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What's It Like Working At A Chinese-Run 'American Factory'? It's 'Complicated'

Feb 3, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 1:53 pm

In 2008, GM closed its manufacturing plant in Dayton, Ohio, sending the community into a tailspin. Workers who had been unionized at GM struggled to find jobs that paid close to the wages the plant had paid.

"After that GM plant closed, things were so hard for so long," Ohio-based filmmaker Steven Bognar says. "People lost their homes. The jobs you could get were at the Kohl's distribution center or Payless Shoes warehouse distribution center or fast food. People were making $9 an hour."

When the Chinese glass manufacturer Fuyao reopened the shuttered GM plant in 2016, the community welcomed the influx of new jobs. But as time went on, enthusiasm waned. Some former GM employees found themselves working longer hours at Fuyao for half the pay.

In the Oscar-nominated documentary, American Factory, Bognar and Julia Reichert capture the tensions that exist within the Chinese-owned, Ohio-based plant. This is Reichert's fourth Oscar nomination — her first was in 1978.

"In the United States, we fought to have an eight-hour day and have weekends off," she says. "That's pretty much unheard of in industrial work in China. ... If the boss says you have to work six days a week or seven days a week you just do it."

Bognar describes the relationship between the company and its American employees as a "complicated" one. People are grateful for the jobs, but the work is tough — especially on the factory floor: "It's hard, it's hot, it's dangerous, and the expectations are very high," he says. "And yet the pay is not what it should be."

American Factory won last year's Sundance Award for Directing of a U.S. Documentary. It was the first acquisition for Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground, and is streaming on Netflix.


Interview highlights

On the difference between wages at the unionized GM plant and at Fuyao

Bognar: In the film, Shawnea Rosser, who worked at the old GM plant and now works at Fuyao, she says it varies directly. She says at GM she was making $29 and some cents per hour and at Fuyao she makes $12.84. So that's less than half of what she used to make. She has several children. ... They lost their house because they couldn't they couldn't make the mortgage payments after GM closed. It's a very different world.

Here's the crazy thing: In China, it's been a remarkable trajectory. China's on the rise and [so are] people in the film, like Wong He. He is the furnace engineer who has been sent from China to the U.S. He's here for at least two years. He's not going to see his children for two years. But he's been working at Fuyao since he was 19 years old. He is so dedicated to Fuyao, and it's offering him a path to the middle class. He told us he's going to be able to build a house for his family, for his kids back in China, because he's making such good money. Meanwhile, in the States, people like Shawnea, who once had a blue-collar, middle-class life — modest but secure — they have no security anymore, and it's a very different landscape.

Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar live 25 minutes from the Fuyao factory in Dayton. Their previous film, The Last Truck, documented the closing of a GM factory in Moraine, Ohio.
David Holm / Netflix

On the work culture clash between Chinese and American workers

Reichert: In our work culture, workers expect to be respected. [They] expect to be not told, "Just do this." [The] American worker will respond, "Why?" And, "Maybe I have a better idea." They'll look, the supervisor right in the eye and question them. This does not really happen in China very much. It's just a different work culture where people do what the boss says. ...

People [in China] expect to work 12-hour days, six days a week. The Chinese workers we spoke with — we spoke with a lot of them — they're not happy about it. They don't like being away from their kids for most of the year or only seeing them on Sunday. Partly it's because that's what the culture has brought them to. They've lifted millions and millions of people out of poverty in one and a half ... generations. But that has resulted in this really intense work life. ... Chinese workers are proud of their country, they're proud of their company, they're really proud of how China is flourishing in the world. ...

The American workers we know, I can't say that they're proud of their company or they feel really behind America, like America is really helping them rise in the world. - filmmaker Julia Reichert

The American workers we know, I can't say that they're proud of their company or they feel really behind America, like America is really helping them rise in the world. I think we're on a trajectory of less hope, [fewer] possibilities ... as far as working class people.

On Fuyao slogans and songs the Chinese workers are accustomed to reciting

Reichert: There's a slogan that is said, which I think so in kind of [encapsulates] capitalism, which is "To stand still is to fall back." ... They chant it every day.

Bognar: When one of the American supervisors, when he got home [from the trip to Fuyao headquarters], he tried to get the Americans to line up in that kind of military formation and it just did not go that well. It's like the people who signed up to work in this hot, intense glass factory in the United States, they're making $12.84 an hour and they're not getting paid enough to line up and be regimented like that.

On why many American workers at Fuyao wanted to unionize with the United Automobile Workers

Reichert: In the plant it was pretty hot. You see there's safety issues. You see there were a lot of injuries. For a long, long time, there was no nurse there. At the old GM plant they had a nurse on duty and a doctor on call at all times — all shifts. They had nothing like that at the Fuyao plant at first. ... Now they do, something like three years into it. Right at the end of our filming, they actually did get a nurse.

