* * *
To be the best employer in town, though, Fuyao needs to be able to stay open, and so far, the factory isn’t making money. Fuyao has been working on its factory since 2014, but it still isn’t running at full capacity. Fuyao Glass America posted a $41 million loss in 2016, the company said in its annual report.
Some of the losses were because the company had to spend so much money on equipment to get the plant running, Liu told me. But productivity per worker in Moraine is 10 to 15 percent lower than it is in China, he said, adding “We have a big gap to catch up to China, but we’ll get there.”
Chinese companies also struggle to operate in an environment where there are a network of safety regulations that do not exist to the same extent in China. “It’s an example of the challenges of working on a more advanced economy where workers have much broader protections and safety standards and rights than is normal back in China,” says Rosen, of the Rhodium Group.
The company says it can’t find enough skilled people to fill open positions, Liu said, even when it raised the wages by $2 an hour. Most workers aren’t trained in automotive glass in the Dayton area, and many aren’t accustomed to working in the heat of the factory. Turnover has been high at the Fuyao plant so far, with workers quitting, and managers complain that American workers often show up late and take too much time off.
Upper-level management is mostly Chinese, and two American managers were fired from the plant in November, according to The New York Times. Dewang, the Fuyao chairman, told the Times that the workers “didn’t do their jobs but squandered my money.” (One of the managers has since filed a lawsuit alleging that he was fired because he wasn’t Chinese.) Dewang responded to the Times story in Chinese national media, calling it “false,” and saying that the company invests in technology to make the plant safer, that it trains its workers, and that most of the management and administration is American. Fuyao told me that no one has been terminated based on their nationality, and that only one of the two managers was terminated; the other left on his own accord.
Cao Dewang, the head Fuyao, cuts a ribbon at the Moraine plant (John Minchillo / AP)
U.S. workers have a different work ethic than Chinese workers do, said Daniel Curran, a former president of the University of Dayton who serves on Fuyao’s board. “Many of the Chinese workers are used to longer hours. It's not uncommon to see over time,” he said. “U.S. workers are used to essentially an eight-hour day. Not all American workers want to be working on the weekends. That's part of our culture.”
It’s possible that the U.S. workforce is not as skilled at manufacturing as it used to be. Many of the people who worked in manufacturing in the 1980s, before the wave of offshoring, have since retired, and younger people don’t have as much experience in factories. The economist Tyler Cowen has argued that Americans are more averse to adjusting to change than they were in the past, which potentially makes them less likely to take jobs in new fields. “You could say we got a little spoiled” as America created better and better jobs, Cowen told me. While Cowen sees this as a negative, it’s the result of a positive development: American workers are no longer interested in low-paying, backbreaking jobs like picking crops, for example. “People are not willing to become a wreck by age 60 or 65 anymore,” he said. But it makes life more difficult for employers who don’t want to (or can’t) pay workers more or improve the jobs that are available.
Cowen also pointed me to a study published last year in the Journal of Hand Therapy that indicates that today’s workers might be physically weaker than American workers of the past, which would explain some of why it’s harder to find good factory workers. Men younger than 30 have weaker hand grips than their counterparts in 1985 did, the study found. Grips might have gotten weaker because men are no longer accustomed to working in manufacturing or farming, but are instead prepared to sit at desks and work on computers.
For their part, workers say that Fuyao isn’t as productive in the U.S. as it is in China because the jobs are dangerous and unpleasant, and because Chinese supervisors have trouble communicating with U.S. workers. (Having the Google Translate app is a must for anyone who interacts with Chinese supervisors. They understand English—they just can't communicate comfortably,” one worker, Tim Jernigan told me. “So we pull out [Google Translate] and we start typing and they look over your shoulder, and that's how we communicate.”) Additionally, U.S. labor standards prohibit some of the behavior that is commonplace in Chinese factories that may make them more efficient there. “There’s two sets of safety standards at play here,” said Yates, the Fuyao worker, who is 49 and thin. “I wouldn’t want my worst enemy working here now.”
For example, American and Chinese supervisors discipline American workers who fail to wear safety glasses, while Chinese supervisors frequently ignore the rules. Jernigan, who was among the first of the workers hired by Fuyao, told me some Chinese workers climb over equipment like furnaces without safety harnesses attached, which American workers wouldn’t do. Chinese workers often don’t use protective shields when they are supposed to. “They’re just so used to doing it that way,” he said.
I briefly visited the plant floor, where forklifts carried sheets of glass between blue and yellow machines. Numerous posters reminded workers to follow the “5 S’s: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain,” which is a Japanese process for workplace organization. The whole plant was extremely hot—a result of the furnace that heats the glass—and there’s not much ventilation. I saw many more machines on the plant floor than I saw people.  
After OSHA visited Fuyao in eight separate inspections, it proposed $226,937 in penalties. OSHA found machine-safety violations that potentially exposed workers to amputation, as well as electrical hazards, and a lack of personal protective equipment. It also said that the company failed to train workers about hazardous chemicals in use, and that it had unmarked exits. Fuyao settled with OSHA in March, agreeing to pay penalties of $100,000, the government said.
