Amazon Labor Union (ALU) president Chris Smalls is not the star of the documentary Union. He is just one part of the congregation in Brett Story and Stephen Maing’s co-directed film. An early glimpse of Smalls finds him discreetly flipping burgers and hot dogs at a grill. It took an employee to ask Smalls if he’s the “low-key famous” Smalls for the leader to list his media recognitions. He doesn’t want clout for his union organizing, but rather to be known for making laborers heard, enabling a better society for his children and comrades, and proving to white executives that he can manage a flock in his distinguished streetwear outfits. 

The examination of the ALU at Amazon’s Staten Island headquarters, JFK8, is a dream subject of interest for Story and Maing, whose past work has concerned reform. Union traces the intimate, intense vérité approach of being in precarious situations––à la Maing’s Crime + Punishment (2018), and the vignette-seamed stitching across individual scenes from Story’s The Hottest August (2019) and The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016)––to observe how an institution not only affects public officials, but citizens and people across every sector of life. 

Smalls, fired in April 2020 for protesting working without PPE, runs the ALU’s meetings at fires outside JFK8 and Zooms with ALU Vice President Derrick Palmer, who still works at the warehouse. In their talks, past and current employees express the need for better pay, job security, and knowing where their dues go. Through Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Blair McClendon’s stellar editing across different members, they use digital cinematography and workers’ cellphone footage to unveil Amazon’s power: implementing petty causes they can quickly deploy to terminate their workers. The corporation’s barriers don’t frighten the ALU as they find ways to endure and strategically avoid the traps.

As the ALU initiates an election, tensions flare over insignificant matters––hosting a meeting later than scheduled, fulfilling the work under severe weather. Smalls can’t concretely stay calm across these minor issues. Making for a more complex portrait, thrice-fired employee Natalie points out Smalls’ disorganization and unwillingness to hear a few meaningful proposals from the unit. She notices how Smalls makes some areas about himself, which leads her to leave “another boy’s club,” her words on the inner functions at Amazon and ALU. 

If there’s a gripe about the film’s structure, the overall effectiveness of the essential members’ skills falls flat. Union only briefly touches on James the Transit Guru’s knowledge of the MTA system and people’s commutes, recent grad Madeline’s experience of labor organizing, and Palmer’s social-friendly demeanor to recruits––highlighting a specialty that each person brings instead of how they can use their arsenal along with others. Due to the term union and its purposes, which need clarification for some, Maing and Story prioritize the discussions. The group’s ultimate efforts coming out of the calls are emotional and soul-connecting work for the ALU, showing how people from varied backgrounds can achieve things together while they set aside their differences.

Capturing the ascendancy of the working class, Union is a key addition to the canon of workers’ cinema that includes such vital films as American Factory (2019), Harlan County (1976), and I Am Somebody (1970). In these three classics, the exultation of victory resulting from the respective strikes marks a closing chapter in the stories. The filmmakers do not dive into the protagonists’ lives or elucidate if any form of progress was made after the wins. Maing and Story show that the outcome is the beginning of a generational fight for companies to properly value the labor that keeps them running. The brutal battle at JFK8 inspires people to believe that a new ALU chapter at another Amazon fulfillment center is possible. It takes one to start a potential snowball effect.

Union made its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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