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Four men stand side by side, each with a fist raised, in front of a 2024 Sundance Film Festival backdrop.

“Union”: Story of Amazon Labor Union Gives Hope to Ordinary Workers

Jordan Flowers, Derrick Palmer, Chris Smalls, and Gerald Bryson all present or former employees of Amazon express their solidarity at the premiere of “Union” on January 21 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

If you’re feeling like the ordinary working men and women in America are helpless against big business, the documentary Union, which opened January 21 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, may do your heart good.

Chris Smalls got fired from an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, after he protested conditions related to COVID precautions at his workplace. Rather than slink away humbled, he led an 11-month-long grassroots effort to form the first independent Amazon Labor Union. The likable, charismatic father proved to be savvy, resolute, and empathetic throughout a bitter struggle against the deep pockets of Amazon — which ALU claims spent millions in union-busting efforts.

The overall battle — not the least of which includes infighting among the new union’s leadership — is far from over. But this first phase of the campaign gives reason to hope among the “little guys,” who bemoaned inadequate pay, lunch breaks that barely allow time to walk to the cafeteria, and unrealistic expectations regarding productivity at the New York facility.

“What we started can never, ever be taken away from us,” says Smalls, at the post-premiere Q&A. “We built it, and we built something that is monumental, historical, and resonating across the world.” 

The hope expressed by him and other ALU organizers is that the movement — perhaps inspired by this entry in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Festival — continues at other Amazon plants and also among working-class employees fighting for dignity and autonomy wherever they work.

Stephen Maing, who co-directed Union with Brett Story, praised the union organizers for their “courage and tenacity” in allowing the film crew to tell their story of the “invisibility of the working class.” 

“Organizing is hard,” Maing says at the Q&A, “and it can get messy, but it’s so important. The collective power of all of them was always going to be more important than what any individual might have been going through or trying to do.”

Smalls sums up the path forward succinctly: “Amazon is going to employ one in four Americans in the next few years,” he says. “This fight is your fight right now.”

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.

Brett Story and Stephen Maing, co-directors of “Union,” appear at the premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)