Behind the Scenes of Amazon Workers’ Fight for a Union

In July of 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was part of a brief flight into space. Far below him on the ground, workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island were fighting to unionize. When reality hands a documentarian such useful symbolism, they best take advantage of it. 

Sure enough, this juxtaposition opens Union (2023), which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be playing at the True/False Festival. A Blue Origin flight tracker depicts Bezos’s craft ascending. That verticality is contrasted with the foreboding horizontal breadth of a massive container ship pulling into port, laden with cargo that Amazon workers will soon have to sort through in grueling conditions for insultingly low pay. Directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing led a crew that followed a handful of these workers at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center over roughly a year, amidst their hard-fought and historic battle, backed by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), to become the first union at the megacorporation to be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

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Story’s films tend to approach their subjects through oblique, unexpected angles. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) tackles the prison-industrial complex in the United States without ever stepping inside a prison, instead examining the social structure of the institution largely through the businesses that branch off it, such as a company that supplies commissaries. The Hottest August (2019) looks at the effects of climate change on New York City by surveying ordinary people about their thoughts on the phenomenon. Maing, meanwhile, has worked more to profile individuals and perform investigations. Crime + Punishment (2018) is embedded within the NYPD 12, a group of New York Police Department officers who sued the city in 2016 over racist policing practices. 

Film still of Union (2023), directed by Brett Story and Stephen Maing

Union, fittingly, combines their sensibilities. Story’s gift for natural lyricism often comes through; besides the opening, numerous grace notes sing throughout, like ALU founder and leader Chris Smalls making small talk while he serves people hot dogs in a parking lot, or a little boy eagerly taking his chance to yell into a megaphone during a protest. Meanwhile, the incorporation of hidden camera footage shot by brave Amazon insiders sits squarely within Maing’s wheelhouse. Sometimes, the visuals from within Amazon are as well-composed as anything outside — a sequence of robots maneuvering pallets through a warehouse is oddly mesmerizing, and evincines the total dehumanization of labor that capital ultimately desires. These contrasting modes capture different elements of the fight: both the harrowing or frustrating conditions inside Amazon’s walls and the quieter moments of comradery that the organizers find outside them. 

The spy cameras deliver some of the most infuriating material in the film, particularly snippets of anti-union propaganda that Amazon forces employees to sit through. As is often repeated by agitators throughout the story, the company is hiring consultants — paid thousands per day — to fight the ALU,  when it could easily give that money to its own workers. It’s far from the only time the company deprioritized its workforce. Smalls began his fight (and was eventually fired) because he spoke up about how warehouse staff weren’t given proper equipment to protect against COVID-19 while they were working to ship that very same equipment to customers. 

We see the ALU fighting amongst itself nearly as much as it fights with Amazon. This is a part of labor politicking that many films eschew or touch on only briefly, for understandable reasons. No one wants the perception of their sympathetic cause to be undermined by interpersonal pettiness or the sheer boredom of long meetings. But these are unavoidable — even crucial — elements of organization and activism. Solidarity doesn’t mean always getting along with your comrades. 

The ALU’s story does not end with its successful recognition. In the nearly two years since JFK8 was recognized, Amazon has refused to negotiate with it, and has repeatedly sought to undermine it in the courts. So far, union recognition votes at other Amazon facilities have failed, a fact Union acknowledges in a somewhat scattershot epilogue. The documentary, as a result, feels something like a snapshot of a broader struggle rather than a complete statement. But within that limited purview, it demonstrates how the tedium and frequent setbacks of labor organizing can sometimes catalyze electric triumphs.

Union will be playing as part of True/False Festival, happening February 29 through March 3 in Columbia, Missouri.


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