I’m not so naïve as to say that everything you need to know about organizing in the workplace can be learned in 83 minutes, but whether you’re a seasoned organizer or just a pissed off employee, you will benefit immensely from the 83 minutes it takes to watch The Hand That Feeds (2015).
The film is made of the same stuff Hollywood has capitalized on for generations. Our hero, Mahoma, is a perfect everyman, cornered into taking on a fight he’d rather avoid in order to ensure a better future for his family. He is joined by friends, colleagues, and an army of quirky strangers in his epic battle against evil, faceless, corporate greed. But you won’t find this stirring saga at the nearest AMC. The Hand That Feeds is a riveting, underplayed and underappreciated documentary that follows the unionization of brave, undocumented workers at Hot & Crusty, a popular sandwich joint on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I first watched THTF when I was a server at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a tourist trap in the middle of Times Square, known for their “World Famous Singing Waitstaff.” I had worked at Stardust for 11 happy years. In recent months, however, new management had taken over and things weren’t going well. This was the place I had met my dearest friends and the girl who agreed to marry me, a place where I had found my artistic voice, and now a place where the best people I knew were being bullied out of their jobs. Some were harassed by management until they couldn’t stand it anymore and left. Others were fired over anything and nothing. Those of us who still had jobs were increasingly on edge, angry and afraid. Every day, managers introduced new policy expressly designed for the purpose of shutting down dissent. We were told to disband all employee social media and email groups, and to only speak to managers, rather than each other, if we had any concerns.
So naturally, when I was first approached, agitated, by two of my closest friends about the prospect of organizing for better working conditions I was, well, pumped the f*&% up. I wanted so badly to stick it to the man — to the men who had stormed the walls of my happy place, and who were systematically cleaning house. And I wasn’t alone. A large portion of Stardusters were ready to answer the call to organize.
My friends and I were grateful to receive help from more than a few sources. From an organizing standpoint, the Industrial Workers of the World embraced our cause when more traditional labor unions (I’m looking at you, Actors Equity) wouldn’t come near us. And from a legal standpoint, we were somehow fortunate enough to acquire the representation of Ben Dictor at Eisner & Dictor, P.C.
Within the first few months of starting to organize, word got around that there was a documentary streaming on Netflix where we could see our new attorney in action. At that point, many of us knew of Ben, but hadn’t yet met him. Intrigued, and just beginning to sink our teeth into this whole workers’ rights thing, my fiancée and I cozied up and pressed play.
From start to finish, life lessons flew off the screen, smacking me in the head and in the heart. Many of the hardships we faced at Stardust were similar to those that confronted Mahoma and his comrades. Like the servers at Stardust, the workers at Hot & Crusty were also continuously threatened by management. Like us, they were fed up with unfair conditions which they felt they had very little power to change. And like us, at some point they began to realize that they were wrong; that in fact a power shift was not only possible, but inevitable.
At the start of filming, in 2011, Mahoma has been making sandwiches at Hot & Crusty for the past 7 years. There are things he likes about his job. He is charming and a natural people person. Working the counter is a great way to get to know patrons. However, behind the scenes, there isn’t much to enjoy. Mahoma makes it clear he has no interest in identifying as a victim, but there is no way around the fact that he and his comrades are being victimized. As undocumented immigrants, they are unapologetically subjected to unfair practices, including wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Undocumented or not, workers have a right under the law to organize, and they begin to do just that.
The film opens with a homemade video of Mahoma’s colleague and friend, Margarito, shot in what appears to be an industrial kitchen, after hours. Mahoma is behind the camera. They speak in hushed tones. Margarito, an elderly dishwasher, is counting out his weekly wages, a grand total of $290. Mahoma asks how many hours he worked for those wages. Margarito tells him sixty hours. He is visibly upset. His hourly wage is $4.83. That’s much less than minimum wage ($7.25 in 2011), even if you don’t count the 20 overtime hours he is owed. Off-camera, a woman is heard asking, “are you taping him?”. Caught red-handed, Mahoma quickly answers yes, that Margarito is sending a video to his family, as Margarito hurries away from the camera.
The opening action grabs you. Immediately, you are introduced to the workers’ will to create change and the risks they are willing to take to create it. Mahoma and Margarito are in the shop, secretly collecting evidence of the unfair conditions they have to endure. Right away, you are confronted by the injustice of it all. $4.83 isn’t a living wage anywhere in the country, much less in the middle of New York City. You are also faced with a sense of exasperation, a taste of just how distant the desired changes may be. When caught by the woman off-camera, Margarito quietly slips away and Mahoma lies. They want the fight but aren’t yet ready to step into the ring.
