There was little in the way of hope for the thousands of people who lost their job when the GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, closed in December 2008. While some moved away hoping to find greener pastures, many were stuck, unable to relocate, scraping by with jobs that paid a fraction of what they once made.
But a glimmer did appear on the horizon in 2015 when Fuyao, a Chinese glass company, bought and reopened the shuttered plant, promising to put thousands of people to work and revitalize the area’s economy. Happy days were here again ... or so they thought.
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory” is an engrossing and fascinating look at the social experiment that results when a Chinese work ethic is imposed on an American workforce. The results are a sobering reflection of why our economy is lagging behind many other nations’. Yet not all is rosy in other cultures as well, as the sacrifices they make are calculated in harsher, personal terms.
'We had to immerse ourselves completely,' Steven Bognar said of he and co-director Julia Reichert's efforts to earn the trust of the workers at the Fuyao Glass factory in Dayton, Ohio, the focus of their documentary.
Bognar and Reichert employ many narrative threads to weave this tapestry, and they do an incredible job of presenting each of them even-handedly, with the film lacking any sense of bias regarding which culture’s approach might be better or worse.
Bobby is a veteran worker who hasn’t known what to do with himself since being unemployed and is just happy to have a job; Shawnee is thankful but can’t help but note that she’s making $12.84 an hour at her new job after bringing home $29 per hour at the old one; Jill is tired of living in her sister’s basement and hopes she can finally get a place of her own.
While these concerns and those of other workers are legitimate, their Chinese counterparts, who work side-by-side with them, often in supervisory roles, work 12-hour shifts compared to the Americans’ eight and are required to stay in this country for two years before returning home. The pride they have in their work, the company and their country compels them to work harder and faster, at the sacrifice of their personal happiness.
The urgency to turn a profit and the expedient measures put into place by management to do so leads to a breaking point, as injuries begin to occur and the call for a union reaches a fever pitch. This is inevitable, and the way it plays out is a bit surprising. More than anything, it perfectly sums up the great divide between these opposing cultures of work and play, yet the filmmakers are conscious of not casting one or the other in a better light.
Is it preferable to work harder and longer hours that give you a sense of pride yet separate you from your family for long periods of time? Or is it better to look at your job as simply a place where you earn money to make a living?
The one certainty that does emerge is that whatever system is employed, the workers invariably end up with the short end of the stick. The final images of the plant moving inexorably towards almost complete automation is harbinger of doom for workers around the world. How the blue-collar worker will survive in the 21st century is the pressing question “American Factory” poses. There seem to be no viable options at hand, creating a situation that could have a potentially disastrous outcome for millions.