Amazon Labor Doc Tells David and Goliath Battle of Our Time

In March of 2020, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, an employee who led a walkout at its Staten Island, New York, warehouse known as JFK8 over pandemic working conditions. A memo that later was leaked to Vice News revealed that an Amazon executive dismissed Smalls as “not smart or articulate” in a strategy meeting with Jeff Bezos. But just as the tech giant was writing Smalls off, some documentary filmmakers saw in the labor organizer a compelling character at the center of a timely story about the modern workforce.

Nearly four years later, their movie, Union, which will premiere Jan. 21 at Sundance as an acquisitions title, depicts the formation of the Smalls-led Amazon Labor Union (ALU). “I thought, well, here’s an opportunity to film something from the ground up,” says Brett Story, who directs Union together with Stephen Maing. “From the very beginning, we said to this group of people, ‘We’re here because we understand that what you’re doing is important. I know you feel like nobody else does, but we take you seriously.’ ”

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Producers Samantha Curley and Mars Verrone first connected with Smalls in 2020 and then recruited Toronto-based Story, in part because of her 2017 short documentary CamperForce, about Amazon’s reliance on thousands of RVers for a seasonal labor unit, a phenomenon later depicted in the 2020 Oscar winner Nomadland. Story enlisted New York-based filmmaker Maing, whose Emmy-winning 2019 Hulu documentary, Crime + Punishment, about New York police officers of color, had some thematic overlap with the issues the Amazon workers were facing.

“I was struck by the troubling familiarity of their complaints,” Maing says. “Workplace retaliation, productivity quotas, a culture of fear. To see workers who were radicalizing in real time was exciting.”

Relying on grants from funders including the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms, Field of Vision and Chicken and Egg, the filmmakers embedded with Smalls and his fellow organizers for three years. Their cameras show the ALU’s scrappy recruitment strategies, which included setting up a grill and giving out hot dogs and hamburgers near where Amazon workers caught the bus, as well as projecting phrases like “You Are Not a Robot” on the outside of the factory walls. Cameras were also there for internal disputes and setbacks, as well as a historic and improbable victory in 2022, when ALU efforts led to JFK8 workers becoming the first Amazon employees with a union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

Story and Maing are hoping for a wide, theatrical audience for Union and plan to partner with labor organizations and activists
to get it seen.

“This is not a film that we made so that it could just play a few festivals and that’s it,” Story says. “So hopefully it gets picked up and has really wide distribution. And if not, we are very inspired by the ALU and are happy to be as DIY as is necessary.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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