Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The documentary "The Hand That Feeds" is a humanizing portrait of one battle in the wage war.
The fight for income equality has hit a new stride. On April 15, some 60,000 low-wage workers—mainly from fast-food restaurants, but also daycare employees, yoga instructors, gas station attendants, adjunct professors, and more—marched across 200 cities worldwide in demand of a higher minimum wage. Increasingly, these are the people who help our country run.
"Low wage jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the U.S.," Kendall Fells, the national organizing director of the labor rights group Fight for $15, told Fast Company. "...These are adults who have children and are trying to pay rent and utilities—all off $7.25 or whatever the local minimum wage is in their respective city."
Or, in many cases, even less than that. A new documentary, The Hand That Feeds, takes a hard look at a group of undocumented bakery workers who, after years of receiving less than minimum wage, fought for—and won—their rights as employees.
The film opens in the midst of New York City's Occupy Wall Street movement. Mahoma López has been diligently making sandwiches at a Manhattan Hot and Crusty for seven years, after emigrating from Mexico without documentation. He and his coworkers never complain that the pay is consistently less than what is legally due, or that equipment goes dangerously unfixed, or that the manager mistreats them. With loved ones to support, Mahoma and the other bakery workers can't risk losing work—or worse, getting deported.
But when Mahoma learns about the Laundry Worker's Center, a labor rights organization that supports low-income immigrants, everything changes. He convinces his coworkers to organize, something that's within all laborers' rights regardless of immigration status. Together, and against the odds, they form an independent union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.
But that's just the beginning of their fight for fair wages and treatment. With the support of the LWC and a crew of young Occupy activists, the Hot and Crusty workers battle lawyers, picket their own restaurant, and galvanize the community for support, all in the name of a fair contract. While quiet Mahoma evolves into an emboldened leader, all the bakery workers make difficult ethical, personal, and professional choices in support the movement.
"We didn't want to just focus on the leaders and organizers," says Rachel Lears, who co-directed the film with Robin Blotnick. "We also wanted to look at the people who are ordinary, who a viewer could follow in their process of becoming politicized and having doubts, and speaking in a way that's not polished, but that is honest."
With the Occupy movement in the background, the film earnestly portrays Mahoma and his colleagues as a microcosm of an unjust American society. That's truthful, and effective. But the contract that the bakery workers arrive at—which includes benefits and the right to a hiring hall—is virtually unprecedented in the restaurant industry. As Fight for $15 protesters march across the screen in the film's last 20 minutes, the Hot and Crusty workers' victory seems all too small, and difficult to replicate. Food service as always been an exceptionally hard sector to unionize, with thousands of independent franchises and diffuse labor models.
But momentum for fair wages is clearly gaining. Since January, Walmart, Target and McDonald’s have all upped company-wide minimum wages to around $10. Wages are also increasing in a number of cities and states, even conservative ones. President Obama has called for a federal increase. And it's partly due to those thousands of low-wage workers who are risking everything to make their own justice.
The Hand That Feeds is an intricate, humanizing portrait of just one battle in the wage war. With screenings scheduled across the country this May, anyone who cares about the rights of the people behind the counter should see it.
Top photo: Eleazar Castillo