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I love when workplace issues — and what we do here at WorldatWork — collide with popular culture, in this case, the Oscars. As much as I had looked forward to watching the major winners at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday night, I especially paid close attention to two less renowned categories: Best Documentary and Best Animated Short.
While these two categories often fall below people’s radar, the larger context and overarching themes of the winners — American Factory and Hair Love — speak directly to hotbed organizational issues, such as employee experience, workplace culture, and diversity and inclusion.
"American Factory," a feature-length film that deservedly won Best Documentary honors, shines a light on the integrated strategies and operations of a Chinese auto-glass manufacturing company that took over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio.
What I find most striking about American Factory is its inside glimpse of two disparate, mismatched cultures and how they inevitably clash despite the calculated efforts and disciplinary threats of management.
The palpable tension between American and Chinese workers — mostly due to mistrust, misgivings and misaligned work ethics — not only strain the work environment but become a blight on the entire enterprise.
“Our film is from Ohio…but it really could be from anywhere that people put on a uniform and punch a clock trying to make their families have a better life,” filmmaker Julia Reichert said. “Working people have it harder and harder these days and we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.”
American Factory also depicts the oppositional anti-union measures taken by Fuyao billionaire chairman Cao Dewang, who reportedly invested $360 million in the shuttered GM job site while hiring more than 1,500 Ohio workers.
Several “entitled” American workers in the documentary protest for better pay and treatment, which the Chinese managers seem to find irritating, if not amusing, given the conditions to which Chinese workers are accustomed.
American Factory’s Oscar win comes on the heels of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, “one of the most significant bills to strengthen workers’ abilities to organize in the past 80 years,” according to a report in The Washington Post.
The PRO Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 6, but the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to take it up. The PRO Act, if enacted, would create penalties for employers that violate federal labor law by retaliating against workers who are trying to unionize. It also would change who qualifies as an employee vs. an independent contractor, only for workers seeking to organize or join a union.
Some business groups and executives have argued that it would hurt employers, violate privacy rights and give too much power to national unions.
If clashing culture gripes and polarizing union-fueled activities aren’t enough for you, another Oscar-winning project took on a subject that employers may face if their workplace policies don’t support hairstyles that are inherent to racial identity.
Hair Love, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, tells the story of a father who learns how to take care of his daughter’s Afro-textured hair while her mother is in the hospital.
During their acceptance speech, Hair Love’s creators overtly tackled the topic of representation and also raised awareness of the CROWN Coalition (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair).
The CROWN Act is a legislation that prohibits employers and schools (K-12) from discriminating against people with dreadlocks, braids, twists, cornrows, and other traditionally black hairstyles. So far, it has passed in California, New York, and has been introduced in New Jersey.
About the Author
Dan Cafaro is the editor-in-chief of Workspan magazine.