Chinese-Owned Factory in Ohio Fights Off Unionization Plan

Chinese-Owned Factory in Ohio Fights Off Unionization Plan


The company, which has invested more than a half-billion dollars restoring a former General Motors plant, rejected such allegations. Athena Hou, the chief legal officer of Fuyao Glass America, said the U.A.W. was trying to “demonize the company.”

Fuyao mounted an aggressive opposition, littering the factory with material encouraging workers to vote against the proposed union and “keep your voice.” The company regularly invoked a recent corruption scandal involving a Fiat Chrysler and a U.A.W. official.

Workers said Fuyao officials balanced their attacks on the union with emotional appeals, and even treated some workers to free meals in recent weeks, saying that it was to reward good performance.

The unionization fight highlighted one of the most sensitive issues in contemporary politics: the quality and availability of American jobs in industries heavily exposed to global competition.

Photo

Cao Dewang, the founder and chief executive of Fuyao Group, inside one of the company’s factories in China. Mr. Cao is known for paying the medical expenses of employees’ relatives, but presides over a company that workers said prizes unquestioned authority.

Credit
Patrick Wack for The New York Times

During his trip to Asia this week, President Trump — who made much of the issue during the 2016 campaign — praised Japanese auto manufacturers for putting plants in the United States.

Chinese companies, for their part, have followed a similar path, directly investing more than $136 billion in the United States since 2000, according to the Rhodium Group. More than half of that amount has come since the beginning of 2016.

In some cases, executives from China, where officials often rein in labor protests, have been caught off guard by the determination of American workers to push back against what they call a heavy-handed management style.

“The less sophisticated and more ‘green’ Chinese investors don’t really understand local dynamics at all,” said Damien Ma, a fellow at the Paulson Institute who follows Chinese investment in the United States. “And so they either don’t care that much about labor conditions, or most likely, they just don’t really know but pulled the trigger anyway.”

Fuyao arguably fell into this category, having set up its factory in union-friendly Ohio.

Fuyao’s chairman, Cao Dewang is known for paying the medical expenses of employees’ relatives, but presides over a company that workers said prizes unquestioned obedience.

Some of the workers’ grievances involved safety, including inadequate measures for shutting down machines that might need work. In March, the company reached an agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that required it to pay $100,000 and address those issues.

In recent months, some workers said, safety conditions at the plant had improved considerably.

Debbie Lee Brueckner, a supporter of the union effort who was recently transferred into the safety department after working as a glass inspector, was among them. But she said many supervisors have relied on intimidation and favoritism to control workers.

“If they like you, they’ll remove a point,” she said, referring to the plant’s disciplinary system. “If they don’t, they’ll hold points against you. It’s not really fair.”

Differing cultural norms probably played a role in the tension.

Mary Gallagher, the director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, said in an interview this spring that Chinese business owners often expect to order around their workers freely, while American workers usually expect to have input into how they perform their tasks.

Whatever the cause, the lingering resentment was evident during the voting.

The union challenged the eligibility of workers it believed were not permanent employees, such as interns or foreign nationals on temporary visas, saying their interests did not align with those of long-term employees.

The company saw it as xenophobia.

The U.A.W., Fuyao Glass America said in a statement, was challenging workers’ votes “ based on where this union thinks they were born.”

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