Ever since leaving the White House, Barack Obama has kept a fairly low profile. But his latest venture suggests he’s interested in getting back into the fray. On Wednesday, Higher Ground, the new Netflix-partnered production company he founded with his wife Michelle, debuted its first project: a documentary called American Factory that’s aimed squarely at the heart of American political life.
The film is an understated yet riveting story of workers struggling to unionize an auto-glass factory in Dayton, Ohio. The plant has a peculiar history: General Motors once ran the factory but shut it down during the financial crisis in 2008. Then in 2015 the Chinese glass manufacturing giant Fuyao re-opened the factory and hired many of the laid-off GM workers, but they were paid less, forced to do more dangerous work, and supervised by an army of Chinese employees.
American Factory doesn’t mention Donald Trump by name, but its tales of Rust Belt gloom are intimately tied to the factors leading to his election — and his potential reelection. The documentary captures the bleakness of working in manufacturing in a global economy where capital flows freely, robots are ascendant, and laborers are as disposable as paper plates. Its portraits of alienation help explain why Dayton voted Republican in 2016 for the first time in decades.
American Factory tells us quite a bit about Obama’s next chapter and the shape of his future legacy. It seems apropos that a gifted writer who harnessed the power of his personal narrative to catapult himself from freshman senator of Illinois to President of the United States is using storytelling to influence the world politically. To his credit, he appears eager to engage with the Democrats’ inability to foresee Trump’s rise. But Obama’s attempts to encourage the public to see the documentary as a story of finding “common ground” suggests that he’s still out of touch with some of the underlying dynamics that gave rise to his successor.
The film begins on an optimistic note. Fuyao’s revival of the shuttered GM plant gives new life to a community that‘s long felt left behind and out of options. Many of the new employees haven’t had a job in years and had lost homes and cars; a steady income at a growing business seems to be a godsend.
The fact that the company is run from abroad by a dispassionate Chinese billionaire who has to speak to his American employees through a translator seems like a recipe for xenophobia. Instead, however, the American workers are grateful to have jobs, and some of them develop tight bonds with their Chinese supervisors and instructors despite huge language barriers. American Factory is at its most heart-warming and funniest when it depicts Chinese and American employees struggling earnestly to understand each other. (At one point an American worker squints at a text message that translates to “we are a warehouse to find” on his phone.)
But the good feelings don’t last. First, the wages are a fraction of what GM used to offer and pay raises are scant. One worker said that at GM she made over $29 an hour; at Fuyao, she makes $12.84. “Back then, if my kids wanted a pair of new gym shoes, I could just get them,” she laments. “I can’t just do that now.” Concerns about workplace safety emerge. Workers are asked to handle larger pieces of glass by hand and carry overly heavily supplies with forklifts in the name of efficiency; even veterans of the factory floor develop their first workplace injuries. One employee divulges that he saw some of the Chinese workers pouring toxic chemicals into drains that he fears could pollute the town’s water supply.
Complaints from the Americans do not land on sympathetic ears. Fuyao’s Chinese leadership considers them lazy, undisciplined, and fussy. At one point Fuyao flies some of the American managers out to their headquarters in China to show them how much more efficient the factory workers in China are. There, the employees work 12-hour shifts, get no more than a few days off each month, and are made to take orders in the style of a military platoon. (While watching the strict drills, one American manager jokes that he wishes he could duct tape the mouths of his workers, and a Chinese manager takes the joke completely seriously.)
But when stricter controls and greater pressure are placed on the Dayton workers, it only fuels worker efforts to form a union in the workplace, establishing the documentary’s central tension. An eventually-doomed war is waged between workers trying to unionize and a management team willing to do anything possible—including intimidating and terminating rebellious employees—to stop them.
American Factory lends some credence to the “economic anxiety” side of the debate on why people voted for Trump. While the evidence is clear that racism and xenophobia predicted support of Trump much more strongly than personal economic hardship in 2016, that doesn’t explain the rationale behind every voter or even exhaust the rationale of any single voter who decided to vote for him. American Factory depicts a multiracial slice of the Rust Belt where economic hopelessness rather than virulent white nationalism may have inspired many voters to consider an eccentric outsider who promised to revive their industry over a predictably inattentive Democrat. Hillary Clinton never visited Montgomery County, where Dayton is located; Trump visited twice.
The Obamas should be commended for helping to bring this complex and beautifully shot story to a large audience. But what’s puzzling is the takeaway from this documentary that Obama seems to be pushing. On social media and in a brief video-recorded conversation with the directors of the documentary, Obama has interpreted American Factory as a paean to how empathy can allow people to transcend political differences. “If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you know what their story is, you can forge a connection,” Obama says in the conversation. “You may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can more forward together.”
It’s clear that Obama is referring to the camaraderie between some of the American and Chinese workers in the film. But in fact, the central plot arc of the film derives all its power from the fact that interpersonal connections are not enough to create common ground. The American workers don’t generally vilify their Chinese managers on racial grounds, but ultimately there are unbridgeable differences over their beliefs on what workers deserve from the company they work for. And those differences weren’t because they failed to talk face-to-face — there’s plenty of that — but rather because labor and capital have directly opposing economic interests. As one of the Chinese workers puts it in his description of whether a union or the company’s managers could control the company: “One mountain cannot hold two tigers.”
One of the key premises of Obama’s presidency was that he’d fix Washington and revive bipartisan cooperation by listening to the other side of the aisle. But even after eight years of dealing with Republicans operating in bad faith and pathologically corrupt corporate executives, Obama seems to maintain a naive faith in the power of talking things out.
There are no silver bullets when it comes to protecting workers from globalization and automation. But it’s plainly evident that more robust labor regulations, better legal protections for unions, and a more muscular labor movement would’ve been a game-changer for the Fuyao employees as they were hammered by management. That is to say, sometimes enhancing solidarity with allies is more important than trying to win over an unreformable opponent. Democrats like Obama would be wise to think about that as they contemplate the future and hopefully re-examine the efficacy of sitting down for friendly chats.
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