In January of 2012, a group of undocumented immigrant workers at an Upper East Side Hot & Crusty began a campaign for unionization to protect themselves from abuse by management and fight for a living wage. Led by sandwich maker Mahoma López, the group waged a year-long assault against their sub-par working conditions, eventually gaining the support of the Occupy Wall Street movement and staging picket lines outside the popular sandwich shop.
The journey of Mahoma's movement has been documented in a powerful new film entitled The Hand That Feeds, which opens tomorrow, Friday, April 3rd at Cinema Village. The film shows the lengths the group must go to—including lost wages and the threat of deportation—to achieve their goal. Even more sinister, it shows how low owners of some establishments are willing to stoop to prevent the successful formation of a union that would protect workers against threatening actions, dangerous work conditions and theft of wages. Where have we heard this story before? Oh yes...
Below, an exclusive clip from the film that shows someone pretending to represent the Department of Labor, as part of an attempt to dissuade the group unionizing.
We spoke with filmmakers Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick about how they came upon this movement and why it's so important to shed light on shady business practices that exploit at-risk workers.
How did you find out about Mahoma's story and how did the film take shape from there?
Robin Blotnick: Rachel and I had been documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement for a while, and we were eager for more intimate character-based story to follow. In early 2012, after the park had been evicted and a lot of people in the movement were wondering "what next?" we heard that a group of undocumented immigrant workers had reached out to OWS activists about a possible plan to occupy their deli. We thought, there's a story there! When we met Mahoma López and Gonzalo Jiménez, the leaders at that time, they just had this quiet fearlessness about them, and we knew that if we followed them with a camera, something exciting would happen. But we never predicted the incredible story that was about to unfold before our eyes and completely take over our lives.
Was the scope of this issue something you were familiar with before starting the project?
Rachel Lears: We had both had some interest in labor and immigration issues in the past, but as filmmakers we really came to this project with the desire to tell a compelling personal story that connected to the theme of economic inequality. The making of the film was an education in the nuts and bolts of labor and community organizing, the intersection of labor and immigration law, and the broader implications of building a social movement to change low wage work in this country. When we started making the film, we were more focused on the aspects of this story that were unusual (undocumented immigrants don't form their own independent unions every day, and certain benefits that this group won are unprecedented in low-wage industries). But as we delved deeper into the topic, it became increasingly important to us to signal that the story is part of a broader movement. Low-wage and immigrant workers are engaged in similar struggles for dignity at work all over the country, though these stories don't always receive strong media attention.
There seems to be an element of danger, not only for these workers and their jobs but also their status as undocumented in this country. How did you address that issue in the film and was it something that concerned you about their safety?
Blotnick: The workers in our film were taking huge risks to change their workplace. Beyond the courage it takes to go against the boss, which is scary enough, there was the risk of losing their livelihood, which for many of them was an economic threat to their families back home in Mexico as well. And there was the very real threat of deportation, menaced over them by their manager, and always present in the risky protest actions that led to police attention and arrests. Before we went public with the film, Rachel and I consulted with our subjects' legal team and an independent immigration lawyer until we were satisfied that revealing their immigration status in the context of activism was unlikely to put them in harm's way. And our subjects told us they were willing to assume the risk so that their story could serve as an inspiration to other immigrant workers. These days with the DREAMers and other immigrant activists taking a bold, unapologetic stand, there is a rising sense in this country that the undocumented are no longer willing to hide in the shadows.
How does it feel to see that the fair wage movement has grown so dramatically in the past few years?
Lears: The very first fast food strike in New York City occurred just weeks after the protagonists in the film won their contract, and it's been very exciting to see this movement grow exponentially since then. I think that what we're seeing right now is really the confluence of two parallel and converging trends that together are shifting the national debate on the fair wage issue. On the one hand, for the past 10-15 years, there has been tremendous growth in alternative labor groups like workers centers—local, non-profit organizations that support low-wage, often immigrant workers who are not part of a collective bargaining unit (like the workers in the film, when they began their campaign) or who are excluded from existing labor laws (such as domestic and agricultural workers). At the same time, major unions are increasingly turning attention and resources toward organizing low-wage service sector industries such as fast food, retail, and home health care, which traditionally have not been organized. These two growing and intersecting movements are both key to reversing the tide of economic inequality inequality in this country and, although it's an uphill battle for sure, I'm very interested to see where it all goes from here.
New York State recently made moves to raise the minimum wage. How do you feel about the increase; do you think it's enough?
Blotnick: It looks like Cuomo has scrapped the most recent plan, which is sad, because $11.50 was hardly enough to survive on in New York City, and the current minimum wage is shamefully low. I'm sympathetic to the fast food workers pushing for $15 an hour. I agree with Paul Krugman that it's the Civil Rights issue of our time. Many people see wages as determined by the magical laws of the marketplace, but I think businesses are going to try to pay as little as possible, and it's up to workers to fight to define how much their labor is worth. McDonald's workers in Denmark start at $20 an hour, not because the bosses decided they were worth it, but because they unionized and fought for it. As Margarito López, one of the stars of our film puts it, "between a boss and worker there must be respect. And respect is earned."
The Hand That Feeds opens at Cinema Village on East 12th Street Friday, April 3rd