The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

April 3, 2013

Decades after King's death, Memphis jobs at risk

(Continued)

COXEY, Ala. —

With the slogan "I am a man," the workers also wanted the respect and dignity that comes with doing a low-paying, back-breaking job with great pride and effort.

King came to Memphis to support them. He delivered his last public speech April 3, declaring, "I've been to the mountaintop."

The next day, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was killed by a rifle bullet fired by James Earl Ray from a boardinghouse across the street.

The assassination led to riots in Memphis and several U.S. cities. But the strike, stained forever with King's blood, turned to victory when the city acquiesced to a 10-cent raise and succumbed to other demands, including unionization.

Labor scholars call it a watershed moment.

"It signified the close relationship between labor relations and civil rights and human rights," said Thomas Kochan, an industrial relations professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "Dr. King epitomized a leader who recognized that relationship, and that's what brought him to Memphis."

Much has changed since then. Memphis has had a black mayor since the early 1990s, and today's city council is majority black.

But in 2013, the power of unions in America isn't what it was in 1968. And the lure of privatization is strong for cash-strapped public officials.

The move toward privatization in Memphis began to swell two years ago, when the city council agreed to offer buyouts to retirement age employees. The buyout plan was never implemented, and the money was used elsewhere.

Talk of opening garbage and recycling collection and hauling to private bidders remained mostly dormant until late March, when City Councilman Kemp Conrad asked Mayor A C Wharton Jr.'s administration for an update.

Conrad says the $25 per household solid waste fee is too high.

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