What ‘American Factory’ says about the soul of our nation — and the coming campaign

A scene from “American Factory”

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The botched Iowa caucuses and the State of the Union mark the official opening of the presidential campaign. From now until November, you’re going to hear a lot about whether Democrats can take voters in the Midwest back from President Trump.

And so politics was very much on my mind when I watched “American Factory” over the weekend. The Netflix documentary, the first released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, tells the story of a glass factory opened by the Chinese in 2016 at the site of a former General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio. The film has been nominated for an Oscar. (Note: Spoiler alerts ahead.)

When we talk about the working-class voters who defected to Trump in 2016, we are inevitably talking about white working-class voters. But the people who were hired by the Fuyao glass company — many of them former GM employees — comprised an integrated workforce. At least as depicted in the film, the white and African American employees get along, and though they resent their Chinese co-workers and managers for what they perceive as unrealistic demands, we don’t hear anything even remotely racist from the Americans.

The Chinese are another story. Early in the film, we hear the chairman of Fuyao, the billionaire entrepreneur Cao Dewang, say of the Americans: “They’re pretty slow. They have fat fingers.” Later we hear complaints from the Chinese that the Americans are too soft, unwilling to work overtime, and — worst of all — lacking in gratitude because they were trying to form a union. After U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown puts in a good word for unions at the plant’s opening, we see an American manager joking to one of the Chinese executives that Brown’s head should be cut off (what a card!) and promising that Brown would be banned from future events.

The jobs, though, were a far cry from what GM had once offered. During the union-organizing drive, one of the American employees at Fuyao says that his full-time position paid just $27,000 — and that his daughter was making $40,000 in a nail salon. Fuyao may have brought blue-collar work back to the Dayton area, but at $12 an hour (raised to $14 in an attempt to head off the union), they were hardly the kind of well-paying jobs that had once made the Midwest a prosperous outpost of Democratic union households.

“We will never, ever make that kind of money again,” says one of the GM-turned-Fuyao employees. “Those days are over.”

The end of that era, decades in the making and accelerated by the Great Recession, has fueled resentment and hopelessness. As Trump tells us over and over, the unemployment rate is as low as it’s been in many years and the stock market is booming. Yet growing income inequality has led to stagnant or worsening living standards for all but the wealthy, the specter of college debt acts as a barrier to economic opportunity, and — as Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson said recently on WGBH News’ “The Scrum” — structural flaws in our system have elevated a small class of rich oligarchs who wield power over a majority that neither voted for them nor support their policies.

At the end of “American Factory,” we see robotic arms moving glass efficiently around the factory. Chairman Cao tours the floor with his executives as they show him the operations that will be replaced by machines in the coming years. As of 2018, we’re told as the film closes, the factory had achieved profitability — but that starting wages remained stuck at $14 an hour.

What’s disheartening is that, on one level, the Fuyao experiment worked. In return for tax incentives, a factory that had closed miraculously reopened, employing some 2,400 Americans and 200 visiting Chinese. What Fuyao didn’t bring back — and perhaps couldn’t bring back — were the middle-class wages and lifestyles that for several generations had been seen as a birthright by people who may not have gone to college but who were willing to work hard.

We are no closer to charting a path for them than we’ve been in the past several elections. Trump offers them nothing but anger and resentment. Several of the Democratic candidates have devised ambitious proposals to soak the rich and invest in their future, but we all know how difficult it is to turn even the best-devised plans into reality.

In the end, “American Factory” is a snapshot of a way of life that continues to decline. How that narrative will intersect with the 2020 campaign is anybody’s guess — but we should start getting some answers this week.

Talk about this post on Facebook.