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Memphis pledges $900K to 1968 sanitation strikers

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/7/2017 Ryan Poe
A sea of striking city employees on the way to meeting with Mayor Henry Loeb in the Auditorium February 13, 1968. Striking sanitation workers, more than 1,000 of them by some estimates (see note below), marched on City Hall that day and were diverted to the Auditorium where the mayor could address them. © James R. Reid / MPS A sea of striking city employees on the way to meeting with Mayor Henry Loeb in the Auditorium February 13, 1968. Striking sanitation workers, more than 1,000 of them by some estimates (see note below), marched on City Hall that day and were diverted to the Auditorium where the mayor could address them.

MEMPHIS — Nearly 50 years after the Memphis sanitation strike, the city will offer the 14 living strikers $50,000 each in grants and will also contribute more to active sanitation workers' retirements, Mayor Jim Strickland announced Thursday.

Strickland made the announcement inside the National Civil Rights Museum, home to the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, as the city prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's death and the strike next year. Workers went on strike over working conditions and low pay after a garbage truck malfunctioned and crushed to death sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

"We should have had this a long time ago," said Elmore Nickelberry, 85, one of four active city employees who participated in the strike. The 10 other living strikers are retired.

The city will cover the $900,000 cost of the tax-free grants with money from its reserves, said Strickland.

"It's a major step toward the financial security they deserve," Strickland said of the proposal.

The grants don't make up for the city's failures of the past, said LaSimba Gray Jr., pastor of New Salem Baptist Church — but it's a start. Gray said he approached Strickland's administration with the idea for the grants about a year and a half ago and Strickland, to his credit, began researching the possibility of offering the grants.

"It's a better beginning than we've had for 50 years," Gray said. "We can build on that."

 

In settling the strike, sanitation workers opted to receive Social Security benefits rather than a city pension. Over the years, the city improved its pension benefits, creating a gap between the benefits of sanitation workers and other city employees.

To close that gap, the city will contribute between 50 cents and $1.50 to the public sector equivalent of a 401K retirement account for every dollar sanitation workers contribute. The city will contribute 50 cents per dollar if workers have fewer than 15 years service, $1 for workers with 15-20 years, and $1.50 for workers with more than 20 years.

The contributions, which are in addition to what the city pays workers in Social Security contributions and deferred compensation, should increase workers' earnings by between 1.5 and 4.5 percent.

"I hope the employees understand we're doing everything we can to make them whole as best we can," said Public Works Director Robert Knecht.

The City Council has yet to approve the matching contribution, which will cost the city's Solid Waste Fund an estimated $450,000. The fund is already drying up, prompting Strickland's administration to push in recent months for changes to the city's solid waste model — possibly including fee hikes.

Fred Davis, a City Council member during the strike and local businessman, was at the announcement to show support for the changes, and thanked Strickland for attempting to correct "some of the missteps of the past."

"I think for the workers there is no 'far enough,'" Davis said.

Follow Ryan Poe on Twitter: @ryanpoe

   

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