Friday, February 1, 2019

Sundance ’19: American Factory

It is sort of like the Ron Howard movie Gung Ho, but the new management is Chinese instead of Japanese. That leads to even greater culture clashes with their American workforce. Arguably, both sides have legitimate points, but it is hard for them to find common ground. Documentarians Steven Bognar & Julia Reichart observe the growing tensions in American Factory, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Until the late 2000s, the GM plant supplied hundreds of good paying jobs to Dayton area workers. In 2014, Chinese auto glass manufacturer Fuyao announced their intention to refit and reopen the shuttered factory, but it was difficult right from the start. Blame Sen. Sherrod Brown. At the ribbon cutting ceremony, he offered an unsolicited declaration of support for unionization of the factory, immediately making Fuyao executives, especially billionaire founder Cao Dewang, suspicious and defensive.

With productivity lagging behind Chinese standards, all the American executives of Fuyao USA are axed a few month later. Attitudes become entrenched, with the Chinese resenting American workers aversion to overtime and the Americans growing increasingly concerned about comparatively lax safety measures.

The frustrating thing about American Factory is the legitimacy of the concerns of both parties and their mutual unwillingness to look at issues from the other side. Frankly, Bognar and Reichart really bury their lede and then pave it over with concrete when concerned workers discuss the factory’s practice of illegally dumping chemicals. That goes beyond the scope of regular workplace grievances. It puts the company in huge risk of regulatory fines and sanctions.

In fact, the American Factory doc could be used a case study to illustrate the respective strengths and weaknesses of the American and Chinese models of labor relations and industrial organization. It is frustrating Bognar and Reichart never think to compare and contrast worker productivity, economic growth, workplace safety, and pollution figures in each country, because the numbers would be telling. There could have been some constructive policy recommendations coming out of the film, aside from never inviting Sherrod Brown to a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Throughout American Factory, it is clear what happens at the Fuyao plant will have serious repercussions on the lives of the American workers and the very junior Chinese executives tasked with making it work. By and large, they are all decent people, which is why it is so depressing there is nobody in a position to effectively mediate between them.

American Factory captures a lot of drama, but we wish it had delved further into the really fundamental issues involved. It is compelling in its own terms, but it is too limited in scope to offer any kind of firm conclusions. Recommended for MBA candidates studying US-Chinese co-ventures, American Factory screens again today (2/1) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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