American Factory

As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win.  The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed.  China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect american-factory-1this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.

While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.

One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.

Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.

Something has to give there.  In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality.  Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.

11 thoughts on “American Factory

    1. Sean Post author

      Not exactly. Both need each other. It’s more that this film shows a number of reasons why the U.S. isn’t negotiating from a position of strength and the underlying reason for imposing tariffs is seriously flawed because Americans will not actually want to deal with pay and safety levels low enough to make their manufacturing anywhere near competitive with China or other, even cheaper, locations.

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  1. EclecticMusicLover

    As an American who is currently extremely unhappy with the state of things in my country, especially our loathsome president, his corrupt and incompetent administration, and all the delusional fools who still support him, I sadly concur that many Americans have long been spoiled by relatively cheap imported goods. So many are unable to see the connection between their desire to pay the lowest possible prices and the outsourcing & exportation of manufacturing jobs. And many still seem to not understand that the tariffs President Chump is raising will actually amount to higher out of pocket costs that will be borne by them!

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  2. Jay

    I really loved seeing the Chinese managers sometimes literally scratch their heads at how slow their American employees are, how little they work, how much they complain. It’s clearly a culture shock, even from one identical factory to another. What a great way to study social differences.

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  3. Liz A.

    The answer to that is no. It’s why we’re in the mess we’re in. And why they continue to vote in people who aren’t there to help them. They just don’t realize it.

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