American Factory: A Rust Belt Revitalization Effort

“American Factory” the new documentary now streaming on Netflix, based on the re-opening of a former shuttered GM plant in Moraine, Ohio tells the story of the American working class meeting high-tech Chinese industry.

When Fuyao Glass, a glass manufacturer from the People’s Republic of China set its sights on the former GM plant in Moraine, a suburb on the south side of Dayton, there was genuine excitement among the community.

The Netflix trailer for “American Factory,” the feature length documentary from local filmmakers on the Moraine, Ohio Fuyao factory. (Source: Netflix/YouTube)

Back in 2016, Dayton Daily News called the reopening of the plant “the world’s biggest automobile glass production plant.” Rightfully so at the time, as the plant, which originally opened in 1921 left almost 1,100 jobs behind at the time of it’s closing in 2008, according to a Vice News interview with the new factory owner, Cao Dewang.

Moraine’s Mayor Elaine Allison, along with former Ohio governor John Kasich personally lobbied Dewang to open his factory in the rust belt city, whose factory sat dormant for several years.

“It was empty, sixish years,” said Allison in the Vice interview. “Plants growing up in the parking lot–it looked like an abandoned factory.”

She went on to add:

“That was the city of Moraine’s largest employer and the city gets payroll taxes which is how we fund city operations. So, when that dried up, we had to make some serious cutbacks.”

This obviously forced the city to hold off on capital improvement projects like paving roads and other infrastructural projects.

“We just had to keep a moratorium to keep the city afloat,” said Allison.

At the time of the factory’s closing, a short film was produced by HBO and made by local filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. The film in question, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” was nominated for an Oscar in 2009.

The HBO documentary was nominated for an Oscar back in 2009 and was filmed by Yellow Spring, Ohio natives. (Source: Netflix/YouTube)

Their new film, “American Factory” which tells of the fight for unionization and for an understanding between Chinese manufacturing and American blue-collar was eventually bought and distributed by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company Higher Ground Productions.

Ann Hornaday, critic for the Washington Post commented on the new film stating in her review:

“What happens when an American labor force grounded in the values of collective bargaining and strong health and safety standards confronts younger colleagues schooled in the discipline and punishing self-denial of China’s command-control form of capitalism?”

Back in 2017, a vote was posed to unionize after a campaign by United Auto Workers (UAW), which was struck down in Nov. of 2017. Though, recently, three workers who lead that effort were let go, citing their involvement in the push towards unionization as their reason for termination.

“Fuyao categorically denies that it terminated the three employees at issue for supporting union organizing activities,” the company said in an email to the Dayton Daily News. “Rather, the employees were justifiably terminated for violating company policies. While Fuyao believes strongly it would have prevailed in this matter, it elected to settle the charges in 2018 so the company could move forward with focusing on its business operations.”

The documentary might’ve covered this, according to Dayton Daily, in an article written Aug. 28.

The scene in question features Fuyao Glass America Chief Executive Jeff Liu, in a subtitled scene explaining to Fuyao founder and Chairman Cho Tak Wong that he had fired union supporters in the plant.

Bognar had shown this bit to Liu and at the time Liu had expressed no problem with the translation at that time, Reichert and Bognar both affirming that they stand by the Mandarin Chinese translations in the film.

The implications could be bad for Fuyao Glass, as according to the National Labor Relations Act, it is a civil violation to fire workers for an effort to unionize.

Fuyao’s investment in the Moraine plant was the largest Chinese investment in Ohio’s history. Something long-needed not just for the Dayton metro area, but for various former steel belt communities throughout the midwest and northeast.

The $600 million investment has revitalized a workforce that had been without those blue-collar, middle-class jobs for nearly a decade, many of the workers having a hard time finding work after the GM plant closure.

Kim Clay, one of the GM workers, who boasted photography and filmmaking credits for the original short film, told Dayton Daily in a 2010 article that he had taken the $70,000 buyout upon the factory’s closure. The buyout was only $40,000 after taxes.

Though, in two years most of the money had run out and Clay had been ineligible for unemployment due to said buyout. Instead he had reverted to living off of food stamps and hoping for future job opportunities.

“I see all these reports of jobs coming to the area in five years, but I need a job now,” said Clay. The article went on to explain that other former GM workers had taken their own lives as a result of the job loss and the aftereffects.

The filmmakers of “American Factory” sit down and have a conversation with the Obamas. The Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, is distributing the film. (Source: Netflix/YouTube)

The film was released last January at Sundance and has been available to watch on Netflix since Aug. 21. In April it won the Best Documentary Feature at the RiverRun International Film Festival.

Mike Fullenkamp, a facilities service manager, who was among a group of American workers that took a trip to Fuyao’s headquarters in China, spoke before a screening of the film about the merging of cultures according to Dayton.com

“It’s good I think,” Fullenkamp said of Fuyao being the focus of the documentary. “It’s going to help other companies learn from our company. It’s been a challenge for everybody on both sides.”

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley commented in the same article on the hardships of the blue-collar working class of America.

“I hope what I see from the movie is how workers need to organize and they need to come together,” she said. “Sadly that doesn’t happen very much.”

Richard Foltz
Executive Editor

A local news outlet covers the film’s move to Netflix. (Source: WDTNTV/YouTube)

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