Tuesday 29 September 2020

People at the top decided to rewrite the rules

The above headline is a quote from the award-winning documentary American Factory directed by. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert . 

It tells the story of a Chinese company which buys the defunct General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio, that closed its doors in 2008 when the economy came crashing down. In that crash, among the worst hit were automobile manufacturing plants such as GM in Dayton which had provided well-paid jobs for basically the entire community, making it possible for blue collar workers to lift themselves up and become more middle class. With the closure of the plant, 2,400 people suddenly found themselves out of work, crushing the morale of an entire town, which was the subject of another documentary, The Last Truck:  Closing of a GM Plant by the same directors. 

When it was announced that a Chinese millionaire had bought the plant in order to manufacture windshield glass for automobiles, it was like a gift from heaven. When you have been out of work for four or more years, when you have lost your home and everything you own, and end up living in your sister’s basement, as happened to one woman, you will not be too choosy about what job to accept or who you will be working for. 

Workers who used to earn $29 an hour with GM willingly accepted the $12 an hour being offered by Fuyao Glass America (FGA), because it gave them back their much needed-dignity and sense of purpose which can only come when you are able to provide for your family.  The irony was not lost on anyone that Dayton, Ohio, the heart of the mid-west which used to be the proud industrial centre of American manufacturing companies was being “saved” by Communist China.   As the producers said in an interview, this is the reality of reverse globalisation. 

What intrigued me about this documentary was the clash of two very different peoples who are forced to work together whether they like it or not; a situation we have become familiar with here in Malta. The collaboration started off well, because the Chinese had provided much-needed jobs, but soon the language barrier, cultural clashes and the different work ethics led to a lot of problems. The filmmakers followed the company for three years on the invitation of the factory’s founder and chairman who rather surprisingly gave them full access, including a familiarisation trip to China for some of the American employees. 

It is a classic case study of two ideologies and ways of life which could not be further removed from one another. Even visually the contrast could not have been greater between the (mostly) overweight Americans and the rake thin Chinese.  The latter were used to 12 hour shifts with just two days off a month, compared to  the 8 hour shifts and every weekend off for the Americans.  Americans can by law refuse to work overtime, the Chinese cannot. The Chinese never question authority, the Americans question everything. The Chinese described the Americans as being lazy. The Americans took one look at the regimental, robot-like preparation of Chinese workers before they started their shift in China, and the expression on their face was priceless. 

It is the observations about one another, however, that really make this such riveting story. “Americans praise their children all the time, that is why they are so over-confident” the Chinese manager tells his staff.  He then explains that they need to be flattered, “Donkeys like to be touched in the direction their hair grows”.  Meanwhile, the Americans are bemused by the Chinese who are willing to work all hours, including weekends, for no extra pay.  And yet there are also touching moments of the friendships which are made, such as when the Chinese are invited for typical American BBQs and the Americans attempt to use a few Chinese phrases.  

At one point, the Americans attempt to organise themselves into a union for better pay and benefits, and more adherence to health and safety but this rebellion is quickly squashed through obligatory “training” by union avoidance consultants paid for by the company who scared the employees into believing that their jobs would be at stake. When it came to the vote about whether FGA should be unionised, the No vote won. Those who had been actively lobbying for a union were summarily fired.  Many others ended up quitting.

This documentary is a salutary lesson for us all, proving once again that, no matter the nationality, the working class has always been the segment where you find the most exploited workers.  (Look past the flashy cars and packed restaurants every weekend on our island, and you will notice the minimum wage strata of society which is making this economy possible). Also, one cannot ignore the paradox of the management trying to make American workers fit into the Chinese Communist culture (and thus accept abysmal work conditions for the ‘greater good’ of the company) on US soil itself, which is a sore point for many.  “The people at the top decided to rewrite the rules” laments one of the Americans, who cannot understand how the tables have turned and how they ended up taking orders from the Chinese. 

However, like anyone who has made millions, the company Chairman is a capitalist at heart and for him, it is all about the bottom line and profit.  To keep the Americans happy he concedes a little and raises the employees’ pay by $2 an hour.  

Eventually, more of the factory floor becomes automated, reducing the need for workers and in 2018, Fuyao Glass America started to make a profit, with wages remaining at $14 an hour. The company now employs about 2,200 Americans and 200 Chinese workers.  For those who stayed on, it clearly ended up being a case of ‘take it or leave it’.

“The point of living is to work”, claims the Chairman.  But surely, that is not how it’s supposed to be.

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