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Review: Documentary ‘The Hand That Feeds’ Finds Justice In The Unlikeliest Of Places

Review: Documentary 'The Hand That Feeds' Finds Justice In The Unlikeliest Of Places

Every morning, thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers stop by their local coffee shop, grab a hot drink and perhaps a danish or bagel, and head off to work. It’s a ritual and routine, one that isn’t too expensive, and fuels the day. But that convenience comes at a cost. Behind the counter giving you change, sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, cleaning the counters, and preparing the food that you eat are countless undocumented workers, who work for below minimum wage, with few benefits, and the constant fear they’ll lose their job. Many don’t even realize that legally they are entitled to the same working conditions as any full-fledged American, and even those that do, don’t press the issue, because they are concerned about protecting the paycheck that helps them provide for their families. But in one Upper East Side Hot And Crusty, workers took a stand because, when pushed to the brink, they had nothing left to lose.

Directed by Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears, "The Hand That Feeds" is a documentary that’s not just about the battle for workers’ rights, but for simple human dignity. Aided by the Laundry Workers Center — who help with strategy, legal framework, and organizational skills — none of that assistance matters if the workers themselves aren’t committed. The rally for that support has to come from within, and the task unexpectedly falls on the shoulders of the quiet, but no less charming, Mahoma López. A married father of two, he’s the steady, insistent voice at Hot And Crusty that declares that everyone deserves better and he’s soon leading most of the workers through the complex steps of getting unionized. He remains their confident leader, helping his co-workers through negotiating their demands, and never wavering when management closes the store, locks them out for nearly two months, and does everything possible to undercut each and every victory they make toward getting simple things like minimum wage, along with vacation and sick days.

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. Throughout, in an approach that gets close to the workers, activists, and more who help the staff at Hot And Crusty, Blotnick and Lears excellently merge the personal and political, but in a manner that never feels like it’s proselytizing. However, you do wish at times that the focus would broaden somewhat to see how the fight at Hot And Crusty fits into the greater political conversation.

In particular, the current battle to raise the basic minimum wage across the United States — particularly when it comes to multi-national corporations — figures into this narrative. For a long time, politicians have claimed that leaving wages and other worker regulations in the hands of private interests, and keeping the government out of the matter, will create a trickle down effect: companies will make more money, wages will go up, and hiring will increase. More often than not, that simply doesn’t happen, with profits staying pooled at the top of the pyramid. Elsewhere, the documentary sometimes gets so caught up in the machinations of every Hot And Crusty legal maneuver, that some emotional undercurrents are lost. While Mahoma becomes the center of the film, one wishes more time was spent with Margarito, a middle aged man who came to the United States with the sole goal of earning money to see his daughter through university. He lives alone, and as he admits, there are few prospects for older undocumented workers who are viewed as less productive. Even more, politics is something he confesses he doesn’t give much thought to. But something clearly inspires Margarito, who is completely in support every step of the way. More insight on how his views have changed would’ve been valuable.

But the message the documentary gets across overrides those little criticisms: these workers aren’t biting the hand that feeds, but merely asking that the hand show them some respect. That everyone who works a job can be afforded a living wage, and given the chance to take a break or call in sick when necessary. These are hardly crippling requests being made to business owners, who should in fact be incentivized to pay their workers well, because a happy employee is a more productive employee. But often, these simple ideals get lost in the frequently overheated rhetoric from all political sides about immigration, jobs, and supporting American business. "The Hand That Feeds" puts those issues back on the table in a movie about a small group of people who score a big victory. [B]

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