Americonned’: human stories behind the low-wage economy

‘Americonned,’ the breakthrough US documentary about income inequality, had its Irish launch in front of a packed house in Liberty Hall at an event also including a Q&A with its director, Sean Claffey.

Liberty (@SIPTU)
3 min readNov 19, 2023

The documentary charts the rise of neoliberalism in the United States from the Reagan era through the 2008 Financial Crash and into the stark divides of contemporary politics, placing the blame for growing social unrest squarely at the door of anti-worker policies.

It exposes the staggering upwards redistribution of wealth in the American economy, arguing that $50 trillion has flowed from the bottom 90 percent to the top 1 percent in the past 40 years. Today, as CEO salaries skyrocket, 45 percent of American workers make a median wage of just $10.50 an hour.

‘Americonned’ reveals the human stories behind the low wage economy, from tenants facing eviction to truck drivers without healthcare and Uber drivers struggling to cover their bills. It also features leading trade unionists such as the AFL-CIO’s April Sims explaining how the labour movement is attempting to overcome widespread alienation.

But the star of the documentary is mercurial Amazon Labor Union organiser Chris Smalls. ‘Americonned’ follows his efforts to take on the world’s wealthiest corporation through lows, such as the crushing recognition defeat in Bessemer, Alabama, and highs, such as the landmark victory in Staten Island, New York.

In his remarks in Liberty Hall, Claffey said that the stranglehold which major corporations exert over the film industry meant that pro-trade union films “never get made.” “The movies are relevant to the times, I know directors approach them, but it’s not in their interests.”

He added that the task of shooting and editing ‘Americonned’ had placed him under enormous financial pressure, running up debts on his credit card and almost missing mortgage payments before a sympathetic benefactor stepped in.

Claffey said it was time that the labour movement across the world took the question of videos, films and documentaries seriously and invested resources into their production.

“When you look at the right-wing, they have billionaires who have been doing this for years. Our side needs to step up to the plate.”

But he also said that the recent rise of trade unionism in America, with the SAG-AFTRA and UAW strikes, the Teamsters’ new UPS contract and organising efforts in Starbucks, gave hope that the movement was on its way back in response to rising inequality. The Brooklyn-born director discussed his Irish-American roots, with his grandparents hailing from Donegal and Leitrim.

Both joined trade unions upon arriving in the United States and, Claffey said, helped to instil the values of the labour movement in his family. ‘Americonned’ also draws on the experiences of another Irish American trade unionist, former Biden Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Walsh, whose parents were Irish immigrants, was a construction worker and president of Laborers’ Union Local 223 before entering politics in Boston.

The event in Liberty Hall formed a part of a long and storied tradition of exchanges between Irish and American unions, which stretches back as far as the Molly Maguires and Pennsylvania coal miners in the 19th century, Connolly and Larkin’s stints with the IWW in the early 20th century and continues to this day with Irish-American labour leaders such as the Teamsters’ Sean O’Brien.

The screening was organised by a coalition of trade unions — SIPTU, Praxis, CWU, Mandate and the FSU — as well as tenants’ union, CATU.

This article was written by Ronan Burtenshaw and appears in the latest issue of Liberty. Download the paper here.