Documentary Releases: American Worker (2019) - Reviewed

In 2009, documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Rechert first gained national attention for their televised short film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.  Not wholly unlike Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the film proved to be a sad memoir of American workers whose livelihood and income was ruthlessly ripped out from under them upon the closure of the Dayton, Ohio GM Plant.  Thousands of people were left jobless and struggling to survive and provide for their families.  After the closure of the plant, a glimmer of hope emerged in 2014 upon the purchase of the dormant plant by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang with the intention of establishing a US division of his windshield glass production company, Fuyao. 

On paper, it sounded like a Godsend: 2,000 new American hires followed by 200 Chinese employees flown in to provide additional training.  Moreover, it was an international company providing jobs for previously displaced and/or dispossessed and also strengthened diverse relations between American, Chinese and Chinese-American workers.  It was a dream come true for ex-GM employees left hung out to dry despite working for smaller wages than before, until it became increasingly apparent things American employees enjoyed such as UAW union protection were nowhere to be found within this workplace.  Worse still, if you speak up against Dewang and his company’s practices which seemed closer to the way Chinese businesses function as opposed to America, it’s a good bet you’ll be targeted for termination.

The first film from former US President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company ‘Higher Ground Productions’ and distributed by Netflix, American Factory is a tragicomic tale of vastly different points of view about the workplace being hastily sandwiched together and the fallout which can follow such an enterprise.  The kind of documentary that can fill the viewer with righteous indignation and a sense of hopeless defeat, American Factory takes you with a variety of workers and American managers and shares their frustrating and frequently insurmountable corporate obstacles.

At times American Factory can be hard to look at in terms of the mistreatment and disregard for the American employees who unsuccessfully try to persuade Dewang and his managers to unionize the company only to be met with hostile indifference every time.  In one particularly humiliating sequence, Americans are flown in to China and are constantly referred to as ‘the other’ by their Chinese co-workers when company meetings don’t do everything in their power to undermine the American employee’s credibility.  The purpose of the business trip seems to be boost morale within the American workers, resulting in the end in anything but.

As the American workplace landscape continues to change and evolve as international businesses begin foraging for new ground atop derelict remnants of the past, the question becomes what to do about it as longstanding American customs and freedoms in the workplace are suddenly being trampled upon without consequence or recompense.  It’s a scary time for American businesses and begs the question whether or not such vastly different employment structures from opposite sides of the globe can in fact coexist in the same space.  American Factory doesn’t have the answers or solutions but as a voice for change it takes the important first step of asking the right questions in the first place.

--Andrew Kotwicki