August 17th, 2022 – On Wednesday morning, members of the International Painters Union (IUPAT) DC 77 gathered at the construction site of a new development project at Emory University. IUPAT was joined by Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, Atlanta DSA, and other community members and organizations to protest the misclassification of workers by the project’s contractor, Speciality Finishes, Inc – one of the largest painting contractors in the Metro-Atlanta area.
As construction equipment sounded in the background, organizers from IUPAT and GLAHR spoke to the crowd, calling out the mistreatment and exploitation of Latino and undocumented workers by the company.
“Many of these workers are undocumented immigrants, and these companies take advantage of that fact to misclassify them as independent contractors so they don’t get paid overtime or received benefits,” said Melanie Silverstein, an IUPAT organizer.
“Lots of companies are doing the exact same thing,” said Silverstein. “They hire majority Latino immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. They force them to classify themselves as independent contractors, meaning that they are not technically employees of the company. They’re not getting overtime or benefits or job security that actual employees of the company do have. Meanwhile, the bulk of the work is being done by those workers.”
Worker misclassification is the increasingly common practice of labeling workers as independent contractors rather than employees of a company. Misclassification is typically weaponized by employers as a way to save money by avoiding taxes or the provision of benefits and overtime pay to workers who are doing the same work as full-time company employees.
Undocumented and immigrant workers are especially susceptible to misclassifcation by exploitative, profit-seeking employers, particularly in the construction industry in which nearly ⅓ of workers in the South are misclassified as independent contractors.
Antonio, another IUPAT organizer, commented on the egregiousness of worker mistreatment by Specialty Finishes. “You have a bunch of painters, time in and time out, putting themselves in dangerous conditions, […] exposing themselves to toxic paint and chemicals, and on top of that being misclassified as independent contractors. And there’s a lot of intimidation and abuse that comes with it.”
Dave Webster, also with IUPAT, had similar criticisms of misclassification in the industry. “Saying these workers are private contractors is not right,” Webster said, “These workers can’t set their own hours, they don’t provide their own materials. They take orders from Specialty Finishes. […] These companies think they can get away with it because workers are undocumented, and the fact is that all workers have rights. No matter where you’re from, what language you speak, whether you’re a citizen or not – you have rights!”
What’s the remedy to worker misclassification?
In 2021, Atlanta DSA helped flip Georgia Representative Lucy McBath on the PRO Act, a piece of national legislation which would transform the labor organizing landscape for workers across the country – ensuring their ability to organize safely without employer interference. Under current labor law, workers classified as “independent contractors” are denied the right to collective bargaining. Similarly, undocumented workers risk firing or deportation as retaliation for workplace organizing.
Legislation such as the PRO Act, however, would both reinstate the rights of misclassified workers to collectively bargain and afford undocumented workers the right to be rehired and compensated for unlawful firing.
While the PRO Act passed the House last year, it has not moved past the Senate. Still, the need for expanded worker protections grows daily, especially in right-to-work states such as Georgia with even harsher restrictions on workplace organizing.
Despite this, in recent months we’ve seen the spread of bottom-up organizing campaigns across the country – including here in Atlanta. In July, we saw worker-led walkouts at the Howell Mill Starbucks and Amazon warehouse in Dunwoody, GA. Still, in the midst of so many organic shop-floor organizing efforts, we must continue to fight for labor policy reform as a means spur continued labor militancy and win back protections for contract workers and undocumented workers who lack legal protections against retaliatory firings.
Check out atldsa.org/labor for more information on how to get involved in Atlanta DSA’s labor organizing work.
Photos and video by Ken L.