The Power of Organizing Demonstrated in Documentary


Film Synopsis

The Hand That Feeds is a documentary film that was screened at Northwestern on April 26. “At a popular bakery café, residents of New York’s Upper East Side get bagels and coffee served with a smile 24 hours a day. But behind the scenes, undocumented immigrant workers face sub-legal wages, dangerous machinery, and abusive managers who will fire them for calling in sick. Mild-mannered sandwich maker Mahoma López has never been interested in politics, but in January 2012, he convinces a small group of his co-workers to fight back.

Risking deportation and the loss of their livelihood, the workers team up with a diverse crew of innovative young organizers and take the unusual step of forming their own independent union, launching themselves on a journey that will test the limits of their resolve. In one roller-coaster year, they must overcome a shocking betrayal and a two-month lockout. Lawyers will battle in back rooms, Occupy Wall Street protesters will take over the restaurant, and a picket line will divide the neighborhood. If they can win a contract, it will set a historic precedent for low-wage workers across the country. But whatever happens, Mahoma and his coworkers will never be exploited again.”

Q&A with Robin Blotnick, Director of The Hand That Feeds

Q). One of the things I’ve read about Mahoma and The Hand That Feeds was the importance of education. Can you describe what transformations you saw in Mahoma and his co-workers when they were educated about their rights? What actions did they take based on this newfound knowledge?

A). Laundry Workers Center (LWC), the volunteer labor group that organized the 63rd Street Hot & Crusty, is unusually devoted to finding and training worker-leaders. They don’t just pay lip service to the idea, they actually made Mahoma co-director of their organization while he was still working full-time as a deli man. From the beginning, LWC recognized leadership qualities in Mahoma that others might have missed because he was quiet and soft-spoken, and they gave him intensive training in how to lead his own labor campaign.

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Panel Discussion following the screening of The Hand That Feeds at NWCC. From left to right: Robin Blotnick, Director; Julie Sabo, a member of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 919; Dr. Gregory Jackson, 4Cs Organizer

The impression I got was that most of the Hot & Crusty workers already knew that the way they were being treated was wrong, and they were angry about it. But the organizers taught them that undocumented immigrant workers have rights under US labor law and that something can actually be done about it. After many intense late night house visits, a small group of them found the courage to join together and act.

Q). Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell me a little bit about the struggle that Mahoma and his co-workers faced after deciding to organize?

A). It quickly became clear that management wasn’t going to concede anything without a fight. At first the manager threatened to report the workers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Then there were visits from a mysterious anti-union consultant who claimed to work for the Department of Labor. The management challenged the formation of the union with every legal method they could find, they closely monitored surveillance footage looking for excuses to fire the leaders, and there were many attempts to bribe the workers, some of them successful. But the biggest challenge came in the summer of 2012, when the management announced they were closing the location and laying off the entire workforce. This is a classic union avoidance tactic for small shops like this, and there’s very little workers can do about it, legally speaking.

But this battle was going to be waged in the streets not the courtrooms, and it was at this point in the story that things really started to heat up.

Q). The Hand That Feeds film focuses on low wage workers in the food industry, but higher education has also seen a dramatic increase in the reliance on low wage workers – adjunct or part-time faculty. SEIU has done research to show that 25% of part-time professors and their families nationwide are in enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, and in Connecticut, 15% of adjunct faculty are near or below poverty. What inspiration do you think our part-time faculty members, many of whom are struggling to piece together a full-time job from part-time work, will find in this film? Are there any lessons that you think Mahoma would share with the adjunct faculty?

A). Those numbers are shocking. It seems like higher education is becoming more and more like the food industry these days, with management taking the “low road” of cutting costs on the backs of those who make the organization run. If there’s anything this film shows, it’s that workers from all sectors should stick together. The Hot & Crusty workers couldn’t have achieved what they did without reaching out a very diverse group of people, including grad students, adjunct professors and other university faculty. One day I was surprised to see the media professor who first taught me documentary production (at nearby Hunter College) marching on the Hot & Crusty picket line. Helping these deli workers wasn’t just some philanthropic cause for these “white collar” professors, they were fighting their own union battle on the campus and they were there as an expression of true solidarity.

I would say the first lesson from Mahoma’s story is to lean on your friends and also don’t be afraid to make enemies. This campaign showed that aggressive, militant tactics, including negative publicity, sit down strikes and civil disobedience can be effective even in very small scale struggles.

Another lesson is to not be discouraged by setbacks, which are inevitable. And third, it’s important to keep labor organizations democratic. Judging from this story, the best way to keep up the morale of the rank and file is to have the rank and file lead their own campaigns.

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