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The New Face of the American Class Struggle

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A 1954 film titled “Salt of the Earth” told the story of a courageous strike by the mostly Mexican-American zinc miners against a ruthless corporation that was based on a 1951 strike in New Mexico. Produced by Paul Jarrico and directed by Herbert Biberman, two Hollywood blacklistees, it was remarkable for both its power as film and for its fearless radicalism in a time when the left was being hounded out of existence. It derived much of its strength from the casting of New Mexican miners in leading roles, such as Juan Chacon, the president of a miner’s union, as a strike leader. And of critical importance in a time when reaction was running full throttle, the film depicted a victory of workers against insurmountable odds, just as had taken place in 1951.

I could not help but think about the 1954 classic when watching a screening of “The Hand that Feeds”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. If “Salt of the Earth” was a fictional film based on the facts of a real life strike, “The Hand that Feeds” is by contrast a factual film with all of the heartrending drama of a fictional film blessed with a “star” who led a struggle of twenty workers at Hot and Crusty, a bagel shop that was a stone’s throw from Bloomingdales in New York. In a panel on storytelling I chaired at this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival, a documentary filmmaker explained that casting is as important for the documentary as it is for narrative films. One cannot imagine better casting for this documentary than the mostly undocumented Mexican workforce at Hot and Crusty, starting with Mahoma López, the 2014 counterpart to the Juan Chacon of sixty years ago.

At the very beginning of the film Mahoma López is heard saying: “Immigrants make this city run. You get settled in, and see the reality of how dollars are earned. I’m not so into being the victim. We basically started a war.”

If you live in New York, you will very likely be familiar with someone like Mahoma López who you will run into behind the counter when you are picking up a bagel in the morning on your way to work. There will be small talk about the weather and a smile from him but that is about the extent of it. “The Hand that Feeds” puts you on the other side of the counter as you learn the realities of life for such workers. They work sixty hours a week but without any sick or vacation pay. They lack health insurance. They can be fired at the drop of a hat if they have an “attitude”. The boss can get away with this because the worker is afraid of being reported to la migra and because he or she has family members in New York or Mexico who face certain disaster if the breadwinner loses a job. In many ways, it is just a small step above slavery.

The workers at Hot and Crusty finally said ¡Basta Ya! In 2012 and approached the Laundry Workers Center in New York for help in winning the wages that had been stolen from them. Originally intended to fight for the rights of laundromat workers who were also super-exploited, the Laundry Workers Center saw no reason not to get involved with delicatessen workers—a far cry from the narrow jurisdictional limitations of the official trade union movement today.

The culture of the Workers Centers that have come into existence in metropolitan areas around the United States is much more akin to the labor movement of Debs era when the IWW oriented to the most exploited and frequently immigrant layers of the working class. That is a culture that Ben Diktor, the Laundry Workers Center attorney and adviser to the Hot and Crusty workers, identifies with as should be obvious from his membership in the IWW at the University of Florida at Gainesville when an undergrad. As part of the resurgence of anarcho-syndicalism, the revivified IWW is a reminder that American trade union militancy is ready to break through once again.

In his introduction to Why Unions Matter, Michael Yates writes:“A fundamental goal of a union is to change the relationship between labor and management. Again and again, when workers are asked why they support the union or what the union has meant to them, they say that their fight for a union was a fight for dignity and respect.” That phrase rings through in every scene in “The Hand that Feeds”. Nothing can be more inspiring than to see a 2014 version of salt of the earth type people not only demanding their place in the sun but winning it through struggle.

After the last public space had been cleared of Occupy protesters, a mood of despair sank in among the left. How could we ever defeat such a powerful and determined “one percent”? That, of course, was the same question that zinc miners faced in 1951 at a time when resistance to the corporate behemoth seemed just as futile.

In a conversation I had with Ben Diktor, he explained that the left and the labor movement (with the emphasis on movement) have to join forces with the most oppressed workers to move forward. With workers becoming more and more part of a “precariat”, the role of a union is not just to fight for material gains but to give people a feeling that they are fully realized human beings. When twenty workers form a union at a bagel shop, they will continue to get not much more than a minimum wage but at least they will not be at the mercy of a boss who treats them as if they are on a plantation.

