Undocumented Restaurant Workers Learn to Fight Back in ‘The Hand that Feeds’

Micah Uetricht June 30, 2015

Workers and Occupy Wall Street activists picket and occupy Hot & Crusty, a café and bakery that had threatened to close on its newly unionized employees.

Mid­way through The Hand That Feeds—a new doc­u­men­tary by Rachel Lears and Robin Blot­nick — Mahoma López, a shy Mex­i­can immi­grant restau­rant work­er, reflects on the effec­tive­ness of a labor orga­niz­ing tac­tic used by work­ers at Hot and Crusty, a New York City café and bak­ery. They put the faces and names of abu­sive man­agers and restau­rant own­ers on fliers, and dis­trib­ute them to passers­by on the side­walks of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

As grainy cell phone footage of man­agers angri­ly push­ing union orga­niz­ers and work­ers in the street and kick­ing the fliers flash­es across the screen, Lopez flat­ly states, It works real­ly well. It real­ly puts them in their place.”

At the Chica­go the­ater where I recent­ly watched the doc­u­men­tary, the crowd of around two hun­dred fast-food work­ers and mem­bers of the Fight for 15 cam­paign erupt­ed in laugh­ter at Lopez’s dead­pan com­men­tary — not only because it felt hilar­i­ous­ly incon­gru­ent with the scenes of work­ers and man­agers near­ly com­ing to blows, but also because the Hot and Crusty union­iza­tion strug­gle close­ly mir­rors the bat­tle for decent pay of these Chica­go work­ers and so many oth­er low-wage work­ers around the country.

That res­o­nance with some of the key labor strug­gles in the US is what sets The Hand That Feeds apart from oth­er deeply mov­ing, mas­ter­ful­ly craft­ed doc­u­men­taries. The film is an affect­ing por­trait of how aver­age work­ers — apo­lit­i­cal, shy, sus­pi­cious of col­lec­tive action, fear­ful of their boss­es, and unaware of their own pow­er — become mil­i­tants who march in the streets, con­front their boss­es, and part­ner with young activists who occu­py their workplace.

At a time when the Amer­i­can labor move­ment is at its weak­est in a cen­tu­ry, with unions wit­ness­ing their ranks reduced in waves, and exper­i­ments in non-union labor orga­niz­ing increas­ing­ly rel­e­vant, the film offers a com­pelling reminder that work­ers can fight back and win.

Mahoma López and his cowork­ers are near­ly all undoc­u­ment­ed Lati­no immi­grants, and the neigh­bor­hood they work in exem­pli­fies the vast inequal­i­ties of New York City and Amer­i­ca today: through­out the film, wealthy New York­ers, com­plete with design­er sun­glass­es and tiny dogs, parade across the screen as Hot and Crusty work­ers staff the counter.

Many are paid below min­i­mum wage, receive no over­time pay, and are con­stant­ly mis­treat­ed by man­age­ment. The open­ing scene shows Mar­gar­i­to López (no rela­tion to Mahoma), a gray-haired dish­wash­er, count­ing his take-home pay after a six­ty-hour work­week: $290.

Restau­rant work­ers across the coun­try could tell sim­i­lar sto­ries — one recent poll report­ed that 84 per­cent of fast-food work­ers have expe­ri­enced wage theft, and the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute esti­mates that US work­ers lose $50 bil­lion annu­al­ly in stolen pay. Pil­fered wages are espe­cial­ly com­mon in low-pay­ing industries.

Most low-wage work­ers deal with abuse and theft indi­vid­u­al­ly, mov­ing from job to job in search of a decent work­place. But the Hot and Crusty work­ers decid­ed to take on the boss togeth­er. One of the work­ers had a friend who had expe­ri­enced sim­i­lar abuse in the past and said he knew a group that could help: the Laun­dry Work­ers Cen­ter (LWC).

The LWC, found­ed in 2011, is not just for laun­dry work­ers — it’s a work­ers cen­ter that fights to improve the lives of employ­ees and their fam­i­lies in both the laun­dry and food-ser­vice indus­tries in New York and New Jer­sey. They tack­le a range of issues, includ­ing haz­ardous work­ing con­di­tions, neg­li­gent land­lords, and wage theft.

