The Obama Film American Factory Backfires

AIER – by Peter C Earle

Higher Ground, the production company founded by Michelle and Barack Obama, has released the first of a planned seven-film series on Friday. American Factory chronicles the opening of a Chinese factory near Dayton, Ohio, where a GM plant closed in 2008. It’s reasonable to suppose that the point was to alarm us about the wiles of global capitalism. Oddly, the film might have the opposite effect on many viewers. It certainly did for me.  

The documentary opens with a prayer on the day the plant closes as tearful workers see the last vehicle come off of the production line. A few years later, Fuyao Glass announced its intent to open a glass-production facility in the shuttered facility. One of our first glimpses is of a question and answer as American employees of the Chinese firm speak about the goals of the firm to prospective employees: they plan to employ several thousand people in all capacities, but mostly blue-collar work of the type that disappeared when the local GM plant shut down. One prospect asks if this will be a union shop. No, he is told. The plan is to be non-union.

Perhaps because of their proximity to widespread unemployment, everyone who heard that answer nods in agreement. This new factory is the only game in town, and the best news most of these out-of-work machinists and factory hands have heard in years.

Initially, most of the senior managers are Americans, but alongside the American workers are a group of Chinese workers. Also initially, most of the U.S. workers are deeply appreciative of the new opportunity. We follow one who, since the closing of the GM plan, has been reduced to living in her sister’s basement. Others have been out of work for some time, barely getting by on part-time work and odd jobs.

We don’t know how much of the documentary’s production choices were under the specific direction of the former president. Mr. Obama is sometimes astonishingly tone-deaf, as when, despite his regular trafficking with the global warming/climate change crowd — and more specifically in light of their incessant warnings about massive impending changes in sea levels and coastlines — he nevertheless purchased a $15 million estate on Martha’s Vineyard. If this is a story largely seeking to highlight differences in workplace culture, that objective is vastly overshadowed by the incredible arc that the formerly unemployed workers’ attitudes travel over a fairly short amount of time.

Initially, the woman who has been living in her sister’s basement has moved into an apartment. She extols her reacquired independence. Other employees bemoan their non-union pay and conditions but seem contented; they or friends and family have lost houses, have seen communities torn apart, and know firsthand the double impact of the so-called Great Recession and increasing competition from China. But even that wears off over time.

The work is sometimes dangerous, and the pay is lower than many of the workers have previously received, and before long thankfulness is replaced by myopia. Despite the company’s warnings, there are rumblings about unionization, and a United Automobile Workers agitator is caught walking through the private workspace with a “Union Yes” sign held aloft. The ineffectiveness of American managers to quash the unionization efforts leads to their sudden termination, and the Chinese CEO threatens to close the plant if it continues.

The same workers who, a short time before, were deeply appreciative of their unlikely bounty then begin to badmouth the company. Some are meeting secretly with union officials. Ultimately employees hold a vote, and the result is somewhat surprising.

There are two particularly telling moments in the film. In one, a Chinese manager teaches a class on how to deal with Americans, whom the Chinese line employees are training. Americans, he explains, need constant encouragement. It’s a hilarious and somewhat cringeworthy section.

In another, an employee at a local union hall complains to a cheering crowd that while he earned $27,000 last year, his nail-polishing daughter earned $40,000. Apparently, this man is unaware that there is absolutely no prohibition against his learning to paint nails for higher compensation — and with a daughter who does so, he has ready access to a highly cost-effective apprenticeship.

Despite intense lobbying and enthusiasm, the union effort is defeated. A number of the labor organizers are fired; most just sheepishly return to their duties. In one of the last scenes, we overhear plans to automate many of the jobs at the factory, which would eliminate more positions. There’s no way of knowing whether this was the plan all along or whether the shift in workers from contentment to intrigue was a key part of the decision-making calculus of the Chinese owners, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the collective bargaining bid accelerated automation plans. None of this is surprising, especially given Fuyao’s clearly stated position against collective bargaining from the very beginning.

It’s difficult for people to unlearn things they’ve grown up seeing, they’ve been told for decades, and for which they have apparent confirmation: the idea that union work naturally paid well and provided a generous raft of benefits was feasible in decades when international competition was virtually nonexistent. Throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, owing to the need for most of the rest of the world to rebuild after World War II, the establishment of the Iron Curtain, and the spread of collectivism throughout Asia, billions of potential competitors were simply out of the global mix. The dollar was king, and all of the major financial centers were in the Western Hemisphere.

