Netflix subscribers and theatergoers can now watch “American Factory,” a powerful new documentary about what happens when a manufacturing plant opens in a job-deprived town but the plant’s owners are callous to workers, hostile to unions and obsessed with profits at any cost.
It is a story that has played out in towns and cities throughout the country for decades. Over a lifetime of advocacy on behalf of workers, I have dealt with numerous company owners who have insisted on their “right” to pay workers poverty wages, bust unions and pollute the environment, just like the owners in “American Factory.”
There is a lot the documentary gets right, but there is also something that disturbs me. The film follows the workers at a car glass manufacturing plant in Dayton, Ohio, run by Fuyao, a company owned by a Chinese billionaire. The plant’s workers struggle with the outrageous expectations of Fuyao’s management (long work hours, lax safety standards, wage cuts), as well as with the culture clash between the differing approaches of workers and managers to production and safety. I won’t spoil the film, but don’t expect a Hollywood ending.
“American Factory” tells an important and compelling story. But I worry that for some viewers the takeaway will be that this is how Chinese companies operate when they set up shop in the United States. I’ve seen a lot of manufacturing companies that share many of the worst traits exhibited by Fuyao in the film, and most of them were owned by U.S., Canadian or European companies.
On the other hand, I’ve also worked closely with a Chinese-owned manufacturing company that couldn’t be more different from the one in “American Factory.” Like Fuyao, BYD is a Chinese company that opened a plant in the United States — in its case, in the city of Lancaster in northern Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley. BYD builds environmentally friendly buses for city fleets all over the world, including Los Angeles’. The new plant has delivered on its promise of jobs that are beneficial not just to local workers but for all of us living on a rapidly warming planet.
At first, BYD questioned why it was in the company’s interest to engage with unions and community groups in the region. But the story of BYD ended differently than Fuyoa’s does in “American Factory.” Workers in Lancaster came together with community members, including union leaders, clergy and environmental advocates, and convinced BYD to do the right thing — for itself and its workforce. Today, BYD is a model employer.
Antisocial conduct by corporations is not unique to any particular nation. It doesn’t matter if they are based in China, Canada or the United States: Some corporations view profits as far more important than people.
When it comes to the treatment of workers and the protection of the environment, any company anywhere can choose to be a good actor or a bad one — and left unchecked, they often choose the latter. In my experience, nine times out of 10, the key factor determining their choice is whether public officials, workers and local residents have organized effectively to hold the company accountable to fair standards of treatment of workers on the job and protection of the environment. This lesson, rather than anti-Chinese fearmongering, should guide public discussion generated by this important film.
Madeline Janis is executive director of Jobs to Move America.