Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 22, 2020

We the Workers; American Factory

Filed under: China,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Now available from Ovid, the Netflix for radicals, “We the Workers” is a 174-minute cinema vérité study of labor organizers in China. Despite its economy of means, is an impressive and inspiring take on one of the  most significant class struggles taking place in the world today. Directed by Huang Wenhai, it is shot mostly indoors without much fanfare and consists almost entirely of strategy discussions by men working for the Panyu Migrant Workers Center between themselves and with the workers they serve.

Additionally, as you might expect from a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the cinema vérité genre, you see them coping with daily life—trying to strike a balance between the duress of standing up to an all-powerful state and living a normal life. Often, the scale is tipped toward the duress side. This was the case with an organizer named Peng Jiayong confessing that his wife broke up with him because she couldn’t share the burdens of being married to someone with such a single-minded devotion to changing a seemingly unchangeable system.

As the film begins, we see Peng Jiayong being dressed down by his colleagues for losing his temper with the cops. Joining a protest of 11 women being denied rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, Peng refuses to leave the headquarters of the government-backed trade union where the women have gathered to lodge their complaint. When the cops arrive, they sensibly leave. He stays behind and demands to be arrested, even though such defiance will only weaken his efforts on their behalf.

Next we see a meeting between other members of the Panyu staff and some workers who are being conned by the state labor bureau into resigning from their jobs and thus losing benefits accrued over 20 years. Panyu’s lawyer Duan Yi advises them to go as a group to the boss’s office the next day and insist on their legally guaranteed rights, making sure to capture the entire discussion with their smartphones. As becomes obvious throughout the film, the Panyu organizers and the workers they represent are as dependent on the Internet as CIO organizers in the 1930s were reliant on mimeograph machines.

When I saw this scene, I was reminded of a debate in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party in 1971 between Peter Camejo and a minority that viewed support for the Shea bill as reformist. H. James Shea Jr. was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who drafted a bill challenging its constitutionality of the Vietnam War, thus enabling Massachusetts residents to ignore the draft. The minority denounced the bill as reformist since it was based on bourgeois legality. Peter replied that Lenin used to stay up late at night poring through the Czarist law codes looking for loopholes that would allow workers to go out on strike with legal cover. That’s essentially the strategy of the labor organizers trying to strengthen collective bargaining in China today.

Later in the film we meet up again with Peng Jiayong, who was beaten badly by the cops without him giving them any kind of excuse. As he lies in the hospital bed, his only interest is in figuring out how his injuries might be exploited to further the workers struggle.

Lin Dong, Peng’s comrade-in-arms who wisely left with the 11 women before the cops came, has spent time in prison for his organizing efforts. We see him on a street handing out a labor law handbook that can be used by workers to understand their rights. One worker probably spoke for most when he told him that “laws are useless in China.” In many ways, the struggle for working class power in China faces the same obstacles as in the USA. Workers feel weak and vulnerable in the face of Republican open hostility and the Democratic Party’s reorientation to urban, middle-class voters. Throughout the film, we see Panyu organizers hammering away at the idea that a united working class can win victories.

Toward the end of the film, we see a group of workers celebrating such a victory. The mostly female staff of Lide Shoe Factory are at a banquet organized by Panyu, where they get up one by one to express gratitude for its support. In 2015, the China Labor Bulletin wrote about their struggle:

After two strikes and three rounds of bargaining, Taiwanese-owned Lide agreed on 17 December to pay social insurance contributions dating back to 1995 and to a one-off compensation package of between 2,000 yuan and 12,000 yuan, depending on employees’ years of service. The company was also forced to disclose any future relocation plans and continue the dialogue with the workers’ representatives. Management further agreed in writing that it would not retaliate against those representatives.

I first came across the China Labor Bulletin not long after I started the Marxism mailing list in 1998. One of its editors began sending me newsletters about the work of labor organizers such as shown in “We the Workers”. In many ways, the newsletters were analogous to Labor Notes in the USA but documenting much sharper battles. In China, there is a deeper awareness about being exploited than there is in the USA, especially since independent labor action is virtually seen as a crime. In the USA, trade unions are legal but hamstrung by open-shop legislation, the threat of runaway shops, and a general feeling that unions can’t deliver the goods.

