Culture Clash at a Chinese-Owned Plant in Ohio

Culture Clash at a Chinese-Owned Plant in Ohio

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Fuyao faces an acrimonious union campaign by the United Automobile Workers and a lawsuit by a former manager who says he was let go in part because he is not Chinese.

The company has hired more than 1,500 American workers.

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Nathan C. Ward for The New York Times

The investment has even prompted hand-wringing in China, where comments by the company’s chairman, a self-made billionaire named Cao Dewang, stirred a debate over the country’s competitiveness. “Cao Dewang behaved like a traitor,” wrote one person on Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging site. “You set up a factory in the U.S. to solve employment there.”

Solving employment is, of course, the promise that Mr. Trump rode to office. Since his victory, foreign companies like Bayer, SoftBank and Infosys have moved to align themselves with that goal — and avoid an America-first backlash — by promoting plans for thousands of United States-based jobs. But the experience of the Fuyao plant shows the potential pitfalls along the way.

The union, which began meeting with workers in 2015, escalated its public efforts in April with a fiery meeting highlighting arbitrarily enforced rules and retaliation against those who speak up.

An employee named Lisa Connolly complained that Fuyao disciplined workers for absences if they didn’t request their paid time off far enough in advance, while a former employee named James Martin said the company had exposed him to harsh chemicals that blistered his arms and diminished his lung capacity. (Mr. Martin lost his job for excessive absences while on workers’ compensation leave in January.)

James Martin said he was exposed to harsh chemicals at Fuyao and missed work. He later lost his job.

Credit
Nathan C. Ward for The New York Times

Fred Strahorn, the Democratic minority leader of the Ohio House of Representatives, told the audience that Fuyao’s operation felt like “a little bit of a hostage situation” and pledged to “show Fuyao that we do things a little bit different in Dayton, Ohio.”

In November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Fuyao more than $225,000 for violations such as insufficient access to locks that shut down power to a machine when workers fix or maintain it. Such lapses are common in the brutally competitive auto parts industry, said David Michaels, a professor at George Washington University who headed OSHA until January, but they can easily lead to amputation or even death.

The company reached an agreement in March that reduced the amount to $100,000 and required corrective measures.

Eric Vanetti, the vice president for human resources, conceded an element of turmoil at the plant late last year. But he said that the atmosphere had improved significantly in the past few months and that many of the new safety measures were underway before the OSHA settlement. The company also recently gave hourly production employees a $2-an-hour raise.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined the company for safety lapses.

Credit
Nathan C. Ward for The New York Times

At Fuyao, workers say that there have been some improvements, but they complain that the proportion of Chinese supervisors has increased.

Credit
Nathan C. Ward for The New York Times

One complication at Fuyao is the relative novelty of Chinese “greenfield” investments in the United States, in which foreign companies build new facilities rather than acquire existing ones.

The approach has advantages for both sides. “If I didn’t invest in the Dayton area, it’s very unlikely anyone would invest any more in the automotive glass industry in the U.S.,” Mr. Cao said.

Kristi Tanner, a senior official at JobsOhio, the private economic development corporation for Ohio, which helped lure Fuyao to the state, said in a statement that the company “has transformed a long-vacant former G.M. assembly plant and provided an economic lift.”

But projects can suffer when investors are unfamiliar with the American regulatory and political environment, as is true for many executives in China, where labor standards tend to be less strictly enforced.

In 2014, a Chinese copper tube maker called Golden Dragon opened a plant in Wilcox County, Ala., to Fuyao-esque fanfare, investing more than $100 million to create an anticipated 300 local jobs. By the end of the year, amid complaints about lax safety and low wages, workers narrowly voted to unionize.

At Fuyao, workers say there have been safety improvements, though some cite continuing problems. One employee, DeAnn Wilson, complained that her area lacks proper ventilation even though she works around machines that emit smoke. (John Crane, Fuyao’s health and safety director, said the smoke was vapor that resulted from warm air entering a chilled room.)

DeAnn Wilson complained of poor ventilation.

Credit
Nathan C. Ward for The New York Times

Other workers said that despite the company’s insistence that it wanted to hand the plant over to American managers, it had increased the proportion of Chinese supervisors in recent months.

That contention is consistent with the legal complaint of David Burrows, who was ousted as a vice president for the plant in November, along with the plant’s president, John Gauthier.

“Since those two have been fired, it has more of a Chinese feel than what it was before,” said Duane Young, a worker at the plant. He said the Chinese had little interest in training, sharing responsibility with or even engaging with American employees.

In an interview in Beijing, Mr. Cao said he had replaced Mr. Burrows and Mr. Gauthier because “they didn’t do their jobs but squandered my money.” He lamented that productivity at the plant “is not as high as we have in China,” adding that “some of the workers are just idling around.”

Athena Hou, the chief legal officer for Fuyao Glass America, called Mr. Burrows’s suit “legally meritless.” Mr. Gauthier and Mr. Burrows did not respond to requests for comment.

To some extent, cultural norms may explain the tensions.

Mary Gallagher, who directs the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, said entrepreneurs like Mr. Cao often populate their factories with migrants from rural areas, whom they expect to be relatively submissive, unlike American workers, who expect a more collegial management style. “He hasn’t ever had probably this type of pressure from a work force,” she said.

Workers at the Fuyao plant say Chinese managers seem to elevate production goals above all else. When employees have trouble with equipment and ask to shut it down, said Nicholas Tannenbaum, a Fuyao worker who was fired in late May, “the Chinese look at us and say, ‘No need.’”

“They’re jumping on moving conveyors to fix it as the line is running,” he added.

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