Waging Change. Directed by Abby Ginzberg. New York: Women Make Movies, 2019. 61 minutes.

The Right to Vend. Directed by Naomi Abraham, Melissa Cox, Nseabasi Esema, Mtume Gant, Cynthia Wright, and Henrietta Yuki. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2016. 10 minutes.

Reviewed by Stephanie Luce

Over the past few decades, corporations have gained power at the expense of workers. We have had an explosion of “bad jobs”—those with low wages, irregular hours, no benefits—so it is no surprise to see a growth in films focusing on the nature of work and efforts to improve it.

One such film is Waging Change, which invites us to interrogate the practice of tipping. The federal minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour for tipped workers! Employers are required to pay the difference if wage plus tips does not meet the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, but this can be difficult to enforce.

Waging Change introduces us to servers who rely on tips to survive. People of color and women are overrepresented in occupations that rely on tips, and within those industries, tipping practices are also highly impacted by race and immigration status. Moreover, women experience pervasive sexual harassment and assault from customers, bosses, and even coworkers. Many servers enjoy their work but can barely make a living.

The film also profiles activists working to change the system, like Saru Jayaraman of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). ROC and allies have launched the One Fair Wage campaign to mandate that local, state, and federal minimum wages for tipped workers are the same as for all. Some states have already adopted the reforms and, despite predictions of doom, have not seen negative impacts for the restaurant and hospitality sectors. And another segment of the film profiles restaurant owners running their businesses on a higher-wage, no-tip system, offering another more equitable model for servers.

Waging Change is aimed primarily at customers so it may play better with some students than others. But even in college classrooms, where many of the students may themselves have jobs as tipped workers, the material will be of interest. Notable figures like Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are also featured, could add to the film’s appeal. It’s also worth noting that at 61 minutes the film may be a bit long for a classroom setting but instructors could choose to show excerpts of interviews with servers and activists looking to make change. Educators might assign supplemental readings on how tipping has a racist past or economic studies showing the disparities in tipping according to the perceived race and appearance of the server.1 The film is also a great way to open discussion about how tipping practices vary by state and country.

A second film that can introduce students to the reality of life for food workers is The Right to Vend. This short documentary profiles street-food vendors in New York City who love their work but face myriad challenges.

Vendors must have a permit to operate, but New York City stopped issuing new permits in the early 1980s, so new vendors must buy a permit underground or operate without one. Adding to this hardship, the city frequently tickets street vendors up to $1000, including for small infractions such as improperly displaying a permit. The Street Vendor Project (SVP) is a membership-based group that is fighting to reform the laws, and this film also includes SVP organizers discussing the challenges they face and some of their goals in reforming the laws.2

The film would be a good introduction to the issue of street vending, some of the motivations street vendors have for doing the work they do, and why the city needs to reform the vending permit system. Instructors should supplement the film with background material to give some more context. For example, it is interesting to note that during the period that New York City has capped street vending it opened its doors to thousands of stores like Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks.3 Corporate restaurant firms have taken over a larger share of the food market in the city. Does this play a role in how many small street vendors get permits?

Right to Vend offers a useful window to teach about labor issues, small business issues, urban planning, and how to set up pedestrian-friendly cities. It also links to environmental issues, as reflected in activists urging that the city promote solar-powered carts to replace the propane-driven ones that are currently dominant.

1 Maddie Oatman, “The Racist, Twisted History of Tipping,” Mother Jones, May/June 2016; Michael Lynn, Michael Sturman, Christie Ganley, Elizabeth Adams, Mathew Douglas, and Jessica McNeil, “Consumer Racial Discrimination in Tipping: A Replication and Extension,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 38, no. 4 (2008): 1045-60.

2 Kathleen Dunn, “The Street Labor Movement,” in The City Is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age, ed., Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 26-45.

3 Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, “Economic Development for Whom? Retail, Neoliberal Urbanism, and the ‘Fight for 15,’” in The City Is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age, ed., Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 62-79.

Stephanie Luce (stephanie.luce@slu.cuny.edu) is professor of labor studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Her books include Labor Movements: Global Perspectives and Fighting for a Living Wage.