The cen­ter is part of a rel­a­tive­ly recent orga­niz­ing trend spear­head­ed by alt-labor” groups — com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions whose orga­niz­ing and out­reach meth­ods dif­fer from stan­dard union strate­gies. Vir­gilio Arán, an LWC orga­niz­er, says that the group receives no union or foun­da­tion mon­ey and will orga­nize anyone.

The film tells the sto­ry of how the work­ers, with the help of Arán, Nas­taran Mohit (anoth­er LWC orga­niz­er), and union lawyer Ben Dic­tor, move from iso­la­tion and res­ig­na­tion to fight­ing for a union — the Hot and Crusty Work­ers Association.

After months of build­ing an orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee and bat­tling the boss’s attempts to pre­vent their union­iza­tion, the work­ers file for a union elec­tion — and win. Work­ers and orga­niz­ers are ecsta­t­ic, high-fiv­ing each oth­er in the streets and toast­ing each oth­er at the bar afterwards.

But the appar­ent vic­to­ry is the first of many scenes in which the hearts of all but the most fer­vent Ayn Rand – quot­ing invest­ment bankers will swell, only to be crushed a few scenes lat­er. Short­ly after win­ning union­iza­tion, the own­ers of Hot and Crusty say they can’t afford to pay union wages and announce they are clos­ing the restaurant.

As at so many work­places, the work­ers’ Her­culean orga­niz­ing efforts — per­sis­tent­ly attempt­ing to con­vince their cowork­ers of the val­ue of col­lec­tive action, fac­ing seri­ous risks to them­selves and their fam­i­lies, and star­ing down myr­i­ad man­age­ment attempts to destroy the union in its infan­cy — seem to be all for naught, as man­age­ment pleads pover­ty and decides to head some­where else (where, not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, they won’t be both­ered by uppi­ty union workers).

What hap­pens,” asks Dic­tor, when you have a group of work­ers who do every­thing by the book? They win all the way, and then the boss just finds a way to screw them over anyway.”

But the Hot and Crusty work­ers don’t give up. Know­ing the café’s claims are an excuse to bust the union, they begin a cam­paign to pres­sure the own­ers to reopen.

To build sup­port for their cam­paign, the work­ers and LWC orga­niz­ers reach out to par­tic­i­pants of anoth­er strug­gle tak­ing place on the oth­er end of Man­hat­tan: Occu­py Wall Street.

In 2011, many unions and rank-and-file mem­bers joined the Occu­py in the streets of New York and in cities around the coun­try, sup­port­ing the movement’s mes­sage and even get­ting arrest­ed along­side the occu­piers. But LWC was one of the only work­er orga­ni­za­tions to active­ly seek occu­piers’ con­crete support.

The film shows Arán and Mahoma Lopez stand­ing in the Deutsche Bank atri­um at 60 Wall Street, a hub for much of the move­ment, ask­ing for assis­tance at an Occu­py sub­com­mit­tee meet­ing. Soon after, a mass OWS march heads to Hot and Crusty, and slight­ly scruffy young occu­piers begin help­ing the work­ers hand out fliers.

On the day before the restau­rant is set to close, work­ers and Occu­py activists march on Hot and Crusty, and the activists briefly occu­py the café before being dragged out in hand­cuffs by the New York Police Depart­ment. As Mohit is led to a squad car, she appears to be doing her best impres­sion of Dade Mur­phy in Hack­ers, yelling, We’ll be back! Twen­ty-four-hour pick­et! Twen­ty-four-hour picket!”

Rather than a depress­ing mon­u­ment to boss­es’ ulti­mate pow­er over work­ers, the employ­ees turn the closed café and the side­walk in front of it into the site of a vibrant pick­et line. Work­ers and sup­port­ers cre­ate a joy­ful protest, dis­trib­ut­ing food and cof­fee, and engag­ing passers­by in their strug­gle by encour­ag­ing them to leave voice­mails for Hot and Crusty investors. A pre­pu­bes­cent passer­by in braces demands, You need to open up Hot and Crusty. I need my lunch. Pay your work­ers more mon­ey, you bum.”

Mean­while some of the Occu­py activists argue with com­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive busi­ness own­ers. A mid­dle-aged man in a fleece vest and fan­cy watch lec­tures the young rad­i­cals. You wan­na get rich?” he coun­sels. Go to work, don’t take a day off. I’ve nev­er tak­en a day off.” As an earnest activist con­tin­ues to plead for his sup­port, he responds, I am sup­port­ing you. I just gave you more knowl­edge than you got in college.”

