“American Factory” documentary film…More questions than answers.

American Factory

I was excited to watch this film.  With support from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the subject of the re-opening of a closed GM Plant by a Chinese multinational corporation, the film is available on Netflix anytime you want.

In my view, the film is earnest in its intentions, just as most caring people are earnest  about the plight of the American worker.

Earnestness is not enough.

It is  asking too much for a documentary film to go deeper than American Factory does?

As a society that claims to believe in fairness and equality, we should expect more of ourselves.

We are living in a very perilous time.  Since the mid-1970’s the nation has lost millions of good paying jobs. Those jobs have not come back. There is no sign that they will.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of families in the United States are vulnerable.  With median family income stagnant for nearly two decades, even after the recovery from the Great Recession, there is little left to the imagination  about the anxiety that haunts nearly all Americans.

We have to be frank about the failure to create good jobs and restore jobs and wages   that provide security for American families.

While most people may differ somewhat on the definition of security, most people know when they don’t experience it.  Security means feeling safe.  It means not feeling vulnerable.  It means that you work hard and in return you are valued at least as much as the value you produce.  It means feeling safe in your neighborhood.  It means you can afford the necessities of life without feeling vulnerable and anxious. It means that you have a job in which you feel valued and respected, a job that you are proud to do and are happy to have your children follow in your footsteps to do.  It means  you live in a community where you live in comfort, where you have high quality affordable healthcare, where you can educate yourself and your children in a high quality and affordable environment.  It means you have money in the bank for emergencies and for retirement, not one or the other.  It means you have affordable and high quality child care

There is plenty of blame to go around; but blame and the resentments that go with it, just produce more anxiety, frustration, even hopelessness.

Yes, we need more than earnestness.

Earnestness is shown in the film by  Senator Sherrod Brown when he  declares his support for unionization at the newly re-purposed GM plant in Dayton, OH.

Earnestness  is not enough on the part of the filmmakers who portray an oversimplified cultural clash between the Chinese entrepreneurs and their Chinese and American managers and the American workers.

Earnestness on the part of the UAW that made an effort to organize the plant; or the state representative who spoke to the workers about the right to organize and union’s central role in the building of the nation, is not enough.

Earnestness in the film’s  portrayal of the Chinese workers in the plant who work alongside their American counterparts who are shown to accept the harsh working conditions that their American co-workers appear to reject.

Earnestness in the narrative about the role of a highly paid anti-union consulting firm that spearheaded the defeat of the UAW at the plant by a 2-1 margin.

Earnestness in the end of the film which declares that 380 million people worldwide who work today will be out of work in less than 20 years due to automation.

Earnestness has value to bring attention and emotional engagement of the plight of these workers.  Understanding the  plight of these workers can be a way to bring attention to the plight of American workers more broadly.

But, missing in the film, and more importantly, missing in our nation’s dialogue about the plight of he American worker is the notion of PURPOSE.  Moreover, when discussing the future of the American worker, we ought to be discussing SHARED PURPOSE if we care about linking democracy and voice to what the nation supposedly stands for.

Let me give one example to illustrate PURPOSE.

The film tells the all-too-familiar story of the closure of a GM plant that operated in a working class midwestern city, in this case, Dayton, OH.  A few years after the plant closure which disrupted the lives of more than 2,000 families. the plant was purchased by a giant Chinese auto glass manufacturing firm, Fuyao.  The plant hired more than 1,000 local workers, and though the plant was in the firm control of its Chinese owner, the local executives were also American. In their desperation to “bring good jobs back”, elected officials provided tax-giveaways to the corporation to open in Dayton.

The starting wage for the new plant was about 12.50/hour

When GM last operated the plant in 2008, the wage was $29/hour.

Let’s stop right here!

Families cannot live on $12.50/hour.

According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator for Dayton, OH, the living hourly wage ranges from $22.55/hour to $26.02/hour depending on the size of the family.  In this case the living wage range is based on a range of one adult and one child to two adults and two children.   The Living Wage is based on what wage is necessary to cover food, childcare, medical, housing, transportation, and miscellaneous expenses.  These expenses do not include savings, entertainment, or vacation.

Families cannot own homes, or automobiles, or save money, or send their kids to school, or frankly live a dignified life on $12.50/hour.  How has it come to pass that in the United States we are so desperate to provide tax and other incentives to corporations to open businesses, but pay no attention to the impact on people?

What if the workers in this case successfully organized their Union?  What would happen?  Would there be a likely trajectory back towards $29/hour, safe working conditions, and a voice in the production process, necessary to have a successful enterprise in a highly competitive market environment?

I think we all know the answer:  there might be incremental success for the workforce;  there might be a strike; there might be a refusal on the part of management to recognize the Union and simply close the plant?  These are the most likely outcomes in the world of today’s collective bargaining in the United States.

But more broadly than collective bargaining and worker voice, the story of this film is much more broadly about who we are as a people.  We can define ourselves as a people by accepting, albeit grudgingly that incrementalism is a good model for change, if we choose to.

But we all know that our social, cultural, political plight as a people and as a nation has been at the breaking point for a very long time.  Incrementalism might be a good outcome for those who promote it, but it is not good for anyone else.

It is time, in fact long-overdue that we as a people shift from collective bargaining among a tiny fraction of the American workforce to a local, regional, and national practice of Social Dialogue.  My translation of Social Dialogue is pretty simple:  it is a dialogue which requires employers, workers, and government to sit together, look at facts, and answer the question: “WHAT DO WE WANT”?


Maybe, except that Social Dialogue is the official operating principle of the International Labor Organization, to which the United States is a signatory member.

Our laws, behaviors, and power relationships deny the ability to ask and answer the “What do We Want?”question.  But asking the question, “What Do We Want” is also not enough.

We need to have new behaviors in asking and answering this question, accounting for imbalances in power.  The primary behavior we need is called Interest Based Dialogue to define the actual workings of Social Dialogue.

Interest Based dialogue begins with asking the question. “What do we want”, by asking the parties to openly discuss a problem that needs fixing.  In Dayton, OH, like everywhere else in the country there is a long list of problems that need fixing.  We cannot boil the ocean and fix them all…but we can, in Dayton and in all communities bring government, workers, and employers together and ask them to answer the question What Do We Want?

From such a dialogue we get to what was missing in the story of Fuyao:  there was no sense of Shared Purpose; the result…no worker voice, $14.50/hour, (the workers got a $2/hour raise during the anti-union campaign) unsafe working conditions, and a green field of new resentments built on the ones already present.

I am calling for all of us to not just think big, but to think creatively as we discuss our way forward.

Those who wish to stand in the way of the attainment of Shared Purpose and interest based social dialogue will likely have a short political life.

American Factory ought to be  a story of hope as opposed to what it turns out to be:  confusion about the enormous tragedy of this place and the implications of that tragedy for the future.
















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