In February of 1968, two black city sanitation workers were crushed to death by a truck, sparking a strike around the issues of low pay, poor safety and zero benefits. The Civil Rights-era action still influences the City of Memphis 50 years later with its recent approval of retirements benefits for the living sanitation workers.
In a move 50 years in the making, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced on July 6 that the city will provide $50,000 grants to the living sanitation workers that took part in the historic 1968 strike.
Up until that point, the city’s sanitation workers were bottom tier on terms of pay, workplace safety and worker benefits. African-American sanitation workers ranked lower. The city, with policies and a culture largely cultivated during the segregated E.H. Crump era, wasn’t sympathetic. Neither was a police force with klansmen in its ranks.
“There was a huge inequity. They were not fairly compensated. They had no benefits. It was a very difficult situation,” said Peter Knecht, director of Public Works for the city of Memphis.
In the early days, the incoming administration was searching for ways to attract and retain talent for the city. After concerns of the police and fire department were addressed, the solid waste department was the next duck in the row.
Seventy one year old William Ross, a former sanitation worker, stands outside city hall on July 11 shortly after the Memphis City Council approved grant funding to be given to the sanitation workers of 1968. (Houston Cofield/The Daily News) The first thing the administration wanted to accomplish was to honor the surviving workers who took part in the sanitation strike.
“We are providing a $50,000 grant to those individuals. It’s in recognition of the sacrifice they made for the city of Memphis,” said Alex Smith, Chief HR officer for the City of Memphis.
The grant is a lump sum, with taxes being paid by the city, so workers will get the full $50,000.
While the number of living participants of the historic strike currently stands at 13, it could grow.
“There are some other people who have come forward we think are eligible, but we have to verify it. They will all be compensated in the same way once they are verified,” said Knecht.
While studying the issue of sanitation workers, Smith spoke with two local ministers, one of them LaSimba Gray. They brought up the issue of retirement and the discrepancies between city workers.
“Out of that conversation, it sparked the need for a better understanding about the differences in benefits across the employee population and what we can do about it,” said Smith.
Unlike most city departments, sanitation lacks a pension for its workers. This is the result of a decision following the strike of 1968. It was a choice born out of distrust that had been building for some time.
It took the deaths of Echole Cole and Robert Walker for that distrust to boil over into collective action. On February 1, while working their route the truck malfunctioned and killed them.
Nearly two weeks passed without a word from the city. Outraged black sanitation workers began calling for a strike. Grievances are discussed between the city and International AFSCME brass. Union recognition is demanded. The talks failed.
On February 12, 1968, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked.
“They risked their livelihood and personal lives to take on the city. It was the right thing to do,” said Knecht.
In the days that followed, ultimatums for the strikers to return to work by Mayor Loeb were ignored. Negotiations continued, this time with AFSCME International president Jerry Wurf. Garbage piled up in the streets.
For weeks, the strike holds. The council, sans councilman Fred Davis, backs the mayor. The sanitation workers, meanwhile, gain support from the NAACP and local clergy. Tensions flare after a boycott of Downtown merchants is staged. Strikers are arrested for jay walking, windows from the Mayor's home are broken and trash fires light the city.
On March 5, Rev. Martin Luther King announced his support for the strikers. A trip to Memphis is planned. That day, 116 strikers were arrested staging a sit-in at City Hall.
The "I'm a Man" mural was designed by rap artist Marcellous Lovelace in a modern graffiti style and installed by BLK75. It can be found on S. Main Street, close to the National Civil Rights Museum.
From there, the city boiled. More fruitless negotiations led to more civil disobedience and more arrests. Calls for peaceful protest fell on deaf ears.
King held his first march on March 28, and it is marred by vandalism and violence. Police charge at the protesters. A black 16-year-old boy is shot and killed during the Memphis protest. Four-thousand national guard troops are deployed.
In the wake of the spasm of violence, calm settles over the town.
King returns and delivers his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech on April 3. The next day, he falls victim to a snipers’ bullet on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.
Following months of tumult, division, loss and ultimately grief, there is little appetite to continue the strike. The Labor Secretary is ordered to mediate the dispute by President Johnson. Good faith negotiations are held behind closed doors. On April 16, a week after Dr. Kings’ funeral, he strike ends.
During these negotiations, the sanitation workers were given the choice of joining the city’s pension plan or opt into social security.
“Back in the late 60s, sanitation workers opted out of the pension. It was a voluntary option they undertook based on advice,” said Smith.
Under the civil service retirement system, city employees pay seven percent of their salary into their retirement. They don’t pay a social security payroll tax; they don’t earn the benefit.
Given the city’s history, there was little faith among the strikers and the union that the pension would even pan out. Who knows, some future administration could come in and quietly take it away. They went with Social Security. It proved to be the wrong choice in the long term.
Robert Knecht, director of Public Works for the City of Memphis, addresses the Memphis City Council about retirement grants for participants of the 1968 strike. "It honors their legacy," he said.
Once made, they were legally bound to it. In 1994, Mayor Herenton tried to rectify the problem by converting the workers into the city pension plan. It was later overturned by the federal government.
A 457b pre-tax retirement plan was added. Their portfolio still ran short of the other city workers’ pension plan.
But on July 12, 2017, the city council took up Strickland’s proposal and approved funding for not only the $50,000 grants for the surviving 1968 strikers but also for the addition of a 401a plan.
In addition to the grants received by the surviving strikers, all full-time sanitation workers will now be able to opt in to a 401a retirement plan. The city will match contributions up to 4.5 percent. Employees with 20 years of service or more will have each dollar matched with $1.50 from the city, up to three percent of their salary.
While not the same plan, the addition will bring the sanitation worker’s retirement benefits on par with other city employees.
“401a match program, which is an expansion of retirement benefits from what our sanitation workers currently have – so we are adding a 401a match on top of the social security and 457b,” said Smith.
One of the Memphians receiving the benefits expansion is Elmore Nickelberry. He is one of the surviving sanitation workers that took part in the strike. He is still on the job at age 85. With the lump sum grant and the additional benefits, he now has options.
“It’s not only a way to honor their legacy but subsidize their finances and their retirement prospects – four of them are still active duty. Mr. Nickleberry is 64 years with the city. This grant provides opportunity for them to make the decision,” said Knecht.
The option must fill the long-time worker, who stated in past interviews that he works ‘not because I want to, but because I have to’, with a sense of relief.
“I think it’s a great thing the Mayor and city council have done to honor us. It was a long time coming and it will go a long way to help us. I’m so glad they’ve done this plan for all the sanitation workers,” said Nickelberry.
As far as retirement?
“I am seriously thinking about it now.”