After the occu­pa­tion and cam­paign, the LWC con­tin­ues to look for a buy­er that will rec­og­nize the union, and after a few false starts, one is even­tu­al­ly found. The café reopens, with a union; the work­ers are victorious.

What do we occu­py next?” Mahoma asks.

The Hand That Feeds does an excel­lent job cap­tur­ing the raw human dra­ma that char­ac­ter­izes every orga­niz­ing attempt in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, when work­ers are kept under the thumb of Amer­i­can labor law. In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing a rare por­trait of a vic­to­ri­ous labor cam­paign, the film doc­u­ments how cam­paigns like the Hot and Crusty bat­tle can change work­ers on a per­son­al level.

Near the end of the film, Mahoma explains that, as a result of his expe­ri­ence, he will refuse to put up with man­age­ment abuse in the future. You, as a busi­ness own­er — if you vio­late my rights, you’ll face the con­se­quences,” he says. Because we’ve changed now. Our eyes have been opened.”

The Hot and Crusty cam­paign also affects indi­vid­u­als out­side the work­place. Mahoma’s wife Eliz­a­beth is a Pen­te­costal Chris­t­ian who dis­ap­proves of some of his orga­niz­ing efforts, hint­ing ear­ly in the movie that she thinks Occu­py Wall Street might be a sign of the End Times. Yet as the film con­cludes, she is out in the street protest­ing with one of her and Mahoma’s sons, hold­ing a sign bear­ing an Old Tes­ta­ment verse decry­ing wage theft.

I want them to be just like their dad,” she says of her two children.

The Hand That Feeds also high­lights the poten­tial pow­er of alter­na­tive labor orga­ni­za­tions and strate­gies, which have come to feel more and more nec­es­sary as unions con­tin­ue to decline.

Left­ists and labor activists have long com­plained about unions’ unwill­ing­ness to orga­nize low-wage work­ers. But unions have nev­er had much finan­cial incen­tive to orga­nize such work­ers; in fact, the oppo­site is true. Union dues are typ­i­cal­ly a per­cent­age of a worker’s pay­check. Since unions rely on dues mon­ey to func­tion, they nat­u­ral­ly want the high­est amount of dues possible.

So why would a union choose to focus on orga­niz­ing, say, work­ers earn­ing min­i­mum wage, since the dues those work­ers could pay would be so minis­cule? Unless the union could sign up mas­sive num­bers of low-wage work­ers at once (as SEIU has done at the state lev­el in home health care cam­paigns, for exam­ple), it wouldn’t make much finan­cial sense for them to do so.

Alt-labor orga­ni­za­tions like the LWC don’t have to obey this logic.

Still, groups like LWC have their own lim­i­ta­tions. Many (though not LWC) rely on foun­da­tion fund­ing, whose dic­tates can have a con­ser­va­tiz­ing effect. And work­ers cen­ters, much like com­mu­ni­ty groups, often have a dif­fi­cult time match­ing the scale of union orga­niz­ing, whether because they have few­er resources or because the work­places they are orga­niz­ing are more diffuse.

The Hot and Crusty vic­to­ry itself was some­what lim­it­ed. While the work­ers moved heav­en and earth to win their union, fac­ing down the risk of depor­ta­tion and over­com­ing their boss­es’ lop­sided pow­er advan­tage to win, their vic­to­ry ulti­mate­ly relied on find­ing a benev­o­lent new own­er will­ing to rec­og­nize the union — which was then extend­ed to less than two dozen workers.

Nonethe­less, one comes away from The Hand That Feeds with the feel­ing that col­lec­tive action real­ly can get the goods — that all of the risks and heart­break that go into orga­niz­ing might just be worth it. And at a time of such wide­spread work­ing-class demo­bi­liza­tion, such a mes­sage is des­per­ate­ly needed.

In a post-film Q & A with the film­mak­ers and Adri­ana Alvarez — a vet­er­an McDonald’s work­er and leader in the Chica­go Fight for 15 cam­paign — an audi­ence mem­ber asked Alvarez if she thought about occu­py­ing her McDonald’s after watch­ing Hot and Crusty work­ers’ allies do the same.

We hadn’t thought about occu­py­ing it yet,” she stat­ed, the wheels clear­ly turn­ing in her head. But it’s a good idea.”

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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