Where the Stardusters were welcomed by the IWW, the Hot & Crusty employees had their own organizing angels in Virgilio Aran and the men and women of the Laundry Workers Center. With the guidance of the LWC, Mahoma transforms from a hesitant protagonist into a full-blown working man’s hero in a relatively short amount of time. He educates himself, motivates others, and out-organizes the opposition every step of the way. Along with Dictor, the LWC provides invaluable assistance, but there is never any doubt that Mahoma’s strength is fueled by a deeply personal sense of justice.
As the film went on, I faced an uncomfortable mix of feelings. As a worker, I felt more powerful with each passing moment, seeing similarities between what we were doing at Stardust and what had worked at Hot & Crusty. From agitating fellow employees, to marching on the boss, to flyering the neighborhood, it was comforting to see that these tactics get results even as our own campaign was in its beginning stages. As promised, I was able to see Ben Dictor doing what he does best. At the start of the Hot & Crusty campaign, Ben is still in law school, yet he is able to inspire and inform the workers like a seasoned professional. He has a natural knack for camaraderie. Seemingly without effort, he exists with the workers as both an equal and an outsider. Knowing he would be in our corner at Stardust was reassuring to the point of exhilaration.
However, as a human, the more I watched, the smaller I felt. I found myself thinking that my woes aren’t all that woeful. If I were to be fired for unionizing (which, eventually, I was), life would go on (it did). I am a white, middle class, educated American citizen, and I have enjoyed the privilege that comes with that for 35 years. While it’s true there were similarities between our two campaigns, there are also differences that must not be ignored. Yes, we were all demanding safer, better working conditions, job security, paid vacation and reasonable benefits. But suddenly the stakes seemed lower at Stardust. Many of my fellow servers in the Diner come from backgrounds similar to mine. I don’t mean lavish, prep-school, Summers-in-the-Hamptons upbringings, but loving suburban families with enough. I mean parents who are beyond proud of their children for “toughing it out” in the Big Apple, but not above helping with rent or sending an early Christmas card in a crisis.
At Hot & Crusty, nothing seemed easy. These undocumented workers were playing a game of higher stakes than I can comprehend, and they organized anyway. At the risk of deportation, separation from their children, loss of income and home, they organized anyway. In the face of racism, classism, betrayal, and the wrath of the 1%, they organized anyway.
And they won.
They won big.
For their fearless efforts, through adversity that included deceit, betrayal, and a 52-day picket after the closing of the shop itself, not only were their initial demands of fair pay and paid vacation met, but they also were given hiring power, and the assurance that workers will continue to have a real, concrete voice of authority over operations at Hot & Crusty for the foreseeable future.
Like the employees of Hot & Crusty, the workers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner have a lot to be proud of. With invaluable assistance from the IWW and Ben Dictor, we received almost a half a million dollars in back pay, as well as reinstatement offers to all 31 unlawfully terminated servers. In the shop, employees are being heard in ways that were unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Workers are no longer afraid to voice their disapproval, and as a result, conditions continue to improve. We have a ways to go, but thanks to the resolve people have shown, like Mahoma, we beat the odds. We’re unstoppable.
Organizing is an uphill battle even in the best of times and for the most fortunate of workers. It is thrilling. It is devastating. It is love. It is hate. It is beautiful. It gets ugly. It will drain you, and it should.
The time I spent organizing at Stardust was the most emotionally exhausting time of my life. We sang protest songs and raised ketchup bottles in solidarity as employees were coldly escorted from the shop floor and unlawfully terminated. We sat grim-faced as owner Ken Sturm, having just fired 16 long-term, loyal employees in the span of 72 hours, called a mandatory meeting where he spent an hour and a half whining about how ungrateful we all were, stooping so low as to compare himself, the very picture of privilege, to “a rape victim who’s been told her skirt is too short.” We stopped delivery trucks, went on strikes, and endured personal threats, including 🖕anonymous🖕 text messages, and public humiliation, including a shameful, deeply personalized attack article in the NY Post courtesy of Melissa Klein (still waiting on that apology). It didn’t always feel worth it.
Without proper inspiration, my “who needs this fucking job?” complex could easily have taken over and I may have given up. But there are moments that keep you going, moments when you are reminded that organizing is bigger than one campaign. Watching The Hand That Feeds made me feel small, in a good way. The film shone a light on the importance of what we do. It gave value to my exhaustion, to the flood of emotions that is at times positive and at times frighteningly negative.
When I watched The Hand That Feeds, I went from being a union enthusiast to a true believer. I watched as a group of fellow workers created a successful campaign from scratch, by educating themselves, agitating, organizing their faces off, and refusing to lose. I saw their exhaustion settle in, and pass. I felt my own sense of self transform as I learned just how important this work really is. I encourage you to do the same. Watch this film, and let it feed you.