Occupy Bakery


The following article originally appeared on the New York Times.

The following are thoughts on Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick on how they came to profile Mahoma López for this Op-Doc video.

We first met Mahoma López, the subject of this Op-Doc video, 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. Mr. López 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 Mr. López would not be invisible for long.

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Mr. López 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 New York City, there are a number of restaurants called “Hot & Crusty.” While they share a name, they are actually a collection of different closely held corporations owned by overlapping groups of investors.)

In May 2012, Mr. López and his co-workers went to the National Labor Relations Board and voted to form their own independent union. This set off a chain of events that we are exploring in our coming feature documentary, “The Hand That Feeds.”

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. Mr. López’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.

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.

This video is part of a series by independent filmmakers who have received grants from the Britdoc Foundation and the Sundance Institute.

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick are a filmmaking team based in Brooklyn whose work focuses on labor and culture in the Americas. They are producing a feature documentary, “The Hand That Feeds,” from which this Op-Doc video is adapted. Ms. Lears holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from New York University.

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