It is one thing to know that companies routinely trample on their workers — it is quite another to have their executives look in the camera and admit it.
That’s just what happens in Netflix’s Oscar-nominated documentary “American Factory,” the first project from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions company, in partnership with Participant Media. Produced and directed by repeat nominees Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, it tells the disturbing and all too common story about a company that fools politicians and uses tax breaks to knowingly put profits above people and communities.
In the case of “American Factory,” the Chinese auto glass manufacturer Fuyao takes over, with great fanfare, part of a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, in 2014.
The company committed to an initial $230 million in capital investment and promises at least 800 jobs. It is given a government tax credit estimated at almost $9.7 million and $6.6 million in grants from JobsOhio, the state’s private development arm. When Fuyao expands its plans in 2015, it receives $4 million more from JobsOhio with its commitment to invest $130 million and hire an additional 750 workers.
Fanfare gives way to despair
It turns out that this incentive-laden economic development package was just a sugar high. The great fanfare became great despair as workers saw their wages slashed roughly in half from their GM days and working conditions become intolerable.
Workers alleged in 2017 that they were suffering severe damage to lung capacity from using chemicals without respirators. One said he had to repair a furnace set at 650 degrees, and another was fired after sustaining an injury on the job that required 100 stitches. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health that year named Fuyao among “the dirty dozen” most dangerous employers.
Last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found multiple safety hazards and fined the company over $700,000.
Without a union, the workers had no recourse for action, so they sought to secure a voice through the United Auto Workers. Fuyao Chairman Cao Dewang was intent on killing any attempts by his employees to unionize, stating emphatically and on camera, “If a union comes in, I’m shutting down.”
Chairman Cao went on to spend lavishly to thwart the workers’ efforts through intimidation, harassment and unrelenting, captive meetings with employees.
According to public reports about fines against the company by the National Labor Relations Board, its anti-union tactics violated laws and severely tainted any chance for a fair union election.
Overlooked on the economy:Rising paychecks for blue-collar workers are shrinking the wage gap
What happens in “American Factory” is what often occurs when companies make promises in return for government incentives and subsidies but then aren’t held accountable. We should not be in the business of doling out taxpayer gifts to companies that abhor basic standards like fair wages and safe working conditions or fail to deliver community benefits.
Workers are getting results
Community and labor coalitions across the USA are turning the tide on companies securing public sector contracts without taking into account what workers and communities need. These coalitions have successfully established community benefits agreements with multibillion dollar companies, including Chinese and Japanese corporations, that bring together community leaders and state and local governments to hash out agreements that work for all parties.
Through reformed public purchasing policies, community-labor coalitions have compelled employers from different parts of the world to let their workers have a voice on the job and deepen their commitments to our communities. Under these policies, companies are now agreeing to higher labor standards, developing real training programs and giving more people of color, women and veterans a chance at the jobs and careers created.
These are not just aspirational goals — they reflect actual results. In Los Angeles County, for example, the electric bus manufacturer BYD has committed to recruit and hire people who have faced barriers and exclusion, including women, veterans, people of color and formerly incarcerated people. Good job policies allow working people to imagine a future where success isn’t defined by cutting corners, crushing workers and dissing communities, but rather by a commitment to good jobs, diversity, transparency, accountability and career paths for those who are being left behind.
In other words, if a good jobs policy was in place in Dayton, the story of Fuyao would be wrenching fiction, not the truth about workers being mistreated and taxpayers and communities being fleeced.