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
Martin Luther King Jr. will always be revered as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in America and the world. Most people know King died in Memphis, but did you know that he died while fighting for the right of sanitation workers to organize unions and choose their own leaders?
King called unions “the best anti-poverty program available to poor people with jobs.” He worked with leaders of all the country’s major labor unions and supported union membership all his life.
At a press conference before his assassination in 1968, King said: “It isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. … What is the profit in being able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if one doesn’t earn enough money to even buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
On this MLK Holiday, pay tribute to Dr. King’s vision of economic justice by speaking out for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
EFCA will protect every worker’s right to form, join and assist labor unions – and bargain for a better wages, benefits and a better life. The legislation now has 225 co-sponsors but hasn’t moved in Congress because of the attention focused on health care reform. Still, now is the time to contact your members of Congress. Let them know that as soon as the health care reform legislation is passed, you expect them to turn their attention to the passage of EFCA.
Dr. King said “All labor has dignity.” Let’s restore dignity to workers by moving toward passage of the Employee Free Choice Act!
*For more on the Employee Free Choice Act visit the Workplace Fairness Employee Free Choice Act page.
About the Author: Linda Meric, a nationally-known speaker on family-friendly workplace policy, is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. A diverse, grassroots, membership-based nonprofit that helps strengthen women’s ability to win economic justice, 9to5 has staffed offices in Milwaukee, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Jose. Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].