In the nearly three decades since its founding as a bookseller, Amazon has become a giant in the world. So many rely on two-day Amazon Prime free shipping for anything they could possibly need, and it’s become nearly impossible for brick-and-mortar establishments, not just bookstores, to compete with their prices and ability to deliver products at an astonishingly quick rate. Yet all of that comes at a cost, and the fight for the rights of the more than one million employees at Amazon has not been easy, as chronicled in the rightfully less-than-optimistic documentary Union.
While it could certainly have started with either footage or a simulation of the intense process required to locate ordered items and get them to the right trucks as quickly as possible, Stephen Maing and Brett Story begin their film with the pre-dawn trip by many employees to get to their fulfillment centers on time. In addition to long commutes and strict rules, there are many other issues within the company – not necessarily different from any other company – that have led many to believe that the institution of a union is critical. But there are more than a few hurdles required to get there, and a tremendous amount of perseverance required along the way.
At the center of this documentary is Chris Smalls, the former Amazon employee who started the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) after he was fired related to a walkout stemming from problematic and insufficient COVID-19 protections for employees. He’s now the face of an organization that he plans to lead if it’s able to actually become an official group, and he must contend with being told that he has no right to be on Amazon property while trying to appeal to employees that this is in their best interests, something the corporation cares very little about it.
There are numerous statistics cited in this film that are sure to surprise audiences and also help them to understand why creating a union in the first place has been such a challenge. The employee turnover rate at Amazon is so high that it’s almost an entirely new workforce every six months, and in their legal challenges to the formation of the ALU, Amazon has cited that signatures from those who no longer work at the company should be considered invalid. The belief that some have that nationally-established unions will come to help them also prevents progress since those interventions may never happen or be too far off, and in the meantime, nothing is happening to protect workers.
This is far from a rosy portrait of intrepid activism and unlikely odds. There is disagreement even within those most active in union activities about leadership, with one person lamenting how she’s moving from one boys’ club within Amazon to another within the union. Celebrating victories is rare because they are indeed so many obstacles, and it’s easy to lose hope since Amazon boasts such an impressive arsenal that often deliberately targets those seeking to achieve change.
Filmmakers Maing and Story have spent much of their careers making films about the prison system in the United States, and this joint feature showcases the difficult cycle that exists that allows the status quo to remain in place in a relatively straightforward and unglamorous fashion. There’s still much to be gleaned from it, particularly for those who believe they understand what’s going on and how things work, and its mere existence is a partial victory for those who have been fighting so hard.
Union makes its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.