The American Worker Gets the Spotlight at the Tribeca Film Fest

Issue 246

Mark Read Apr 30, 2019

Established in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Tribeca Film Festival has, since its inception, concerned itself with defining the cultural and political landscape of the United States. Promoted by its founders (including Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese) as a means to reinvigorate downtown Manhattan in the wake of the destruction, it was seen by many at the time as a vehicle by which the filmmaking community could assert a version of America and American-ess that stood in contrast to the saber-rattling, “just-go-shopping” version of America that was on offer from the likes of Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush.

Many of this year’s higher-profile films interrogate questions about who we are as a country — the meaning of our history and the contest over that meaning.

Fast forward 17 years and a lot has changed about the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as America. The festival has expanded to not only include a robust international film selection but also boasts selections of video games, television shows and virtual reality programming, all on offer for a full week to a celebrity-obsessed audience of industry insiders that rivals Sundance. And America? Well, in terms of the political landscape, it’s safe to say that many of the people who were lambasting Bush as the worst thing that could happen to the United States are today eating their words. Given the current moment, it seems appropriate, even inevitable, that America once again emerges as a prime subject at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Many of this year’s higher-profile films interrogate essential questions about who we are as a country — the meaning of our history and the contest over that meaning, the challenges and uncertainties we face and how we are (or are not) meeting those challenges. This is especially true of Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s masterful documentary film American Factory.

“We fought and won these battles for safe working conditions, for the weekend, for a dignified life, over 70 years ago,” a union organizer shouts, rallying his troops for an upcoming vote at the Fuyao Glass America factory in Dayton, Ohio. “And now we need to show the Chinese ownership what they need to do if they want to employ people here in America.”

The scene is but one of many striking moments in this truly remarkable film, which lays bare the stark and disorienting reality of U.S. workers in the era of globalization. American Factory methodically and sensitively exposes the specific, localized impacts of historically tectonic shifts in global economic and political power that have radically altered the lives of millions of working people across the world. What these shifts portend not only for U.S. workers but all workers and indeed all people is the central question here — one that the filmmakers ultimately answer, albeit provisionally. Spoiler alert: It’s not a happy ending.

American Factory picks up where Bognar and Reichert’s previous film, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, left off. The Last Truck chronicles the 2008 closure of a major automotive factory in Dayton, Ohio. Bognar himself is a Dayton native and, as a team, the filmmakers have been documenting the region for the last 20 years. Almost 3,000 jobs were lost as a result of the 2008 closure, a devastating blow to the Dayton community. It is an all-too-familiar “rust-belt” story, a tragedy wherein American workers lose their jobs to workers in countries with looser regulation and lower wages.

‘We fought and won these battles for safe working conditions, for the weekend, for a dignified life, over 70 years ago.’

American Factory tells a far more complicated and ultimately more troubling story. In 2014 that same GM factory was purchased by the Fuyao Glass company, a Chinese-owned global powerhouse in the automotive glass industry. Fuyao, upon being induced with generous tax subsidies from local and state governments, retrofitted the facility, hired thousands of U.S. workers and brought over hundreds of Chinese workers to live in the United States while they trained and supervised the Dayton workforce. Positive PR was the explicit goal of Fuyao’s CEO Cao Dewang, who hoped that the Chinese would come to be seen as friends to U.S. workers, rather than a threat. This was supposed to be a feel-good story about globalization, a redemptive story of hope and possibility. So optimistic was Dewang about the PR potential of his endeavor that he reached out to Bognar and Reichert in order to commission them to make a documentary film. Luckily for us, they politely declined, and instead offered to make an independent documentary. They requested and received complete access to company executives, board meetings and the factory floor.

The feel-good narrative that Fuyao hoped to promote was reported and repeated by mainstream U.S. media outlets for months. In the film, we see the U.S. executives absorb this fawning coverage with hearty self-congratulation and sober observations about the responsibility they have to make it work. We also hear from the workers themselves, though, and this is where the story gets more complicated.

The jobs on offer, as it turns out, are non-union, and pay less than half of what workers had been earning at the GM plant. Despite this, the factory loses money for the first 18 months, for which the U.S. workers are blamed by their Chinese bosses, who see them as insufficiently willing to sacrifice for the good of the company. U.S. executives are fired and replaced by Chinese executives. There’s a slew of safety violations. Chinese workers themselves, who have been thoroughly indoctrinated to view their CEO as a demi-God and the company as their savior, demean their U.S. counterparts. There’s a fight over unionization. Agitators are fired, workers intimidated and the unionization vote fails.

For the executives at Fuyao, as with all capitalists, labor is always a problem to be solved. Worker dependency and desperation are longstanding solutions. Chinese factory owners are accustomed to wielding unfettered power, essentially bullying their workers — who have very few rights and no organized power — into submission with the threat of job loss and resulting destitution.

Similar conditions existed for U.S. workers (and their European counterparts) decades ago. U.S. workers subsequently fought and died to change the equation, and that battle has unalterably changed the culture of work here. Workers have come to expect a safe workplace, a living wage and a path toward a life of dignity. As this became a drag on profits for U.S. corporations, they solved the problem of labor by packing up and leaving, frequently to China, abandoning millions of U.S. workers in the process.

In the aftermath of this abandonment and the destruction it caused, we have this unsettling experiment conducted by the newly ascendant Chinese ruling class, working in conjunction with powerful U.S. business interests. They are essentially attempting to solve the problem of labor by rolling back seventy years of labor history, and they have not been entirely unsuccessful.

Fuyao defeated the unionization effort at its Dayton Glass plant by assuaging workers with modest pay raises and improved safety. As the film documents, an uneasy truce settles in. The factory has been marginally profitable over the last year and more workers have been hired.

Devotion to the company is ultimately meaningless. It will gladly replace any worker it can with a machine.

The final scenes of American Factory are chilling, though not entirely without encouragement. The filmmakers pay a final visit to “Rob,” an American worker who we have followed throughout the film as he learns from and bonds with his Chinese counterpart, “Liang.” Rob has recently been let go from Fuyao, downsized for reasons that are left unexplained. While sad to have lost his job, he speaks fondly of Liang, who he describes as his “Chinese brother.” Next, we hear from Liang himself, one of the most dedicated Fuyao workers, with the burn scars to prove it. “My generation, I think we want a little more now. We have more expectations,” he says, as his newly-arrived children play in the yard.

Finally, we see Cao Dewang, the Fuyao CEO, as he tours the factory floor with the company’s automation team. “This machine will allow us to eliminate four workers in the next two months,” the automation expert reports, “and these will allow us to cut two more in the next four.” The tour continues like this for a while, the scene fading as the besuited executives walk past the very workers they are plotting to “eliminate.”

The lessons are clear. Devotion to the company is ultimately meaningless to the company, which will gladly replace any worker it can with a machine. But workers do have power and there is the possibility of solidarity, of rising expectations, of a refusal to lay down and accept the meager crumbs on offer from the bosses. With any luck, perhaps this cohort of Chinese workers will take that lesson back to their homeland and begin to organize.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 25 to May 4. Look for more coverage from the Tribeca Film Festival by Mark Read at in the days ahead. 

Photo: THE INTERNATIONAL WORKING CLASS: Rob and his Chinese glassworker counterpart bond in American Factory. Credit: Ian Cook. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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