MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, the people who keep the city clean are again fighting for their jobs. Memphis is considering privatizing its waste services, which would eliminate about 250 jobs.
The dispute in Tennessee comes as some state governments around the nation are pressing to weaken unions by stripping them of the kind of collective bargaining rights for public employees that King and other leaders fought for. The issue has led to vows of union rallies at city meetings and even prompted a threat of violence — posted on Twitter — against a city council member who is leading the call for privatization.
Memphis' city council scheduled a Tuesday meeting to discuss its $60 million recurring budget deficit and one money-saving proposal calls for placing sanitation services, including garbage collection, into the hands of private companies.
"Clearly, Dr. King lost his life for people to have collective bargaining rights," said Shelley Seeberg, a local union administrator opposed to privatization. Yet she said Memphis has a unique niche in civil rights history because of the 1968 strike and insists the matter today is well worth fighting for.
The outsourcing plan, advanced by City Councilman Kemp Conrad, calls for modernizing an aging fleet of garbage trucks and taking other steps to collect $25 million in savings per year. A private company, under Conrad's plan, would be able to make 950 trash collection stops a day compared with 450 stops under the existing system.
But the plan also calls for cuts in the solid waste work force, about 500 employees who do not have pensions. Conrad's proposal says the private sanitation company would probably need about 250 employees, earning a similar wage but with longer hours.
Buyouts of up to $75,000 would be offered to the 107 sanitation workers who have served 35 years or more but do not want to try for a job with a private contractor or are ready to retire.
"This is probably the last year we're going to be able to afford something like that because of the dire straits we're in," Conrad said. Memphis' budget woes are similar to those of other cities, and the most recent proposal includes a fee for vehicle inspections and cuts in police overtime.
Protesters from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are expected at Tuesday's council meeting. The proposal has encountered strong opposition from its Local 1733, the union King came to support in 1968.
Seeberg, the union administrator, said privatization means the city would ultimately lose control over the cost of its sanitation services. She and other opponents also claim the quality of service would drop under privatization.
Newer garbage trucks that could be used have automated collection arms that pick up garbage cans one at a time, reducing the need for multiple crew members on a truck. But opponents say privatized collectors would probably no longer pick up larger items that residents leave at curbside like junked furniture, appliances and tree limbs the city has been disposing of for free.
Workers say private firms might charge to pick up such bulky items.
Seeberg said the city never mentioned buyouts or layoffs when it met with the city's unions to negotiate contracts earlier this year, and it has not collectively bargained on this issue. She warned the city would be taking a step back to pre-1968 times if council members go along with Conrad's proposal.
"Sadly, we're back at that same place in time, where we're having discussions about whether or not people have a right to collectively bargain," Seeberg said. "This is clearly an attack on the working people."
As the discussion escalates, Memphis police are investigating a threatening Twitter message aimed at Conrad and has since increased patrols around his neighborhood.
For his part, Conrad said he understands the meaning of King's civil rights campaign.
"I fully understand and appreciate the movement and what happened in 1968 and what that meant for our country and our city," Conrad said. "That's one of the reasons why I want to do something good for these workers and offer the buyouts."
To longtime sanitation workers like 69-year-old Cleophus Smith, buyouts are no substitute for a regular paying job.
"I wouldn't want anyone to take a buyout plan and leave me hanging," said Smith, who was 24 and just one year into the job when he marched with King in 1968. "I'm here to fight this to the end."
Smith was one of 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers from 1968 inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame earlier this month. He says he will only have Social Security benefits to live from if he loses his job and is asking the city and union to work something out.
King fought for the union and his presence helped secure better wages for the workers. Smith, who was 24 at the time, said King's persistent message of non-violent resistance resonated with a group of sanitation workers who ate rationed food and were getting maced and attacked by police dogs.
"It's an insult for privatization to come in after what the sanitation workers fought for in 1968," Smith said. "It's a dishonor."
The strike began in February 1968 after two sanitation workers were killed while working on a city garbage truck. The city workers were seeking the right to unionize. City officials declared the strike illegal and arrested scores of strikers and protesters over ensuing weeks. King first tried to lead a protest on March 28, 1968, but it was broken up by police and a 16-year-old was killed. Before King could follow through on his promise to lead a second, peaceful march in Memphis, he was killed by a sniper on April 4.
The strike ended April 16 when the city and union settled.