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‘Union’ Review: Documentary All-Stars Stephen Maing and Brett Story Team Up for a You-Are-There Look at the Fight to Unionize an Amazon Warehouse

Stephen Maing and Brett Story’s tough and gripping new film about the fight to unionize the workers of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island might be an observational documentary at heart, but this in-the-trenches portrait of grassroots organizing doesn’t leave any doubt as to whose side it’s on. Indeed, few movies have ever screamed “fuck you, pay me!” louder than “Union” does with its opening frames, which use footage of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos blasting into space aboard his self-financed — and unmistakably phallic — rocketship to set the stage for the struggle he’s avoiding back on Earth. Watching a mega-billionaire overcompensate on an interstellar scale would be damning regardless, but in this context it makes it that much easier to appreciate how cruelly his business empire is undercompensating all of the people who keep it in the black.

Of course, the film’s sympathies go without saying; if you want pro-Amazon propaganda, get a low-paying and perilously unsafe job at one of their facilities so you can watch the ghoulish anti-union videos employees are forced to sit through during their shift breaks. But “Union” is all the more effective because it doesn’t see the need to argue its case. Instead, the film is free to focus its attention on how difficult and inspiring it was and remains for the Amazon Labor Union to press that case into action — and even just to exist in the first place.

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Maing and Story have both displayed their own rare talent for seeing the urgency in narratives of futility and stagnation (he in police doc “Crime + Punishment,” and she in her climate portrait “The Hottest August”), and together they take us into the beating heart of a union effort as it furiously tries to pump the blood required to bring a movement to life. That starts, as any chronicle of the ALU must, with union president Chris Smalls. A brash, passionate, and relentlessly outspoken former rapper who lost his job at Amazon’s JFK8 Fulfillment Center after he protested the lack of PPE given to the workers who were risking their lives to ship masks and other pandemic essentials to people all over the world, Smalls is both a pissed-off renegade and a natural leader. On the one hand, he proudly thinks of himself as the “N.W.A. of the organizing world” and brags about how Amazon’s top brass has personally belittled his intelligence. On the other hand, we’re first introduced to him as he’s grilling hot dogs for hungry workers in the middle of a freezing New York night, and for all of the conflict that his ego cooks up along the way, there’s never any doubt about the courage or sincerity of his convictions.

Without Smalls, there would be no ALU. Because of Smalls, the ALU might be too divided against itself to stand up to the shady union-busting tactics that Amazon keeps using to break the organizers’ spirits. If not for the corporate subterfuge, it would probably be a lot easier for Smalls and his “comrades” to collect the signatures they need in order to initiate a union election. Forcing a vote only requires 30% of the facility’s workforce to support it, and roughly 100% of the people who toil away at JFK8 — who risk life-and-limb for a $31,000 salary at a dystopian nightmare factory where they’re monitored by a snitching algorithm and an army of inhuman middle managers — can appreciate the appeal of a worker-led group that would represents their best interests. Alas, getting any significant percentage of the employees to sign on is tough at a place with an annual turnover rate of more than 150%, and the ALU is effectively forced to start over from scratch every few weeks.

And it never gets less painful for Smalls and co. to watch Amazon’s workers invest far more of themselves into the company than the company has ever invested in its workers. “Union” takes a frustratingly glancing approach to the other major figures among the ALU leadership (many of whom are squeezed into the corners of the Zoom calls that are so crucial to their organizing), but some of these people don’t need much screen time to leave a strong impression.

Among the most fleshed-out of the film’s conflicts is the one that develops between Smalls and a worker named Natalie; Smalls is sincerely outraged to learn that Natalie lives in her car despite working a full-time job at the facility, but his concern for her does little to mitigate her concerns about him — specifically his grandstanding and his hard-line approach, which prioritizes long-term gains over short-term necessities. Maing and Story highlight other internal frictions in the group as well, such as the disconnect that’s revealed when one the group’s younger, whiter members suggests that it might be a good strategy to let Smalls get arrested, as if the cops would treat him the same way they would treat her. In that case and others, “Union” is less interested in the details of these rifts than it is in how they broadly reflect the difficulties of focusing an entire workforce towards the same fight; it’s easy for corporate overlords to agree on how to crush their employees because every idea is a good one, but for several thousand people to push back against the giant foot on their necks requires all of them to be on the same page.

In spite — or because — of how eagerly this film throws us into the frontlines and stays true to its on-the-ground perspective, a compelling David vs. Goliath story naturally emerges from watching the ALU race to become real. “Union” seizes upon and deepens our natural sympathies with Smalls and his cohort, whose fight is our fight whether you know it or not, and even viewers who’ve been following this story in the press since the spring of 2021 will likely find themselves on the edge of their seats as the documentary edges closer to its climatic vote.

Of course, that vote isn’t the end of this story, nor is it the end of this documentary about it. On the contrary, the historic vote is just the first formal skirmish in a war of attrition that is still taking shape, and even the outcome of that skirmish is still in flux, as Amazon has spent the last several years working the refs however it can. It’s so odd that companies would rather pay several million dollars to their lawyers than pay a living wage to their own workers.

However you slice it, there’s no avoiding the fact that this fight is just getting started, and “Union” is wise not to manufacture a false sense of resolution for the convenience of its own dramatic structure, but it’s still disappointing that the film unravels to an even greater extreme than the ALU when the group follows its first major victory with its first major setback, and the documentary’s concluding text — so optimistic about the ripple effect of the ALU’s existence — is unsupported by the feeling of disarray that Maing and Union leave us with in the end. And yet, in part because of the empire-sized dauntingness of the ALU’s opposition, “Union” perseveres as a vital and urgent portrait of labor organizing and its enduring possibility at a time when the fight for workers’ rights has never seemed more one-sided. To paraphrase Chris Smalls: Let billionaires like Bezos have fun sightseeing in the cosmos — it gives the rest of us a golden opportunity to reshape the Earth in their absence.

Grade: B

“Union” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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