Among this year’s Academy Award-winning films was the one judged to be the year’s best full-length documentary, “American Factory.” It tells the story of workers in a Dayton, Ohio, auto factory that closes during the economic downturn of 2008, only to be reopened a few years later as a Chinese-owned auto-glass factory. The same people who stood on auto assembly lines — like their parents before them — eager to work again, must face the challenge of adapting to a new industry and different working conditions. As IMDb describes it, “Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.”
It’s a tale told through the voices of the workers, both Chinese and American, as they learn each other’s ways and forge a new, profitable path forward. In the process, they make new friends and, at times, adversaries. They struggle with differences in language, customs, expectations and standards of adherence to regulations.
Along the way, there are a few laughs. There’s also baseball, fishing and barbecue.
The documentary is not preachy in tone; it’s lovingly and vibrantly filmed; and though it’s set in Ohio, its story is applicable to workers everywhere, including in North Carolina, where many of us have had to wrestle with the pressures of a changing economic landscape. The conclusions drawn from “American Factory” will vary with the individual viewer, but it’s well worth watching and discussing and easily accessible with a Netflix subscription.
Perhaps a local organization could take up discussions of the film as a project.
One certainty demonstrated by the film, though, is that change requires flexibility. Promises of a return to glory days are often broken.
A recurring theme on this page is the challenges faced by our rural neighbors, where unemployment has exacerbated problems such as access to health care and opioid addiction. They’re problems that our legislators are aware of and have taken steps to address, but in some ways they’ve fallen short. To be fair, the solution isn’t easy. But Medicaid expansion, for one, increasingly endorsed by business, medical and educational organizations and experts, would seem a no-brainer. It would not only provide medical care for needy families, but it would create thousands of jobs and keep rural hospitals open. The state legislature’s refusal to sign on should be a scandal.
There are also success stories to be shared, as local go-getters find new paths to success.
In nearby Rockingham County, data shows a recent rebound in population — though many newcomers, seeking small-town life and lower taxes, still commute to larger cities for employment. Still, as BH Media’s Susie C. Spear wrote last month, “Long-shuttered downtowns are slowly but surely drawing shoppers back to historic main streets in Reidsville, Eden, Madison, Mayodan and Stoneville with the additions of quaint shops, the county’s first microbrew pub, novel activities and local boosterism.” That’s encouraging. As Winston-Salem has learned, a diverse economic base that includes medical, manufacturing, artistic, educational and tourism industries, among others, is far more stable than relying on one major industry, so that all of our eggs won’t get cracked in the same basket.
America’s can-do spirit is legendary, as is the country’s work ethic. North Carolinians take a back seat to no one in those areas.
But industries are still needed to provide well-paying jobs and the benefits that should accompany them. That requires intelligence, investment and innovation.
The conversation continues daily as we chase the American dream.