A cargo ship and a van packed with people in the wee hours of the morning are the opening images of “Union,” premiering at Sundance on Sunday. After the van makes its way to its destination, the Amazon logo, which has become as embedded in our culture as Nike, Coca-Cola, and other American-made corporate giants, becomes visible in the distance followed by a rocket headed for space with Amazon head Jeff Bezos aboard.
With these images, directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing attempt to frame the main conflict as a battle between the haves and have-nots as they document the pandemic-era unionization movement by Staten Island New York City Amazon workers.
At the center is 2022 TIME 100 honoree Chris Smalls (alongside Derrick Palmer) who was fired for leading a walkout of the warehouse known as JFK8 over the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for employees. Though fired, Smalls succeeded in co-founding the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which he leads as president and chief spokesperson.
“Union” follows the struggle of sustaining that momentum, highlighting not just the work and sacrifices of Smalls, but other Amazon workers and organizers committed to improving working conditions. They recruit over hot dogs in person, meet over Zoom to plot strategy and hold elections, and partake in small demonstrations. It’s tedious and unglamorous work.
We are told their efforts, which include a broad spectrum of workers from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, are greeted with repeated disdain by Amazon top brass. Takeaways from meetings with Amazon support the leaked memo where a company exec described Smalls as “not smart or articulate” during a strategy meeting with Bezos. Smalls and other ALU organizers share feelings of being disrespected and disregarded by Amazon execs as they stand up for themselves. They repeatedly share their experiences of being dismissed as well as undermined.
As noble as the ALU’s efforts are, “Union” never really takes off. It is so narrowly focused that it fails to paint a larger portrait of why the fight is necessary. There are no real statistics about what the wages at Amazon are and how they are determined. Most of the information is highly anecdotal so there is no context regarding labor struggles in the United States and the long history behind destroying them. No connection is made to other recent efforts to unionize either. The rising cost of living is not even factored in. Smalls and his crew are depicted as primarily working off passion and their own personal barometer of right or wrong.
Not being able to catch Amazon on-camera is another hindrance. An invisible enemy is extremely hard to fight or dislike. And though “Union” frequently alludes to Amazon working in the shadows against the ALU, it doesn’t find a way to truly illuminate that beyond the words of its primary subjects. It never clearly answers what the policies at Amazon are, or identifies the people enacting them or even those working to keep the ALU down. Instead, there is a presumed, but faceless adversary.
These failures are especially curious since both Maing and Story aren’t new to this form of documentary-making. Toronto-based Story won acclaim for her 2017 short doc “CamperForce” about Amazon’s reliance on RVers for seasonal labor, later spotlighted in the 2020 Oscar winner “Nomadland.” Maing received an Emmy nod for his 2019 Hulu doc “Crime + Punishment” chronicling the struggles of Black and Latino cops-turned-whistleblowers who expose illegal policing quotas through a landmark class action suit.
As a case study, “Union” would best serve another more purposeful doc. In a time when documentaries have never been more viable, “Union” doesn’t hold up. If change is the true goal, it is simply not enough to show people working hard. Convincing Amazon consumers of the corporate giant’s crimes is necessary to add weight to this fight. Yet “Union” presents nothing egregious enough to evoke a boycott of Amazon, and that’s a shame.
Opting for verité filmmaking here just doesn’t provide the bite needed. Interviews with former Amazon employees outlining their experiences would have added it. So would a detailed history of Amazon infringements against its workers, as well as sharing the wealth it accumulated in the pandemic alone.
There are just too many assumptions being asked of the audience here without presenting enough facts to validate this struggle. And that missed opportunity is truly unfortunate.
“Union” is a sales title at Sundance.
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