But this period was an anomaly, even if wishful thinking sought to enshrine it as an indication of intrinsic American superiority: by the ’70s and ’80s, what was true all along finally became practicable. Markets opened, information began flowing, capital aggregated, and most of all people in other parts of the world proved that they were willing and able to do the work that Americans firmly believed only we could do. And our upstart labor competitors were willing, indeed appreciative of, the opportunities that sprung up.

There’s a common refrain from labor unionists and union members: the American worker is the best in the world — better than any of his international counterparts. It’s a feel-good, self-congratulatory sentiment, but it crumbles upon even superficial consideration. Here, it’s empirically untrue: the Chinese workers alongside Fuyao’s American employees work harder, for longer hours — they’re often at the factory working on evenings, weekends, and holidays, and do so for less pay and fewer benefits. This may not make them better people, but it absolutely makes them better employees and thus better economic prospects for firms. Even they, though, have limits, and machines are more efficient and productive.

The Obamas may have intended to make a film about workplace culture clashes. However, as it turns out, American Factory is at its core a damning snapshot of American labor entitlement. In an era where painful truths about the declining relevance of blue-collar work and the potential of automation are becoming evident in many fields, it will undoubtedly remain instructive over time. The events depicted are not a fleeting glimpse of a changing past, but an indication and warning of a rapidly oncoming future.

4 thoughts on “The Obama Film American Factory Backfires

  1. the film was very interesting. and no it’s not a damning snapshot of american labor entitlement. i’m not sure exactly what the message of the film is supposed to be but the labor aspect that is focused on gives the message that in order to “compete” globally, you must have a ruthless “chairman” running your company and workers who will happily be sent overseas away from their families for no extra pay or employees who only have one or two days off a month, making squat pay. parents not seeing their children but a couple of times a year. that’s what all the chinese workers have in common in the film. how about we make our own auto glass and not export it? and at a living wage? so people can enjoy their lives. yes, it’ll cost more but so what? i think the price of having a life where you care about your neighbors is worth it.

    also not mentioned in the article is the chinese indifference to workplace safety or environmental protocols.

  2. I think the message is very simple…and, remember who this film is coming from:

    American workers are being clued in to what’s in store for them once globalization takes hold. The worker is being told that there’ll always be someone -or a machine- who will be willing to fill their shoes for less…just for the benefit of HAVING a job at all. The American working class is being told that the days of special-consideration protections are coming to an end, and the world-at-large will NEED to fall in line with these new realities.

    And, as in China now, your social worth will only be as good as the effort and enthusiasm you pay into the system.

    The theme of this film can easily be summed-up in a few memes — as they surely will be, posted prominently on building walls across the land — if *THEY* succeed in completely selling America out.. Make no mistake…the homogenization of America has already been in progress for decades, and my feeling is that the Obamas, their handlers, and cohorts in kind, believe the process is finally irreversible.

    This is why the Obamas have been ‘tasked’ to produce these films. They are PRIMERS to herald in the coming age that we have been tricked into either accepting , or, will eventually have no choice but to give in to once realizing we’ve no other recourse.

    During the 2016 campaign, it was revealed in a Wikileaks-procured memo that ‘the master plan’ was to keep us unaware and compliant. We have since learned how, for decades, elected officials like Feinstein and Hillary were selling us out to China IN REAL TIME, giving them more than just ‘advantages’ over us.

    With that in mind, this film draws back the curtain to reveal a play whose story only has a Last Act…the acts before it already have been performed behind its veil.

    The message of this film is very simple: *get the message!* Play nice, or you don’t play at all.

    Considering the Obama’s newest property…I guess that might also be a sign of what can be gained if you are inclined to play the game better than others.

    1. Nothing that a well placed bullet cant fix. Bullets are an amazing tool, not used enough. If we start with the billionaires, we will have a hand up. American Nationals will never stand for one man to have 120 billion, when another has zero. Either we all have a great life, or nobody has a great life.

      We have scumbags for billionaires raping young children, then buying multimillion dollars homes, boats and jets. Looking forward to the day when they give back what they have stolen.

      You, as well as all of us, as American Nationals must denounce billionaires, put an end to the theft and all the favoritism given to these scumbags.

      Funny, last time I checked, their feces smelled just as bad as mine, yet they shit in a golden toilet. Some wall paper their rooms in gold leaf. Wipe their ass with hundred dollar bills.

      They do nothing to make my life better, only worse as they drive up the prices of everything we cherish.

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