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“This Fight Is Yours”: Stephen Maing, Brett Story, and Chris Smalls on ‘Union’

By Edward Frumkin

Chris Smalls, wearing a black shirt and black hair wrap, appears in Union by Brett Story and Steve Maing. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Martin DiCicco

Chris Smalls appears in Union by Brett Story and Steve Maing. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Martin DiCicco

Documentarians Stephen Maing (2018’s Crime + Punishment) and Brett Story (2019’s The Hottest August) have wielded different observational filmmaking approaches to explore social and political issues in the United States, from the possibility of police reform to the psychogeography of the carceral state. In 2020, they teamed up to film the labor struggle of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), resulting in Union, which received an IDA Enterprise Fund production grant in 2022. Led by ALU President Chris Smalls, the organizers go through a pendulum swing in their unionization efforts for safer and healthier working circumstances at Amazon’s Staten Island center, JFK8. While filming, Maing and Story keep the cameras on the ALU and avoid Amazon management, unlike most other labor films, amplifying the conditions of working class employees and spotlighting their personal lives. Though organizing is not an easy feat, Union discerns the ALU’s ongoing fight—JFK8 unionized in spring 2022, but ALU’s members are still subject to union-busting tactics.

After its world premiere at Sundance, where it won a “Special Jury Award for the Art of Change,” Documentary virtually caught up with Maing, Smalls, and Story. We discussed their mutual aid during the making of the film, the complexities of labor organizing, and how Union fits into the long history of labor cinema. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

DOCUMENTARY: Brett and Stephen, both of your filmographies center on human rights. How did this partnership come through?

BRETT STORY: Steve and I have known each other for a few years through the documentary community. Within the documentary community, you get to know the people working on stuff that you recognize as having a synergy with your own. Steve and I have felt that about each other’s work. When we began this project, it became clear that it should be a co-directed project, and I’dve been working on it for a few months. The union campaign had started, and Martin DiCicco, our cinematographer, was on the ground documenting it. I reached out to Steve and said, “This would be an amazing collaboration. I love your work,” and he immediately jumped in.

D: There’s a moment in Union where a crew member asks a worker if they’re all right during the tent set-up in severe weather. How did you care for each other during the production?

STEPHEN MAING: That was a funny situation because I had rolled up to the warehouse. It was after a series of long nights watching them canvassing at the bus stop, and I closed my eyes. I needed a minute to rest. And I woke up to the sounds of screaming and wind. It was a hurricane, and the tent was like 100 feet in the air, metal poles clanging all around. I was bleary-eyed, grabbed my camera, and ran out. Chris and Josiah [Morgan] were there desperately trying to hold onto the tent without literally flying away. It was a good example of how this idea of objectivity, filmmaking, and journalism is a false notion because there’s no way, if you’re embedding and developing deep relationships with people, that you don’t get brought into their world.

After filming for 15 seconds, I had to run over because I was quickly concerned if they were okay or might need my help. They seemed to have it under control, but it was a dramatic moment to see yet another dimension of the pressure campaign that they were under, which, as filmmakers, we think deeply about. We exist adjacently without altering the direction of their work, but also without pretending that our presence doesn’t matter. A lot of trust, care, and compassion were at the heart of our relationships. We think of each other as friends now in an odd way, having gone down this journey with these shared, similar goals. 

CHRIS SMALLS: There were plenty of opportunities throughout the course of our campaign where we had to face unprecedented adversity. And that was one particular night when the storm was overwhelming. But there’ve been plenty of other days on the ground where we had to overcome a lot of different things on the fly. Thankfully, our camera crew understood the difficulties we had to go through as Amazon workers and what we were trying to achieve. We were fortunate to have that relationship where if they had to drop the camera to help us in an emergency, they absolutely would’ve done that. We appreciate all the people involved, whether behind the scenes or in front of the camera.

D: In the film, Natalie and Madeline discuss the gender dynamics of the union, and Natalie later talks with two white employees about Chris’s possible actions. How do you handle sharing these layers in the ALU while justifying their existence?

