I Am Still a Man

Some sanitation workers think they're still being treated like trash in the city where Martin Luther King Jr. died for their cause. Some Memphians say that's a load of garbage. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

On February 6th, Memphians awoke to find the city covered in a pristine layer of snow.  An unpredicted snowfall began in the middle of the night.  Surprised residents looked out doors and windows that morning to see six to eight inches covering every surface, tree branches sagging under the weight of the fat, wet flakes, still falling from a hazy sky.

Local meteorologists were as surprised as the rest of the residents.  School kids free for the day squealed with delight and piled on layers of warm clothing to play outside and build snowmen.  Because the snow had fallen overnight, it was unmarred, crisp, and pristine.  The streets and yards looked flawless, with a few exceptions.  The green trash bins issued by the city, accompanied by the beige plastic boxes crammed with recycling, were still parked at the end of thousands of driveways, heavy and full with a week's worth of trash.

Many of the city's sanitation workers, charged with solid waste removal, had opted not to work in the snow that day, referring to a clause in their version of a contract called the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The document, whose inclement weather policy had been in effect since the 1970s, states — among other conditions — that workers may choose to work indoors during certain types of bad weather, including snow, ice, rain, storms, tornadoes, or temperatures of 15 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

So the trash sat, and as the sun peeked through the snow-filled clouds and temperatures began to rise, so did the frustration levels of some 15,000 residents whose garbage was still holding court curbside at day's end. Out of the city's 500 sanitation workers, 174 chose not to work that day, citing the dangers of working outside in freezing conditions. It was, in effect, a mini-strike. And once again, the city stood divided on the treatment of Memphis sanitation workers — the very topic that brought Martin Luther King Jr. here in 1968, and cost him his life on April 4th. Ironically, King was scheduled to arrive in our city several days earlier, but an unexpected snowstorm delayed his trip, leaving historians to wonder whether a change in schedule could have thrown the assassination plan off track.

Forty-one years later, another unexpected snowstorm put the decades-old question back in the spotlight: Are the city's sanitation workers treated fairly? How much has really changed since the unrest of the 1960s, here in the city forever scarred by the death of the nation's most famous civil rights leader? As with most cases, there are two sides to the story.

The King's Men

Not many of the sanitation workers employed in 1968 remain. Of the handful who do, most don't wish to revisit the incident — some tired of talking about it, others unwilling to relive one of the city's most painful tragedies. But one man, an elder statesman of today's sanitation workers and a well-known figure at City Hall, is more than willing to speak about those years of unrest — the below-poverty-level wages workers received, the lack of benefits, the old, dangerous equipment that took the lives of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, and the shot that rang out from a flophouse on Main Street. That man, Ben Jones, is among those who adamantly insist that nothing of significance has changed for him and his fellow workers.

"Looks like I'm in the same shoes now I was then," Jones says, with a nod toward his work boots.

Those shoes marched the picket lines with his fellow sanitation workers beginning in February 1968. Those same shoes stood in a jail cell that March, then in the Lorraine Motel parking lot the night of April 4th. Jones was very much at the head of the sanitation strike, leading marches and rallies, and was in the parking lot when King was killed. His brother, Solomon, was King's chauffeur during his visit here. As his shift begins, Jones repeats his favorite Bible passage, John 14:1, to himself to help him get through the day: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."

As he dresses in his uniform, Jones' aged hands lace those same shoes — thick-soled, steel-toe boots — which punch the gas pedal on a big old pickup that takes him to the Bellevue solid-waste station on North Watkins. Every day, he hauls tractor-trailer loads of garbage to the BFI landfill near Millington.

In his early seventies now, Jones says he would have retired a long time ago, but the city of Memphis sanitation workers have no pension plan. After what he's been through, it frustrates him to see city employees, decades younger than him, retire from one department and join another to receive a pension, salary, and the possibility of a double pension down the line.

Forty-five years on the truck have proven at least one thing to Ben Jones: "If you're for the city, you're against me." No ambiguity there.

