Nearly 45 years ago the nation was watching as 1,300 men looked to a Birmingham preacher to help lead them out of modern day governmental bondage. History would record their dramatic struggle for simple dignity.
In only a few weeks, the eyes of the nation will refocus on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work on behalf of the Memphis Sanitation workers union AFSCME. But, what could be embarrassingly exposed is that many of the same issues of wages and working conditions, sadly, decades later remain bones of contention as negotiations between the venerable union and the city would appear headed for a new economic impasse.
"When you hear that we can save an additional 12 to 20 plus million annual and on-going that's basically wealth that we're stealing out of this community for people that need that money," says Memphis City Councilman Kemp Conrad.
"AFSCME members at the city are still the least paid people at the city. Also the majority of AFSCME members are not in the pension plan. So, when you ask why those folks are still out there in the truck 40, 50, 60 years after the fact...well, all they have to turn to is social security," says AFSCME Executive Director Chad Johnson.
Some observers might dismiss gnarled contract negotiations as marred by political posturing being practiced by both sides of the city's longest running dispute. The blame game pits the city versus the union, with the Memphis City Council a disgruntled and frustrated third party. Council members are especially miffed that a proposed buyout of older sanitation workers two years ago wasn't implemented by the Wharton administration.
"When we authorized that the buyout and either managed competition or outsourcing they chose not to do anything with it. They didn't implement it and it's really a dereliction of duty," adds Conrad.
Johnson says, "Before we start talking about buyouts...because again, we constantly hear there's no money. All of a sudden there's money for a buyout? Where's that supposed to come from when you still can't give back the 4.6 that you took illegally from the beginning."
With now only 619 full time city solid waste workers, 45 of them 63-years or over, potential privatization leading to more outsourcing of jobs, coupled with an agreed upon need for more efficient automated trucks are all issues that must be whittled down.
Johnson insists the union is willing to do what the city didn't want to do 45 years ago, to listen and work together, "The techworld calls it "crowdsourcing." So, why aren't we crowdsourcing? We got people out there on the frontlines every day, who see all the tricks, the difficulties, the inefficiencies. Why aren't we crowdsourcing to find out how to come more efficient and more effective?"