A pension story like no other. Like every other. The Memphis sanitation workers + 49 years.

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Memphis, 2017. Photo credit: Fred Klonsky

April, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee.

This past March, Anne and I drove to Memphis to pay honor to the man and to remind ourselves of the struggle of Memphis sanitation workers. It was that struggle that brought King to Memphis.

Today’s NY Times publishes a story about public pensions that is like no other.

In its essence, it is a story about public employee pensions that is like every other one.

It is about how labor is rewarded and not rewarded. It is about how there is justice and injustice for working people when they finish their working lives.

Civil Rights U.S.A. pic: 30th March 1968. Memphis, Tennessee. Guardsmen with fixed bayonets in Beale Street, Memphis as black marchers stage a protest march.
Memphis sanitation workers strike, 1968.

It is about how even after nearly 50 years, for the 14 surviving striking Memphis sanitation workers, there is still little in the way of real justice.

The sanitation workers of the 1960s have long faced a gap between their retirement benefits and those of other city workers. The difference hinged on a choice after Memphis recognized a union for the sanitation workers: They elected to participate in Social Security instead of Memphis’s pension plan. Only later did it become clear that the Social Security payments would be insufficient to provide meaningful retirements, setting off years of talks and searches for legal loopholes.

Elmore Nickleberry was a striking Memphis sanitation worker when Dr. King was murdered. He is a Memphis sanitation worker today at the age of 85.

He likes his job but is concerned about retirement and living on what he will get from the tiny Social Security check he will receive.

Memphis’ mayor has come up with a grant of $50,000 for each of the 14 strike survivors.

A one-time only retirement payment.

“They’ve been saying they didn’t have no money, so I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” Mr. Nickleberry said in an interview this month. “I was shocked.”

Of course, Mr. Nickleberry is happy to receive it.

After 63 years of work he is still not sure when he can retire.

He said the expected payment and a stronger retirement offered to those who are not yet retired is a measure of vindication, decades after he first protested.

“That’s what I wanted,” he said softly, “always wanted.”

4 Replies to “A pension story like no other. Like every other. The Memphis sanitation workers + 49 years.”

  1. Your new format sucks. Go back to the old one. I’m losing interest in your blog. Have to believe you’re getting far less visits.

  2. I have been looking for the old documentary on this. Stand by the River may be the title. Amazing and powerful. Anyone have a link? Thanks.

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