I think a really big thing was the policies would change, things like the sick leave. Do you need a doctor's note? ... Do you get fired even with a doctor's note? Do you get fired if you have to go to the emergency room or whatever? How many vacation days you would get, what your pay was. People were told when they joined [the company] ... that within a year they would get a raise. And we went around and asked people a year or so later: Did you get your raise yet? And nobody said they did. And now maybe they'd get it three months later, if they really bugged H.R., they'd get it. But those kind of things were just really frustrating, that they had no power.

Bognar: From the Chinese perspective, the company was not making a profit as quickly as the Chinese expected it to. They thought the company would be profitable after a year. We heard this again and again. And here we are, like, a year and a half, two years into being an operational facility and it's still not turning a profit. So the Chinese management fires the American leadership and replaces it with Chinese leadership. Supervisors are swapped out from American supervisors to Chinese supervisors, and there's more and more pressure on the American workforce. And that led to growing frustration on the part of the Americans. They felt they were being treated even more roughly because of the because of higher demands for productivity. And it was just getting harder and harder — and so goodwill started really evaporating both directions.

On the "union avoidance" campaign Fuyao ran to dissuade workers from unionizing

Reichert: They were very highly paid and they were in there from very early on. As soon as there was any whisperings like a T-shirt about the UAW or those meetings going on, immediately the union avoidance company was brought in. Now, I will say this is not a Chinese thing. Pretty much in any facility, be it a distribution center, be it a warehouse, be it a factory — actually be it in a white-collar working place — if there's talk of a union, they're going to bring in one of ... these consulting companies. ... There's hundreds of them all across the country. I think most Americans do not realize that that is behind a lot of the loss of union power, the loss of the strikes. They taught the Chinese management and supervisors to do everything they could to avoid the union.

Bognar: Next time you read in the paper like, "Oh, the Volkswagen workers in Tennessee, they rejected the idea of a union." The thing we don't hear about is all the inside closed door campaigning that the companies do.

Roberta Shorrock and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary, was produced and directed by my guests Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. It was the first film acquired by the Obama's new production company Higher Ground, which is distributing it in partnership with Netflix. Last year, "American Factory" won the Sundance directing award in the documentary category.

The movie is about what happened when a Chinese company opened a new automotive glass factory in Dayton, Ohio, in the same spot where a GM company closed just a few years earlier. The new Chinese factory Fuyao Glass America was greeted as great news by Dayton and by men and women in need of jobs. But as time went on, it became apparent there was a considerable culture clash between how the Chinese treat workers and how the American workers expected to be treated, especially those workers who were used to having the United Auto Workers union behind them and no longer did. Some of the workers were making half as much an hour at Fuyao than they did at GM.

By focusing on this one factory, the film is a case study of what the global economy means for some American workers and how hard it's become to find work that pays enough to have a home and support children. Reichert and Bognar were the perfect people to make "American Factory." They live 25 minutes away from the factory, and their previous film "The Last Truck" documented the closing of Dayton's GM factory. "The Last Truck" was also nominated for an Oscar.

Julia Reichert, Steve Bognar - welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your Oscar nomination and on the film.

STEVEN BOGNAR: Thank you.

JULIA REICHERT: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So what were the expectations in your hometown, Dayton, when a Chinese billionaire announced that he would open a new automotive glass factory there on the site of the GM plant that had closed?

REICHERT: You know, people were very hopeful. We had lost the GM plant almost eight years before. When Chairman Cao, who's the, you know, Chinese billionaire who bought that old, rusting General Motors plant, when he came to town, it just - everybody was really very excited.

BOGNAR: Yeah. After that GM plant closed, things were so hard for so long. I mean, people lost their homes. The jobs you could get were, like, at the Kohl's distribution center or Payless Shoes warehouse distribution center or fast food. People were making $9 an hour. And imagine - you're middle-aged, you've got a kid or two, you got a mortgage, and you're making $9 an hour. It's just - like, it was so hard. And there was such hope when it when Fuyao came to town.

REICHERT: Yeah.

GROSS: So what were the incentives for the billionaire, the Chinese billionaire, the chairman, who opened this factory in Dayton?

REICHERT: Well, one thing is if you make glass in the Midwest right on Interstate 75, right? If you think about it, it goes from Detroit all the way down through the South. All the automakers are all along there. So heavy glass no longer has to be shipped from China to reach the Big Three and all the other automakers.

BOGNAR: And, you know, labor costs in China have been going up over many years, and labor costs - you know, what people make per hour - in the U.S. have been going down. And so the chairman and his team, the Fuyao team, were doing a lot of calculations about the costs of shipping, the cost of energy, labor costs, and at some point, it made sense for them to come to the U.S. And actually, Chairman Cao told us he was also asked by General Motors, by some of the other automakers, to set up shop in the Midwest because they needed more capacity, more reliable glass delivery.

REICHERT: You know, the chairman is 73 years old now. He's exactly my age, as it happens. He, I think, wanted a kind of capstone project to his life, and he wanted to create a big, huge plant in the United States. This was a huge challenge. His family was against him. A lot of the Chinese other businessmen were against him. It was kind of a personal decision on his part to go ahead and do it, despite the opposition from people close to him.

