Immigrant construction workers fight for equal pay in KY

About 100 Immigrant workers on June 16 walked off their jobs at a Louisville, Kentucky construction job complaining that they were being paid as much as $20 an hour less than other workers at the same job site doing comparable work.

This is the second time in three weeks that the same workers have gone out on strike at the construction site where a new Omni Hotel is being built. The new hotel will also contain luxury apartments for permanent residents.

According to the striking workers, their hourly pay is between $20 and $26 an hour while other workers are making between $35 and $45 an hour.

The striking workers work for Professional Drywall Concepts, a subcontractor of Performance Commercial Contractors, a contractor for the site’s general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie.

Earlier in the  month, the workers filed a union representation petition with the National Labor Relations Board. The workers want to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

The first strike ended after the workers met with representatives of Brasfield & Gorrie to discuss their complaints about low wages.

At this writing, the second strike is still in progress.

The strikers are metal stud installers, drywall hangers, and drywall finishers. Union workers in the same craft belong to the carpenters union.

The first strike took place over a prevailing wage dispute.

Some immigrant workers from the Omni Hotel construction project in 2015 complained to the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters (IKOCG), an affiliate of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, that they were being paid less than other workers doing the same work on the project.

The union filed a complaint with the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission charging that the workers weren’t being paid the correct prevailing wage on the job.

The prevailing wage is like a minimum wage for construction workers working on government contracts. It is supposed to be the base wage that a majority of workers in a particular craft or trade in a particular labor market are paid.

For example, if the base hourly wage rate for a  majority of carpenters in a city is $35 an hour, then the base rate for all carpenters on a government project should be $35 an hour.

Until January, Kentucky was one of thirty states that had prevailing wage laws that applied to government contracts.

The Omni Hotel project was considered a government project because half the cost of the $300 million project is being paid for with public funds.

When the Human Rights Commission ruled on the workers’ complaint, it ruled against the union and the workers. It did grant a small raise, but not one that brought the workers up to the level of the prevailing wage of other workers on the job.

Despite the setback, the union and the workers continued to fight to bring their wages up to the prevailing wage.

They suffered another setback in January when the right-wing controlled Kentucky Legislature voted to eliminate the state’s prevailing wage law.

Supporters of the prevailing wage law said that eliminating it would lead to lower wages for all construction workers.

A few months after the prevailing wage law was eliminated, Brasfield & Gorrie sent a change order to Performance Commercial Contractors informing its contractor that neither it nor its subcontractors needed to pay the prevailing wage effective May 14.

On May 24, immigrant drywall workers walked off the job to demand equal pay for equal work.

While they were out on strike, some of the workers were informed by the general contractor that the strikers might be replaced if they did not return to work.

The strikers returned to work on May 26, but they continued to collect signatures on a petition for a union election.

About a week after they returned to work, their attorney filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union representation election. He also filed a charge against Brasfield & Gorrie, charging the contractor with unfair labor practices.

At a subsequent public hearing, Brasfield & Gorrie suggested that it might fire the protesting workers and replace them with contract workers brought in from Georgia.

On July 16, the drywall workers walked off the job for the second time and established a picket line at the worksite.

The immigrant workers have not only been supported by the carpenters union, they have received the support of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, which urged union members to support striking workers.

“Once again, Brasfield & Gorrie isn’t playing fair with their workers,” reads a statement issued by the labor council. “Whether you came out last time or not, we hope you will join us in standing in solidarity with the workers on the Omni Hotel project in downtown Louisville.

“Come and go as you please any time during the day. We want as many as possible at the start to show strength and solidarity with these workers.”