The Hand That Feeds
TYPE: Documentary Feature
Shy sandwich-maker Mahoma Lopez and his undocumented immigrant coworkers set out to end abusive conditions at a New York restaurant chain owned by powerful investors. The epic power struggle that ensues turns a single city block into a battlefield in America's new wage wars.
At the 63rd Street Hot and Crusty cafe, residents of New York’s Upper East Side get bagels and coffee served with a smile 24 hours a day. But behind the scenes, undocumented immigrant workers face sub-legal wages, dangerous machinery, and abusive managers who will fire them for calling in sick. Mild-mannered sandwich maker Mahoma López has never been interested in politics, but in January 2012, he convinces a small group of his co-workers to fight back.
Risking deportation and the loss of their livelihood, the workers team up with a diverse crew of innovative young organizers and take the unusual step of forming their own independent union, launching themselves on a journey that will test the limits of their resolve. In one roller-coaster year, they must overcome a shocking betrayal and a two-month lockout. Lawyers will battle in court, Occupy Wall Street protesters will take over the restaurant, and a picket line will divide the neighborhood. If they can win a contract, it will set a historic precedent for low-wage workers across the country. But whatever happens, Mahoma and his coworkers will never be exploited again.
We first met Mahoma López, in April 2012 at a secret meeting in a McDonald’s on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We’d spent the previous autumn documenting the Occupy Wall Street protests. Mahoma had reached out to the Occupy movement for help with his struggle to improve conditions at his workplace — the original Hot & Crusty bakery and cafe at 63rd Street and Second Avenue. At first he seemed a quiet, humble worker — the kind customers often overlook as they wait in line for sandwiches and coffee. But Mahoma would not be invisible for long.
Mahoma and his co-workers filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Labor but gave up waiting for a response after several months had passed. They reached out to big unions, but were turned away because their shop was too small. In May 2012, Mahoma and his co-workers went to the National Labor Relations Board and voted to form their own independent union. This set off the chain of events documented in this film.
In the early 20th century, immigrants were at the forefront of the labor movement that helped build our middle class. Today, when the fastest growing job sectors are retail and food preparation, the struggles of low-income workers and their families matter more than ever. Turning these jobs into living-wage jobs while fixing our broken immigration system would lift millions out of poverty and benefit our entire economy by increasing consumption and tax revenue. Mahoma’s story is part of a growing wave of low-wage and immigrant workers organizing across New York City and around the country that has the potential to spark this kind of change.
We’re making this film first and foremost because it’s a classic underdog story and we’re inspired by the courage of our protagonists. Beyond that, we want to understand how ordinary people find that courage in themselves. We think this film has the potential to change the way Americans think about labor, immigration and activism in general. It’s time we admit it: America runs on the labor of the undocumented. Their struggle for rights, inside and outside the workplace, is an inseparable part of our democratic project.
Rachel Lears - Director, producer, principal shooter
Rachel's award-winning first feature doc Birds of Passage (2010) was supported by Fulbright and the National Film Institute of Uruguay, had two community screening tours of Uruguay sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Culture, and was broadcast nationally throughout Latin America. Her ongoing video art collaborations with artist Saya Woolfalk have screened at numerous galleries and museums worldwide since 2008. Rachel was a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, and also holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from NYU.
Robin Blotnick - Director, producer, principal editor
Robin's first documentary, Chocolate Country (2006), received a Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, was a winner in LinkTV’s ViewChange competition, and is used as a teaching tool by educators and Fair Trade advocates around the world. His feature documentary debut, Gods and Kings (2012), about masks, magic and media in the highlands of Guatemala, premiered at the Miradasdoc (Spain) and the Morelia International Film Festival (Mexico) and won the Intangible Culture Prize at the RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Films (Scotland, 2013). Robin is also a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow.
Alex Rivera - Executive Producer
Alex Rivera is a Sundance Fellow, Rockefeller Fellow, USA Artist Fellow, and Creative Capital grantee who has been making films about labor, immigration and politics for over 15 years, including the short documentary The Sixth Section (POV, 2003), and Sleep Dealer (2008), a science-fiction feature set on the U.S./Mexico border that won multiple awards at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival and had a commercial release in the U.S, France, Japan, and other countries around the world.
Patricia Benabe - Co-Producer
Patricia Benabe has served as Associate Producer on American Experience: Roberto Clemente (PBS, 2008), which won an ALMA Award, Coordinating Producer on the web series An Invitation to World Literature (WGBH & Annenberg Media, 2010), and most recently as Co-Producer on Reportero (POV, 2012).
David Meneses - Editor
David Meneses recently edited Redemption, a short HBO documentary produced and directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill nominated for the 2013 Academy Award, and Marco Williams’ The Undocumented (Independent Lens 2013), and previously has edited other documentaries by Alpert and O’Neill including the Emmy-nominated Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery (HBO, 2008); and the 2003 NY Emmy Award-winning IMNY, a 20-episode documentary series.
Ryan Blotnick - Score Composer
As a guitarist/composer, Ryan has been called “a vital contemporary voice” by Time Out New York, “an authentic, compelling player” by Cadence Magazine, and has garnered praise from guitarists John Abercrombie, Steve Cardenas and Ben Monder. He made his film score debut with Gods and Kings, Jubilee Films last feature documentary.
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