the employees began to demand and picket publicly. However, management was determined to stop the union and hired a consulting firm for nearly $1 million to convince employees not to vote for the UAW – at the risk of losing their jobs and the plant closing.

It worked, they did not go union. The company would later make concessions, some working condition improvements and kicked in a few more dollars for the workers.

The Academy award winning documentary shed a bright, often harsh light on the differences between  American and Chinese management styles and the individual vs. “the team.”  The Chinese appeared to be far more disciplined, better trained and agreeable to their working conditions. They worked long hours, little time off (two days per month) and  left the families behind after signing up for a year in the Ohio plant.

The filmmakers captured the essence of the workers and also how the Chinese see Americans. Some of the comments in a training session in China were funny, as in humorous: Americans like big cars, flattery, and dress sloppily, they said. American parents do so much for their children, the kids grow up believing they’re exceptional. “But we are better,” the Chinese instructor added.

The film paints a picture of what the company and American workers were up against with cultural and language differences, management styles, ethics, and workplace safety. It is a film that is interesting in many ways and deserved the recognition it has received. One takeaway for me, was the incoming Chinese expected to work long hours for relatively low wages,  and often endured unsafe working conditions without any “right” to seek change.

The film also presents a question about the future of manufacturing within Fuyao’s emphasis on efficiency, productivity and profit making. By the time filming was over in three years some of the manufacturing jobs inside that bustling plant had been replaced by robots, with more to come.

Due to the resolution of the union issue and acceptance and adaptation on both sides, Fuyao is a highly profitable company. Someone who reviewed this film said: “No one would have predicted that the best capitalists in the world would be Communists, fighting unionization tooth and nail. Karl Marx is spinning in his grave.” -PW