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'Union' kicks off DocFest with an important and deeply relevant conversation about freedom for all

The documentary follows Staten Island workers fighting against Amazon's labour practices, emphasising the need for grassroots activism, workers' rights and worldwide social justice.

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Brett Story and Stephen Maing's Union explores grassroots activism challenging Amazon's labour practices.

DocFest.

Kicking off this year’s DocFest, the UK premiere of Union began with its director sharing heartfelt words on the genocide in Palestine. She drew similarities between those followed in the documentary’s determination for safe and ethical workers' rights, and the larger need for individual equality in order for selective freedom to mean anything.

Union explores grassroots activism challenging Amazon's labour practices. The film opens with a striking contrast between the weary workers arriving at an Amazon warehouse and Jeff Bezos’s rocket launch. This effectively sets the stage for the film's premise: the formation of the first Amazon Labor Union (ALU), led by Chris Smalls.

Following Smalls and other workers at the Staten Island depot (‘JFK8’), the film provides an intimate look at the intense behind-the-scenes efforts of union organisers by interweaving subtly recorded conversations between union members and footage of activists’ arrests.

Remarkably, the ALU's media-savvy approach, using footage legally taken inside Amazon and funding their campaign through GoFundMe donations, was such a huge success that even the filmmakers didn’t expect it. Despite being largely ignored by mainstream media, the organisers knew their fight needed to be documented, even at the risk of failure.

In fact, directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing shared that their original plan was to open the film with ALU’s loss before exploring their hard work that had led to that point, a structure that was upliftingly altered on 1 April 2022 when the ALU became the first unionised Amazon workers recognised by the National Labor Relations Board.

Although it would be difficult to see Amazon as “the good guys”, Story and Maing still do a brilliant job of staying neutral. The documentary doesn’t shy away from depicting the internal conflicts, personality clashes, and class tensions that threaten to derail the ALU’s progress, as well as balancing this with Amazon’s aggressive tactics.

Their dedication to ethical journalism is notable: the directors are never intrusive, and always seek permission from the workers being canvassed before filming. This clear moral standpoint was essential, given the lack of workplace protections and the potential for anxiety among workers that filming a documentary could disrupt the cause.

Despite capturing a landmark success, Union also underscores that this is only the beginning of a prolonged struggle for Amazon’s more than 1.5 million employees (the e-commerce giant is the second largest employer in the world). Although Smalls began this fight in spring 2021 and their union was legally approved a year later, to this day Amazon have yet to draw up any contracts that put the union into effect.

The need for stronger labour laws is evident, especially given the alarming stat that Amazon replaces nearly 100% of its staff every six months, and those included in the documentary share the numerous times they have been let go by the company. There are also problems around a US law that requires a 30% threshold of employee signatures for union recognition. While the billion dollar company blatantly abuses outdated systems and poor labour laws, this highlights the government’s role in perpetuating them.

But Union is not just a story of conflict but also of solidarity. It highlights the necessity of worker-led unions, and emphasises that genuine freedom for workers is tied to the strength of our colleagues, just as wider social justice requires us to come together.

This is a compelling, thought-provoking documentary that left the audience reflecting on the broader implications of human rights, political policy, and the relentless pursuit of justice by those who often have the least power but the most to lose.

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