Doing the right thing by the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers

Marcellus Lovelace’s mural on Main Street, Memphis, the morning of July 6, 2017.

July 6, 2017

In the nearly 50 years since our City of Memphis sanitation workers took the brave stand that remains one of the seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement, we’ve come to admire their courage, commemorate their resolve and rally around them as a community.
Yet there has always been a missing piece: a more secure retirement for these workers, four of whom remain on the job today.
Today, at a breakfast honoring our 1968 sanitation workers, I announced that this will change. At a news conference later today, I’ll share more details of our plan to provide further financial security for the 1968 sanitation workers through $50,000 grants — both to the four who remain on the job and the 10 who are retired. We’ll work with a nonprofit called Operation: HOPE and one of our best corporate partners in Memphis, First Tennessee Bank, to administer the program.
This is a nearly $1 million commitment to do the right thing. 
But we won’t stop there. Also at today’s news conference, I’ll share more about a new supplemental retirement plan that we’ll institute for solid waste workers who came on board after the 1968 strike. The city will provide up to a 4.5 percent match in a new plan that will join the solid waste workers’ current Social Security and deferred compensation plans.
We’ve been working on this plan since last fall. It’s imperative that the City of Memphis do the right thing by these men who sacrificed so much on the mission that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to our city in the spring of 1968.
Thoroughly explaining why our Solid Waste workers aren’t on our regular pension plan isn’t easy. It’s full of legal-ese, citations of laws dating back to the 1940s and plenty of correspondence since. My chief of staff, Lisa Geater, keeps it all in a big red file labeled “AFSCME PENSION,” and it’s two inches thick.
In a nutshell, though, it’s this: Given the choice to of Social Security or our pension shortly after the city formally recognized AFSCME in 1968, the workers chose Social Security. But even with the city’s addition of a 457(b) plan in the mid-1990s, those funds proved to be not enough to allow many solid waste workers the opportunity to retire. Meanwhile, the city’s pension plan afforded comfortable retirements for other city employees.
Previous AFSCME leaders, mayors and members of the City Council have tried to fix this. Problem is, federal law governing Social Security doesn’t allow groups who have elected to join the program to leave it. 
In 1995, the city made a move in the right direction by providing a 457(b) deferred compensation plan to augment what the workers would make from Social Security. It still wasn’t enough. 
In 1999, the city made another move in the right direction by allowing new solid waste hires to enter the city’s pension plan and not participate in Social Security. But the city had to back out of that a year later when it learned that was not permitted.
And so we’ve gone along, all these years, without a meaningful solution that does right by these men. 
Until today. 
The 1968 sanitation workers showed us how courage can change a city. Our current solid waste workers show us how service makes a city work. It’s only right that today, as we near the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death in our city, we take this meaningful step to do right by them all.

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