While there is a long history of labor organizing in the United States, the present surge of worker-led organizing is remarkable. Workers are fed up and embracing self-organizing at unprecedented levels, especially in workplaces where the odds are stacked against them. This is all happening at a time when they are being called ‘essential’ but treated as disposable, and wealth inequality and union busting are on the rise. Workers are fighting back by reigniting and reimagining union organizing.

We can meet this moment by sharing the stories of workers across the country saying enough is enough. These stories need to invite even more workers into this rapidly growing movement. We need to emphasize why unions matter, highlight worker-led successes, provide how-tos for new organizers, and highlight the leadership of women, young people, and people of color. We need to demonstrate these truths, showcase our collective power, and prove that the masses will always be stronger than the few people at the top.

With this in mind, we are excited and honored to announce the recipients of the 2023 Docs in Action Film Fund. $120,000 was awarded to four film teams to complete short films that embody these narratives. They include: documentary producers and journalists José Jesús Zaragoza and Max Maldonado for From Exploitation to Empowerment; TJ United by emerging filmmaker Nadia Shaarawi; labor filmmaker Chris Sessions for Untitled Starbucks Workers United Film; and We Build Power from Oscar-nominated nonfiction producer Yoni Golijov, National Education Association 2023 Human and Civil Rights award winner Arlene Inouye, Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Yael Bridge, and Erick Stoll.

Working Films launched the Docs In Action Film Fund in 2018 to support the production of short documentaries that address critical issues of social and environmental justice. Because we believe that grassroots leaders and directly impacted people should hold the power to determine what stories are told and what films are funded to serve their movements, we continue to cede our role on the grant panel. The funded films were selected by our partners, which include Amazon Labor Union, North Carolina AFL-CIO, Starbucks Workers United, Union of Southern Service Workers, and United Farm Workers. Together with our partners, we will use these films to support the growing wave of worker-led organizing.

Many workers are reinventing how this looks and realizing what’s possible when we come together. These films invite all workers to do the same. As Eric Winston, leader in the Ignite Committee of USSW stated, “We’re excited to see stories that expand on the idea of what a union is. People are told being in a union means a boss tells you you are in a union, but a union just means coworkers coming together and saying they will be one voice to make conditions better. These stories demonstrate the power of workers doing that!”

Meet the 2023 Docs In Action Film Fund recipients:

From Exploitation to Empowerment (working title) by José Jesús Zaragoza and Max Maldonado

From Exploitation to Empowerment by José Jesús Zaragoza and Max Maldonado

From Exploitation to Empowerment is a documentary that delves into the transformative impact of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program (FFP) on the agricultural industry in the United States and beyond.

Through the lens of the dynamic, mobile farmworker Education Team, the film explores how the FFP’s innovative Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model is not only eradicating exploitation and abuse in the food industry supply chain but also revolutionizing worker protection amidst climate change-driven heat waves.

Max Maldonado (left) is a visual journalist and documentary filmmaker. Growing up in Florida, Max became fascinated by the state’s complicated history, politics, and relationship with nature. As the son of an Ecuadorian father, Max is interested in the immigrant experience and dual identity of being a first generation American. Starting his career in journalism at his college’s radio station, he became intimately familiar with the issues that his community faces. He then went on to study documentary filmmaking at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, specializing in health and science reporting. Aside from working in documentary filmmaking, Max is also an accomplished audio journalist and has recently contributed his services to the Reveal podcast from the Center of Investigative Reporting on their Covid Tracking Project miniseries.

José Jesús Zaragoza (right) is a writer, photojournalist, and documentary filmmaker. Born and raised in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, into a family of migrant farmworkers, José started his journalism career while still in high school, writing for a bilingual newspaper covering the U.S./Mexico border. He moved to Florida, where he rose through the ranks at weekly newspapers as a writer and photojournalist, eventually becoming the publisher of three newspapers covering communities near the Everglades, before turning his focus to documentary film. José’s journalism experience, strong visual style, and family and cultural history combine to bring a unique perspective to the documentary projects he undertakes.

