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Comparing 1968 sanitation workers' conditions to today
Comparing 1968 sanitation workers' conditions to today
Posted on 03/29/2018

As the world’s attention trains on Memphis for next week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s a logical question: How have things changed for our sanitation workers, the men for whom Dr. King came to Memphis, from 1968 to 2018?

An issue-by-issue comparison helps tell the story:

In 1968, sanitation workers made an average wage of $1.75 per hour. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $12.67 in today's dollars.

In 2018, the average solid waste employee makes $17.34 per hour — a 37 percent increase when adjusted for inflation. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker in “refuse and recyclable material collection” in the Memphis area makes $15.24 — 12 percent less than the City pays.

The average annual salary for a solid waste crew person is $33,778. With overtime included, that crew person's average annual salary is $38,707. The average annual salary for a crew chief is $37,338. With overtime, the average annual salary for a crew chief is $44,528.

In 1968, sanitation workers had no health insurance and had no on-the-job injury policy.

In 2018, solid waste workers have the same health, dental, life, and vision insurance options as all other City employees. They also have an extensive on-the-job injury policy and $10,000 in free life insurance.

In 1968, sanitation workers were members of the City’s 1948 pension plan, but opted out of it later in the year in favor of Social Security. This opt-out was declared permanent by the federal government, and various attempts to return to the City’s pension have been ruled illegal.

In 2018, solid waste workers have Social Security, a 457(b) plan with 2.35 percent match from the City, and a 401(a) plan with up to 3 percent matched by the City. In 2017, Mayor Jim Strickland and the City Council awarded $70,000 grants and free financial planning for the living strikers in an attempt to help provide more financial security.

In 1968, sanitation workers had no paid time off.

In 2018, solid waste employees have 10-25 days of vacation per year, 12-30 days of sick leave per year, four bonus days per year, 13 paid holidays, and three days of bereavement leave.

In 1968, sanitation workers had no grievance procedure and could be terminated at will.

In 2018, solid waste employees have a clear grievance procedure, regular meetings between labor and management, and clear civil service and City policies that govern discipline and terminations.

In 1968, sanitation workers were provided no safety equipment or procedures.

In 2018, employees are protected by a safety ordinance and policy, have dedicated resources and training around safety, and are issued protective equipment, boots, and rain suits.

And that’s not all. Solid waste employees have an incentive plan that allows them to end their work day once their defined area has had full collection. Employees are offered additional pay ($0.25 per hour) for work during inclement weather, and employees can receive annual bonuses if there are savings in the solid waste fund. In 2017, that resulted in a $583 bonus per employee.

Under Mayor Strickland, who took office in 2016, pay has increased for solid waste employees. Negotiations with AFSCME Local 1733 resulted in wage increases of 1.5 to 9.1 percent in the 2016-17 budget year and increases of 1 to 2 percent in 2017-18.

Mayor Strickland also initiated the 2017 grants to the surviving 1968 strikers — a nearly $3 million investment that was accompanied by financial education from Operation HOPE.

“In 1968, the mayor of Memphis wouldn’t speak to you,” Mayor Strickland said at an event honoring the 1968 sanitation workers last month. “Today, in February of 2018, as mayor of the City of Memphis, I’m here to tell you: Your lives matter. Your work is valued. You are, indeed, men.”

(Note: Garbage collection was handled by the Sanitation Department in 1968. In the early 1990s, this department was renamed the Solid Waste Department and folded under the Division of Public Works — hence the different names of the employee groups in this article.)

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