Cinema Politica Concordia: Fast food workers in New York fight for rights and wages in The Hand That Feeds


Still4credit: Jed BrandtDiego Iba–ez, left, and Mahoma L—pez in a scene from the documentary filme The hand That Feeds. Photo credit: Jed Brandt
Diego Iba–nez, left, and Mahoma Lo—pez in a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

The Concordia branch of Cinema Politica gets back into gear for the 2015-2016 school year with The Hand That Feeds, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015.

The award-winning documentary, written, directed and produced by Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, follows fast-food workers in Manhattan as they struggle for decent wages, safer working conditions and respect. A brief description on the website of The Hand That Feeds reads: “Shy sandwich-maker Mahoma Lopez unites his undocumented immigrant coworkers to fight abusive conditions at a popular New York restaurant chain. The epic power struggle that ensues turns a single city block into a battlefield in America’s new wage wars.”

Mexican immigrant Lopez worked at an Upper East Side branch of a 24-hour deli called Hot & Crusty Bagel Cafe. Employees were underpaid and often verbally abused. They were not entitled to vacations or sick days. In a six-minute video “Op-doc” called Occupy Bakery that Lears and Robin Blotnick made for the New York Times, Lopez remarks that “consumers want to buy organic food, and they worry about how animals are treated. . .but why aren’t these same values applied to people?”

In the text that accompanies their video, the filmmakers state: “In the early 20th century, immigrants were at the forefront of the labor movement that helped build our middle class. Today, when the fastest growing job sectors are retail and food preparation, the struggles of low-income workers and their families matter more than ever. Turning these jobs into living-wage jobs while fixing our broken immigration system would lift millions out of poverty and benefit our entire economy by increasing consumption and tax revenue. Mr. López’s story is part of a growing wave of low-wage and immigrant workers organizing across New York City and around the country that has the potential to spark this kind of change. It’s time we admit it: America runs on the labor of the undocumented. Their struggle for rights, inside and outside the workplace, is an inseparable part of our democratic project.”

To me, it seems both moral and logical that people receive a decent salary for their hard work. And yet, a short review of The Hand That Feeds in Mother Jones magazine mentions a scene that shows “a co-worker counting out the $290 he’s just received for a 60-hour workweek. . .” Other articles about fast foodworkers in New York indicate that some work as long as 72 per week without receiving any overtime pay.

It’s important to note, as well, that Hot & Crusty was not some mom-and-pop operation, either. According to an article on the web site Waging Non-Violence,  it was a “corporate restaurant chain backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm.”

Many enthusiastic reviews have been written about The Hand That Feeds. IndieWire calls it “a rousing chronicle” and a “well-plotted and captivating David & Goliath story,” calls it “suspenseful and inspiring” and the Village Voice says that it’s “filmed with the urgency and suspense of a Hitchcock thriller.”

In his review, Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter points out that Lopez is a “likeable, camera-friendly personality,” while Jen Chaney of The Dissolve reminds us that the fight was very much a group effort: “The victories in the effort to establish the Hot & Crusty Workers’ Association speak to what happens when multiple individuals channel their efforts toward a worthwhile cause. The employees at Hot & Crusty stage protests, organize picket lines, and circulate flyers, but their actions have the most impact when they are joined by people in the community, fired-up change agents from the then-burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, and members of other unions who rally behind their cause. By building the documentary around an ensemble cast, Lears and Blotnick demonstrate, in terms of content as well as filmmaking, that the voices of a few can galvanize the voices of many.”

In a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds, Nazario G., left, and Felicito Tapia illustrate the principle that working together can creates powerful results. Photo credit: Jed Brandt
In a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds, Nazario G., left, and Felicito Tapia illustrate the principle that working together can creates powerful results. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

In a Women and Hollywood article for IndieWire, co-director Rachel Lears was asked: “What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?” Her reply was: “I would hope that people leave the theater with an invigorated sense that it’s possible to stand up – individually and collectively –  and create meaningful, local change that really affects either their own lives or those of others.”

If you watch the trailer for The Hand That Feeds that’s just below this blog post, you’ll see that someone has remarked; “minimum wage jobs are for highschoolers. . .” Kevin Jagernauth of the The Playlist tackles that misconception in his review of the film: “What’s most astonishing in watching the documentary is the commitment these workers have to keeping the kind of jobs that many presume are disposable, given to high turnover, or simply a waystation or rite of passage on the way to something better. What “The Hand That Feeds” admirably makes clear is that these aren’t teenagers or students earning extra cash on the side. These are men and women with responsibilities to their spouses and children, with rent to pay, and other expenses, who don’t have the luxury to quit and find something else. Each paycheck matters, but by the same token, while they are willing to work hard, there is only so far they will allow themselves to be abused, not just by management, but by a system (particularly in the food industry) that regards their efforts as minimal, unimportant, and replaceable.”

Directed by Rachel Lears & Robin Blotnick / United States / 2014 / 84 ‘ / Spanish – English / with English subtitles
Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, 7 p.m.
Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., H-110, Montreal
The screening is part of DisOrientation 2015, co-presented with Solidarity Across Borders and Concordia Food Coalition, and will be followed by a discussion with organizers and members of the Immigrant Workers Centre – Montreal. The venue is wheelchair accessible.

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