Sundance 2024: Union makes for well-paced documentary film, packing zip, punch and drama into story about independent labor organizing

In the 1930s, unions organized with tremendous success, eventually coming to represent more than one-third of the nation’s workforce by the mid-1950s.

The same period saw unions able to shut down companies through strikes in order to force executives to the bargaining table. The General Motors strike in 1937, which autoworkers used to gain recognition of the United Auto Workers, set the benchmark. The workers created a fortress around the Flint, Michigan plant, which at that time was responsible for assembling the engines for nearly every General Motors make and model, to ensure that any company-hired thugs could not sabotage the factory site. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as the Michigan governor Frank Murphy declined to intervene, notably because both had won the reapective offices with overwhelming support from labor groups. 

With a good pace of zip, punch and sharp drama, Union, a documentary film directed by Brett Story and Steve Maing, does an excellent job in highlighting how the union landscape of the 2020s is burdened with a new set of perils and impediments for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which was formed in New York City’s Staten Island. 

Chris Smalls appears in Union by Brett Story and Steve Maing, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Photo by Martin DiCicco

Featuring Christian Smalls, a savvy and effective grassroots organizer who led the ALU to its first big win in 2022, the film received a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for the Art of Change at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Incidentally, it is one of four documentaries at this year’s festival presented by Impact Partners Film and Geralyn Dreyfous, one of the founders of Impact Partners and cofounder of the Utah Film Center. She is executive producer.

The directors picked the right example for portraying the formidable struggles 21st century labor organizers have had to contend with, especially those involving independent unions which have pitched  themselves against corporate giants including Target, Google, Microsoft, Uber. Facebook, Starbucks and others. 

Few believed that it was possible for Smalls and others pushing for an independent union to win an organizing election at a warehouse location for Amazon. Smalls built up a foundation through the most unorthodox means, using GoFundMe to raise money and offering barbecue food, beer and weed as treats to lubricate the channels for organizing. Well-known labor historian Erik Loomis commented elsewhere that he was surprised at ALU’s victory, citing that even legacy unions had repeatedly failed in recent decades to organize workers in a modern economy. Smalls had eschewed elements of traditional organizing campaigns, which typically involve expensive labor attorneys, established  union headquarters calling the shots or bands of outside consultants telling local workers what they should be doing and dictating their talking points.

Brett Story, director of Union, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

As the film chronicles, the April 1, 2022 victory was hailed as historic, emphasizing that finally an independent union movement had proven that a bottom-up approach could work, even at a giant employer such as Amazon. But, the shine of that victory also has dimmed considerably since then. ALU lost consecutive elections by decisive margins shortly after that win. At another Staten Island location, the margin of defeat was large and in Albany, less than one out of five Amazon workers who qualified for the bargaining unit voted for the ALU.

Amazon also has repeatedly punted on any calls to begin formal contract negotiations. And, most of today’s labor laws lack the enforceable teeth and political will to compel corporate management to respond on a timely basis for negotiations. In a talkback after a Salt Lake City screening this week, Smalls, who received a standing ovation, rightly noted this stumbling block. Given the U.S. Senate’s rules on the number of votes needed to enact legislation, historically pro-labor Democrats do not have sufficient numbers of votes to stipulate mandatory mediation or set strict timelines for beginning contract negotiations. 

Meanwhile, a recent Cornell University study indicated that more than half of the companies had yet to begin negotiations one year after workers had voted to organize and that even after two years, more than one-third of those companies had not offered any overtures for bargaining. Also, decades of legal precedents in federal courts have watered down whatever labor laws are on the books. Business leaders have always been anti-union but the way mass manufacturing was centralized in the 1930s made companies such as General Motors far more vulnerable to the effects of work stoppages than today. To wit: Smalls noted that taking a unionized Amazon warehouse facility offline will not be enough to disrupt business to the extent that management will want to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible.   

Steve Maing, director of Union, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The documentary includes plenty of confrontational scenes, and not just with management. There are instances where workers would welcome some resources coming from established unions to help a still nascent independent union. However, Smalls, whose presence is as commanding in person as it appears on the screen, has yet to signal if he would accept such assistance. 

His reservations are well placed. On the flip side, barely any of the legacy unions have been willing to assist any independent organizing efforts. And, the ball is in their court. Regarding legacy unions, Loomis wrote, “It  will need to do things such as place the interests of the planet front and center, lead the way on protesting police brutality, put major money into organizing, and take other bold steps to combat the massive structural inequality in which we live.” 

Chris Smalls, Connor Spence, and Tristan Dutchin appear in Union by Brett Story and Steve Maing, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Actually, Smalls is as charismatic as the Baptist minister turned organizer (Homer Martin) who got the United Auto Workers off the ground. Smalls said at the talkback that ALU organizing efforts are set to spread internationally, which would be a potentially good move for formulating precisely the type of organizing culture that could give the fledgling union the credibility it needs at the bargaining table. But, Smalls might also be well advised to take a cue from union history and open the doors to others who can help expand his groundbreaking vision. Indeed, it would even make the documentary film chronicling his efforts that much more valuable and impactful in spreading the message about the ALU.

For more information and festival films and tickets, see the Sundance Film Festival website.  

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