Federal and state officials are reacting to possibly illegal treatment of workers in a Chinese-owned factory in the Dayton area that was exposed in the Academy Award-winning documentary "American Factory."
The National Labor Relations Board has opened an investigation in response to sequences in the film in which Chinese officials with Fuyao Glass America appear to discuss firing American workers for trying to unionize — a likely violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
Also, JobsOhio, Ohio’s publicly funded economic developer, disowned a statement it issued celebrating the 2017 defeat of an attempt by the United Auto Workers to organize workers in the Moraine plant, which previously had been used by General Motors. And Gov. Mike DeWine might consider action against Fuyao — the recipient of almost $10 million in state tax subsidies — depending on the outcome of the federal investigation.
Unions are thought by some scholars to be an effective counterweight to exploding income inequality. But the controversy sparked by "American Factory" highlights difficulties that unions face in a globalizing economy and what unions see as a growing government bias against them.
"The plight of the workers at Fuyao is no different than the plight of workers in different parts of the country," said Brian Rothenberg, the UAW’s director of public relations. "It’s really hard right now for workers to stick their necks out."
Yellow Springs-based filmmakers Julia Reichart and Steven Bognar made the Netflix film as the first project of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. Earlier this month, it won the Oscar for best documentary.
Previously, Reichart and Bognar made "The Last Truck," which documented the plight of more than 2,000 GM workers as the Moraine Assembly Plant, which closed just before Christmas 2008 as the financial markets were melting down and GM and Chrysler were on the verge of bankruptcy.
In 2014, as Fuyao founder Cao Dewang started glass-making operations in the same plant, he granted the flimmakers almost-unfettered access and creative control over the project, Reichart said last week during a talk at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts. Over the next three years, Dewang didn’t waver from that commitment, despite the cultural and business clashes that ensued, she said.
"He never took that back," Reichert said. "He never said, ‘Look, you’ve been here a year. Aren’t you done yet?’ He was good to his word, and I respect that a lot in people."
Some of the conversations captured in the documentary appear to be damning. In one, according to the English subtitles of a conversation in Mandarin, Dewang says he will close the plant if the unionization effort is successful. In another, Jeff Liu, Fuyao’s U.S. president, briefs Dewang on efforts to keep out the UAW, saying that "a lot" of union supporters had already been fired.
Liu told the Dayton Daily News that his quotes were "misleading and incomplete." The filmmakers stood behind the translation, and Dewang later congratulated Bognar and Reichart on their Oscar.
Such threats — much less firings — are violations of the law. Fuyao has had dozens of complaints filed against it by employees in Moraine and at its plant in Decatur, Illinois, in the years leading up to the documentary’s release, and the company paid more than $100,000 to the NLRB and three employees. It also paid $1.3 million to employees after being sued over scheduling and working conditions. The company also has faced more than $700,000 in fines imposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Daily News reported.
Then, on Aug. 22 — a day after Netflix’s release of "American Factory" in the United States — the NLRB opened another investigation into whether Fuyao had improperly coerced its employees.
In the wake of the November 2017 defeat of the union drive, JobsOhio issued a document that seemed to crow about it. It said that as a startup, Fuyao was "vulnerable" to organization and that the UAW "benefited from the significant cultural and communications gap between many Chinese workers and the (Fuyao) workforce."
Fuyao officials, who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, had paid entry-level employees $12 an hour, but bumped that up to $14.50 in advance of the union vote.
As the unionization election approached, the movie shows consultants hired by the company predicting a dire future for employees if they unionized.
In its press release, JobsOhio praised Fuyao’s "proactive approach in meeting with and listening to employees as the vote neared. (Fuyao) engaged in a fact-based campaign to educate employees on the reality of union representation and debunked the fiction that an outside party could better represent the best interests of employees than could a direct relationship with the company."
The document was titled "Ohio Success: Fuyao Glass America Inc."
JobsOhio spokesman Matt Englehart said in an email that the press release, which was published over a 2018 copyright, "is a draft that should not have been posted to our website. We do not endorse the language that was posted and will remove the content."
Englehart added that his entity was agnostic on whether workplaces should unionize.
"JobsOhio works to attract jobs and investment to Ohio from companies regardless of if they have a union or not," he said. "Notably, Ohio’s automotive workforce — which is the most skilled and productive in the country — includes thousands of workers who belong to unions."
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown appears in "American Factory," speaking at the grand opening of the Fuyao plant and encouraging employees to unionize if they wished. Dave Burrows, at the time a Fuyao executive, is next shown profanely and violently condemning the Ohio Democrat for the statement.
In an interview last week, Brown said he has no hard feelings toward Burrows, but he also slammed JobsOhio and the state’s Republican leadership, saying they are anti-labor.
"We have a state government and a president of the United States that betray workers every single day," Brown said. "They celebrate the defeat of unions. They tilt the playing field away from union organizing. Workers should be able to form a union if they want to, and that’s sort of become not the American way in this state."
DeWine’s office was asked whether, in light of the starting pay that Fuyao offers and the revelations in "American Factory," the company should continue to enjoy $10 million in taxpayer support.
"It would be premature to comment if any action will be taken until the NLRB investigation is complete," press secretary Dan Tierney said.