With the UAW’s historic strike wins this week, we look back at the history of US auto manufacturing in movies — with a focus on films that show how the auto industry has tried to shaft workers over the decades.

Interior shot of a General Motors factory from American Factory. (Netflix, 2019)

According to a Bernie Sanders bulletin, the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike is ending with a tentative agreement reached that Sanders sums up like this:

Workers won a 25% wage increase over the life of the agreement, temporary workers will get raises of over 150%, there are increased retirement benefits, and they won the right to strike over future plant closures.

In other words, in addition to wage and benefit hikes, they sent a message to the Big Three that they can’t keep closing plants and hurting our communities without consequences.

On such an occasion, it seems right to mark it with a “why we strike” commemoration, looking at films that show us the typical ways the automotive industry has tried to shaft the worker over the decades.

General Motors (GM), for example, has an unusually large profile in film history, and not at all a flattering one. “The largest automotive company in the world,” as it has so often billed itself in its long, hubristic history, seems to generate resentful portrayals in the entertainment industry.

Even an innocuous light comedy like The Solid Gold Cadillac was inspired — according to coauthor Howard Teichmann, who was working with the legendary wit George S. Kaufman — by a chance remark he overheard that he found hilarious: “Poor General Motors!”

Because who could possibly pity 1950s GM, which bestrode the narrow world like a colossus?

In the hit play of 1953, which became a successful 1956 Judy Holliday film, Teichmann wound up renaming the ubiquitous, filthy rich, and highly corrupt corporation something even more generic — International Products (IP). The plot is about a nice, honest woman who owns ten shares of IP stock and begins attending shareholders’ meetings, soon disrupting the whole company by asking a series of commonsense questions of the board of directors, starting with, “What do you do to earn your salary?” When she gets the vague and highly unimpressive answer, she offers the indignant comment, “Talk about overpaid!”

She winds up leading a small shareholders’ revolt against the board, which is a good illustration of the mutinous spirit that GM inspires in film.

The rest of the films are documentaries. Most famous of them is Michael Moore’s film debut, the still-bracing Roger & Me (1989). Moore centers the film on his own hometown of Flint, Michigan, a GM company town that boomed during the postwar era and became one of many Rust Belt ruins when the bust came. GM relocated its Flint factory to the Texas-Mexico border, chasing cheap labor. It was a common practice in the “race to the bottom” that characterized American corporate practices of the 1970s and ’80s.

Moore structured his documentary around his quest to have a meeting with GM chairman of the board Roger Smith and plead the case of Flint, Michigan as a representative GM town. It was very Solid Gold Cadillac of him, proceeding from the assumption that of course an Ordinary Joe could stand up in person to the chairman of the board of an immense corporation and bring him to reason. Wearing his ubiquitous winter parka and trucker hat, the heavyset, shaggy-haired Moore would go schlumping up the steps of the glass-and-steel edifice of corporate headquarters as if he fully expected to be ushered into Smith’s presence by blazer-wearing lobby guards. Cameras would roll on the scenes of him being turned away repeatedly by suited security guards there to make sure that highly paid executives never actually had to deal with lowly members of the public.

Moore became famous overnight with this film because he seemed to have found a formula for representing bleak realities in a bracing fashion, capturing the cruelty and corruption of insanely overpaid executives who feel they owe nothing to the workers who make their profits for them, and the grim pleasure that can be taken in exposing their abuses and fighting them.

But other documentaries about GM tend to be so infuriating, and ultimately so depressing, that they’re quite hard to watch. If you want to see encapsulated the deliberate destruction of the American working class along with any practical hopes for a better future, you can just watch these films to see it play out.

The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? lays out the way the combined forces of the auto industry, the oil industry, and the federal government set out to destroy the highly promising GM experimental model released in California — the EV1. Don’t look to see the EV1 on the road anywhere, because it exists no more outside of beautiful dreams. It seems it wasn’t enough to simply halt the manufacture of the small, beautifully sleek, ultramodern electric car — it wasn’t even enough to confiscate all the cars that were leased by people lucky enough to get ahold of one, many of whom begged to buy the cars or at least continue leasing them, and were threatened with legal action if they didn’t return their EV1s.