GROSS: It's such an interesting clash of cultures that we see in "American Factory" - expectations regarding everything about work, from pay and benefits to what workers are expected to sacrifice for the privilege of working for the corporation. Let's start with, like, comparing what automakers made at the GM plant, when they were unionized and they were in the United Auto Workers, to what they were making at Fuyao, which is not unionized.

BOGNAR: Well, in the film, Shawnea Rosser, who worked at the old GM plant and now works at Fuyao, she says it very directly. She says at GM, she was making $29 and some cents per hour, and at Fuyao, she makes $12.84. So that's less than half of what she used to make. And, you know, she has several children. She's got - she has a house that - they actually lost...

REICHERT: They lost their house.

BOGNAR: ...Their house because they couldn't make the mortgage payments after GM closed. It's a very different world. And, you know, here's the crazy thing - it's, like, in China, it's been a remarkable trajectory. Like, China's on the rise. And people in the film like Wong He - Wong He is the furnace engineer who has been sent from China to the U.S. He's here for at least two years. He's not going to see his children for two years. But he's been working at Fuyao since he was, like, 19 years old. He is so dedicated to Fuyao, and it's offering him a path to the middle class. He told us he's going to be able to build a house for his family, for his kids back in China because he's making such good money.

Meanwhile, in the States, people like Shawnea, who once had a blue-collar middle-class life - modest but secure - they have no security anymore. And it's a very different landscape.

GROSS: I want to get back to the culture clash between the Chinese and the Americans at the Chinese-owned factory in Dayton. The American workers there thought they were working just, like, too hard for too little pay, and the Chinese supervisors and the chairman, the CEO of the company, thought American workers - that they're just lazy. They don't appreciate what we're giving them. And they want too much praise; they need to be praised all the time. Whereas the American workers felt like they're not being respected.

REICHERT: You know, you're really putting your finger on something that I wish the management had recognized way earlier in that plant, and I hope all foreign companies coming here begin to recognize that. In our work culture, workers expect to be respected, expect to be not told do - just do this. American worker will respond, well, why? And maybe I have a better idea, will look them - look the supervisor right in the eye and question them. This does not really happen in China very much. It's just a different work culture, where people do what the boss says. Boss says you have to work six days a week or seven days a week, you just do it.

But in the United States, we are expected - we've fought to have an eight-hour day and to have weekends off. That's pretty much unheard of in industrial work in China. People expect to work 12-hour days six days a week. The Chinese workers we spoke with - we spoke with a lot of them - they're not happy about it. They don't like being away from their kids for most of the year or only seeing them on Sunday. Partly, it's because that's what the culture has brought them to. You know, they've lifted millions and millions of people out of poverty in 1 1/2, more or less, generations, right? But that has resulted in this really intense work life. And people are proud. Chinese workers are proud of their country. They're proud of their company. They're really proud how China is flourishing in the world. I would say - the American workers we know, I can't say that they're proud of their company or they feel, like, really behind America, like America is really helping them rise in the world. I think we're on a trajectory of less hope, less possibilities, we here in the U.S., as far as working-class people. Whereas in China, I think there is tremendous hope, a tremendous sense that, wow, our country is - really has a huge place in the world to play.

GROSS: There's a sequence that I find so fascinating, where the Chinese company brings some of the American supervisors to China to see how this plant, this kind of plant operates in China because the CEO of this company, you know, has one or more glass factories in China. So they bring them there, and you see what it's like in China for the workers there. First of all, all the workers are in a union. It's the Communist Union. And it seems like the branch of this union is headed by the CEO's brother-in-law.

BOGNAR: True.

REICHERT: That's true.

GROSS: Yeah. So what does the...

(LAUGHTER)

REICHERT: I know.

GROSS: Strike one. What does the union do for the workers there? What is the meaning of the union?

BOGNAR: Well, it's more like a social club. The union there - because of the - the Chinese Communist Party is so integrated and aligned with the management of Fuyao, the traditional concept of a union that we would have here, as an advocate for the workers in opposition to the company or to take on the company, that really doesn't exist. The union that we saw in - at Fuyao in China is more like an HR department that helps build camaraderie, esprit de corps, you know, that kind of team-building stuff. And yeah, it just felt different.

GROSS: Something else that really struck me in the Chinese segment of the film is that the supervisors talk to the workers in an almost military kind of way. Like, the workers would, like, line up in formation, and the supervisor would kind of give them commands. And then they'd have to, like, chant things at the end.

BOGNAR: And they're chanting slogans, yeah.

GROSS: Slogans...

BOGNAR: Slogans...

GROSS: ...Like, in praise of the company.

BOGNAR: Slogans they probably know really, really well and don't really need to chant. Yeah, it's - this is just another cultural difference. It's funny because when - one of the American supervisors, when he got home, he tried to get the Americans to line up in that kind of military formation, and it just did not go that well. You know, it's like, the people who signed up to work in this hot, intense glass factory in the United States, they're making $12.84 an hour, and they're not getting paid enough to line up and be regimented like that.

REICHERT: There's a slogan that is said, which I think so kind of encapsules (ph) capitalism, which is - to stand still is to fall back. Wasn't that it, Steve?

