By Madeline Janis
This column originally appeared in Forbes.
Donald Trump claims to be waging his trade war with China on behalf of American workers. But as with most things this president says, the truth is almost precisely the opposite of what Trump contends it is. I know, because I see it up close every day. The non-profit organization I lead, Jobs to Move America, works with cities and states to encourage private companies to create good jobs with fair wages for a diverse, locally hired workforce, and to protect the environment from harm. JMA also organizes workers and residents of the towns and cities where manufactured equipment is built.
Our shop floor-level view is radically different from Trump’s White House view. From our vantage point, we see how foreign investment in the U.S., including from China, can be either a terrible deal for American workers, or it can be an outstanding one. The same can be said for investment for any company — U.S.-based, Canadian-based companies, or otherwise. The difference has little to do with trade deficits, bilateral trade agreements, or bloviating politicians threatening tariff hikes. It has to do with whether cities and states do right by workers and communities and insist on accountability from the corporations that set up shop in their homes.
Netflix is airing a new documentary, “American Factory,” which tells an important and powerful story. The film follows the workers at Fuyao, a new car glass Chinese-owned and managed manufacturing plant in Dayton, Ohio. Local politicians awarding million dollar subsidies welcome Fuyao to Dayton with great fanfare, heralding the plant’s opening as a boon to the city’s residents, who are hurting from the closure of the old GM plant, which is the site of the new factory.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown publicly endorses the unionization of the factory, much to the consternation of management. But Fuyao’s bosses are virulently anti-union; seem indifferent to the well-being of their workers, Chinese and American alike; and are myopically fixated on maximizing profits, whatever the cost to workers and the local community. The American workers and the Chinese managers clash over working conditions, and that clash is only aggravated by the differences in the managers and workers’ conceptions of fair labor standards. The film is a depressing snapshot of corporate globalization.
Community groups and unions have seen variations on this story play out all around the country, but with differences.
The important differences we’ve seen are outcomes. Spoiler alert: the ending of “American Factory” is not a triumphant one for the workers. But better endings do, in fact, exist. JMA and I have been part of making them happen. In Lancaster, California, another Chinese-owned company, called Build Your Dreams (BYD), built a plant that manufactures electric buses for cities and counties across the U.S.. When it first announced its intention to build its North American headquarters and two factories in LA County, BYD wasn’t convinced that it was in their interest to work with unions and community groups. However, BYD chose a different path than Fuyao. The company ultimately embraced a partnership with the local union, SMART Local 105, and a coalition of community groups led by Jobs to Move America to negotiate a far-reaching agreement that guarantees fair hiring practices, family-sustaining wages, good working conditions, and skills training. Today, the plant in Lancaster is a model for how to build a strong workforce and workplace where management is committed to diversity and environmental sustainability.
Trump would have you believe that all Chinese business owners are cheats who don’t care about American workers. But here’s the truth: Chinese corporations aren’t the only ones. You can find corporations that cut corners if given the chance, where indifference to workers is in their DNA. Take a look at corporations based in Europe, Canada, and the United States: you’ll find a pattern in their anti-worker conduct. Unless cities and states stand up for workers and communities, corporations will get away with what they’re allowed to get away with, regardless of where they’re based or where they’re investing.
The good news is that we don’t have to let them get away with anything short of the high labor and environmental standards that many foreign-owned companies in the US are living up to today. We’ve seen it over and over: when workers and community members join together to demand dignity and respect, they can achieve the goal of shared prosperity that should be the basis for all of these agreements in the first place. A win for workers is a win for communities and corporations who invest in them. Hopefully, one day an “American Factory” sequel will be able to tell this story as well.