When you think of Ohio, for those who have never once set foot on the American soil, people tend to think of the swing state, the rust belt region that’s often associated with desolation and a sluggish economy, and the pain brought about by automation’s impact on manufacturing labor.
This is the setting of American Factory, the 2019 documentary that the Obamas invested in. Amidst the fiery smoke of the current US-China trade war, the story adopted a neutral angle, explicitly reflecting upon the ideological differences between the two great powers against the backdrop of globalization.
As the story goes, in 2010, Chinese companies began ramping up investment in US manufacturing. Fuyao is one of the industrial corporations with traditional Chinese genes and a global strategy. Founded in 1987, Fuyao grew up amongst the first batch of private firms that benefited from the reform and opening up policies. Back in 1977, Cao Dewang, founder and chairman of Fuyao started his career as a procurer at a glass factory in his hometown. 40 years later, he gave a speech at the opening ceremony of Fuyao Glass America in Dayton, Ohio, wishing for the locals to believe in the greater good of his project. He is a typical Chinese entrepreneur who built an empire from scratch. He is pragmatic, smart and always has his eyes on the long-term. When asked whether to hang a Chinese painting above the reception desk, Cao answered, “No, just an American painting then, let’s not provoke them.”
The director of the American branch said, “We are mixing the American culture and the Chinese culture, we are an international organization.” Apart from the discussions about job losses, hourly wages and workplace safety, what lies between the company’s American and Chinese colleagues are the cultural and language barriers that cannot be overcome in a single day.
After the closing down of General Motors in Dayton due to the financial crisis in 2008, one thing that the Fuyao factory brings is job opportunities for locals. One of the workers said in the documentary, “Thanks to Fuyao, I had something to do.” It sounds like the kind of line you would hear in one of those inspirational Hollywood films. The inflow of Chinese capital does make a difference to the local economies of midwestern states. In 2015, Fuyao purchased the once shuttered Dayton factory with as much as $500 million, aiming to occupy a market share of 20 to 25% among all automobile glass suppliers in the United States. Similar stories are going on in places like Michigan and Indiana. However at the grassroots level, some of the workers were not able to make as much as they used to, as some merely received slightly above Obama’s minimum wage of $10.10. It seems like to make a living one has to make a sacrifice.
In the land of liberty
Although it is a private firm, Fuyao has the management style of a state-owned enterprise, with a slogan of Be United, Alert, Earnest and Lively. The slogan itself impresses people with a collective spirit typically found in China. In fact, the word “Fuyao” literally means Good Fortune Shines.
In Fuyao, the military style management requires workers to line up and shout slogans before starting a regular working day. At the end of each year, they have annual galas and give special awards to excellent workers. The whole atmosphere put significant emphasis on diligence and efficiency. During those interviews with Fuyao’s workers in China, all they ever brought up is that they are grateful and satisfied that they get to make money for their family and kids. It barely occurred to them about the tedium of the repeated labor, or the relative insignificance of what they are doing. After every long shift, they would just get together, cook meals, smoke some cigarettes and spend time thinking about their families faraway back in their hometowns. They believe in what they do, the precise process of making flawless transparent glass for automobile companies.
Just like in Foxconn, the outside world perceives it as a horrible factory that squeezes the blood and sweat out of its poor workers. But in fact, some might just be grateful for this status quo, for the fact that they are making a living with their hands. In Fuyao, some of the Chinese would rest only one or two days per month, which seems utterly impossible in the eyes of the American colleagues. They get paid according to the time they spend working.
Historically, China had this craze towards high efficiencies with the slogan of “putting all effort into steel making, surpassing Britain and America”. In the 80s, the Chinese would sing folk songs entitled “Labor is the most glorious thing.” For the past decades, the appreciation and honor for labor and diligence has never ceased.
Americans on the other hand, place significant cultural value on individual liberty and rights. They are less willing to sacrifice their own benefits for some lofty collective goal. In their minds, compulsory overtime work breaks the law, even though you get paid for it. The Chinese workers who have traveled across the ocean didn’t really understand it all. They picture America as a land of liberty and enrichment, on the material side. They would likely ignore the fact that the discrepancies here are more ideological.
In factories, efficiency and individuality sometimes makes contradictions.
A local congressman said at the opening ceremony, “I know many of the workers here are trying to form a union, to strengthen their voices in this great company.” adding fire to the previously peaceful and stable environment.
Ever since the Great Depression, a decision made by President Rosevelt brings the influence of unions to the front of the historical stage. In 1932, Roosevelt passed a bill that abolished the “yellow-dog contract”, which forbid employees to join the union. During the three years from 1933 to 1936, the number of American unions tripled. With the support of the government, unions continue to make an ever greater impact, enabling huge quantities of blue-collar workers in the United States to join the ranks of the middle class.
“Working people and labor movement is what makes America great in the first place.” Stated, a speaker from UAW, one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America, inciting rounds of applause under the stage. It seems like labor movement makes them accomplished and fulfilled. It has been embedded in their nature that they are able to hold signs, rally peers and fight for their rights.
On the one hand, unions do stand as powerful tools in fighting corruption, protecting the workers from unfavorable working conditions, unfair wages and workplace injuries. On the other hand, due to the advanced economic and social development of the American society, the high wages and welfare has, in a sense, brought about sluggishness, a lack of productivity, and the overall diminishing competitiveness of the American worker. In the early 1980s, it took an average American worker 10 hours to produce one ton of steel, however, the number in Japan and Europe are all under 5 hours. That’s how the anti-union sentiment came about in the first place.
At the end of the documentary, the newly appointed general manager who has spent 20 years in America had to make a compromise amongst the power struggle. He promised to raise everyone’s hourly wage by 2 dollars, and select the ten most hardworking American workers to visit Shanghai, the Chinese city that represents the essence of modernization. The look on their faces when they see the picture of Shanghai somehow resembles the expression of an average Chinese person when they see Manhattan. In this era of globalization, distances between foreign places shrink and things become more equal in many senses.
The manager even quoted a famous line of President Trump, “Let’s make America great again!”
After all, it’s never about making dollars. What chairman Cao has in mind is bridging the gap. He hates the guts of the unions, but they have always been there, rightful and prosperous. On American soil, it’s no easy task for a Chinese to start their business.