This weekend I took out two hours to watch American Factory, a new Netflix movie that is making waves as one of the best documentaries of 2019. Spoiler alert: American Glass begins with the closing of a major General Motors plant in Dayton Ohio in 2008, leaving 10,000+ people out of work. Several years later, Chinese auto glass titan Fuyao Glass then buys up the factory and re-opens it as Fuyao Glass America. The movie follows various Fuyao employees, both Chinese and American, as they navigate the tricky integration of their different cultures in the workplace, and battle the possibility of unionizing. I thought the movie was utterly fascinating, but probably not for the reason that you think.
One of my biggest takeaways from the movie was the incredible work ethic of the workers in the Chinese Fuyao plant. They only took off one or two days a month, and worked twelve hour shifts. The Chinese had many fewer safety rules and complained much less about safety conditions. The American plant workers, on the other hand, worked eight hour shifts and had weekends off. On paper, it would seem that the Chinese are simply much harder workers: they are at work much longer, complain much less, and get more done. However this isn’t really a fair comparison. There are many cultural implications to consider, such as the cost of living in each country, workplace safety laws, values each culture upholds, and more. Regardless, I was personally struck by the work ethic and seemingly contentedness of the Chinese team. Their energy was perfectly exemplified by their Chairman and Founder, Cao Dewang, when he said “The purpose of life, is work.”
From a consumer perspective, the movie offered an excellent, if brief, insight into the creation of automobile windshields and windows. From the tempering to the testing, viewers see the inner working of an auto glass plant, and the personal attention that goes into the creation of each piece. However it was an interesting thread when one of the managers showed the installation of a robot arm that obviated the need for a handful of employees at the plant. The movie ends with a note that hundreds of millions of jobs will be eliminated by the year 2030, thus suggesting that the goings on at Fuyao Glass America are representative of factories across the US and the world.
The center of the drama in the film revolves around how the Chinese and American employees interact and learn from each other throughout the film. Hundreds of Chinese Fuyao employees must live in America for two years to train the American team on how to make glass, and its fascinating watching how they adapt to American culture. From eating Twinkies for lunch to shooting guns at Thanksgiving, these small cultural moments show us how special our American culture is. Then, seeing the American employees visit the Chinese headquarters is an equally powerful movement. While there are so many surface differences between our cultures, during a company celebration one American employee began weeping tears of happiness. “We are all one.” He said through tears and a smile. We all want to feel productive and valued. We all want to provide for our families. And we all want to let loose sometimes. These similarities, rather than our differences, come through crystal clear, and I commend American Factory for their wonderful execution.