Twelve undocumented immigrant workers face long odds, unemployment, betrayal and the threat of deportation when they take on a well-known New York City restaurant chain owned by powerful investors. This David and Goliath story explores what it takes for ordinary people to stand up for their dignity - and win.
At the 63rd Street Hot and Crusty café, residents of New York’s Upper East Side get bagels, coffee, sandwiches and pizza served with a smile 24 hours a day. But on the inside, undocumented immigrant workers like mild mannered sandwich maker Mahoma face low wages, dangerous machinery, and abusive managers. In January 2012, Mahoma convinces a small group of his co-workers to fight back. The employees are fearful of speaking out because managers threaten to fire troublemakers or turn them over to ICE. But extroverted cashier Diana, strong-willed dishwasher Margarito, and others gradually become involved. With the help of community organizers Virgilio and Nastaran and law student Ben, they sue the company for years of back pay, and publicly demand benefits. But when the owners refuse to negotiate, the workers decide to create their own independent union. At first, they defy the odds with improbable victories. In a nail-biting NLRB election in May, they officially become the Hot and Crusty Workers Association. Just a month later, they settle their lawsuit. But the same week, shocking news arrives: Mahoma’s fellow union leader Gonzalo has betrayed the group and joined the company’s side. In August, the company decides to shut down the 63rd street location, laying off all employees. With nothing left to lose, the workers ask Occupy Wall Street activists to stage a store “occupation.” Calling themselves “job defenders,” activists and workers take over the store for several hours, as customers continue to purchase food amid banners and a rowdy brass band. When riot police arrive, they arrest 6 activists and chain the doors as workers flee. The chances of a group of employees turning the tables on a shop closure and regaining their jobs are vanishingly small. But the workers picket daily in front of the store, distributing free coffee and bagels, while passersby offer honks of support or sharp critiques of organized labor. When a new investor promises to rehire the workers, Margarito is ecstatic while Nastaran remains skeptical. Negotiations drag on while the shop remains closed and the workers’ optimism wanes. Finally, after nearly two months of picketing, the new owners accept an unprecedented contract that guarantees paid sick days, vacation, overtime and a hiring hall. In January 2013, the joyful employees return to work, trading sandwiches and coffee for congratulatory greetings from Upper East Side dowagers, construction workers, and activist supporters at a gleaming, newly renovated Hot and Crusty.