VOL. 132 | NO. 148 | Thursday, July 27, 2017
Resolution, Dollar-Figure Miscues Raise Sanitation Workers’ Grants by $20,000
By Bill Dries
After all of these years, maybe what happened Tuesday, July 25, to the city’s plan to pay the 14 surviving sanitation workers from 1968 a grant of $50,000 each was part of the larger narrative of the enduring turmoil of that historic time.
Earlier this month, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced from the National Civil Rights Museum a proposal to give the 14 workers – four of them still working for the city – a grant of $50,000 each with the city paying the taxes on that amount. There would also be a city-matched supplement for sanitation workers who came on board later.
The measures were designed to bridge some of the financial gap between the lesser Social Security benefits those workers chose in 1968 and the city pension that other retired city employees get.
But the administration resolution was poorly crafted, with wording in the version passed two weeks ago saying the four 1968 survivors still on the job would get their grants when they retired, which was not the administration’s intention. Nor were the dollar figures open to interpretation.
By the administration’s math, the dollar figures added up to $50,000 each in a net amount after the city paid the taxes.
Council member Martavius Jones, a financial planner by trade, spotted the ambiguity immediately and argued that the math added up to $70,000 net for each of the 14. He already thought the grants should have reflected the differing gaps between Social Security and the city pension that are larger for some than others.
Jones wasn’t totally ignored at the July 11 council meeting when he raised the questions, but didn’t prevail two weeks earlier and was in a mood to say I told you so this week when it came time to fix the problem.
“There was no consultation with the council,” he said. “The administration wanted to get the credit for this. But now that it’s all messed up, they don’t want to take the responsibility.”
Strickland sought to settle a controversy that has its origin in the aftermath of the sanitation workers’ strike and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The administration of Mayor Henry Loeb very reluctantly recognized the union representing sanitation workers – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But still to be resolved were specific economic issues, like participation in the city’s pension plan.
The workers through AFSCME chose Social Security over the city pension, likely because of a belief that City Hall could one day take away the pension but would be unable to touch federal benefits.
“That was a poor decision made by their union in 1968,” is how council chairman Berlin Boyd put it earlier this month.
Mayor Willie Herenton, who marched with sanitation workers during the 1968 strike, converted sanitation workers to the city pension system in the 1990s. But the conversion only lasted a year before federal officials and attorneys said the city couldn’t do that. The choice made in 1968 for Social Security instead of the pension is irrevocable.
Every time the issue has resurfaced, it emerges with the considerable aura of the strike – which was, then and now, much more than a municipal labor dispute.
Over time, the union’s power has diminished, some of it through bad and corrupt leadership in some instances. The Memphis union has been under the leadership of the international office at numerous points in its long and turbulent history – from representing workers at the bottom of the city pay scale who staged a true wildcat strike to wielding considerable political influence during the 1970s rise of African-Americans to sustained political power in Memphis.
Earlier this year, AFSCME leaders filed notice to take contract talks with the city to a council impasse committee for resolution. But they filed after the new deadline and sought a one-time exception to the rules.
The council still had fresh memories of an AFSCME representative from the Atlanta office berating them for causing the impasse by intransigence at the bargaining table. The encounter at the end of a long council day invoked the emotion of a strike that took place before most on the council were born.
The council rejected the request for an exception and there were no impasse proceedings for the union.
Jones said Tuesday he understood Strickland’s desire to settle the matter in advance of next year’s 50th anniversary of the strike and King’s assassination.
Boyd wanted to understand the total dollar amount for the 14 workers before taxes. He wasn’t the only person in the room aware that while the intent never was to do $70,000 lump-sum grants, the council could well be tagged with cutting the $50,000 grants before all of the loose ends were tied up.
“We bit the bullet and right now the math says $70,000,” he said. “So, I think they should get the $70,000.”
City Human Resources chief Alex Smith quarreled with the math, saying it was open to legal interpretation.
“I’m not beating up on you,” Boyd replied. “I’m just trying to explain it from my eyes. There’s $1.1 million out here for sanitation workers.”
By then, council member Bill Morrison was also doing the math on an extra $20,000 each for 14 city workers.
“It’s $280,000 for a 50-year wrong,” he said, proposing the amendments that were approved to increase the grants to $70,000 each.