29 August 2019

The Obama-funded documentary American Factory depicts the culture clash when a Chinese billionaire opens an automotive glass plant in a former GM factory. As his management becomes more authoritarian, morale drops and workplace injuries rise. The company spends a million dollars on “union avoidance” strategies, forcing workers to attend propaganda meetings and openly admitting to sacking union supporters. While the film has been criticised for sitting on the fence and pushing a flaccid “common ground” agenda, I think its dry presentation underscores the importance of a real union (not a servile company union like the official Chinese factory union shown) to protecting workers from exploitation. That seems to be what Chinese viewers have taken from it: “‘Who doesn’t know China’s efficiency comes from stripping low-class workers of their health, safety and dignity?’ read the top-voted comment on review site Douban. ‘Chinese people have given Americans a lesson on what capitalism is like,’ a Weibo comment said.” And as Vox notes, the filmmakers “train their cameras on not just the people but the tasks and materials of the job, giving audiences less familiar with the factory floor an idea of just how complicated and difficult the work is, and how valuable skilled labor is as well.”