Jones isn't alone in his frustration of the sanitation worker's plight. This winter, workers complained bitterly of faulty trucks without heating systems or defrosting equipment, which make working in freezing temperatures and snow dangerous. Still others complain that the city provides no rain gear for workers, leaving them drenched in rainstorms and sticky and wet during drizzles. Still others say the city provides inadequate insulated uniforms for the cold weather. They called press conferences and even stood on the steps of City Hall on King's birthday, demanding to speak to city leaders then and there. The sanitation workers say their rights, as they and their union interpret them according to their contract, are being violated.

But when presented with these accusations, the city's public works director, Dwan Gilliom, is happy to set the record straight.

Trash Talk?

Dwan Gilliom has spent more than a decade on the other side of the sanitation issue, first serving as deputy director of the Solid Waste Division in 2004 before becoming interim director in 2007. The next year, Gilliom was named director.

It's not an enviable job, but it's one he takes seriously. He's frustrated that workers are going public with accusations he deems utter falsehoods. "Every employee is issued a standard rain suit," insists Gilliom. "In fact, we issued two sets last year. If a worker forgets his or her rain gear, we'll provide another set." The workers' safety, he says, is also a top priority, and his department wouldn't allow workers to operate unsafe or faulty machinery. "If there is a malfunction with one of the trucks, it's up to the workers to report that problem. If it's complicated — it can't be fixed quickly by replacing a part or a fuse — a new truck is assigned immediately and the faulty one goes for servicing."

Another point of frustration for Gilliom? "We've never made anyone work in the rain or snow. I'm still shocked at the number of people who choose not to work if they don't want to."

The troubles with the interpretation of the sanitation union's contract didn't begin with the February 2010 snowstorm, though things came to a head that day. The inclement weather issue has been a thorn in the side of both city management, forced to find the middle ground for workers who claim their contracts protected them from disciplinary action, and citizens furious that their trash, a service they pay for, isn't being picked up. In fact, long before the February snow, the city and the sanitation workers union — Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — squared off in an arbitration hearing held on January 12th this year.

The dissent began more than a year ago during a wet, rainy summer. High winds and heavy rain on July 28, 2009, left sanitation workers with a choice: Work for four hours inside the offices, or go home. Whether they chose to work or to go home, employees were paid for a full, eight-hour day.

That didn't sit well with some people.

"There aren't a whole lot of jobs out here where you can not work and still get paid," one citizen interviewed that day by a local TV station noted. "I know if I don't work, I don't get paid. I have no idea what there could possibly be to complain about."

Not working and still getting paid does, in fact, seem like a sweetheart deal. So much so, that the increasing numbers of sanitation workers opting out of work because of inclement weather (including one day where less than a quarter-inch of rain fell) was causing serious problems for the Public Works Department (PWD). There was only so much "inside work" to be done, and the trash still needed to be picked up. When conditions were favorable, workers who picked up extra trash were paid overtime for "catching up" on the workload.

Something had to give. The PWD believed it was being taken advantage of, and consequently, city residents were paying the price. The workers claimed their option not to work was protected by their legally binding MOU.

It was then that the city decided to clarify the policy: If workers chose not to work during rain or when weather conditions were not hazardous enough for city schools to close, that employee would be paid for one hour if he or she reported to work, and would then be sent home without pay. No one was forced to work in unsafe conditions, but no longer would workers cite rain as "dangerous" and be paid for a full day.

The workers and Local 1733 cried foul. Both parties met, but no agreement was made. Neither side was giving up. The two groups met yet again, and when no resolution could be reached, both parties agreed that arbitration (a formal, legal court hearing but without a jury) was the solution.

Ambiguity, Arbitration, and Answers

Legal proceedings are rarely exciting, and arbitration is no exception. When the city and Local 1733 squared off in a hearing on January 12th, the arbitrator had to decide if the PWD violated the workers' MOU.

After both sides pleaded their cases, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the city. He determined the city is not violating the terms of the MOU when it requires crews to work in inclement weather "in cases of emergency or when required to maintain or restore service to its citizens" without providing employees an option to work inside for four hours or excusing them from duty with four hours pay. The city now determines when road conditions are hazardous, and their say is final. When city management directs employees to work in inclement weather, employees have an obligation to do so. Those who do not comply with the new management directives may be subject to a disciplinary process.

