Memphis City Council Passes Historic Retirement Reform Allowing 1968 Strikers to Retire With Dignity

by Helen Cox  |  December 12, 2013

Memphis City Council Passes Historic Retirement Reform Allowing 1968 Strikers to Retire With Dignity

Finally, retirement will soon be a reality for veteran Memphis sanitation workers like Cleo Smith, one of the men who went on strike in 1968, proclaiming “I Am a Man” and demanding dignity for himself and his fellow workers.

The Memphis City Council this month passed a retirement reform ordinance, paving the way for 40 men over the age of 65 to retire. They’ve been on the physically demanding job for decades. The council’s vote creates a supplemental retirement program that will allow them to retire.

“We’ve committed the majority of our working lives to making sure Memphis’ waste is taken care of,” Smith said. “We’ve suffered on the job injuries but pushed through year after year. Now, we’re finally getting the respect we deserve.”

Currently, sanitation workers are only covered by Social Security and a small contribution by the city to a savings plan. Our union agreed to longer collection routes as part of a broader restructuring of solid waste services and collection practices. A portion of the savings generated through these changes, including the “sweat equity” from the longer routes, will support this benefit.

AFSCME Local 1733 fought for this historic reform for the past several years. While the details are still being developed, the benefit will provide a worker at 65 years of age an annual benefit of $400 per year of service, capped at 30 years or $12,000. 

But the vote was not all good news. The council rejected a fee of $2.25 a month that would help maintain the city’s sanitation fleet and modernize the city’s recycling program. That recycling program would provide economic benefits over time.

“This is a win for workers, but the fight’s not over,” Gail Tyree, executive director of Local 1733 said. “We now need to restore the solid waste fee of $2.25 a month, in order to keep our fleet of trucks updated and operating, which will go a long way in running an efficient operation, a small price to pay for sanitation workers to be able to retire with dignity. AFSCME certainly isn’t backing down now and we are committed to keeping up the fight.”   

The restructured longer routes will fall to younger sanitation workers like Adrian Rodgers. But they finally have the promise of a more secure retirement after decades of service.

“After 30 to 50 years of working for Memphis, these men are owed a decent retirement and so are we, the younger guys,” Rodgers said. “We’re willing to work longer and harder days if it means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that we can all retire with dignity and without fear having to choose between medicine and rent.”  

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