Inequality 101: Documentarian Abby Ginzberg’s New Film, ‘Waging Change’

As Berkeley filmmaker Abby Ginzberg demonstrates in her latest documentary, the economics of working as a server or bartender were already bleak in many places across the United States long before COVID-19 hit. Screening for free online April 17-26 at Women Make Movies Virtual Film Festival 2020, Waging Change illustrates just how hard it has been for service industry workers to make ends meet. Now that the novel coronavirus has shuttered restaurants nationwide, the situation is even worse for workers, some of whom earn so little they don’t even qualify for unemployment.

Lately Ginzberg has been thinking of one of her film’s subjects. Wardell Harvey, a father of three in New Orleans, can’t work as a waiter or as a barber.

“I picked a very timely issue without knowing it and have been able to document in real time what has unfolded in society as a whole,” Ginzberg says during a recent phone call. “I think the postscript to all of this is that the issues that come out in the course of my movie — what it means to have no paid sick leave, what it means for workers to have to work sick — suddenly take on huge importance… What affects one group of workers affects us all.”

The issue at the heart of Waging Change is the “tipped wage” federal law, which allows bar and restaurant owners to pay their employees a sub-minimum wage — with the expectation that tips will make up the rest. California is one of only seven states that mandates servers be paid at least the full minimum wage, in addition to tips. In many states, the tipped minimum remains at the federal rate of $2.13 an hour, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1991.

Ginzberg — whose recent work includes Agents of Change (2016), about the civil rights struggle on college campuses in the 1960s, and the upcoming Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me, about the Oakland congresswoman — knew none of this when she attended a luncheon for Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s rights legal organization. In a 10-minute speech, Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center, an advocacy group formed after 9/11, laid out the dismal situation for servers working for tipped wages.

“I thought, ‘We need to raise consciousness about this,’” Ginzberg says. “I was so appalled. I thought, ‘We’ve got to raise an alarm bell here.’

“I could feel my heart beating, the way that filmmakers sort of know when they’ve backed into their next film, without even knowing why or how,” she continues. “My palms got sweaty, my heart started to race, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this might be a film I have to do.’ It literally all came together in a flash.”  

Waging Change is a compact 61 minutes long. It is packed with detail as Ginzberg lays out much more than just the tipped wage situation. She also covers the sexual harassment servers and bartenders often feel compelled to endure as a condition for keeping their jobs, actions by Restaurant Opportunities Center and other advocates taken on behalf of workers, and the complicity of politicians with lobbyists from the National Restaurant Association to thwart such efforts.

“There were a whole series of things that once you began to focus on this issue became important and became storylines that I started to follow in the course of doing the film,” Ginzberg says. “This was not an easy film to get right, for me. The question for a filmmaker is, ‘When will people have the appetite to learn this?’”

Most of the focus is on the experiences of everyday servers like Wardell Harvey and activists like Saru Jayaraman, but Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also makes an appearance, lending her powerful perspective as a former bartender. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin also figure into the film. Captured on a street corner in Detroit as they try to help sell a fair wage measure there, Tomlin recalls her own years as a waitress and growing up in a working-class household where money was always tight.

Ginzberg quotes Fonda, “Once you know a problem exists, you’re obligated to do something about it.”

That is what Ginzberg has tried to do with Waging Change. Her hope for the documentary is that it will raise consciousness among restaurant goers and that it will be used as an educational and advocacy tool as part of campaigns seeking to improve the lives of service workers.

Waging Change was supposed to make its Bay Area premiere on March 22 at the Castro Theatre, but the event was cancelled when coronavirus fears shut down theaters. It is currently rescheduled for July 12.

Ginzberg loves the theatrical experience of an auditorium full of people watching her films, followed by a robust Q&A. Normally, she would not want people to stream one of her films before they had a chance to see it in the theater. However, she believes that her film’s message is vital, and she wants to make sure people hear it now.

“The stories I tell in this film and the stories I am trying to raise consciousness about are so connected to the moment that we are living through that I cannot wait,” Ginzberg says.

Waging Change, April 17-26, Women Make Movies Virtual Film Festival 2020, Free. Registration required. wmm.com

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