In other words, garbage will get picked up in the rain. If road conditions are indeed hazardous, employees will be sent home. When conditions improve, employees can make up the lost hours, but "inside work" with four hours pay is no longer an option.

Though the particulars of weather and when workers could opt out with pay was now resolved, there was still much grumbling in the sanitation department about general working conditions, pay, and most importantly, their lack of a city pension. After all, that was usually one of the perks of a government job and a topic in the news lately with the resignation of former mayor Willie W. Herrington, who will receive a hefty $75,000, along with his administrative staff's generous parting gifts. So why not the sanitation workers? It would seem that their plight, the one that caused the citywide strike back in the '60s, divided the city, resulted in arrests and riots and eventually, the assassination of King, would be at the top of the city's list of priorities — if not out of genuine concern, then at least as a good public-relations gesture.

In Memphis, the treatment of sanitation workers is, and will continue to be, a sensitive subject. But after watching garbage pile up in rain or on cold days, residents were fed up. Reader comments on news websites got downright vicious, claiming workers were lazy, taking advantage of the city, and getting paid for nothing.

After 40 years, the issue of garbage had divided the city again.

Checks and Balances

Back in the 1960s, twice as many sanitation workers were on the job compared with today. Advances in waste collection technology, such as the "one-arm bandit" trucks (an automated arm picks up the bin, dumps the contents, and returns the bin to the curb without ever being touched by human hands) have turned three- and four-man trucks into one-man operations. Fewer jobs means more competition for the ones that still exist, one of the reasons many Memphians are bewildered at what seems to be cavaliar behavior from sanitation workers today.

After all, the salary has certainly increased. In the 1960s, pay was $1.65 an hour for most collectors, with hourly salaries topping out at $1.80. Workers wanted the protection of a union, but many were afraid of the repercussions that might follow for joining. Health care, life insurance, 401(k) plans — none of these things were options for the workers, who eventually went on strike, asking for a mere 8-cent salary increase. They were denied it.

Now the top hourly pay rates range from $15.37 (about $31,000 a year) for crew members to $19.55 (just over $40,000) for tractor-trailer drivers like Ben Jones. In 2010, the city's benefits plan is stated as such: All employees get the same benefits with the exception of a pension. Sanitation workers are not eligible for a pension but the city contributes 2.35 percent towards a deferred compensation in addition to putting 6.2 percent of their salary into Social Security. All employees have the same accrued vacation, sick time, health benefits (if they choose to participate), life insurance, and disability insurance. The city does not have stock or matched deferred compensation.

So how do the city's sanitation workers' compensation and benefits compare with that of privately owned sanitation companies in town?

Hunter Carruthers is the general manager for Advance Disposal, formerly All-Star Waste. His company is responsible for solid-waste pickup in Fayette and DeSoto counties, in cities like Germantown and Collierville, as well as areas like Hickory Hill that have been annexed into the city proper. This month marks Carruthers' 10-year anniversary in the business, which began as a five-man operation and now boasts 108 employees and lucrative contracts like those mentioned above as well as several gated communities and Rhodes College. His trucks make an average of 900 stops a week in the Memphis limits (not counting outside municipalities), compared to the 450 stops the city trucks make daily. This company, like the city, provides rain gear and cold-weather gear, but unlike the city, has no inclement weather policy.

Carruthers chuckles at the notion of such a written policy. "If the mail can get to you, then we can get to you," he says. "Although I have to admit, this has been the worst winter we've seen since we began the business." When the roads and streets do turn icy and become dangerous for his employees, Caruthers is quick to call them back to headquarters until conditions improve.

In fact, a few of the dates that he recalled his workers coincide with the days the city trucks didn't run. Same day, different story, though. "If you don't work, you don't get paid. We just pushed the schedule back a day. That week [in February] we stopped on Monday and picked the routes back up on Tuesday, and so on. There was no overtime, and we worked on Saturday. After that, we were caught up." Prior to this year's arctic winter, Carruthers recalls only one time in nine years his trucks didn't run: "I don't recall the date, but I know it must've been real bad."

