On the eve of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. told a group of striking Memphis sanitation workers: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
And that’s what Cleo Smith and other veteran Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 strike have done. After nearly 50 years, they’re closer to realizing their dreams of a dignified retirement.
Last month, Memphis City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the creation of a supplemental retirement benefit for current and future sanitation workers. Before the action, the workers only had access to Social Security upon retirement; leaving some working into their 80s because they can’t afford to retire in one of the poorest large cities in the country
The supplement retirement benefit is part of an agreement labor leaders reached recently with the mayor of Memphis. This agreement also includes a series of cost-saving measures for the sanitation department which will help fund the supplement.
It will take some time before Smith and other veteran sanitation workers receive their retirement benefits but they’re excited to have the opportunity to retire with dignity as well as honor MLK’s sacrifice.
“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.”
This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 17, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Author: Keiana Greene-Page