Workers say safety hazards exist because Fuyao doesn’t bother to invest in training workers. Another worker, a 57-year-old named Ronald Blake, said he had expected to get in-depth training once he was hired at Fuyao, even though he’d worked at a car plant previously for 13 years. But he has learned very little about how to do his job. “You have to be real persistent about asking questions, to get you to tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he said, about learning on the plant floor. “I want to do things the right way.”
Job applicants wait in Fuyao’s lobby (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)
There are other complaints: Fuyao recently changed its vacation policy so that people earn time off with every hour they work, rather than guaranteeing workers a certain number of days a year. It also changed the attendance policy so that people don’t get the bonuses they once did for coming to work every day. “Every time I get close to reaching the maximum, they change it,” another worker, Teodore Searcey, told me.
These types of complaints aren’t uncommon among American workers who are employed by Chinese firms. A Chinese copper company set up a factory called Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group in Alabama in 2014. The company had similar complaints about workers: the company’s chairman told The Washington Post that the quality of the workers there “is not very good.” The plant was, at first, unsafe, with oil leaks that made the ground slippery, and a lack of safety guards on machines, and so in December of 2014, the workers voted, 75 to 74, to form a union, according to Dan Flippo, the director of the United Steelworkers’ District 9, which now represents Golden Dragon. “It was a sea change for a Chinese company to come in and start from scratch,” he told me. “There are just cultural differences.”
* * *
Foreign companies operating in the U.S. have long had to adjust to methods of doing business here. In the 1980s, when Japanese firms first started making cars in the United States, the Japanese firms worried about a lack of American efficiency, with one Japanese senior politician saying that American workers were “too lazy” compared with those in Japan. American workers complained about not having enough input into the way the factory worked, according to Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California Berkeley. “There is clearly a learning curve when you’re moving to a new place,” he said.
Initial Japanese forays into the U.S. market had mixed results. Toyota launched its first major manufacturing investment in the U.S. in a joint venture with General Motors that was called NUMMI. Initially, the U.S. workers struggled to adapt to the Japanese “lean production” model, but over time, the collaboration began to work well, said Shaiken, who authored a white paper on Nummi in California for a state commission after the plant shut down during the recession.
The plant became one of the most productive in the country, and U.S. companies learned from Japan’s manufacturing techniques. But one of the biggest reasons NUMMI worked was that U.S. workers were able to give input to Japanese managers about how they thought the factory should be run, Shaiken said. That made the workers more invested in the manufacturing process—and it made the manufacturing process better as well. Japanese automakers learned from this experience, Shaiken said—even when companies opened non-union plants, they established ways for workers to be involved in the production process.
Chinese companies have generally not yet made the effort to incorporate U.S. workers into decision-making, Shaiken said. “They are saying the plant is not as productive, yet they are using techniques that almost assuredly will result in it not being productive,” he said. “In effect, the Chinese are ignoring a quarter-century worth of extensive experience in manufacturing.”
A worker at Fuyao, which is in a former GM property (John Minchillo / AP)
Workers at the Fuyao plant have an idea for how to fix some of these problems: They want to form a union. They say they want to have more input into the process of making automotive glass. That way, they can push back against unsafe orders, and can contribute to making the plant more efficient. Yates and other workers meet on Wednesdays after their shifts at a United Auto Workers (UAW) office a few blocks from the plant, which shares a building with a carpet-cleaning company. I met Yates and a few other workers there close to midnight, where they sat around a table and talked about how to get their message out to other Fuyao workers. “What it boils down to is that we don’t have a say-so in any of this,” Yates said. “If we had guidance from someone to show us how to do it right, like the UAW, this place would be an amazing place to work,” he said.
Dan Flippo, of the United Steelworkers, said that his workers’ relationship with their Chinese employers improved significantly after the union was formed. “Golden Dragon has been much more cooperative after we got the election behind us and a contract in place,” he said. “We honestly have a decent relationship with them now.”
The UAW doesn’t yet have enough support to hold a vote at the Fuyao plant. A recent union meeting attracted just about 100 workers—the plant employs about 1,500 production workers. But forming a union isn’t the only way that workers could get more of a voice at Fuyao. German car companies operating in the U.S. have supported the idea of “works councils,” in which workers and management meet and discuss operations, for example. At NUMMI, the Japanese company, workers were expected to speak up whenever they saw a problem that prevented them from doing their jobs properly, according to John Shook, who is now an industrial anthropologist, but who then worked for Toyota.
All of the American workers I talked to said they wanted to Fuyao to succeed. They understand the value of having manufacturing jobs in today’s economy, and that many communities would fight for a large plant of Fuyao’s size. But they say Fuyao needs to better adjust to being in America. “Are they going to try to run this like it’s in China, or like it’s in America?” Jernigan, the worker, said. “Americans are used to doing it a certain way, and Chinese are used to doing it a certain way. We have to meet in between.”
It could be difficult for Fuyao to make such wholesale changes to the way it does business, especially with continued pressures from China to turn a profit. But investors like Dewang need plants like Fuyao to be profitable, if they are going to make money in the United States. They still haven’t figured out how to make the factory work. In the end, it may come down to understanding how to operate these American plants with Chinese characteristics. Listening to the American workers may be a start.