Jobs of union championed by King saved _ for now

June 22, 2011 - 3:44 AM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis' sanitation workers, including some who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during a 1968 garbage strike, scored a victory when the city council passed a budget without privatizing solid waste collection, but it may be a temporary win.

Mayor AC Wharton said he wouldn't make any effort to privatize the department while he is mayor. But he faces re-election in the fall. And city council Chairman Myron Lowery told the crowd of more than 200 at Tuesday's meeting the current council expires this year and a privatization proposal could emerge later.

"I can't tell you what's going to happen next year," Lowery said.

Dozens of sanitation workers aired their strong opposition to a proposal by Councilman Kemp Conrad that would have saved the city $25 million by outsourcing garbage collection to private companies.

Conrad's plan would have modernized an aging fleet of garbage trucks and eliminate 500 city jobs. A private company is expected to need only about 250 people working longer shifts.

The city has been working to overcome a $60 million budget deficit. Wharton's $676 million 2012 budget proposal delivered this week to the council had no mention of privatization and the council didn't add it during a lengthy meeting and debate.

"It makes me feel better to know that I still have a job," said Willie Douglas, a 17-year veteran of the sanitation department.

During the meeting, more than a dozen sanitation workers spoke about the consequences of losing their jobs. They also referenced King, who on April 4, 1968, was assassinated while in Memphis to support black sanitation workers striking for better pay and working conditions after two workers were killed on a garbage truck.

Melvin Patton, a 19-year member of the department, said the unity by sanitation workers showed King's work remains important.

"We're trying to keep it alive, but the people in charge don't care about his legacy," said the 50-year-old. "They care about the dollar bill."

After some impassioned public comment, Lowery assured the workers there would not be a privatization proposal added to the budget and Conrad didn't move to include it.

Sanitation workers have said they were blindsided by the idea because the city never mentioned it during contract talks in April.

In a surprising move, Councilwoman Janis Fullilove made a motion to create a voluntary retirement fund of $13 million with a $60,000 individual cap for workers who want to retire. Right now, they have no retirement benefits. The council decided to discuss the plan at its next meeting.

Under Conrad's plan, buyouts of up to $75,000 would have been offered to the 107 sanitation workers who have served 35 years or more but do not want to try for a job with a private contractor or are ready to retire.

While the council did not vote on privatization, it did approve a $5 million cut from the fund that covers the city sanitation services for 2012, and a $15 million cut the following year. Where those cuts would come from won't be clear until city officials know how many workers eligible for the retirement plan decide to take it, Conrad said.

Conrad noted that his buyout plan is essentially the same thing as the retirement proposal.

"If the council stays true to what we did tonight, then everybody wins," he said.

He also said he was still upset over a Twitter message he said threatened him and his family after the plan became public.

The city still employs some sanitation workers who were there when King was in Memphis on their behalf in 1968.

City officials declared the 1968 strike illegal and arrested scores who protested. Police stopped King's first attempt to lead a protest. Before he could follow through on his promise to lead a second march, he was killed. The strike ended April 16 when the city and union settled.