Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the union representing the city's sanitation workers have reached an agreement that will provide benefits for retiring workers, including some who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during their historic 1968 strike.
Wharton signed an agreement Monday with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The proposal will be presented to city council for approval at Tuesday's meeting.
The retirement deal is aimed at about 80 employees who are close to retirement age. The city's oldest sanitation worker is 86 and there are several more men in their 70s and 80s.
After long negotiations the city and the union came up with a proposal to give the city's oldest workers a path to retirement.
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Senior employees at the agreement signing say they're happy and they think Dr. King would be happy as well.
For Elmore Nickleberry, a handshake with Mayor Wharton Monday morning has been a long time coming.
"It been a long time coming, but change has come," he said. "That's what he'd be saying today. A change has come to Memphis, Tenn., cause I didn't have no idea we'd be getting anything. I thank God at least we're getting something."
Nickleberry, who is the oldest sanitation worker at 86, still drives a garbage truck. He's been on the city payroll for six decades.
"I didn't think this day would ever come, he said. "But now I hope it come."
Nickleberry was a striker. He marched with Dr. King in Memphis 45 years ago. The sanitation workers were fighting for safer working conditions and better pay.
"I get up in the morning time before I pray and walk out the door," said Cleophus Smith. "I'm looking forward to being at work to serve the community to the best of my ability."
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Memphis sanitation workers opted out of the city's pension plan years ago, instead opting for higher wages.
But now many of the men can't afford to retire. The only income they could depend on is Social security. AFSCME Local 1733 and the city worked out a deal to offer the men a small retirement plan.
"It's been to long a uphill battle, fighting, squabbling when all we got to do is just come together to sit down to reason together and to try to get a good understanding of which way, we're going to go," Smith said.
Dr. King came to Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike in 1968. The workers had been seeking safer working conditions, better benefits and higher pay.
The Civil Rights leader was killed April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel. The striking sanitation workers later claimed victory on several fronts, but they've never had a pension.
The union and the city have been negotiating for years. The details haven't been finalized but city officials say the retirement plan would work out to be $400 for every year of service up to 30 years. Only the most senior workers would be eligible. In return, the union has agreed to increase its workload, working longer hours covering more stops.
Mayor Wharton noted the compromise comes the nation prepares the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream speech."
"What better time to commemorate what Dr. King said and did in Washington than to say we're going to start giving the dignity to the employees that they deserve in their retirement years," the mayor said.
The retirement plan for these workers is a small part of a new solid waste services agreement the mayor is proposing. There will be a $2.25 increase to the solid waste fee in Memphis. That money would pay for new trucks and equipment as well as a new single stream recycling program every household would get a 98-gallon recycling container.
The city would also start charging for any waste that does not fit into the garbage or recycling cans. The plan also goes to the city council on Tuesday. If passed, it would take about a year and a half to implement.
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