1968 sanitation workers to receive nearly $1M

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced the city will give grants to the 1968 sanitation workers--a move that comes nearly 50 years after the strike that forever changed Memphis took place.

Sanitation workers, such as Reverend Leslie Moore, marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Downtown Memphis. They protested unfair wages, unsafe working conditions, and the city's refusal to recognize the sanitation workers union.

"I marched alongside him. We all did and everybody that was in the front line with Dr. King, they got thrown in jail," Moore said. "We stood for our rights. We didn't let anybody mistreat us. But, we were mistreated, but we stood up for our rights."

Strickland laid out plans for these grants--$50,000 each--Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum. The city is working with Operation: HOPE and First Tennessee Bank for the near $1 million commitment.

The city will provide the grants to all 14 living workers who protested against the unfair treatment. Out of the 14, four of those workers still work for the city's sanitation department. One of those workers is Elmore Nickelberry.

"I think it's a great honor for the mayor to do something like this. We should have had this a long time ago," Nickelberry said.

Strickland said it is time to do the right thing.

"It's never too late to do the right thing," Strickland said. "The 1968 sanitation workers changed our city for the better through their courage and resolve. Yet, they've never had the financial security that other city employees enjoyed. Today, we're taking a major step toward that financial security, as well as enhancing the financial future of our current and future sanitation employees."

Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht said the past can't be undone, but action can be taken in the present.

"Obviously we can't undo everything, but as Chief McGowan says, it's never the wrong time to do the right now," Knecht said.

Strickland also announced the creation of a new retirement plan for the sanitation employees. The city will match contributions up to 4.5 percent in the workers' 401(a) plan to join the workers' current Social Security and deferred compensation plans.

Employees with 20 years of service or more will have each dollar matched with $1.50 from the city, up to three percent of their salary.

"The issue over sanitation worker retirement has existed for nearly 50 years. I am proud our administration was able to develop an innovative solution to address this challenge for current and future employees with Social Security benefits," Memphis chief human resources officer Alex Smith said. "In addition to the grants and new retirement program, we are also enhancing our retirement planning and education services in partnership with Operation HOPE to help our workers be able to effectively save and plan for retirement, providing them the financial dignity they deserve."

City Council must approve the matching contribution. The issue is on the City Council's agenda for next Tuesday.

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