BOGNAR: Yeah, that's one of the things they chant in the morning lineup.

REICHERT: They chant it every day - to stand still is to fall back. And that's true of capitalism.

BOGNAR: It is weird that this communist country seems like the best capitalists in the world right now, you know, that they're so - they've been so driven.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, and they're their producers and directors of the documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. Last year, at Sundance, "American Factory" won an award for best nonfiction director. So we're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH'S "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, the producers and directors of the documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. And "American Factory" is about what happens in Dayton, Ohio, after a GM plant closes and then a Chinese automotive glass factory moves in and rebuilds the factory and hires thousands of American workers, and things don't quite work out the way you'd expect.

While the American supervisors are visiting this Chinese factory, there's a big, like, celebration. It's, like, New Year so there's a big event. And employees from the corporation, Chinese employees from the corporation are putting on a show. And typically, at an American company, when there's, like, you know, a show like that with employees, it's like - they're singing karaoke, or they're just singing for real or playing guitar or whatever.

But in this, like, all of the songs - at least all the songs that you show - are in praise of the company, with lyrics like, Fuyao holds up a transparent world. Remember - the glass they make is transparent. So it's like, Fuyao holds up a transparent world; China is filled with spring, and happiness is everywhere, and all the blessings from Fuyao are transparent. That wouldn't happen in the United States, where the songs that you were singing were going to be in praise of the company. And the company's almost equated with patriotism. Like, if you're loyal to the company and you're singing the praises of the company, it's like you're singing the praises of your country.

REICHERT: Very much so. The aspirations of the workers have to do with - as, from what we could tell, of, like, building their country as well as building that company and also supporting the chairman. By the way, that song about transparency, the chairman wrote it.

GROSS: I didn't realize that (laughter). Wow.

REICHERT: Yes, the chairman wrote the song. And, you know, it's sung by 2,000 people at the New Year's celebration, and it's also sung in the corporate headquarters when all of the - you know, there's 16 glass factories in China that are owned by the chairman. And when he brought everybody together - remember - they all stand up and sing that song. Of course, we - in making the film, we had no idea what they were singing about. And later, when we got the translations, it turns out they're singing about lean manufacturing, and they're doing kind of songs and dances and hip-hop beats that are all about producing glass, you know, and the work that they do.

GROSS: I was going to mention one more thing about the ceremony, which (laughter) - so the Americans get up. And they actually do karaoke.

REICHERT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And (laughter) they're doing karaoke to the Village People's "YMCA." And it's like, this is so bizarre that in this, like, Chinese factory where everybody's singing praises to the company and to the chairman, like, the Americans get up and do (laughter) karaoke to "YMCA." What was that about?

REICHERT: It was the only song they all knew.

BOGNAR: They were told a few hours before that big, big celebration - the Americans were told, OK, you also have to perform tonight. And they were shocked, but they had a huddle. And they said, OK, what's a song we all know? And apparently, the only song they all knew - these big, burly American supervisors - was "YMCA."

REICHERT: Which is like a gay bathhouse theme, I understand.

GROSS: (Laughter) Exactly.

REICHERT: But, like, they all knew it.

BOGNAR: Well, you know, many, many people around the world know that song. So...

REICHERT: And you have the gestures, and it's very funny, you know?

BOGNAR: But I am proud of those American supervisors because they committed to the performance.

GROSS: Right, right. Yeah, right.

BOGNAR: They gave it great heart. And it's a beautiful moment.

GROSS: So the American supervisors were brought to China to see how it should be done. When they go back to the U.S., how much of the Chinese practices and the Chinese way of treating workers - how much of that did they bring back and try to apply in the American factory?

REICHERT: You know, I remember we talked about it over there, that they were going to try this and they were going to try that, that they'd seen, you know, creating more teamwork or whatever. Pretty much, it didn't fly. It didn't work over there. I mean, American workers are not about to line up in two straight rows and call off numbers and repeat slogans.

BOGNAR: And Americans want to know why. They want the big picture. And, I mean, I think the Chinese working people also want to know why. They want to know the big picture, but it's not in the culture. It's not normalized to sort of ask your boss, OK, what's the deal? Why are we doing this? Whereas in the States, we're - that's how we do things. One of our goals, Terry, in kind of constructing the movie, building the movie was to not have all the Chinese practices be seen through a lens of Midwestern anxiety.

And one of the keys was working with Chinese filmmakers to try to record and connect with the Chinese people in the film, like the furnace engineer Wong or the chairman, even. So we brought on Yiqian Zhang and Mijie Li, two younger Chinese filmmakers who became co-producers on this movie, so we could try to honorably convey the experience of what it was like to be in this faraway outpost for them in Ohio.

GROSS: So...

REICHERT: Yes.

GROSS: I want to talk a little bit about the chairman, the CEO of the Chinese company. He visits the American factory a lot. And you show excerpts of some of those visits. And he really seems to be micromanaging everything, like how high - like what art will be there and how high it will be hung in the room, not to mention, like, the design of everything. And then he wants an outdoor stage built for the opening ceremony.

