Wed June 22, 2011
Sanitation Workers To Memphis City Council: I AM A MAN
By Eleanor Boudreau
Memphis, TN – More than 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, the city's sanitation workers again took to the streets holding signs declaring, "I AM A MAN." It's a sign of how far labor unions have sunk in popular and political estimation in these tough fiscal times that the union King died defending has been fighting off efforts to privatize its services.
The Memphis city council had voted down a privatization proposal at a meeting earlier this month, but they failed to pass a balanced budget at that meeting and many felt that, until that happened, privatization or other cash-saving changes aimed at unions could still be on the table. So, on Tuesday night, Memphis garbage collectors descended on city hall for the final June council meeting. In protests outside they compared council members who would go against unions to Judas.
"Go on and get your 30 pieces of silver," protesters yelled.
Inside the council meeting Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said what they wanted to hear.
"I have absolutely no intention to seek privatization," Wharton said. "And as long as I am the mayor, that is the case."
Then in an effort to placate still angry union members, the city council passed a voluntary retirement buy-out for the sanitation workers. Workers who qualify for the buy out and want to take an early retirement can get anywhere between $40,000 and $60,000 to leave their jobs. Council member Janis Fullilove made the motion and got a round of applause. But American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union administrator Shelley Seeberg remains skeptical and distrustful.
"Obviously, I want to take the mayor for his word and that he is against privatization. And again, my concern is we just negotiated a contract. The people sitting here are represented by union and the city can't move forward without having discussions with us about those proposals," Seeberg said.
And she says reducing staff voluntarily could be a step on the road to the city getting out of the garbage collecting business either partially or altogether. Then the city could sell that contract, as a whole or in pieces, to a private company.
"Clearly. Yeah. As you eliminate staff, you won't be able to do the services and so that could potentially lead to privatization," Seeberg said.
The mayor doesn't disagree with her on that.
"You're absolutely right," Wharton said, "if there are vacancies, if there are routes that are not covered, and there are no employees. Nobody would be displaced. So, when I say no privatization, nobody is going to be displaced. Privatization means taking jobs that incumbents have and giving it to a private company. Losing jobs. These people will voluntarily leave their jobs. So, it's not privatization in the sense that is so hated.
Wharton says a tough fiscal climate requires that garbage collection in Memphis be pared back. That's not what unions want to hear. William Stevenson is a member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local, 1733. He has picked up trash in Memphis for 19 years and he says we have a debt to history.
"King died for us, and it is always a pride to go out here and do this job," Stevenson said.
But changing its garbage collection, and the conditions of its sanitation workers, is something Memphis has done before. The council also passed a budget Tuesday night. The budget includes a one year 18 cent tax increase to pay a debt owed to Memphis City Schools, cut backs in holiday time, and the docking of more than 100 city employees.