Netflix’s documentary American Factory which was released a month ago, brought up enormous issues about labor law and how far organizations can go to bust an association. It likewise provoked an a lot less complex question: What happened to the laborers in the movie who were purportedly fired by the Chinese conglomerate Fuyao for organizing?
Probably some of them sought after arguments against Fuyao—and left with settlements. Jill Lamantia, who was included noticeably in the narrative, tells Forbes she settled a case against Fuyao, documented with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and got three months of back pay, totaling about $15,000. As indicated by Fuyao, Lamantia was one of three specialists who were granted an all out of $120,000, including back pay, from Fuyao through NLRB settlements, as per records uncovered by the Dayton Daily News that didn’t recognize the laborers. All supposed they were fired for supporting the association drive.
Lamantia was relieved, saying, “I didn’t know if the case would stick or not stick.” Fuyao, meanwhile, maintains it was not at fault, but that “it elected to settle the charges in 2018 so the Company could move forward with focusing on its business operations.”
But those cases offer a small glimpse into the aftermath of Fuyao’s efforts—and struggles, as documented by filmmakers Steven Bogart and Julia Reichert—to revive a previously shuttered GM plant. The movie captures an inevitable culture clash between the Chinese company and its American workers, who attempt to form a union amid what certainly seem like trying conditions. In the middle of it all, Fuyao’s chairman, Cao Dewang, says during a visit to the Dayton, Ohio, plant: “If a union comes in, I am shutting down.” Then later, Jeff Liu, Fuyao’s U.S. president, is shown telling Dewang that “a lot” of union supporters were fired.
It’s illegal under U.S. law to threaten or fire employees for trying to form a union. Fuyao claimed the translations of Dewang was incorrect, while Liu called his translation misleading. The filmmakers stand by them. But the film, which is the first acquired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, dropped at a moment when labor’s role in U.S. manufacturing has become a particularly hot, and fraught, topic.
Just this week—as GM workers announced a strike of nearly 50,000 workers—Dewang doubled down on his anti-union statements. According to the South China Morning Post, Dewang told the government-run Beijing News, “The labour union system in Europe and the U.S. is no longer fit for the development of manufacturing. It’s safe to say that the demise of U.S. manufacturing was caused by this [labour union system]. . . . I won’t accept such a system.”
Fuyao has confronted various different protests and fines since the organization opened the Dayton plant in 2015. Of the grievances against Fuyao to the NLRB, 26 out of 27 claim “out of line work on,” including one recorded the day the film debuted on Netflix. The Dayton Daily News also reported that Fuyao had been fined over $830,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 2017. Fuyao keeps up, in an announcement to Forbes, that it “works intimately with OSHA to ensure we comply with the strictest security gauges, and will keep on doing as such, for the wellbeing of our laborers, who are our greatest resource.”
Viewers of American Factory meet Lamantia as she takes a job with Fuyao with great relief after she’d been laid off at the GM plant, lost her home and was forced to move into her sister’s basement. But later in the film, at the Fuyao plant, Lamantia describes how she refused to pick up twice the usual amount of glass with her forklift for safety reasons. She soon becomes active in the union.
After she’s eventually fired, a photo of her is posted at the security desk with a note saying she’s no longer allowed on the property. “I really truly feel like they had targeted me,” she says in the film.
She says she was out of work for six months after she was fired and that it took eight months before she settled her lawsuit. “Once again I was almost back in the basement,” Lamantia says. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I have to give up the apartment.’” She relied on unemployment benefits and odd jobs, like dog walking, before finding work at a Navistar International factory that builds semi-trucks.
But then, just this week, she says, she was laid off—temporarily, she hopes—from Navistar, a GM subcontractor that blamed a number of cuts on the ongoing strike.
Another fired Fuyao worker, Rob Haerr, who very memorably in the film hosts over a dozen of his Chinese colleagues at his home for Thanksgiving dinner—and teaches them to shoot guns—was unemployed for a year before finding work at Harley-Davidson, where he says he makes an hourly wage about half what Fuyao paid.
He was terminated for, as he describes it in the film, “not pulling something up on the computer fast enough.” Haerr says he believes he was wrongfully terminated, but was reluctant to retain a lawyer and ultimately decided against pursuing a case. “I almost lost my house and was afraid to spend a dime. Ohio is at-will and can terminate at any time for any reason,” he says, adding, “It would be nice to recoup some of the money I lost. It’s been two years, and I’m still trying to dig out.” There’s also a six-month statute of limitations in which to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB.
Besides dealing with financial worries, Haerr received text messages from his supervisor—Austin Cole, also in the film—for more than six months after he was terminated. Haerr showed Forbes screen captures of the texts. “Are you doing the lawyer thing?” Cole asks in one. “What’s new, anything? Suing this place?” he writes in another. Haerr believed that Cole and Fuyao’s higher-ups expected him to sue. Cole did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Fuyao declined to comment on Haerr’s claims.
The one person whose fate remains a mystery? About an hour and a half into the film, one of the Chinese supervisors holds up an iPhone showing a photo of a black man wearing the blue Fuyao factory uniform. The worker has apparently engaged in union-organizing activity, according to the supervisor. “You won’t see him here in two weeks’ time,” says the supervisor, according to the subtitles, indicating he would be fired for his union activity. None of the people Forbes spoke to for this story—Lamantia, Haerr, and the documentary makers, Bognar and Reichert—knew the man’s identity.
Reichert and Bognar say they didn’t understand what they had captured in that scene—and many others—until the interviews were translated months later from Mandarin to English. “We didn’t know labor law, but a lot of that stuff is actually illegal,” Reichert says.
Those moments spoke volumes about the state of labor in America. Despite historically low unemployment numbers, the future of U.S. manufacturing jobs continues to be uncertain. “What is so sad about all of this, when it comes to companies, how much responsibility does a company truly have to its employees?” says Lamantia, who attended several of the film’s premieres and joined Reichert and Bognar onstage for an audience Q&A. “We were asked questions about automation and the global economy. And you’re like, wow. When you’re in the middle of it, trying to make a living, you’re not thinking of these things. You’re trying to make a living.”
Nan Whaley, Dayton’s mayor, who recently guided the city through the aftermath of a mass shooting, said she understands that what’s happening to her city is bigger than one company or one factory. “In Dayton, it used to be that if you work hard and play by the rules, you get ahead. But it’s not the case in America, and our communities have to grapple with the fact that it doesn’t exist anymore.”