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Memphis Workers on the March

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Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign. 1968

In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. died in Memphis while supporting the city’s sanitation workers and their struggle for economic justice. Fifty-two years later, not that much has changed and the sanitation workers are once again on the march.

The city of Memphis said Wednesday it had emergency, private garbage crews on standby in case of a “wildcat” work stoppage this coming weekend. 

“They are operating outside of their leadership. Should this stoppage occur, it’s in breach of the memorandum of understanding with the city and also the ordinance. We are in the process of contracting with two emergency contractors to fill any void that’s left,” City spokesman Dan Springer said. 

Springer said any worker who participates in an unauthorized work stoppage technically resigns their position with the city of Memphis under the city charter. 

How large of a work stoppage is planned for Saturday is unclear or if it will happen at all. Any potential stoppage could delay trash pick-up scheduled for this weekend after being pushed back for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. 

The city’s comments came after the head of AFSCME Local 1733, the Memphis sanitation workers union, wrote a letter Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland Friday disavowing a planned, “unsanctioned” strike that could delay trash pick-up this weekend.

“It has been brought to my attention that some employees of the City of Memphis Solid Waste Division are attempting to organize a work stoppage. It is (scheduled) for Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. I assure you that the leadership of Local 1733 does not support any action that violates city ordinance. ..,” Jason Hunter, the president of the union wrote to Strickland. 

Wink wink, we totally don’t support your strike that we totally support but can’t say so publicly for legal reasons.

Spivey said Lamar has a goal of privatizing and contracting out the city’s trash pick-up service, replacing public employees. 

Lamar stood in the back of the room with little expression on his face. Lamar and other division directors were reappointed Tuesday. 

“Maurice Spivey does not speak for AFSCME. He does not speak for this local, and if he was speaking, he was speaking his own opinion as an employee of the city of Memphis,” said Gail Tyree, executive director of AFSCME, in an interview Wednesday. 

At present, about 20% of the city’s trash service is privatized and the remaining 80% is conducted by the city’s solid waste division.

The Strickland administration overhauled the trash service over the past two years, increasing the frequency of outside-the-cart pick-up. Those changes have cleaned up the city to some extent but have meant longer days for a city department that struggles with a high absentee rate.  

In a recent email to constituents, Strickland apologized for the slowness of leaf litter pick-up after the holiday season. Trash bags full of leaf-litter lingered on sidewalks for weeks, recalling the period before Memphis expanded trash pick-up in spring 2019. 

Like in 1968, it’s another white mayor governing a city by placing extra burdens on the back of its poorest workers, in this case seeking to privatize it entirely. It may not be the racist machine of 1968 ruling Memphis, but how much has really changed for the black working class? Not nearly enough.

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