Sunday, 23 February 2020

Movie review: American Factory, dirs Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (2019)

It’s hard to talk about this Netflix film without giving away the ending, but I’ll try. It chronicles the acquisition of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, that used to be run by General Motors before it was closed down. Then a Chinese company called Fuyo, which makes glass, bought the building and filled it with glass-making equipment. They hired local people and started making glass.

But managers struggled at first to make a profit and, in addition, they resist the efforts of workers to join a union. The movie’s story comes down to how the company functioned to achieve its goals and how the employees, most of whom are American, coped with that. It also looks at some of the cultural differences between American workers at the factory, and Chinese workers brought in to perform some tasks.

Pop psychology used by Chinese managers in an effort to manage their local workforce is particularly galling, as though controlling the means of production gives you an ability to understand the world in a way that the people who work for you do not. We often complain of American exceptionalism, but Chinese exceptionalism is just as nauseating.

But this movie, even though on its own merits it is competent and lucid, tells only half the story.

The other half of the story is how manufacturing workers in Japan – who are even more efficient than Chinese workers, and who make even higher-end products, and whose companies make profits – are usually members of unions. In fact, Japanese unions (although they are organised differently from unions in America, being company based rather than industry based) have been remarkably successful in both protecting their members and ensuring profitability for the companies they operate in. The wage gap between the managerial class and the working class in Japan is, by American standards, remarkably low.

So a workforce free of unions that is profitable, or a workforce that is unionised but that is not efficient, do not have to be the only outcomes for either Labour or Capital. The narrative being pursued for selfish ends by Fuyo’s managers and, by extension, by the Communist Party of China, is simply not the only alternative available if you want happy workers and profitable businesses. Japan offers a third option.

It would be good if the filmmakers of ‘American Factory’ made a second instalment. Perhaps the Obamas, who backed this prize-winning film – which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, where I heard about it – could get behind another one to provide answers to some of the questions this one poses.

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