'I Am A Man'…Decades after MLK death, Memphis jobs in spotlight

“It signified the close relationship between labor relations and civil rights and human rights,” said Thomas Kochan, an industrial relations professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Dr. King epitomized a leader who recognized that relationship, and that’s what brought him to Memphis.”

Much has changed since then. Memphis has had a Black mayor since the early 1990s, and today’s city council is majority Black.

But in 2013, the power of unions in America isn’t what it was in 1968. And the lure of privatization is strong for cash-strapped public officials.

The move toward privatization began to swell two years ago, when the city council agreed to offer buyouts to retirement age employees. The buyout plan was never implemented, and the money was used elsewhere.

Talk of opening garbage and recycling collection and hauling to private bidders remained mostly dormant until late March, when City Councilman Kemp Conrad asked Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration for an update.

Conrad said the $25 per household solid waste fee is too high.

Officials have been slashing costs in the sanitation department. It currently has 124 unfilled positions out of about 619 jobs, resulting in $5 million in savings.

Conrad contends a private company likely will use more technically advanced trucks that would require fewer workers and make almost double the number of stops in one day.

Conrad supported a $13 million voluntary buyout plan and blames inaction from the administration for allowing about 35 eligible workers to retire without a buyout option. After buyouts are taken, Conrad says, the city could outsource the remaining jobs.

“It’s just another example of not focusing on the basics of city government, the nuts-and-bolts core services, and our employees lose and the taxpayers lose,” Conrad said.

San Francisco and Toledo, Ohio, have privatized sanitation services. Other cities have fluctuated between private and public garbage collection. Phoenix and Indianapolis have managed competition, which allows a city or a public agency to make its own bid to compete with offers from private companies.

Chad Johnson is the local point man for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Johnson’s goal is to preserve the jobs of the current sanitation employees, while also shedding light on some current problems within the department: an aging truck fleet, subpar training, insufficient retirement benefits and, once again, problems with worker safety.

“Unfortunately, 45 years later, I have to say, we haven’t made as much progress,” said Johnson. “We’re still talking about sanitation employees being seen as ‘less than,’ being treated poorly by management, being treated poorly by the citizenry, being treated poorly by the city council, being treated poorly by the administration.”

Wharton said he will not be personally involved in the negotiations but could step in if needed. He stressed he is not advocating privatization but has mentioned managed competition as a “feasible” option.

George Little, Memphis’ chief administrative officer, plans to update the council in early May.

For now, the uncertainty worries Nickleberry.

“They’re trying to take everything (King) did for us, they’re trying to take it all back,” Moore said. “I don’t think it’s right.”


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