PARK CITY, Utah — Chris Smalls couldn’t believe it. He walked in awe to the front of the Library Center Theatre as the audience gave a standing ovation to “Union,” a documentary that premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival about Amazon workers’ tireless campaign to unionize a Staten Island warehouse. Management has attempted to discredit the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). But to much of this audience, Smalls and his fellow organizers were nothing short of heroes.
“As a former Amazon employee, I have to remind myself where I came from,” said Smalls, who currently serves as president of the ALU. “Every day, I get to look at the people here that helped me get by … and understand that what we started can never, ever be taken away from us. We built something that is monumentally historic.”
The film by directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing arrives after a banner year for the American labor movement. The success story of workers at JFK8, which in April 2022 became the first Amazon facility to unionize, no doubt inspired others. But organizing is rarely a smooth process, and “Union” doesn’t shy away from exploring the thorny politics — both internal and external — of going up against one of the biggest companies in the world. Producer Samantha Curley noted at the premiere that the team behind the film hopes it can serve as “a useful tool for organizing.”
Smalls was fired from Amazon — whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post — after protesting pandemic working conditions nearly four years ago. (While Smalls considers his firing to be wrongful termination, the company said that he was let go “for putting the health and safety of others at risk and for violating social distancing guidelines,” according to spokesperson Mary Kate Paradis.) Several workers in the documentary share their own grievances with management. There are numerous accounts of long, strenuous hours and too-short breaks. A 30-minute lunch window for a shift surpassing eight hours, for instance, isn’t always enough to make it to the 850,000-square-foot facility’s cafeteria and back. Some say they were fired, rehired, then fired again. Others claim they were written up because of their union sympathies.
Amazon maintains that “the health, safety, and wellbeing of our employees is our top priority,” according to Paradis, who added that employees “are free to take informal breaks throughout their shifts.”
Amazon is known to struggle with employee retention. One of the title cards displayed throughout the film estimates an annual turnover rate of 150 percent, which the New York Times previously reported as a pre-pandemic figure. This posed an obstacle for ALU organizers, who required signatures from at least 30 percent of active employees to hold an election on unionizing.
Then, during that election, they needed a majority of workers to vote yes. The filmmakers impress upon their audience how determined organizers were to reach their goal. Some — such as treasurer Maddie Wesley, who figures prominently throughout the film — started working for the company just so they could contribute to the cause. The ALU ran much of its grass-roots campaign from a tent located outside the warehouse, offering hot meals and, on at least one occasion, free marijuana.
“We are the N.W.A. of the organizing world,” Smalls jokes, referring to the gangsta rap group, during a meeting featured in “Union.”
As the workers seek better conditions by reminding the company they are human, they are forced to face the emotional truth of it among themselves, too. Slowly, alliances start to shift. One JFK8 employee who started out with the ALU loses faith in the operation and shows up to the eventual election with a poster encouraging folks to vote no. Dissent begins to grow against Smalls over the belief that he exercises too much power as president. (According to reports, this is an ongoing issue for the union, which will hold leadership elections sometime this year.)
“You saw a lot of different sides of us that people don’t really see,” he told the crowd at the premiere. “That’s the nitty-gritty of organizing: You’ve got to trust people from all different backgrounds.”
While workers at JFK8 successfully unionized, contract negotiations have yet to begin — another point of contention within the unit, which seeks safer workplace conditions and higher wages, among other things. The film suggests Amazon is responsible for the bargaining holdup.
Paradis stated that members of Amazon’s leadership “strongly disagree with the outcome of the election,” as they outlined during hearings held about the unionization of JFK8. The company holds that “both the NLRB and the ALU improperly influenced the outcome.”
“Union” showed at the first Sundance since historic labor strikes shut Hollywood productions down for several months. The rapturous applause at the documentary’s Sunday afternoon premiere embodied the pro-labor sentiment widespread among artists at the festival, at least a few of whom have expressed gratitude toward their respective unions while screening their films.
But there have also been whispers of potential trouble for “Union” as it relates to acquisition. Major studios might hesitate to buy a film that could alienate Amazon and, by extension, Bezos himself. The filmmakers don’t seem too concerned about this risk. Maing told Variety that “it’s a very sobering moment probably for corporations to really have to consider what they value.”
The film also premiered as violence continued to escalate in Gaza. Multiple “Union” producers wore the Palestinian kaffiyeh around their necks while answering questions from the audience. While introducing the film, Story shared that her first language was Arabic. She said she grew up in the West Bank and lived with a Palestinian family for many years of her childhood, an experience she credited with helping her develop “the skills and lessons that have taught me how to be a good filmmaker: kindness, generosity, courage and a critical orientation to the world.”
“There’s no worse feeling than the feeling of powerlessness,” she continued, “and it’s for that reason that we’re so extraordinarily grateful the Amazon Labor Union organizers and workers shared space under their tent with us and allowed us in to watch and witness their incredible organizing.”