And the Americans say, well, it's going to need some kind of overhang because the ceremony is going to be in October, and you have to allow for bad weather, for rain or whatever. And this is in the summer that they're doing this. The chairman says, the weather in October will be like today. And I thought, like, no one could know that (laughter). It's a bright, sunny - it's, like, a nice, warm day.

REICHERT: (Laughter).

GROSS: You're talking about Dayton. Like, no one could know that. It just struck me as really odd. And I was wondering if...

BOGNAR: The chairman...

GROSS: ...That's how he typically operated.

REICHERT: Yeah.

BOGNAR: The chairman is a confident guy. He makes predictions left and right. And it's, you know, for a documentary filmmaker, that makes for a very engaging person to hang out with. He may give a lot of consternation to the people who work for him. But it's pretty fun to watch.

GROSS: You say opinionated. It seemed like he was kind of a tyrant in a way - a gentle one (laughter).

REICHERT: Well, I mean, he's the chairman of a Chinese private company. There's very little in terms of a board of directors. There's actually very little in terms of HR. He really runs the show.

GROSS: Right.

REICHERT: I mean, his word is law. He built the company - don't forget - from scratch. And it's - he started in his 30s when China was sort of opening up back in the late '70s and '80s. And he's - what he did is remarkable now, with 16 factories employing thousands and thousands of people. He's a very smart guy. He knows how to use the system. He understands everything about that plant. He understands everything. He's not - I mean, he's done it all himself.

GROSS: Right.

BOGNAR: And there's a lot of layers to the guy. You know, he's both a hard, driven business man and he's a practicing Buddhist. And he's reflective on his life and his life choices in a way that we've found really refreshing. Near the end of the film, he questions everything he's done. He's talking about how he misses the frogs and the bird sounds of his youth. And he wonders if he's harmed the environment with all these...

REICHERT: By building so many factories, yeah.

BOGNAR: Yeah, with everything he's done.

GROSS: But he adds at the end of that, I only think these things on days when I'm sad (laughter). So...

BOGNAR: (Laughter) It's true.

REICHERT: Yeah, that's true.

GROSS: Apparently, when he's happy, he's not worried about ruining the environment very much.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHERT: Yeah. No.

BOGNAR: Well, again, yes, we're all - we all live with our own contradictions.

GROSS: My guests are Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. They produced and directed the documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. After a short break, we'll talk about the workers' attempts to unionize and the Chinese executives' attempt to prevent a union shop. And we'll talk about Reichert and Bognar being partners in both work and life.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "FROM THE VERY FIRST TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who produced and directed the documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Feature-Length Documentary and was the first film acquired by the Obamas' new production company Higher Ground, which is distributing it in partnership with Netflix. The movie is about what happened when a Chinese company, Fuyao, opened a new automotive glass factory in Dayton, Ohio, in the same spot where a GM company closed just a few years earlier. The movie shows some of the culture clashes between what Chinese and American workers expect in terms of pay and working conditions and what the executives expect of them.

I want to ask you about the opening ceremony for the "American Factory" because at this opening ceremony, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown shows up. And he says, we reject the term Rust Belt. This is a terrific example. I know many workers here are trying to form a union. I support those in this community that want to vote to join a union. I hope Fuyao looks at it the same way. So what is Fuyao's management reaction to Sherrod Brown?

REICHERT: (Laughter) Well, first of all, in the audience, there was very, very, very, very lukewarm - like, little bitty clap-clap-clap kind of thing. And that audience was largely, you know, the wealthy folks of Dayton. There were, by the way, no workers in the audience. This is something I really wanted to bring out. The workers in the plant were not even told there was going to be an opening ceremony. You know, you notice a couple of women are kind of taken aback by all the people coming through in their fancy clothes. They were not even made aware, so there are no workers there.

One - the vice president, who we've gotten to know, Dave Burrows - good guy. He immediately gives Sherrod Brown, our wonderful senator, the finger and starts using the F word wherever he can and later says, you know, I'm going to take those big ribbon-cutting scissors and chop the senator's head off. You know, he's upset that Sherrod Brown has even used the word union, and I think that was the reaction of most of management. You know, we did lots of interviews with people, and people were - with the management - and they were to a person. Like, they thought, you know, the reason the plant closed was because of the union.

GROSS: The reason why the GM plant...

REICHERT: Yes, exactly - the reason the GM plant closed. They all - of a person - but that was their perspective. They actually believed that. They actually believed that if a union came to Fuyao, it would be a disaster. It would be terrible. And it wasn't like they were bad people. It's just, like, that's the culture they were in as people trained to be management.

GROSS: So meanwhile, the workers do try to unionize. They try to join the United Auto Workers. And what were some of the conditions that the workers were worried about that led them to really want to unionize?

REICHERT: Oh, there were a lot. You see the heat.

GROSS: In the furnaces.

REICHERT: The heat around the furnaces - and in general, in the plant, it was pretty hot. You see there's safety issues. You see there were a lot of injuries. There was no - for a long, long time, there was no nurse there. At the old GM plant, they had a nurse on duty and a doctor on call at all times, all shifts. They had nothing like that at the Fuyao plant.

