The union committee at a New England textile factory has just an hour to make a decision that will affect all of the workers they were elected to represent. The committee’s spokesperson, Linda (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), the only member who was permitted in the room with management, comes out with what seems like good news: The factory’s new owners have agreed not to lay off anyone or alter any of their benefits. But the 11 committee members, all female and gender nonconforming workers, must decide whether to accept one condition: giving up seven minutes of their 15-minute break.
At first, most of the members think it’s obvious they should accept: Well, at least we still have a job. We need our jobs. But as the play goes on, they start to think about what it could mean in the long run and whether agreeing to it will open the door to more concessions, as well as whether they have the power to fight back instead of giving in.
It’s electrifying and chilling to watch, made even more searing by the intimate setting: The audience is seated around the set, which is the factory’s break room. We have an up-close view of the committee’s heated debate over the decision, and we’re also thinking through it ourselves.
That’s the premise of the new play “7 Minutes,” whose explorations of labor, capitalism, the power differential between workers and bosses, and the benefits and challenges of collective action particularly reverberate in this current moment. On Friday, Amazon warehouse workers in New York City voted to form the first union at any of the tech giant’s U.S. facilities, a historic win for the labor movement.
Unionization efforts are spreading across many industries around the country (full disclosure: I am on the union committee at HuffPost, which is unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East). Workers are banding together at many corporate behemoths where union organizing once seemed impossible, from Google to Starbucks.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated much of this organizing by exacerbating and laying bare the economic gulf between corporate bosses and their employees. It has also transformed the nature of work itself, prompting many people to reevaluate their relationship to the labor they give and what their workplace should provide in return.
“We’ve been giving concessions now for decades. And people don’t have the power to fight back. But this last year was one of these big moments of people being like, ‘F**k that.’”
Socially oriented theater has long been a core mission of Waterwell, the company behind “7 Minutes” that was co-founded by “Succession” and “Inventing Anna” star Arian Moayed. Many performances of the play, which runs through Sunday at HERE Arts Center in New York City, have included post-show panels with union leaders, workers and labor scholars to discuss the play’s real-world resonance.
“Waterwell has this really cool legacy of thinking about audience in a really special way, and that is the question of: Who is seeing the play, and are we reaching beyond what can be sometimes kind of an insular arts world?” said Lee Sunday Evans, Waterwell’s artistic director. “We’re really hungry to keep having those interactions where art can be part of these dialogues around public policy, and also be an opportunity to have the kind of human connection with the issues as part of those really incredible gatherings when folks in various fields are coming together to reflect on their work.”
Waterwell’s production, in partnership with Working Theater, marks the U.S. premiere of “7 Minutes,” written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini (“The Lehman Trilogy”) and originally set at a French factory in Italy. Evans and translator Francesca Spedalieri worked together to bring it into an American context. The bones of the play remain the same, but the dialogue was modified to reflect how U.S. unions function differently and serve different purposes than those in Europe. (One grimly comical change: Because Italy has universal health care, the workers in the original version would not face the threat of losing their health care if they were laid off.)
Originally, the play only had three immigrant characters. The U.S. version keeps Iranian immigrant Mahtab (Nicole Ansari) and Turkish immigrant Leyla (Layla Khoshnoudi), but replaces a Polish immigrant character with Inés (Carmen Zilles), a Mexican immigrant, to better reflect how immigrants of color are central to the labor movement in America.
The other characters had no identities attached to them, so the play’s director, Mei Ann Teo, cast a wide net during auditions. This resulted in a deeply inclusive cast that reflects how people of color, immigrants and trans people have long been at the forefront of the labor movement, but are often not depicted in narratives about it. In a play about the exploitation of labor and what workers are forced to give up, Teo (who uses they/them pronouns) said it was an obvious choice to make.
“We are on the land with a history of enslaved labor and stolen land. What does it mean to have a Black woman saying, ‘Always the same, always the same, always the same’?” they said, referring to one character’s lines from the play. “What does it mean to make sure that the actual history of who was behind collective action is resonating in the production, so that it doesn’t do the same fucking perpetual erasure that constantly happens?”
The inclusive casting also gives the play added dimensions, making its ideas and dilemmas feel “much more alive,” Teo said. By delving deep into colorism, anti-Blackness and divides among different immigrant generations, for example, an authentic and complex range of conflicts unfold.