Last July, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton published an attack on a conference co-sponsored by the DSA, Jacobin, and the disbanded ISO. As a supporter of “anti-imperialist” governments like the one led by Xi Jinping, it singled out China Labor Bulletin and other such groups as tools of the CIA and other groups bent on overturning what they regard as Chinese socialism. Ajit Singh, a Grayzone regular, wrote an article for Telesur claiming that “While capitalists exist in China today, unlike in capitalist societies, they are isolated and not organized in pursuit of their collective interests. Instead, they exist under the rule of the socialist state to aid national economic development.”

If aiding national economic development—a term utterly devoid of class criteria—means cheating workers out of benefits and beating up labor organizers who defend them, then what’s the difference between Chinese socialism and capitalist rule? Nothing would make Grayzone happier than to see China Labor Bulletin shut down. They write that “China Labour Bulletin (CLB) is actually based in Hong Kong, and it is funded by the US government.” As proof positive of its “regime change” intentions, they revealed that CLB’s founder Han Dongfang was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as if army tanks were defending socialism against fanatics inspired by Ludwig von Mises. They also attack Han for using Radio Free Asia to push “anti-communist” propaganda. If communism involves cheating workers out of back pay and beating up men who fight on their behalf, then I guess I am anti-communist myself.

At the banquet for the Lide workers, Xiaomei, a female Panyu organizer, addresses her sisters: “The liberation of workers’ rights can only come through workers. Only when workers have power will the government and companies make concessions and society show its support. But how do workers get power? Through unity. There’s only one way. Unity. Coming together.”

Given the repressive nature of Chinese society, one can understand why there is no footage inside a Chinese factory where you might have seen workers confronting the boss. Ironically, the best way to see how such clashes unfold is to see “American Factory” on Netflix. This film was released last August as part of a five-film deal between Netflix and the Obamas. I avoided press screenings since I assumed that anything produced by the Obamas had to be tainted.

After seeing it for the first time this week, I can happily report that it makes an ideal accompaniment to “We the Workers”. It shows auto workers in Moraine, Ohio dealing with Fuyao, a Chinese firm that had purchased the recently closed GM plant that turned glass into automobile windows. The film was co-directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who have collaborated on a number of films since 1990. On her own, Reichert has directed “Union Maids” and “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists”, two of my favorite documentaries.

Like most workers, those who had been working for GM enjoyed excellent pay and benefits. When GM shut down, they became like the people Michael Moore spoke to in “Roger and Me”. Hopeless and broke. One woman in her fifties, a former forklift operator, has had her house foreclosed. We meet her living in the basement of a relative with nothing but a bed to sleep on and her belongings spread about in boxes on the floor.

When she and other workers in her position find out that Fuyao has bought the plant and begun recruiting from the pool of laid-off GM workers, they feel rejuvenated. Things start out with a bang. Fuyao founder and CEO Cao Dewang shows up in Moraine to give the marching orders to the Chinese managers who will be working side by side with their American counterparts. In a strategy meeting with just the Chinese managers and the workers who have relocated from China, Cao warns them that Americans are not as motivated as them.

Once production begins at the resuscitated factory, things come to a head rapidly. To begin with, safety has been sacrificed in order to meet new, much more ambitious, production quotas. An American supervisor who is fluent in Chinese meets with his Chinese counterpart to discuss the failure to meet the new quotas. The American is told that his countrymen in the factory talk to each other and joke around too much, which sounds like most factories in the USA. The American says that duct tape is the answer. The Chinese supervisor looks at him with a puzzled expression as if the duct tape was supposed to be used on machines. No, the American explains, we tape their mouths.

An African-American worker in his fifties says that throughout the decades he worked for GM, there was never a single accident at the factory. Now, under Chinese ownership, there have already been 11 in the first year.

One of the more telling scenes in the film involves the forklift operator who has been able to move out of her relative’s basement. She frets that the forklift operators at Fuyao are being asked to move around heavy loads of glass that the machinery could not handle safely. She turned out to be right. A year after Reichert and Bognar filmed this scene, her worries were confirmed:

Fuyao Glass America Inc. forklift operator Ricky Patterson was discovered early Tuesday morning nearly five minutes after more than 2,000 pounds of glass fell on him, trapping the 57-year-old Dayton man against his vehicle, according to Moraine Police Division documents.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the events that led to Patterson’s death. Fuyao, Moraine’s largest employer with about 2,000 workers, was fined $100,000 by OSHA last year for “serious” safety violations. Employees have repeatedly expressed concern about workplace safety.