BOGNAR: At first.

REICHERT: At first.

BOGNAR: They have that now.

REICHERT: Now they do, like, something like three years into it. Right at the end of our filming, they actually did get a nurse. I think a really big thing was the policies would change - things like the sick leave. Do you need a doctor's note? If you have a doctor's note, do you get - if you don't have a doctor's note, do you get fired? Even with a doctor's note, do you get fired if you have to have a - if you have to go to the emergency room or whatever? How many vacation days you would get, what your pay was - people were told when they joined - you know, when they joined for Fuyao for $12 an hour that within a year, they would get a raise. And we went around and asked people a year or so later, did you get your raise yet? And, you know, nobody said they did. And now maybe they'd get it three months later. If they really bugged HR, they'd get it.

But those kind of things were just really frustrating - that they had no power. They could be walked out at any point, and they would have no - nothing they could do. So I think there were all those things that made people want to join a union. At the same time, of course, they were - as you saw, they were intimidated by the union avoidance company.

BOGNAR: And before we get into that...

REICHERT: Yeah.

BOGNAR: I would add that from the Chinese perspective, the company was not making a profit.

REICHERT: That's true.

BOGNAR: The company was not making a profit as quickly as the Chinese expected it to. They thought the company would be profitable after, like, a year. We heard this again and again. And here we are, like, a year and a half, two years into this being an operational facility, and it's still not turning a profit. And so the Chinese management fires the American leadership and replaces it with Chinese leadership. Supervisors are swapped out from American supervisors to Chinese supervisors, and there's more and more pressure on the American workforce. And that led to growing frustration on the part of the Americans. They felt they were being treated even more roughly because of higher demands for productivity, and it was just getting harder and harder. And so goodwill started really evaporating in both directions.

REICHERT: That is true.

GROSS: So you mentioned the Chinese company hired an American company that specializes in dissuading workers from unionizing.

REICHERT: Right.

GROSS: And one of the talking points that this company used was, like, look; your biggest tool as workers is a strike, but - you know, if you're unionized. But if you go on strike, there's a rule that says you can't be fired, but you can be permanently replaced. And I have to say I didn't understand that. What's the difference between being fired and being permanently replaced? And is that true in the first place?

REICHERT: Well, you know, I asked my labor lawyer friends about that because I found that kind of, like - how could that be fair of any worker? You know, you do have the tool of going on strike. In fact, it is pretty much true that you can be permanently replaced. They can just hire whatever workers they can get in there, and you then have to reapply for the job. There are a few little exceptions, but yeah, that is where American labor law is now. It isn't when they first established the National Labor Relations Act back in the '30s, and even into the '40s, that was not true. But it is now. You know...

BOGNAR: Labor law has been whittled away over decades. There's been amendments and changes to the National Labor Relations Act that take away things. The whole concept of permanent replacement is sort of Orwellian because it's a de facto firing. But they don't call it that, and somehow it's legal. And - you know, listening to the messaging - the very intense messaging that the union avoidance company did - and seeing how much confusion it sowed among the American workers who were deliberating whether or not to unionize, it was really effective. It was really - it was really powerful.

REICHERT: They were very effective. They were very highly paid. And they were in there from very early on. As soon as there was any whisperings - like a T-shirt about the UAW or, you know, meetings going on, they - immediately, the union avoidance company was brought in. Now, I will say, this is not a Chinese thing. Pretty much - you know, Terry - in any facility, be it a distribution center, be it a warehouse, be it a factory - actually, being it a white-collar working place - if there's talk of a union, they're going to bring in one of these companies, these consulting companies that are - there's hundreds of them all across the country.

And it was so - we did not know about this. I think most Americans do not realize that that is behind a lot of the loss of union power, the loss of the strikes. They taught the Chinese management and supervisors to do everything they could to avoid the union.

BOGNAR: But you know, next time you read in the paper, like - oh, the Volkswagen workers in Tennessee, they rejected the idea of a union - the thing we don't hear about is all the inside, closed-door campaigning that the companies do.

REICHERT: And you know, 70 years ago - it is a long time, but if you think about it, how did we get the eight-hour day? How did we get the weekend? Right? How did we get things like workers' comp? You know, people had to fight and die for that. And it was in the '30s and '40s. You know, you ask, like, what's the American dream now? Right? We often thought about that - what's the American dream? The American dream was the white picket fence, the house, your kids are safe, they get to go to college if they want. But as one of the workers says, it's also being treated with respect, with common decency.

And you know, some workers feel like the American dream is done. We are never going to get that back. And others say, you know, you have to believe in the American dream. And I think it's really up for grabs. Is there an American dream still? Is there something that people can, if they work hard and, you know, and stick to the laws, that they're going to have a good life? Is that possible anymore? I think it's a real question that I hope our film sort of raises. Is this the world we want to live in?

GROSS: So people were so excited in Dayton when the Chinese factory opened. By the time you were finished - well, you live in Dayton. So tell us - what's the attitude toward the company now?

