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Memphis city employees fight for modest pay raises after year of sacrifices

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City employees in Memphis, Tennessee, have put their lives on the line to serve their community throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But these dedicated workers – with the exception of police and fire department employees – are being shortchanged by the mayor when it comes to modest and fair pay raises, even though the city is getting the funds to afford it.

On Wednesday, less than a day after Mayor Jim Strickland released his budget proposal, the community united to denounce it, saying it does little for many city workers.

AFSCME Local 1733 members were joined by elected officials, and faith, community and labor leaders in a press conference where they called it unacceptable for hardworking front-line workers who kept Memphis running through the pandemic to be thanked with not a single dime more in their paychecks. 

“We have worked through this pandemic, doing some of the most essential, some of the nastiest, some of the hardest jobs you could ever have, yet we are thanked with zero for years to come,” said Gail Tyree, Local 1733’s executive director. “We love this city, we are proud to be part of the team, but you can’t have a winning team if you take care of the defense and give nothing to the offense.”

It has been five years since Memphis city employees have had more than a 1% raise. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, which AFSCME members fought for, the city of Memphis is getting $168 million, more than enough to alleviate pandemic-related budget shortfalls. That means there’s more than enough money for the mayor – who plans to increase the pay of some police and fire employees – to also afford to pay all city workers long-overdue raises.

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Local 1733 members, who seek raises of 5%, and allies say the press conference marks the start of a campaign to secure the fiscally responsible pay raises that amount to $2.5 million. This weekend, for instance, they are placing advertisements in local media to make their case.

“I am appalled that the city has the audacity to offer these working men and women 0%. You call them essential workers, but … you have nothing to give them for working on the front lines during this pandemic,” said Kermit Moore, director of the Memphis chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. “They are asking for 5% and we will take nothing less than 5%.”

Van Turner, Jr., president of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, said the city workers are making a reasonable request.

“This demand from these dedicated workers is legitimate, the demand is right and the demand is timely,” he said. “We have to make sure that we’re supporting the people who have to maintain all of these buildings, all of these streets and all the things that make this an appealable and great city. We demand fairness and equity with respect to increasing the wages for these workers.”

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