By Samantha Ponting
Margarito López, an undocumented worker from the Hot & Crusty café in Manhattan’s Upper Eastside, opens up an envelope. Inside is $290 in cash. Counting out the bills, he says this is pay for a total 60 hours of work. This is our first glimpse into some of the realities facing undocumented workers in the United States.
On Feb. 11, Vancouver’s Just Film Festival’s opening night featured a screening of the documentary The Hand that Feeds, in collaboration with the BC Federation of Labour’s Fight for 15 campaign. The annual Just Film Festival, which ran this year from Feb. 11-13, seeks to “prompt people to action” through film.
Few films could inspire action as well as The Hand that Feeds, whose characters grab hold of their agency and transform it into an art form – one that’s moving, passionate, and instigating.
Written and directed by Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, the film is a rousing story of workers that live struggle everyday. Many of the 22 employees at the Hot & Crusty – largely undocumented workers – were on shift seven days a week, denied sick days, and grossly underpaid.
Fighting this kind of exploitation, particularly with precarious immigration status, is an uphill battle. When fighting in a system designed to make you powerless, the personal risks are enormous.
“You have that adrenaline pushing you to come here,” says Mahoma López, lamenting on his decision to come to Canada from Mexico City. “For whatever reason there’s a sense of adventure.”
You can imagine, then, that the constant day-to-day grind of the working poor was not what Mahoma bargained for.
Described by his co-workers as a quiet deli worker, he became a major leader in his workplace. “We are undocumented. But that doesn’t mean they have to profit from our hunger,” exclaims Mahoma.
In 2012, the Hot & Crusty workers came together to try to organize a union with the help of the Laundry Workers Centre. It’s one of many workers’ centres across the United States that seeks to empower low-income communities and low-wage workers.
Their political philosophy “is rooted in organizing workers and building their leadership skills and political power through a variety of worker-led tools and tactics.”
With the help of the workers centre, the staff begin to build collective power in their workplace. They draft a letter with their demands and deliver it to their boss. They demand the restoration of paid vacation that was taken away, compensation for overtime, pay that matched the minimum wage, safe working conditions and respect. When their boss refuses to negotiate with them, they begin an organizing drive.
Management uses typical tactics to suppress the efforts. They intimidate workers, hire a union-busting firm, and try to buy-off Mahoma and Gonzalo – another workplace leader.
“They are basically dangling money in front of the workers to make this go away, ” says Laundry Workers Centre organizer Nastaran Mohit, who accompanies the workers in stride throughout their emerging battles.
After a successful certification vote, the management threatens store closure – a repression tactic commonly used by retail and service sector chains.
In a famous Canadian case, the Walmart in Jonquière, Quebec closed its doors in April, 2005, following a successful unionization drive at the store the prior year by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Despite the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2014 ruling that Walmart violated Quebec’s labour code, the closure sent a strong message to retail workers across the country that if you try to unionize, you’ll lose your job.
When the owner declares it will close its doors on Hot & Crusty workers, the workers and its supporters stage an occupation of the store. In a colliding of worlds, the largely white activists of New York’s Occupy movement use their documented status as a tool against the employer, risking and undergoing arrest in an act of solidarity.
The store opens again under new ownership as “Bröd Kitchen,” and the workers win back their jobs. Solidarity comes full circle when the union successfully negotiates in their agreement the dropping of charges laid against their fellow activists. Largely considered a groundbreaking contract, the agreement established decent working conditions for workers.
The contract contains another major victory: the union’s right to approve new hires.
While New York is not a right-to-work state, such victories can be essential to maintaining a union in small-scale, transient workplaces, where management could use hiring as a tactic to push the union out.
When movements have shimmering moments of solidarity – whether at the picket line, on the workplace floor, or in the clauses of a collective agreement – bouts of courage can become bedrocks of success.
The rank-and-file organizers at the Hot & Crusty reminds us what it means to fight for something you believe in. The Hand that Feeds captures the insights of workers while in the heart of struggle, documenting the escalation of actions that lead to triumph in the workplace.
And perhaps the biggest challenge to staying strong and staying organized are the painstaking reminders that the struggle is always ongoing. Yet Hot & Crusty workers have never stopped fighting, despite their setbacks. This reality rings true today, when, one year after the film’s release, the workers remain resilient in the face of retaliation.
Last month, on the eve of contract renegotiation, Bröd Kitchen announced it would close.
Mahoma Lopez, now-president of the Hot & Crusty Workers Association, and his fellow worker Marcelino Cano, were fired. This occurred less than 24 hours after a community rally was held in response to the closure, according to a petition calling for their reinstatement, which you can sign here.
Precarious work today
Times are tough for workers. Just four days ago, West Virginia became the 26th state to pass right-to-work legislation, meaning workers can enjoy the benefits of being in a union without paying union dues.
Union-busting is commonplace in the retail and service sector. Retail giants like Target have been exposed for its grotesque anti-union campaigns, and just last year, a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg fired a worker for speaking to labour organizers, who was later reinstated due to public outcry. The franchise owner, who intimidated workers at a union-busting meeting, asserts that the gathering was held under instructions from head office.
In the words of Sam Roberts, the Canadian Dream is as far away as it’s ever been. Especially for migrant workers, who, in addition to facing lower wage regulations and widespread abuse from employers, don’t have the right to unionize in every province.
Here in BC, one in seven people live in poverty. BC’s poverty rate is second highest in Canada, and the province has the highest cost of living in the country. A full-time minimum wage worker will be $6,000 below the poverty line, according to the BC Federation of Labour, and women and other equity-seeking groups are disproportionately affected. The Fight for 15 is one response to this growing problem.
As labour becomes increasingly precarious, new ways of organizing are needed, and the example of the Laundry Workers Center provides insight into how the labour movement can move forward.
The film’s featured workers model a level of courage that can be difficult to fathom. But it will stir in you a new found drive to fight injustice and take power back, persistently and with ferocity.
Miss the JFF screening? Vancouver’s Spartacus Books will be hosting a free screening of The Hand That Feeds on March 24 at 7pm, at 3378 Findlay Street.