REICHERT: I think, in general, people feel it's a rough place to work. They're glad it's there because there are those 2,000 or more jobs. I would not say they think it's, like, a good job the way people used to feel the General Motors plant or any of their subsidiaries, the suppliers were good jobs.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guests are Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. They're the producers and directors of the film "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. They were the producers and directors of the documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. And last year, at the Sundance Film Festival, it won the award for best nonfiction director. You are life partners - right? - in addition to working partners.

REICHERT: Oh, yeah.

BOGNAR: Sure are.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHERT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How did you meet? And how did you start working together? Like, which came first - the couple part of the relationship...

REICHERT: The relationship.

GROSS: ...Or the working relationship?

BOGNAR: No, we were a couple for 10 years before we ever worked together. We actually vowed - when we became a couple, we said we'll never co-direct anything because that will mean the end of our relationship. And we held that for a good 10 years.

REICHERT: We had a few little rules. Like, we always said - once we started working together - and that was on a film called "A Lion In The House," which was about children fighting cancer, and, you know, my daughter had had cancer, and so we felt like when we got the opportunity to make that film, that we should go ahead because we understood what being a mom or a dad of a kid with cancer is like. But that was just so hard that we realized we needed to do it together.

But some of the rules were, we don't talk about the film in bed. That's very important. And we don't talk about the film once we start drinking. What else was...

BOGNAR: Yeah. These are rules that have served us...

GROSS: Wait. What were you afraid what happened when you start drinking?

BOGNAR: We argue. We get, you know - once the alcohol starts flowing and there's that one scene in the movie or in the rough cut that you've been debating - and you know, Julia feels it should go, and I feel it should stay...

REICHERT: And you get belligerent, you know?

BOGNAR: And then, you know, the alcohol just makes you mean and snarly. And we - it's not a good dynamic for us. And it's definitely not good to talk about the film in bed because, you know, it's time to relax. And talking about your work in progress will just enervate you. But then the third rule - the third rule, it's a very good rule - is if we're having a debate or an argument about, you know, a scene or a shot or a line of - that someone said and we can't resolve the argument, we just put it on the table. And we say to each other...

REICHERT: We table it, yeah.

BOGNAR: ...We'll come back to it later.

REICHERT: That has served us really, really well.

GROSS: Is your daughter cancer-free?

REICHERT: She is.

GROSS: Good.

REICHERT: Not only that, she's had two children, so we have two grandchildren. So she made it. She made it just fine.

GROSS: And, Julia, I'm not sure if you're comfortable with me bringing this up, so just tell me if you're not. Julia, I've read that you have cancer and that it's lymphoma. And I don't know, like, when it was diagnosed and where you are with it now.

REICHERT: Well, actually, the cancer I have now is not lymphoma. It's a weird one. It's called urothelial. I mean, I'm fine to talk about it a little bit. I was diagnosed with cancer about a year and a half ago now. And I fought it, and it went away. But then it came back in a small spot, and so I'm - I've had to fight it again, which, of course, is never good news. It's actually an incurable cancer. It's fatal. And I'm very aware of that. And it's sort of changed my life perspective in a way as to what's important. You know, I write about that to some degree. But in the end, I'm full of hope. There still are plenty of things to try. It kind of gives - it gives me a sense of wanting to focus my life on what will bring me and the people around me the most joy.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. They're the producers and directors of the film "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, the producers and directors of the documentary "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary.

You know, like, the CEO - the chairman, the CEO of the factory says, the point of living is to work. And, you know, work for him is something really different than work for his employees. His employees aren't getting paid that much. They're working really hard. They have no control over their work, whereas he's a billionaire. He owns factories around the world, so that statement has different meanings to different people; the point of living is to work. And, you know, the opposite side of that is that old saying, nobody on their deathbed says, I wish I spent more time at the office. But, again, it depends on whether your work was meaningful or not, whether you're going to have regrets about the amount of time you spent with your work. And so, Julia, since you say you have cancer again now and it's an incurable form, how important is work to you? What is the meaning of work to you?

REICHERT: I feel like the work that I was - I sort of fell into and was lucky enough to do and making films for now 50 years I feel like is extremely meaningful. It's had an impact on the world. It's been enjoyable. It's taken me to - down many, many paths, so I feel I'm very fortunate to have had the life I've had. I will say, at the same time, it often has taken me away from my family, from a chance to kind of relax and reflect. But honestly, now from here on, I really want to concentrate on the things that - I don't know what to say - feed the spirit of me and the people around me.

GROSS: What are those things?

REICHERT: Well, just having time to just hang out. We've rarely done that - vacation together. Go - just go to the beach together, sort of the everyday things. I do feel, over the years, like, a lot of just everyday life has eluded us as we've pursued these huge projects. I mean, "American Factory" was four years of our life and four years while our grandkids were growing up. Even though they live close by, we don't see them anywhere near - and they're wonderful. We don't see them anywhere near as much as we would love to. And a lot of it is when I create images in my head of me in a life that I yearn for, it's, like, cooking in my kitchen. It's cooking with my daughter. It's taking walks with my grandkids in the woods, which we - we've just not done enough of that. It's like sitting down - and, like, I want to be a person who they remember - my grandkids. They're 9 and 6. And so I want to make sure that they get, like, who I am and I get who they are and we have real talks about things. But that takes just, like, being there. And, you know, we - this work has really taken us away. It took us away from my - it took me away from my daughter growing up, to some degree.