It was not only accidents that began to stir the American former-GM workers to take action. It was also encroachments on their rights as human beings. For example, the on-premises lunchroom was converted into a production unit, thus leaving them without a place to have a meal in comfort. Even more crucially, they were not getting the kind of wage they used to earn. Starting pay was $14 per hour, about the same as you might make at McDonald’s or Walmart. One worker speaks at a UAW hall, where plans are being made to organize the plant. He points out that his daughter polishes nails out of her apartment and she made $17,000 more than him last year.

Like in other auto factories, especially in the south, getting a UAW local off the ground is very difficult as Volkswagen employees found out in Tennessee. The bosses use heavy-duty indoctrination against union organizers and the threat of permanent replacements or relocation outside of the USA to pressure workers into voting against a union shop. This is what happens in Moraine as well.

While most of the film is devoted to the events transpiring in Ohio, we also see how Fuyao runs its operations in China. You learn that management exploits the legacy of the Maoist revolution to keep workers in line. We see large posters of the Chinese presidents starting with Mao and ending with Xi Jinping lined up in a reception area with a Fuyao trade union official explaining that factories, the Communist Party, and the state-backed unions working like interlocking gears. As it happens, the trade union official is the brother-in-law of the plant manager.

In a review of “American Factory” for Jacobin, Joe Allen complains that “American Factory Stops Short of Class Conflict”. In his view, “the film leaves the door open to anti-Chinese xenophobia.” This conclusion is drawn not on the basis of anything in the film itself but because of an interview the Obamas gave. In keeping with their cluelessness about the problems facing working people, they said, “If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you know what their story is, you can forge a connection. You may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together.” There’s little connection between what they said and what Reichert and Bognar wanted to say in this film.

My strongest recommendation to those trying to understand problems the labor movement is facing both here and in China is to see the two films in tandem. As I have said on multiple occasions, Ovid is the go-to place for leading edge cinema. If you are not yet a subscriber, I urge you to start now (https://ovid.tv/). It will be the only place to see “We the Workers”, a film that prefigures major class battles that have the potential to shake up the world’s second wealthiest nation in the world, one that is communist in name only. With workers determined to win the rights that the American trade union movement once enjoyed, both here and in China, the stakes are enormous. Just before his assassination, Trotsky was preparing an article on the trade unions that including the following observation. It is as true today as it was back in 1940:

From what has been said it follows quite clearly that, in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.

3 Comments »

  1. I don’t understand the belief that China is still socialist or at least on a socialist path. What evidence does it take to show that these things are not true. Graduate students under the direction of a friend of mine were translating my book, Why Unions Matter, into Chinese. It wasn’t that long before it became clear that the Chinese authorities were not going to permit this. They simply will not allow ideas about the need of workers in capitalist enterprises in the country need labor unions. So eventually the book was translated by another friend, this time in Taiwan. The plan was to then make a version of the book available in more vernacular Chinese and smuggle this into the mainland. This had to stop when it became evident that those in possession of this book would be at risk of punishment. So ultimately the book was just posted online. This is a small story, but we have reams of evidence of the gross oppression of Chinese workers, and the state’s harassment of labor activists. We also know that the state dismantled the rural communes, which the recent work of Zhun Xu shows worked pretty damned well and the consequences for peasants of their destruction have not been good. We see persecution of the worst kind of Uighurs Muslims. The iron rice bowl is no more. And so on and so forth. Inequality is among the highest in the world, so China has gone from one of the most equal societies to the least.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — January 25, 2020 @ 3:11 am

  2. “Last July, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton published an attack on a conference co-sponsored by the DSA, Jacobin, and the disbanded ISO. As a supporter of “anti-imperialist” governments like the one led by Xi Jinping, it singled out China Labor Bulletin and other such groups as tools of the CIA and other groups bent on overturning what they regard as Chinese socialism.”

    This is really sad, but not really surprising, I guess. This is the type of thing that happens when you have an anti-imperialism, as we have in the US, devoid of class content. An anti-imperialism defined by its opposition to the US, not the exploitation of workers. For liberal anti-imperialists, like Norton and Blumenthal, as long as a government is hostile to the US, that is enough.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 25, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

  3. I worked in China for 4 years at an engine factory as a US expat. When I saw this documentary, I saw very conflicting issues that I had personally seen in China such as Chinese work ethic vis-à-vis American attitude towards work – as just a means to make money, Chinese indifference towards worker safety etc. I hoped that the documentary would give me answers I myself could not get when I pondered over while I was working at this Chinese company. Unfortunately, the directors do not provide definitive answers to these complex human issues such as rights vs personal accountability etc.

    Comment by Bala — February 14, 2020 @ 3:52 pm


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