The Obamas’ first Netflix movie is much better than conservatives feared

In the wake of the deal the Obamas made with Netflix, there has been a lot of fear that, as this New York Post article headlines, “Netflix is now a propaganda machine for the Obamas." But if left wing propaganda was the aim of the Obamas, they failed miserably in their first film for the video streaming giant.

American Factory reportedly was purchased by the Obamas’ film company, Higher Ground, after seeing it at the Sundance Film Festival last January. It tells the story of a large Chinese glass manufacturer, Fuyao, taking over a closed General Motors assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio, just outside Dayton. Documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar had previously made an Oscar-nominated documentary about that GM plant, titled The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.  When Fuyao took over the vacant structure that had employed 2000 and announced plans to produce automotive glass there, they talked Fuyao’s chairman and founder, Cao Dewang, into letting them film the founding of the factory and its subsequent operations.

They did a superb job documenting what happened. Fuyao followed precisely the same pattern that Japanese and later Korean companies experienced as they opened their own American factories. A mutual failure of bosses to understand workers and vice-versa. Examples of people overcoming barriers and learning to respect each other, but also examples of the reverse: growing alienation and contempt. Stupid and silly errors, but also painful lessons learned. American workers both impressed and appalled at the diligence and long hours worked by their Asian counterparts. Authority extended to Americans, and after failures, reclaimed by their foreign bosses. 

I spent decades working as an academic and a consultant specializing in cross-cultural management issues and have first-hand experience with factories (and offices and distribution systems) opening thousands of miles from home, with workforces that share little with the home country’s culture.  The only surprise for me in the film was the extent to which Fuyao recapitulated the same problems that their East Asian neighbors experienced decades earlier. They apparently did not bother studying the problems experienced by Japanese and Korean manufacturers in North America, as they attempted to communicate with and manage a workforce that did not hold the same level of devotion to work and deference to authority. And a home country management that saw everything through their own cultural prism, failing to grasp the realty for which they were responsible.

Fuyao had its own wrinkles, such as a casual attitude toward worker safety, and, if an American worker for Fuyao heard in the film is to be believed, a shocking attitude toward pollution controls. China’s haste to industrialize and levels of corruption made such attitudes common, so the charges are believable.

The film closely covers the attempt by the UAW to unionize the Fuyao plant, whose wages and benefits were far lower than those paid by GM (called by its employees “Generous Motors” when it was still flush). I suppose this is the section of the film that is supposed to please lefties and outrage conservatives, but the Fuyao America workforce overwhelmingly rejected unionization -- after management had employed a consulting firm to help defeat the UAW drive.

The film’s ending was the weakest part, as it attempted to imply that automation was going to result in unemployment (again) for the hapless American workers. Yet, it also noted that after years of struggle, Fuyao America had managed to turn a profit, and was employing 2000 Americans (and 200 Chinese expats) – not a reduction in workforce.

I suppose people who believe that profit is inherently evil and that factories can operate at a loss in order to make their workers rich would come away from watching American Factory believing that they have seen a scathing critique of the way in which capitalism has corrupted China the same way it corrupted America. But to anyone who understand that in order to survive, producers must spend less making their products than buyers are willing to pay, the film comes across as the story of a mutual struggle of people from very different cultures to understand each other and to be successful in a competitive market.