American Factory: A Clash of Cultures

Article By : George Leopold

Unfettered capitalism meets Chinese state capitalism in a new documentary. The results of this culture clash in down-on-it's-luck Ohio are unsettling.

Unfettered capitalism meets Chinese state capitalism in a new documentary. The results of this culture clash in down-on-its-luck Ohio are unsettling. “American Factory” documents the plight of skilled workers being paid less than half what they once earned when capitalism still worked for most. GM closed its assembly line outside Dayton, Ohio, in 2008, costing more than 10,000 local workers their livelihoods.

Enter Fuyao Glass America Inc. in 2014, one of many Chinese manufacturers investing in idle U.S. manufacturing capacity like shuttered auto plants. “What we’re doing is melding two cultures together,” the U.S. rep for Fuyao tells an auditorium full of laid-off workers looking for a paycheck. “Plenty of opportunities, ladies and gentlemen, plenty of opportunities.”

About 2,000 workers were hired. It was mostly downhill from there.

The Chinese parent company, Fuyao Group, based in Fujian Province, is among the world’s largest makers of automotive and construction glass. The company’s motto: “A clear vision of tomorrow.”

In an orientation session with a small contingent of Chinese workers at the Ohio plant, the boss extols American freedoms. “You can even joke about the president!”

Fuyao Founder and CEO Cao Dewang makes a grand entrance at the Dayton airport to check out his $500 million investment. Everyone — the managers, the workers, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown — refers to him as “Chairman Cao.” A Chinese supervisor tells Cao during a plant tour: The American workers are “pretty slow. They have fat fingers,” poorly suited to precision work. “We keep training them over and over.”

The initial interactions between Chairman Cao and his U.S. managers are often strained. The viewer can almost imagine the managers bellyaching about the Chairman’s demands at a local watering hole after work. (Eventually shown the door, a laid-off U.S. manager driving by the Fuyao plant explains, “You can’t say Fuyao without FU. . . .”)

For local workers, the Fuyao plant was initially viewed as a godsend. “I was thankful,” declared one grateful furnace off-loader who had been unemployed for the previous 18 months. “This is the best game in town, right now.”

But the bottom line is the bottom line. A former GM worker reports that she made about $29 an hour at GM; her job at Fuyao pays $12.84.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the reality for most semi-skilled and unskilled American workers. There’s no money for new gym shoes. Homes have been lost. As the man said, Fuyao is the best and probably the only game in Moraine, Ohio.

Melding two cultures
The melding of cultures is equally hard for Chinese workers sent to Ohio to oversee daily operations. They are committed, company men and woman, thousands of miles from home and family in flat-as-a-board Ohio. “Because of the language barrier and cultural differences, it’s hard to quickly integrate everyone else’s ideas,” says one 20-year company veteran of the Fuyao’s furnaces.

Pressured to produce, the furnace worker with scald marks on his arms eats two Twinkies each day for lunch.

During the grand opening ceremonies, Senator Brown makes a pitch for union representation at the plant. This angers all Fuyao managers, especially the boss. “If a union comes in, I’m shutting down,” Chairman Cao declares. (A UAW union drive fails badly after Fuyao brings in a labor consultant.)

The optimism generated by the plant opening quickly fades as the realities of production set in. One worker accurately describes the situation: “We have the Chinese who want [production target] numbers on this side,” her left hand extended. “You have quality and customer satisfaction on this side,” her right hand.

She brings the palms of her hands together and concludes: “And we’re in the middle. . . .”

It takes a helluva lot of heat to manufacture windshields. Workers were spending extended periods in enclosures with temperatures in excess of 200 degrees F with no thermal protection. Perhaps American workers are getting soft — their Chinese managers thought as much. Still, the Fuyao operation was the very definition of an unsafe workplace.

“American Factory” also shows the Chairman’s other motivation: Cao wants Americans to understand the efficiency and productivity of Chinese workers. They are part of a grand enterprise that will make China a great power.

Succeeding at this “will change Americans’ views of the Chinese,” he tells his imported workers.

This appeal to the Chinese motherland is probably heartfelt, but billionaire Chairman Cao is also in it for the profits. Aside from Ohio’s corporate tax breaks, he won’t receive in the U.S. the kind of state support that helped build his fortune back home.

Then there are those pesky workplace safety rules.

Fuyao’s online job posting is here, offering among other things, “good clean working conditions and facilities.” In July, the U.S. Department of Labor announced fines imposed on Fuyao Glass America totaling more than $724,000. The fines stem from “multiple safety and health hazards” at its Ohio plant.

Among the ironies of “American Factory” is that the combination of American capitalism and its Chinese variant work well for Chairman Cao — not so much for American workers in the post-Industrial Age.

Ultimately, the documentary shows that the two systems are in conflict. The Americans think they are superior and don’t trust the Chinese. The Chinese insist they are superior and view Americans as coddled.

The experiment that is Fuyao Glass America was destined to fail, even though the plant is now profitable.

Future of manufacturing
Perhaps Chinese workers can out-produce us. Maybe they are better workers. But the future of manufacturing is adding value, not mastering repetitive tasks that will soon be consigned to robots. The future of work is about advanced manufacturing, fixing the robots when they break down, and calibrating them when the assembly line slows.

It’s about reinventing ourselves or perishing. Or as one Ohio worker says: “You never give up on the American dream. That would be un-American.”

With that in mind, we’ll be taking a closer look at the future of American manufacturing and the retraining of the U.S. workforce in an upcoming EE Times Special Project.

“American Factory” was ably directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. The Netflix documentary was backed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Grounds Productions.

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