From Exploitation to Empowerment is produced José Jesús Zaragoza and Max Maldonado.

TJ United by Nadia Shaarawi

Trader Joe's United by Nadia Shaarawi

The pandemic sparked a fire for young workers across the country to redefine what it means to organize your workplace when well-being, safety, and environmental certainty are compromised. Trader Joe’s United follows the path workers across unionized Trader Joe’s stores in Minneapolis, MN; Hadley, Massachusetts; and Louisville, Kentucky are currently taking in sustaining the union strides made post-2020. In addition to capturing the workers organizing efforts, pains, and triumphs, the film explores how Trader Joe’s workers utilize media as a tool for agency in their narrative to inspire workers across the country.

Nadia Shaarawi is an emerging filmmaker and production coordinator at Line Break Media, a mission-based video production and creative agency based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. During the 2020 Uprisings, she spent her time for a year as a video journalist for independent newsroom BLCK Press, documenting community stories and movement work across issues of public safety, environmental justice, transportation, and labor. Nadia is a 2021 Media Justice Network fellow, and collaborator on Copaganda Clapback, a curriculum used to build media literacy in communities targeted by misinformation and disinformation.

Trader Joe’s United is produced by Nolan Morice, Jill Zimmerman, and Sadie Luetmer. Impact production by Sean Lim.

Untitled Starbucks Workers United Film by Chris Sessions

Untitled Starbucks Workers United Film by Chris Session

In 2021, when Starbucks Baristas in Buffalo, New York announced their intention to unionize, Starbucks stormed the market with over 100 specially trained corporate executives and managers from across the country. What ensued was an elaborate anti-union campaign, found to be the the most illegal attack on organizing workers rights in modern United States history. Drawing from never-before-seen footage captured by workers and organizers during this campaign, and created in close collaboration with barista-organizers, this film takes us to the front lines of the union organizing campaign that sparked a revival of the American labor movement.

Chris Sessions is a labor-focused documentary filmmaker and video journalist. Chris previously spent 8 months in Birmingham, Alabama documenting the historic 2021 Amazon fulfillment center union election which was held there. Chris’ videography from the campaign has been used by outlets from the 1619 Project to CNN Business, and in several of the first videos released by More Perfect Union, a now popular labor news source. Chris also provided breaking on-the-ground video coverage of the 2021-2023 Warrior Met Coal Miners strike. He has filmed and produced videos for the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United, MeansTV, The Real News Network and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union Mid-South Council. Chris graduated from the Purchase College film conservatory.

Untitled Starbucks Workers United Film by Chris Sessions, Richard Bensinger, and Michael Sanabria.

We Build Power by Yoni Golijov, Arlene Inouye, Yael Bridge and Erick Stoll

We Build Power by Yoni Golijov, Arlene Inouye, Yael Bridge and Erick Stoll

We Build Power explores urgent lessons and questions from how Los Angeles educators reinvigorated their union, fought racism, won and lost battles, and built lasting community coalitions. A fast-paced, toolkit documentary for workers worldwide.

Yoni Golijov (top left) is an Oscar-nominated nonfiction producer interested in collective decision-making and power-building; his recent films document educator’s unions, harm reduction activists, and groundbreaking artists.

Arlene Inouye (bottom left) was the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) treasurer, secretary and bargaining co-chair through multiple historic contract campaigns; she is now working with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Multimedia Textbook project, a one-of-a-kind narrative change resource being developed for high school students.

Yael Bridge (top right) is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker; her first feature, The Big Scary “S” Word, explores the history and resurgence of socialism in the United States and premiered at Hot Docs 2019 and streams on Hulu.

Erick Stoll (bottom right) is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work has focused on labor, gentrification, and capitalism; Erick co-directed the feature documentary América, which was nominated for Peabody and Independent Spirit awards, and was cinematographer on the Academy Award-winning documentary American Factory.

We Build Power is produced by Yoni Golijov, Arlene Inouye, Yael Bridge and Erick Stoll.

The Docs in Action Film Fund is made possible with support from the
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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