No, GM actually confiscated all the cars, sometimes with platoons of police holding back protesters, and destroyed them — had them crushed to bits of metal and plastic so that no trace of the lovely cars would remain to tantalize the public and make them wonder why they hadn’t been able to buy environmentally beneficial electric cars a long, long time ago. An accompanying disinformation campaign put out false consumer testimony claiming that people didn’t actually like or want electric cars like the EV1.

And the next big trend in order to boost profits for the auto and oil industries was to popularize Hummers, gigantic SUVs, and obscenely massive pickup trucks.

One lone EV1 survived somehow, and got donated to an automobile museum. “That’s number ninety-nine,” says the sales rep who worked at GM during the brief heyday of the EV1, tearing up when she recognized the wonderfully sporty little red car. “That one was Christine’s.”

All very melancholy, but nothing compared to the despair-inducing experiences of two HBO documentaries made by Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert about the same factory in the Rust Belt town of Moraine, Ohio. The first is The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009), which brilliantly relies on footage shot by the workers themselves, who smuggled in cameras during the last days of work at the Moraine Assembly plant that was the employment mainstay of an entire community. If you want a blast of the canniness and gallows humor characteristic of workers at their best, you should watch it, painful as it is. There’s a wonderful scene when workers on the line mock the idiots in management who, having no idea how the cars were actually made, botched a final work order, bringing the line to a halt far sooner than intended.

But their grief makes the far greater impression, because it’s not just a workplace shutdown, which would be plenty bad enough. Lifelong friendships, community structures, a town’s prosperity, are all broken up with the closing of one GM plant.

In 2019, Bognar and Reichert returned to the abandoned factory to document its reopening when it was taken over by a Chinese company, Fuyao Glass Industry Group. American Factory, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions, and winner of the Best Documentary Academy Award, shows us how many of the workers who’d been unemployed or underemployed in the ten years since the GM plant had closed got hired back at crushingly reduced wages. People who’d lost their houses, lost everything, crept back and expressed gratitude for making eighteen dollars an hour at the same place where they’d once made twenty-nine.

“I had nothing, and I mean nothing,” said one former employee with sad dignity on the day of his return to the factory. “Now I’m just thankful I’ve got something.

American Factory is often compared to the fictional Ron Howard movie Gung Ho (1986), starring Michael Keaton, which is about a Japanese takeover of an American auto plant, mining comedy out of the culture clash. A lot of attention in the documentary is paid to the tensions between Chinese management and American workers. The language barrier is an enormous problem, but also allows each group to insult the other freely, with the Chinese managers particularly confident that no American will understand them when they complain, for example, about the Americans’ “fat fingers” that prevent them from doing the more dexterous jobs on the line.

The major complaints from the Chinese contingent concern the supposed slowness and laziness of the American worker, a particularly horrifying claim considering what we know of the grueling physical labor of life on the line. When a group of American workers are sent to China to observe the labor practices in a Fuyao plant, it’s chilling to hear the accounts of labor abuses that are accepted there, right under the huge painting of Mao. Women on the line talk about not seeing their children except on rare holidays, because they work such long daily hours and don’t get weekends off as a rule.

A Chinese manager says with quiet contempt that the American eight-hour day with weekends off is “pretty soft,” and an American manager — seemingly anxious to curry favor — agrees fervently with him that Americans need to toughen up and follow the Chinese model if they want to prosper again.

We see a ghastly neglect of safety standards at the Chinese factory. Workers crouch over a huge mound of broken glass discarded by the factory, having to pick through it without equipment or protective wear of any kind. “Look at the gloves they’re wearing,” exclaims one shocked American worker to another, of the ordinary cloth gloves the workers wear. “That glass will slice right through! That is fucked up.”

The Chinese labor union that factory members belong to, we’re informed, works hand in glove with factory management, with hardly any separation between them. It operates according to the same ideological stance as the factory bosses, with union reps arguing that the workers need to dedicate themselves entirely to the factory’s success, because if the factory fails they’re all out of work.

Here we get a look at how far we still have yet to fall in the United States in our international “race to the bottom.” The rights to weekends and eight-hour workdays and safety regulations, won by unions in brutal labor struggles that took generations, are all on the chopping block.

So let’s celebrate what seems to be a spectacular UAW win, and the American labor history that still has strength enough left in it to allow for these struggles and triumphs to occur.


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