GROSS: Had you lived your life differently and spent more time with family and in the kitchen cooking and taking walks and stuff, do you think you would have had regrets about not having fulfilled your desires, you know, your ambitions of making important movies, meaningful movies?

REICHERT: Wow. Yes.

GROSS: I just feel like, no matter what decisions we make...

REICHERT: Yeah.

GROSS: We have regrets. There's always something - when you do something, there's always something you're not doing.

REICHERT: Yes. Yes. And I think that's why I say, now that I'm coming toward the end of my life, it makes me want to focus on the things I didn't get to do. Because all the films over 50 years, they exist - they're even being seen right now through a retrospective. We have another new film coming out. I am done with making films. I can say that with confidence. Even if some miracle happens and I live another five years, I do not want to - that's not on my agenda of my life - is to make another film, for me. I know Steve probably feels differently.

GROSS: Steve?

BOGNAR: I'm really looking forward to a break, but I don't think I'm done yet. But we'll figure that out. I'm not worried about it in the least.

GROSS: Well, good luck to both of you. And I hope, you know, I hope your life is years (laughter).

REICHERT: Thank you.

GROSS: I hope you get to spend a lot of time with your family and doing all the things that you didn't have a chance to do while you were making all your great movies, and I also wish you good luck at the Oscars. Good luck to both of you. And one more final trivial question - Julia, you don't strike me as the evening-gown type (laughter).

REICHERT: Oh, God.

GROSS: What are you going to wear?

REICHERT: You know, I just saw a sketch of something this morning. I've been thinking about a kind of a feminine tuxedo, to be honest. I'll tell you - you know, you have to meet with a stylist. I said, think Katharine Hepburn. That's what I would like to look like; Katharine Hepburn in some kind of gown that would be - make sense at the Oscars. And that's what the sketch was that I saw this morning. And it's very Katharine Hepburn.

GROSS: And, Steve, you don't have to - you just wear a tuxedo, and you're done.

BOGNAR: Yeah. It's so much easier - it's not fair, but it's so much easier for guys. I will say it's really cool that at least four or five of the factory workers are coming to the Oscars with us.

GROSS: Oh, that's great.

BOGNAR: Yeah. People - Jill (ph) and Bobby (ph) and Wong and Shawnea - they're all coming.

GROSS: Oh, that's so exciting. That's great.

REICHERT: And apparently, the chairman is coming also.

GROSS: No. Really?

REICHERT: The chairman is coming. He's got his own airplane. He's going to fly to LA.

GROSS: Well, that's great. What does he think of the movie? Has he seen it?

REICHERT: Of course.

BOGNAR: He has seen it. He is - you know, there are scenes in the film that he and his team really don't like. They really feel like, man, why did I say that on camera? But they, overall, have taken a very gracious or open or generous kind of attitude toward it, and they've been supportive - the chairman's even offered to help us get distribution for the film in China.

REICHERT: And, you know, the film is pirated all over China.

BOGNAR: This is so cool, Terry. So when a movie launches on Netflix, it goes to, like, 191 countries, and it's in 27 languages. And that's one reason we were excited to work with Netflix. Netflix is in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, but Netflix is not in mainland China. You can't get it there. But about a week after the film launched on Netflix worldwide, all over China, pirated versions of the film are popping up on social media, on the Chinese versions of YouTube. And they've got the Chinese subtitles for any time someone's speaking English. And then social media posts started popping up...

REICHERT: Like, thousands and thousands of them.

BOGNAR: People are talking about this movie in China - in mainland China. And it's not censored. We didn't submit it to, like, a Chinese official censorship board or anything.

REICHERT: No, it's pirated.

BOGNAR: And it's really great. The kind of conversations about the fate and the future for working people, the kind of conversations we hoped would happen, like, in the States - they're also happening in China, and that's really great.

GROSS: That is really great, and it's a real tribute to the film and to your filmmaking. Thank you both. And, again, congratulations on the success of the film and your Oscar nomination.

REICHERT: Well, thanks, Terry. This is great.

BOGNAR: Thank you, Terry. You know, it's an honor to be on your show.

REICHERT: Absolutely.

GROSS: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar produced and directed the film "American Factory," which is nominated for an Oscar in the best feature-length documentary category. It's streaming on Netflix. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist Eilene Zimmerman, author of the new memoir "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction And Tragedy." It's about her ex-husband, who was the father of her two children and a successful lawyer and was secretly addicted to opioids and cocaine, something she didn't know until his death. After his death, she tried to understand his drug addiction and how he hid it from the people who knew him best. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO SONG, "OHIO")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO SONG, "OHIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.