BS: We’re making a film about people that’s intimate and raw, but it was always important to our entire team that this not be read as a film about a set of personalities. We’re talking about systems that affect how hard it is to organize and a structure like corporate tech capitalism that’s definitive of Amazon as a company and employer. But there are also other dynamics that affect why it’s so hard for any group to work collectively. We subtly included issues of class, race, and gender difference because those permeate our lives and affect our ability to organize. It’s also important that you see that it’s a Black-led, multiracial struggle. The future of labor organizing has to be broad-tent and requires that we learn how to work together across these cleavages that are disorganizing in our everyday lives.

D: In the credits, Amazon stated in a text card that their concentration is “working directly with our team to make Amazon a great work environment.” It’s clear that it’s not. Who do you think Amazon is referring to?

SM: We’re all familiar with corporate speak and propaganda in PR and marketing. Amazon has stated they want to be the Earth’s best employer. There’s such strong rhetoric and interesting messaging that makes me want to hold them to that. I imagine that they will see this film and maybe be reminded that the working conditions and feelings of their 1.5+ million workers are something they should think twice about. The health of any economy depends on the well-being of the working class. For people concerned about profit success and corporate viability, it behooves them to hear the message that Chris and the ALU are putting forth.

CS: That’s been their PR message since most of the pandemic. We could say verbatim what they are going to respond to most of the time, even when a news article comes out around our efforts. For us, the film is not about shaming Amazon in that aspect. We understand that Amazon gives people an opportunity to have a job. All we’re asking for is to have better working conditions and get paid a livable wage. The focus should be that Jeff Bezos and Andy Jassy are two of the richest people on the planet and have all of these issues in one warehouse. This is one of many. They should listen to their employees. That’s all we’re asking for is that they listen. Not only to understand but to negotiate because we won fair and square for a union contract.

D: Brett previously spoke about reshaping endings of labor films on the Film Comment Podcast. What were some tropes you wanted to avoid in Union?

BS: We’re all glad this film exists within a history of incredible labor films. This is not specific to the canon of labor films, but there is an appetite for easy stories that paint people as either heroes or villains. That doesn’t serve anyone who wants to be or is ready to be inspired to struggle. It makes us more inspired to see the ALU organizers as real human beings with multiple motivations. It was important for us to show that there’s collective work happening, that you don’t have to be a perfect hero to start and lead a movement, and that organizing is hard but essential. So that was crucial to the decision to show some of the harder moments in the ALU struggle.

SM: For the ending, it was a rich and complex conversation that we had. We agreed on this idea that the organizing we witnessed over the three-year period exists on a continuum. In fact, any individual moment that occurred in our observational approach should never be conceived of as a terminal point of mediamaking if things were going great. The adversity of taking on such a powerful corporate adversary should not be underestimated. If the challenges inherent to organizing were to put distressing pressure on the fabric and the integrity of the social group, that also should not be assumed to be a foregone conclusion that all is lost.

The repair work this organization has done that all organizers are compelled to do is the point. These moments of conflict do not define who we are. It’s how we respond to them afterward that shapes our intention and our commitment to this work as filmmakers or for them as organizers. We made clear this was neither a happy nor a sad ending.

CS: It is amazing that they were able to compile all of our efforts into this film, but at the same time, it’s ironic because it’s really just the beginning of our entire movement. As I mentioned to the audience, when you leave here after watching the film, understand that this fight is yours right now at this very moment in life. That’s the message that I hope resonates with people. You’re not just watching this and saying, “Hey, oh wow, look what’s going on over there.” In the next few years, one out of every four Americans is going to have worked for or know somebody who worked for this company. So, to get involved and understand that this revolution and movement starts with ourselves is very important.

Edward Frumkin is a Brooklyn-based critic. He has written for the Daily Beast, IndieWireFriezeBOMB Magazine, and elsewhere.