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Work in Progress

Martin DiCicco/Sundance Institute

Union (2024)

Organizing a shop floor union from scratch, the grunt work involved in persuading your colleagues of its value when they may or may not be interested, is the topic of "Union" as it follows the birth pains of the Amazon Labor Union in 2021 and 2022, under the long shadow of Covid. Stephen Maing and Brett Story's film is observational and one-sided; apart from some covert first-person filming on the shop floor, usually catching some strong-arm tactic from the company, the film mainly puts you on the street outside with the workers trying to round up the support needed to get the A.L.U. off the ground. Workers and management play out the old struggle, updated only slightly by the sour modernity of fluorescent jackets and security guards with cameras pinned onto them. When management respond with antiunion posters and leaflets, one of the A.L.U. organizers says "They're hitting us with hundred-year-old-tactics"; the cajoling and oral presentations of a worker proselytizing for organized labor are older tactics than that, even when they take place over Zoom.

The film has access to the man at the center of things, which helps both its head and its heart. Chris Smalls, a worker at Amazon's JFK8 Staten Island warehouse made redundant over claims of breaking Covid protocols and who accused the company right back of sexism, racism and unsafe practices, was one of the prime movers behind the A.L.U.'s birth. Juggling family life and this larger family now standing around him at Amazon's gates, Mr. Smalls calls for higher wages, longer breaks, more help for injured workers. He needs 30-percent of the workforce to join him in calling for a vote on whether to consider a union at all, and then 50-percent-plus-one in a further vote to actually get it. The first hurdle seems tough enough, and no sooner has it been achieved than Amazon management uses legal means to derail the process.

In depicting these efforts honestly, the film shows plenty of internal fault lines. Distrust of unions in general from other shop floor workers, often over dues from already small incomes on a promise of other benefits down the road, is the first response of many; Mr. Smalls tries to pull them in his direction one inch at a time. More candidly, a female organizer advocates waiting for an bigger established union to get involved, rather than bootstrapping a new one at JFK8. She feels dismissed and disrespected by the A.L.U., calling it no less a boys club than Amazon itself, the company whose actions have already left her sleeping in her car.

But why isn't a bigger union involved? The plucky organizers of the A.L.U. visit the offices of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and in the film's edit they storm straight back out onto the street again, calling the U.F.C.W. "hostile as fuck, talking down to us, saying we need a Biden endorsement. We don't care about Biden!" In this snapshot, of the American labor movement skittish about taking on the fifth biggest company in the world, of needing their own Washington big daddy before tangling with an orbiting Jeff Bezos, of managing to offend a group of workers looking to take the first step toward unionization at one of the highest profile road junctions of our perfected capitalism, and at the very least not managing to stop them storming out and unloading to a waiting documentary crew, a few of the Left's current issues might be detected.


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