It was probably inevitable that the Hot and Crusty workers would hook up with Occupy activists since they seemed like natural allies. If it were too risky for someone working behind a counter to raise a ruckus, the risk of an arrest would not intimidate the young activists who had camped out in Zuccotti Park. The activism in ”The Hand that Feeds” is a heady cocktail with equal parts of the Latino workers and the Occupy movement that took their cause as their own. If the New Mexico strike of 1951 brought together local workers and the radical movement of that day (the union representing the zinc workers had a longstanding CP leadership), the Hot and Crusty strike of today is a marriage of the typical worker of today in the rapidly expanding service sector and the Occupy type activist who is likely to have read Noam Chomsky rather than Gus Hall.

There are other differences between the 1950s and today in terms of trade union organizing strategy. When the old left was involved with organizing efforts, it was always with the understanding that certain industries were more critical than others when it came to the vulnerability of the “one percent”. The CP organized dockworkers and the Trotskyists organized teamsters because a strike could shut down the transportation of critical goods that were essential to the economy as a whole.

But could the same be said about a bagel shop?

A shortsighted and dogmatic approach to such struggles misses their greatest potential, which is to invigorate a trade union movement that is slowly dying because of its refusal to conduct a social struggle of the sort that the IWW conducted in its day or that the CIO conducted in the 1930s. When rallies were being held outside the bagel shop, representatives from the transit workers union and the postal workers union showed up to offer solidarity. Trust me when I say that a subway strike or a postal strike can shake the system to its foundations. As the struggle of service workers at places like Hot and Crusty or McDonalds deepens, we can expect the more traditional unions to follow their example as the lesson sinks in that the boss seeks to eliminate all unions, even those who leaderships seek to “play ball”.

If “The Hand that Feeds” was not much more than the typical documentary with a heavy quotient of academic experts on low-paid undocumented workers and stock footage drawn from television news, it would still be worth seeing. But what makes it exciting is the impressive cinematic skill of husband-and-wife director team Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick who are Brooklynites with a sure feel for city life as well as a flair for the dramatic. Indeed, it was their work with the Occupy Wall Street media project that put them in touch with the Hot and Crusty workers to begin with.

Like the directors I ran into at the Socially Relevant storytelling panel, they have a keen understanding of what makes a documentary work. Unless you see the need for drama, you will be losing the chance for drawing an audience in closer to the matter at hand.

In “The Hand that Feeds”, one of the central dramas involves Mahoma López’s wife who is a member of a Pentecostal church whose pastor preaches that we are in “end times”. As such, there are groups—as she says on camera—that say good things but might be doing the work of Satan. There is every indication that she sees Mahoma’s newfound activism as vulnerable to the Dark Side, even though the loss of his income might ultimately explain her worries just as much.

Another key drama involves a co-leader of the strike who is suspected of selling out to the boss who has promised a management job in exchange for abandoning the union organizing drive. By gaining the trust of all the workers, including him, Lears and Blotnick allow them to open up on camera about the doubts they have about each other and about themselves as well.

Like other important documentaries that start at the inception of a powerful social struggle, the essential drama is about whether or not it will succeed. Would the struggle for a union end happily in this case or would the film end like Barbara Kopple’s 1990 “American Dream”, a documentary about the crushing of a strike at Hormel.

I do not think it is a spoiler to reveal that the workers win in “The Hand that Feeds”. My strongest possible recommendation is to see this film at the Cinema Village to be reminded of how good a victory can feel. This film is a shot in the arm to a movement that can sometimes forget what power we have, even in the darkest of times. We may not have the cops or army or courts on our side but we have the vast majority of humanity as allies even if not all of it presently understands their class interests. It is best for us to think of ourselves as the future vanguard of a mass movement that cannot only give workers a sense of their “dignity and respect” as Michael Yates puts it, but everybody in the 99 percent.

Within that emerging vanguard, people such as Ben Diktor, Rachel Lears, Robin Blotnick, and the Hot and Crusty workers are among the leading forces. Despite the mood of gloom that affects some on the left, their example is a ray of light that illuminates the way forward.

I invite you to see the film and to bookmark its website for information on the changing face of the American class struggle.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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