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(cover picture) Lears, Rachel & Robin Blotnick
2014 The Hand that Feeds. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films.

Notes: DVD, 56 and 84 minutes
Reviewed 23 Jun 2016 by:
Jack David Eller <david.eller.anthropology@gmail.com>
Anthropology Review Database
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Service industries workers - United States - Economic conditions
Immigrants - Employment - Social conditions
Illegal aliens - Employment - United States.
Fast food restaurants - Law and legislation - United States

ABSTRACT:    The immigrant workers at a New York City deli restaurant protest low wages and poor working conditions by organizing and forming a union, struggling like all American wage-earners for fair pay and dignity against corporations big and small.



In today's overheated climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is good to remember, as The Hand that Feeds invites and compels us to, that immigrants in New York City "make this city run"--and not only there. The particular case in point is immigrant (largely Hispanic) labor at a deli called Hot & Crusty, on which one of the employees says, "It's not a place where you would want to work unless you have to." Among the unpleasant aspects of the work are on-the-job dangers (e.g. slicing machines), low pay, and mistreatment by management. As they become more vociferous in their own defense, one of the workers gives a radio interview about earning less than minimum wage. Tellingly, representatives of the company declined to be interviewed for the film.

Although unionization has fallen out of favor in the United States, in this instance it is the path that the workers pursue, as a labor organizer encouraging workers to band together for their interests. An organization called the Laundry Workers Center argues that undocumented workers have the same right to organize as other workers. Hot & Crusty workers accordingly formulate their demands for a minimum wage, overtime, vacation days, and better working conditions. After handing out and posting flyers, management agrees to talk to the workers, but when the company insists that it was not obligated to offer benefits unless it was dealing with a union, the workers take steps to form one. As in other written and filmed portrayals of immigrant workers, they are not the lazy leeches often invoked in political speeches. Instead, many like the dishwasher depicted here work long hours for low pay to send money home (in this case, to Mexico) to help his children get the education and other things they need. "They think we are criminals. But they are the real criminals. They steal our wages," they respond. With no other recourse, they prepare for the union vote with the National Labor Relations Board; characteristically, management interferes with this democratic process, sending an anti-union specialist in to manipulate workers.

The day of the union election arrives, which is ironically held at the same building that houses the department that oversees immigration. Even after everything they have been through, there is not unanimity about organizing: some workers do not support the union—particularly relatives of managers—while other fear for their jobs, and the owners throw money at others to turn their vote. Despite all the obstacles, the union wins. But that it only the beginning: now the Hot & Crusty Workers Association has to struggle for substantive change. First, the company settles on the issue of back wages and overtime; a month later, it announces that the store is closing because the landlord is evicting them for not paying the rent. Reasonably, the workers and their lawyers doubt very much that the company lacks the money to pay its rent.

Since the Occupy Wall Street movement is going on simultaneously with the immigrant workers' struggles, the workers join with the Occupy movement and plan to occupy the deli on its last day. 'Arrestable' protesters (ones who are not undocumented or risk deportation) enter the restaurant and take over. Their lawyers advise the workers to leave as other protesters remain and allow themselves to be arrested. The restaurant closes anyhow, so union action and protests continue outside the store location. They even operate their own 'worker justice cafe,' distributing coffee and bagels to attract attention to their cause.

The film explains that, "confronted with daily protests, one of the owner locates new investors who are interested in taking over the cafe. One of them wants to meet Mahoma [a union leader] in person." The new owner wants to reopen and rehire all the former employees. Then they hear that the restaurant will not reopen and that the landlord has leased the property to another tenant, a rival deli chain. The potential investor recommends that the protest continues to pressure on the landlord. Interestingly, a representative of the rival chain denies any interest in the location. As contract negotiations with the union drag on, other unions come to stand with the deli workers. The new contract offer is appealing, and the members approve it. Late in the film, workers at McDonald's and other fast food businesses walk off the job in protest of their wages too. As the Hot & Crusty union members wait for the restaurant to reopen, the Laundry Workers Center contemplates opening its own restaurant. But in the end, Hot & Crusty reopens, and the workers are back on the job. Best of all, all charges against the activists were dropped at part of the agreement.

The Hand that Feeds is a triumphal account of labor action, specifically involving immigrant laborers but equally applicable to any workers in the United States. Management is shown to be cavalier and self-interested, and for them capitalism trumps democracy. Audiences of the film will understand not only more about the travails of immigrant workers who perform jobs that most Americans do not want at wages most Americans could not accept, but also about the conditions that all wage-earning Americans face as they try to maintain a living wage and a sense of dignity in an increasingly hostile neoliberal environment.

Level/use: Suitable for high school classes and college courses in cultural anthropology, economic anthropology, anthropology of immigration, anthropology of social movements, and American studies, as well as for general audiences.