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    John whistles so loud — one of those two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistles — that you can hear him from inside an office building a block and a half away. Despite the attention he’s drawing to himself, he doesn’t want to share his full name. Neither do most of the folks I speak with this morning. It’s a little before 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 25, and John’s been standing out on Third Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard since 7:30, rain dripping down his white hard hat and onto his bright orange local 576 union T-shirt. Chris stands next to him, same outfit, same sign held high above his head: “ON STRIKE” in red above “BRASFIELD & GORRIE UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICE.” A sticker on his hard hat shows a skull with the caption “Union till I die.”

    T-shirts, stickers on hats, hoodies — there’s plenty of union swag out this morning, members standing in solidarity with the 100 or so mostly immigrant Latino workers who walked off the Omni Hotel construction site Wednesday, saying they were making far less than other employees. (Omni has not commented on the issue, and Brasfield & Gorrie, the construction company, says the wages are fair.) One of the workers had consulted a labor attorney named Dave Suetholz, who set up a meeting in a nearby hotel to discuss options. He didn’t expect 65 men to show up. Now, the Louisville Labor Council, the Regional Council of Carpenters and the executive committee of the Jefferson County Democratic Party have come out in support of the strike.

    “UPS guy, he’ll honk!” John says. The driver does, tipping his brown hat as he passes in his delivery truck. Most of the passing cars honk, and the crowd cheers. A few passengers roll down their windows to fist bump John, and when traffic picks up, there are so many honks there’s no silence between them. “Louisville is a union town, and Kentucky is a union state,” one protestor tells me, explaining the support from passersby. “Unfortunately, they’re used to people being on strike.” (On the same day as this protest, the Kentucky chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Teamsters file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the “right-to-work” legislation Governor Bevin signed into law in January. “Right-to-work” makes it illegal to require all employees in a bargaining unit to pay union dues.)

    A young man in a black Teamsters T-shirt with a black and white bandana turbaned atop his head crouches down, takes a backpack from under a camouflage jacket and pulls out a big Ziploc bag full of peppermints. He tells me his name is David, that he’s a union steward at UPS. He drove here straight from work around 5:30 this morning. He looks down at the candies in his cupped hands. “I use these at work,” he says. “Starbursts, Skittles, peppermints. If somebody’s like, ‘Fuck my boss, I’m gonna cuss him out,’ I give them one of these. It gives them something to focus on, helps them calm down.” He walks down the street, holding his hands out to the striking workers. “Thank you,” they say. “Gracias. Gracias.”

    At 28, David looks younger than most of the protestors. He’s short and thin, a brown beard around his face, but he seems bigger when he talks. “If I was in government, I’d fine the shit out of them. I don’t know if they could, but I’d shut them down,” he says, handing a piece of candy to a man in a vest. He runs out before he gets to the end of the block and jogs back to his backpack for more. A young woman walks past him offering muffins.

    The strikers say their employer forbade them from discussing their wages — an alleged violation of labor law the company disputes — and that an attorney for Brasfield & Gorrie threatened their jobs (also disputed). They say that the company told them the lower wages were justified because Governor Bevin nixed Kentucky’s prevailing wage statutes in January. (The statutes basically guaranteed average pay on certain construction sites.) But Suetholz mentions that the Omni project began before the law was repealed, and that Omni agreed to pay a prevailing wage in its contract with the city, an arrangement that got the hotel a $139 million pledge from Metro government. Suetholz has filed suits with the regional office of the National Labor Review Board in Cincinnati, which will appoint an investigator. If the board thinks this stinks as much as Suetholz thinks it does, that investigator will become a prosecutor. 

    Around 12:30 today, the workers will agree to go back to work without penalty. They’re non-union — even a couple of days without work is a squeeze. But Suetholz says the fight will go on, and that the workers might try to unionize. Out on the street, while the protest is still going on, I speak with Marco Cruz, a broad-faced 43-year-old in a rust-colored hard hat. Latinos in bright yellow vests shield me from the rain with their protest signs as we talk. Cruz’s message is simple. “Whatever it takes,” he says. “Pay us what is fair.”

    Cover photo by Dylon Jones

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    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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