'The Hand That Feeds' details nasty food fight for rights

hand that feeds

The following is an opinion piece about a new movie entitled "The Hands That Feed."

A group of undocumented New York City deli workers defy being arrested and deported to form a union and take on a corporation that had denied them benefits like a minimum wage, sick days and paid vacations. They overcome long odds to win recognition as a bargaining unit, only to see the store's owner close the store rather than bargain with them.

The workers have also told their story in a powerful new documentary called "The Hand That Feeds," which opened in New York this week.

The film had its theatrical debut in New York City's Cinema Village and will screen in Los Angeles' Laemmle Music Hall 3, beginning April 10.

Directed by Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears, it puts a spotlight on the working conditions that many undocumented workers endure to earn a living in a city that depends on their work.

The film opens in the kitchen of a ubiquitous New York City Hot and Crusty sandwich shop. Mahoma Lopez, a soft-spoken sandwich maker from Mexico City, films his colleague counting his weekly wages: $260 -- way below minimum wage.

"You get settled in, and see the reality of how dollars are earned." Lopez says.

In January 2012, he convinces a small group of his co-workers to fight.

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In one of many poignant scenes, Margarito Lopez, a Hot and Crusty dishwasher, opens up about his fears, his dreams, and providing for his daughter, a university student in Mexico, that brought him to the United States. He also has strong opinions about undocumented immigrants' vulnerability of being preyed upon.

"We are undocumented. That doesn't mean they have to profit from our hunger," Lopez says.

'The Hand That Feeds,' beautifully shot and edited with New York's cacophony serving as its backdrop, recounts the tumultuous years the workers spend fighting for their rights in a David and Goliath battle against Hot and Crusty.

With the help of the advocacy group the Laundry Workers Center and Occupy Wall Street activists, the workers score their first victory: a settlement for back wages from Hot and Crusty.

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Emboldened, the workers seek more. They demand benefits commonly given to on-the-books employees: paid sick time, vacation time, respectful managers and a safe work environment. Hot and Crusty won't negotiate, arguing that the management is only required by law to bargain with a unionized workforce.

Undeterred, the workers go through the Federal National Labor Review Board's process, and after a tight, stressful vote, they become officially recognized as a union by the NLRB.

But it was a costly victory. Hot and Crusty decides that rather than negotiating with the newly formed union it would shutter the store.

The now unionized workers continue their fight. They march, sit-in, and struggle on, taking over and then picketing in front of the shuttered store risking arrest and deportation as their frayed nerves and their families' fears nearly tear the union apart.

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The stories of the characters in "The Hand That Feeds" make for a powerfully emotional movie that moved the diverse audience of New Yorkers to tears at times.

The filmmakers say that Hot and Crusty refused to take part in the film. According to a person that answered the phone at one of the Manhattan locations, each store is independently owned now. Since the the documentary was shot, the store that was featured in it has closed and been re-branded. The union is still in place there and all the employees were rehired, according to the filmmakers.

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