Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Privatizing trash pickup dishonors sanitation workers

    Honor had been 43 years past due, but President Barack Obama made it a point on April 29 to show eight surviving members of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike what they meant to the nation and to him personally.
    After their White House visit and induction into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame, the University of Memphis followed Washington's lead and hosted a local induction ceremony on June 4 in the Michael D. Rose Theatre for the city's original 1,300 sanitation workers, both living and deceased.
    Three days earlier, Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad, a Republican representing Super District 9, Position 1, took the sanitation workers back to 1968 when he introduced a lame proposal in council chambers to privatize the city's trash pickup.
     Conrad said he is trying to save the city $20 million to help close a budget gap of $60 million. But the idea didn't bode well for sanitation workers, nor members of AFSCME, Local 1733, the union that fought "tooth and nail" for better wages and better working conditions for sanitation workers.
    The bitter struggle, they recalled, brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he'd seen "the Promised Land." His death ushered an end to the strike and forced the city to meet the sanitation workers' demands.
    Now the city is looking for savings to balance the budget. New revenue sources should be sought to pare down the deficit, but Conrad's proposal would, in large part, dishonor the sanitation workers and ignite a powder keg similar to the 1968 strike.
Kemp Conrad's proposal...

    While Conrad seeks to prop up a limping government on one end of the spectrum, his plan, while laborious in research, could cause the other end of the spectrum to fall in terms of collateral damage: jobs would be loss.
    A private contractor would make 950 stops a day versus 450 for Memphis, the councilman figured. There are approximately 500 permanent employees in solid waste, but if a private contractor gets the job to dispose of the city's waste, 300 sanitation workers would be tossed aside and laden with economic instability.
   The councilman's plan also includes a $7-8 million fund to buy-out 107 employees with 35 or more years of service. Nine have been with the department since the 1968 strike. Those employees would be paid to retire if they choose not to work for the new contractor.
    Conrad hopes to implement his plan in an effort to curtail spending. Revenue streams may be drying up in some cases, but the councilman's bold initiative, though clearly thought out, is thoughtless to those who could be whacked by the budget ax.
   "We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem," Conrad wrote in a June 2 email addressed to a "fellow Memphian." Bold leadership and a durable plan is needed, he wrote, "not one more year of kick the can."
    While I agree with Conrad that bold leadership is needed and that a durable plan should be implemented, I cringe at the thought that the employees who would be affected by the councilman's plan would be essentially kicked to the curb after forcing the city to meet their demands in 1968.


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