“Having a group of people with a lot of inclusive experiences that represent the working class, that represent folks who are marginalized and have the most pressure upon them and the most stakes in terms of what they have to lose — that’s where I started from,” they said. “Once those actors started to come through, it was like, ’Oh, wow. That just rings so much more differently when it’s this person.’”
Throughout the production process, Waterwell and Working Theater reached out to union organizers and labor experts to partner with them and invite them to the play. Several of them said they saw many real-life themes in the play, such as the way our work and the relationships we build with our colleagues are central to many of our lives, and all the things we sacrifice for our jobs.
The debate among the play’s workers reflects “the internal dynamics of how you have to balance your own life and your own needs and what you are managing in your life, and sometimes put that aside for the bigger question about what does this mean for the group, for my union?” said Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, a longtime labor organizer and the executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Campos-Medina said while watching the play, she thought about “all of the choices that we make, the things that we give up in our work because what they’re offering seems appealing.” For example, “it made me think about, in my current life, what we have given up by working on Zoom. Like, I used to have an hour to commute, which was my time. I could read a book. I could stroll and take a cup of coffee. That was my time to separate myself from my family and go to the office.”
“Now, I am taking a call, a Zoom call, and drinking my coffee, and I have two more hours that I have given up to my employer because of convenience, right? So I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is so relevant!’” she continued. “‘I’ve just given it up to my employer.’”
Sarah Hughes, a labor journalist and organizer at Labor Notes, advised Evans and the play’s cast on some of the labor-related details of the production. She said the play accurately portrays the powerlessness that many workers face when “our bosses continue to extract more and more from us” — as well as how the tide may be turning.
“When a boss comes and says, ‘Oh, things are tight this year. We need to cut overtime, or we have to change your pension, or we have to cut the pension,’” Hughes said. “We’re in this labor movement now where we’ve been giving concessions now for decades. And people don’t have the power to fight back. But this last year was one of these big moments of people being like, ‘Fuck that.’”
As Campos-Medina pointed out, “right now, the trend in society is a reshifting of the relationship between workers and management. That reshifting is being seen in the Starbucks campaign, in the Amazon organizing campaign, in the organizing that is going on at Google. Everywhere, we’re reshifting that relationship,” she said. “Right now, workers feel that we have a little bit of the upper hand. But will that lead to more power on our side? I think it’s yet to be determined.”
The March 18 performance of “7 Minutes” featured a discussion with members of Starbucks Workers United. They talked about some of the reasons for the groundswell in union organizing, such as “getting more control over just the basics of how the stores are run,” said Revna Charasz, a Starbucks barista in New York who has been active in union organizing efforts. “It feels like there’s so many decisions that are made by upper management that we just have no control over, which is obviously the same in any modern workplace, basically.”
Charasz, who uses they/them pronouns, said they saw many of their own experiences reflected in the play, such as “the whole divide of these people in this other room, the people in suits who have all this power over us on the other side of the door, and that it’s kind of daunting to try to take some power from them.” Seeing the play and feeling the energy of the post-show discussion “was pretty inspiring and validating in the sense of, like, being around all these people who’ve been doing this for such a long time.”
Evans said Waterwell is exploring ways to bring “7 Minutes” to other venues and reach more audiences. For example, she and Hughes hope to feature a reading of the play at Labor Notes’ national conference in Chicago this June. One of Waterwell’s last in-person productions before the pandemic was “The Courtroom,” which Moayed developed from verbatim transcripts of an immigrant woman’s deportation hearings. Directed by Evans, it was performed at venues such as the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in Lower Manhattan and at the New York City Bar Association — all part of the company’s mission to make theater more accessible and bring it to more people who might see their lived experiences reflected in it.
“A thing that really is profound to me is the responses of, ‘I’m going through this right now,’ that we get from the audience,” Teo said. “‘I just quit that job.’ ‘I just went through this.’ ‘Oh, I needed to hear this.’ There are messages and technologies in the play that are incredibly alive right now. They were for me.”
Teo explained that when Evans first sent them the play, they were thinking about leaving a toxic job.
“Do I leave, or do I stay for the people? Do I stay for the BIPOC actors who are like, ‘Oh, thank God you’re here.’ Or do I leave and show them that they can leave too?” they said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the most traumatic thing I’ve ever had to do, is step away from a job that I love and step away from people that I care for.’ But that, actually, sometimes can be the best thing we can do, and I remember the play helped me make that decision. And I remember thinking, ‘If the play can help me make that decision, what can the play do in the world?’”