After 10 years in the business, Carruthers is also familiar with complaints from employees, though he states he's never had any grievances against him or his business "comparable to the ones the city has been slapped with. We're just a normal business. You have all kinds of things that happen and situations that come up, but I try to be as fair as possible and that's kind of the way I operate. I'd like our company to be a good place for everybody to come to work and enjoy working, and I try to treat them the way that I would want to be treated," he says.

While he declines to give hourly salaries for his employees, he proudly ticks off the list of benefits he provides: up to three weeks' paid vacation, paid personal and sick days, health and life insurance, and long- and short-term disability through AFLAC. His employees, says Carruthers, do not belong to a union.

Pension Tension

Worker pension is complex. Some workers feel that they're being denied a hard-won benefit from the strike — something King sacrificed his life for — which is not the case. In fact, according to newspaper coverage during the '68 strike, a pension was explicitly not an issue between the city and union. Not so these days.

In 2008, Local 1733 turned to then-Congressman Steve Cohen for his opinion about the pension situation, asking for support and advice. Cohen responded in a letter, stating, "This issue is very important to me, and I certainly support Memphis sanitation workers in their efforts. I greatly value AFSCME and all the City's employees. I want them to get a fair deal with respect to retirement income, given many of these employees' long and dedicated service to the City. . . . A 1966 City referendum precluded City employees from electing both Social Security and employment-based retirement coverage, which is what I understand the sanitation workers want. Nothing in federal law appears to preclude City employees from both Social Security and City retirement coverage. Therefore, this does not seem to be a federal law issue, but rather a result of a City referendum — a situation that only the City itself can address. I have informed the union, the City Council and the City Administration that I will work in whatever capacity they need to help all sides come to a mutually agreeable resolution to this problem."

Ruth Davis has been with the organization since 1980, and has served as president since 2004.

Davis is disappointed at the outcome of the arbitration but says, "We have our attorney looking at it at this point to get a little more clarity. No wording was changed. It was an interpretation issue," Davis explains." There's no animosity, and I still believe we can work it out."

When asked specifically what has to happen to get the sanitation workers enrolled in the city's pension plan, the union itself is surprisingly unclear on how to proceed.

"We've got our international offices looking into it. We just don't have the answer on that," says senior staff representative Anthony McGhee. "We haven't received any information on how to proceed. We're not giving up, but we can't get any information. Every door we knock on, we get another vague answer. We're working with the city, the Social Security department, and there are some other actions that we're reviewing that we can't discuss."

But without a clear understanding of what steps must be taken and by whom, it seems that the union is fighting invisible windmills.

"We're meeting with our lawyers to determine what options we have on the pension. If we have any at all, and if we don't, why not?" says a frustrated McGhee.

The pension issue is not a fight Davis is giving up, even if she's not exactly sure whom she's fighting. "That's the truth. You better believe that."

It's a Dirty Job...

Disgruntled workers can be found in every office, department, and place of employment. There will be those who are happy to be employed and will do what is asked without hesitation. Then there are those who find fault with even the smallest things. Some arguments have merit; some are just good old-fashioned griping.

There is nothing glamorous about the sanitation industry. For an organization whose mission is to help keep the city clean, at the end of the day, those who do so end their day filthy. Rotten food, dirty diapers, discarded cleaning materials — all must be handled and disposed of with regularity to maintain a healthy living environment and prevent an outbreak of disease. There is honor in all work, and those who choose to be the custodians for the citizens of Memphis certainly earn every dime of their paychecks. No one is going to get rich as a sanitation worker, but thanks to the changes and advances in the workers' benefits over the last four decades, no one will starve anymore either.

Mayor Henry Loeb famously declared during the 1968 strike, "Garbage is going to be picked up! Bet on it!" Forty-one years later, the garbage will still get picked up, even in the rain. Even in the wind. Still without a pension, but not giving up the fight.

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