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Exclusive: The Obamas’ Netflix doc ‘American Factory’ to launch nationwide social-impact tour

Participant Media and its partners in this searing documentary about the future of work discuss their forthcoming campaign this fall to spark conversations.

Exclusive: The Obamas’ Netflix doc ‘American Factory’ to launch nationwide social-impact tour
[Photo: courtesy of Aubrey Keith/Netflix]

The closing moments of American Factory are more ominous than the 100-odd minutes preceding them.

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If that’s possible.

In the final shots of Netflix’s new labor documentary, which follows the plight of workers at a Chinese-owned glass factory in Dayton, Ohio, a manager proudly presents to the company’s CEO his newest employee: a mechanical arm, swiveling and nimbly picking up a sheet of glass. “I’m going to get rid of four workers here,” the manager gleams. “We can’t get the work done now. They are too slow.”

The portentous scene gives way to on-screen text that encapsulates the open-ended question posed by the movie—and by the modern-day working world. “Up to 375 million workers globally will need to find entirely new jobs by 2030 because of automation,” the script reads. “How workers, governments, and businesses tackle these seismic shifts will define the future of work.”

To address that conundrum is the purpose of this fall’s social-impact campaign, organized by producer Participant Media and its partners, for the benefit of workers, employers, labor unions, policymakers, and stakeholders in the hard-hitting content of the film. The campaign will take the form of a national tour from September to December, stopping in six cities facing different, yet similarly fraught, labor issues: Boston, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Seattle.

Participant knows that it won’t instantly solve the looming crisis. “Closure on an issue like the future of work is obviously not going to happen,” says Holly Gordon, Participant’s chief impact officer. “It’s Pollyanna to believe that it’s one film, and we’re done.” Rather, Gordon’s idea is to bring together people from different spheres of the workplace and beyond into a dialogue—and to marry voices that are often kept separate. “Often, the conversations are totally siloed,” she says. “Workers are having one kind of conversation, and owners, managers, employers, investors are in a completely different ecosystem.”

Entertainment that inspires social change is hardly new to Participant, which has in its production repertoire such socially conscious documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth and last year’s RBG, the Oscar-nominated bio documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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Nor is running campaigns around films, which Participant’s dedicated impact team does every year, as it did after RBG‘s release, to foster discourse about women’s rights and gender parity. Centering conversations around a movie is a tried-and-tested method to spark discussion, because it represents a shared context. The campaign aims to create a “safe space” in which the conversation, inching toward an eventual collaborative solution, can take place.

Thanks to American Factory‘s distribution as a Netflix film, Participant can reach more workers around the country than those who live within more urban areas with independent movie theaters. “This is the beauty of streaming platforms,” Gordon says.

And this time, there’s also the boon of having the 44th president and former First Lady Michelle Obama as an ally. American Factory is the first project from the Obamas’ new distribution company, Higher Ground. “It was essential that the film not only resonate with audiences but also spark a global conversation,” say Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan, co-heads of Higher Ground Productions.

[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

Factory workers face a new, uncertain era

American Factory follows the Dayton factory as it shutters as a GM plant in 2013, killing 10,000 jobs, and then reopens in 2016 as a glass factory owned by Chinese company Fuyao.

At first, rehired and returning GM employees are jubilant. “This is the best game in town right now,” says Bobby, an immediately likeable and enthusiastic furnace off-loader. Dave Burrows, vice president of Fuyao Glass America, thanks the Chinese management: “You have given hope to a community that was desolate,” he says. “This is one of the greatest projects in the history of the United States.”

Much of the film focuses on the culture clash. There are lighthearted moments as the Chinese workers, in town to train their American counterparts, spiritedly learn about carp fishing, Harleys, and Wheaties cereal. But the almost militaristic Chinese management view the Americans as spoiled and entitled. They’re stunned by workers taking time off on weekends, and they (half-) joke about duct taping their mouths shut to curb chatter. In a culture seminar, as Chinese workers sample McDonald’s and Mountain Dew, they’re taught to use flattery to deal with Americans’ overconfidence. “Donkeys like being touched in the direction their hair grows,” the lecturer warns. “Otherwise, they’ll kick you.”

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Cultural differences aside, the bigger theme that emerges is the unfair treatment of workers, largely in the form of bad pay and a lack of health and safety controls. Shawnea, a glass inspector, says her wage dropped from $29 an hour at GM to $12.84 at Fuyao. Cynthia, a lamination specialist, worries about the prospect of being trapped without exits in the event of a fire. Employees’ initial cheeriness quickly dissipates, leaving them deflated. “GM afforded me a great life,” says the once buoyant Bobby. “We will never make that kind of money again. Those days are over.”

While globalization plays a role in these outcomes, the suggestion is that it’s a wider issue that’s common among American companies. “It’s certainly not a Chinese problem,” says Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO. “It’s a bigger U.S. business culture problem. Our labor laws are incredibly weak.” The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States representing 12 million workers, is one of Participant’s partners for the tour and will aim to turn out union workers and leaders to events in the six cities.

