Hot & Crusty is one the chain delis in New York City that line most street corners, offering fast, affordable food one step up from the fare you might receive at big national chains like McDonalds, or Subway. Many of the employees at chains such as these are undocumented workers. They are men and women that are here in this country with no papers, working long hours without the benefit of insurance or job security. The new documentary ‘The Hand That Feeds’ follows the plight of one group of workers fighting for better working conditions at a Hot & Crusty restaurant on the Upper East Side.
The documentary opens with a scene of a Hot & Crusty worker opening his paycheck for 60 hours of work and finding $290 dollars--far below minimum wage. Film director Rachel Lears says the issues went far beyond low pay, “Lots of long hours with no breaks, often sick days are refused. A lot of times when workers complained, managers threatened to fire them or turn them over to immigration enforcement.”
Co-director Robin Blotnick says a lot of this is very typical in low-wage industries regardless of immigration status, but being undocumented heightens the fear of reporting anything to the Department of Labor, “The fear is there. The truth is though that the federal labor protections do apply to any employee in the United States regardless of their citizenship. That is something that a lot of people aren’t aware of and the workers in our film became aware of that and I think that gave them a lot of courage to try this very difficult struggle.”
The Hot & Crusty workers began their protest by starting a picket line just outside the restaurant. They began a sidewalk booth called The Worker Justice Café offering donated donuts, bagels and coffee and collected signatures. The workers were on the picket line for 55 days. Robin Blotnick says the time on the picket line is the climax of the story, “Organizers how had been involved form the beginning turned on each other and take on a new form of leaderships.”
The workers ultimately get the chance to vote on forming a new union at the National Labor Relations Board. “The election was really exciting and it was really cool to see a group of immigrant workers, many of whom did lack papers, taking this step and becoming American in this unique way and engaging with this institution which actually does allow them to make changes in their workplace.” says Rachel Lears.
The filmmakers still go to Hot & Crusty regularly to check in with the workers and see how things are going. But they say there are still issues with management, and that the story is not yet over.
Robin Blotnick and Rachel Mears are the directors of the documentary film The Hand That Feeds. The film will have its world premiere at Full Frame on Saturday at 10 a.m. You can find out more information on our website wunc dot org.