American Factory heats up emotionally when the workers start to form a union—and experience forceful pushback. Fuyao reportedly spends $1 million on anti-union consultants, and CEO Cao Dewang (nicknamed Chairman Cao), says at the height of a tantrum: “If a union comes, I’m shutting down.” (Burrows, the American executive, also acidly tells a colleague that he wanted to decapitate Senator Sherrod Brown with a giant pair of ribbon-cutting scissors after the labor-friendly Brown brings up unionizing during the factory’s opening ceremony.)

Jill Lamantia, a forklift operator who starts to campaign for the union, is eventually laid off. Fuyao claims it was for talking to a coworker on the line, but she tells Fast Company that she believes it was for organizing. She was particularly concerned about the abysmal safety standards, mentioning elevated temperatures and forklifting loads double the weight they should be. Though the organizing attempt eventually loses to the anti-union vote, by about 60% to 40%–and cost her her job–she has no regrets. “Standing up for myself and my fellow workers’ lives seemed natural,” she says.

[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

Inclusive discussions around the country

Sharing the experiences of people like Lamantia are part of what Participant hopes the programs will accomplish as the tour makes its way across the country. This “listening tour,” as Participant’s Gordon calls it, will comprise “inclusive conversations about what dignified work looks like.” While the particulars in each city will vary, the showpiece will be a screening of the film, followed by panel discussions with “stakeholders across whatever ecosystem we’re working in,” she says. In Seattle, the discussion may revolve around tech. But Louisville, a logistics hub, will be more worker-focused, inviting labor chiefs, educators, and faith leaders. In Boston, they’ll meet at Harvard Business School in front of the student body–the future business leaders of the world, as Gordon notes.

The partners, including the AFL-CIO, Working America (the largest non-union workers’ group in the country), and New America (a think tank closely associated with the Obamas), advised Participant on the post-screening discussions. With their help, Participant put together a downloadable screening toolkit and discussion guide, with the intention that people all over the country, not just in the six stops, can host their own local screenings in homes and workplaces. The guide includes tips such as encouraging everyone to speak and avoiding negative judgments and name-calling. It urges sitting in a circle and asking open-ended questions such as:

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Who should have a say over working conditions, wages and benefits?

Why would workers want to form a union? Why might they vote against a union?

How can we make sure there is democracy in the workplace?

Participant wants to make sure that employers are fairly represented, too, and to this end, it’s partnering with Talent Rewire, an organization that helps employers “who want to do right by their workers” to navigate changing demographics, automation, and other impending hurdles and invest in its employees. The group helped food manufacturing giant Tyson establish financial literacy and ESL lessons for its employees. Rhino Foods, a smaller Vermont-based manufacturer, set up a policy whereby it could give employees advances of up to $1,000 for emergencies. It simply makes more business sense, in this work climate, for employers to invest in their employees.

Just as AFL-CIO will motivate workers to attend events, Talent Rewire will turn out employers to lend their voices, says Nicole Trimble, its managing director. The campaign is an entry point into a larger dialogue. “They don’t really talk with their own employees about what they need to be successful,” she says. “This is a way to start that conversation.”

American Factory directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, filming at the Fuyao factory in Dayton. [Photo: David Holm/Netflix]

Representing the underrepresented

Giving workers, employers, and others equal opportunities to talk during the campaign is a reflection of the movie’s mission. The filmmakers, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, are longtime residents of the Dayton area who have ties to its working community—and who were nominated for Academy Awards for their short documentary about the closure of the very same GM plant. But they still present all possible sides. At least, Michelle Obama thinks so. During a Netflix promo featuring the Obamas and the filmmakers, the former first lady comments, “It’s not an editorial. You truly let people speak for themselves.”

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Like the greatest fictional screen stories of this new golden age of TV, the line between good and bad here is blurred. Even the shoo-in for the archetypal villain, Chairman Cao, has a redemptive moment near the end when he prays at a temple in his hometown and vulnerably questions his own legacy. “I have built so many factories,” he says. “Have I taken the peace away? I don’t know if I am a contributor or a sinner.”

Still, American Factory makes a remarkable effort to represent the common worker, whose perspective is frequently left out of the conversation. “The economic pie is growing, but workers aren’t getting a piece of it,” say the filmmakers, in a joint statement. “We want to give voice to people who don’t appear on screen,” Bognar tells the Obamas. “Working people, their stories, their struggles, their hopes. Equally compelling to superheroes.”

In a poignant moment after the unionizing attempt fails, the initially bubbly Bobby laments to his fellow workers: “What voice do you have? When have you ever had a voice?” The very aim of the film is to broadcast that voice. In a memorable villain-to-hero turn, Burrows, who wanted a bounty on Senator Brown’s head, later changes his mind about unionizing. “I think these employees need something,” he says.

If all goes to plan, the campaign will continue that momentum to open minds and change perspectives. For Jill Lamantia, the forklift operator, the conversation is important, and she hopes to be a part of the tour to share her experiences. She’s back to work now as a builder of semi-trucks, and happy to be employed at a union shop that supports workers and their rights.

But the threat of automation—and robots that may not require human supervision—continues to worry her. “I hope that there will always be a need,” she says, “to have workers work.”

Click here to find out more about the campaign and to download discussion guides.

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