Widgets Magazine

By Tony Jones, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

The group of activists dubbed the Coalition Of Concerned Citizens say a follow-up meeting with the Greater Memphis Chamber yielded an agreement to form a working partnership to change the Memphis labor market for the better.

Monday’s meeting was held Downtown inside the Greater Memphis Chamber’s office. Last week, a protest outside of the Greater Memphis Chamber – and the business leaders’ group Memphis Tomorrow – led to an impromptu, on-the-street exchange between coalition members and Phil Trenary, the chamber’s president/CEO. During the exchange, Trenary suggested Monday’s more formal get-together.

“They informed us of how the chamber works and what active efforts they are currently initiating, which was actually very interesting,” said Christine Kirk, a spokesperson for the coalition. “Our goal was inform them of issues that they may not be aware of enough and how that affects the city as a whole. The low-wage business model that is used to attract businesses here helps grow poverty by creating a large class of the working poor.”

Trenary had not been reached for comment by TSD press time. Christina Meek, director of communications for the chamber, said, “We met with about 20 members of the Coalition and will continue to keep an open dialogue with them.”

Last week, Trenary told the TSD of the Greater Chamber’s efforts to create jobs, lower employment, increase the quantity of middle-class jobs and provide skills training for young people.

At Monday’s meeting the coalition doubled down on its earlier call for a clampdown on temporary services agencies that some members said are “the ones enslaving people” with practices that include paying minimum wage for jobs that warrant more according to market value. Associated with that call is a push for a tighter rein on companies that receive PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) tax breaks.

“One of the things we learned is that the PILOTs have a requirement to pay a minimum of $12 per hour, but what we didn’t get is (whether) that (is) being paid to a temp company or directly to the employee,” said Kirk. “That’s a big difference; because if they are being paid through a temp agency, they are not receiving the full amount. That has been the economic model to this point, but what we really want them to do is to start expanding the way they think about Memphis in a different light.”

The coalition, said Kirk wants Trenary and the Greater Memphis Chamber “to see Memphis like we do. You have people with degrees and people with no skills at all competing for the same jobs. We have a lot more to offer than just cheap labor. But we want to see the results.

“When you pay higher wages, then people can see the change that brings to their community (and) that builds faith all around,” said Kirk.

“All this stuff we hear about Memphis workers – that they’re uneducated, unable to learn, unwilling to work; they’re all false. We have more than 20,000 graduates with college degrees or more that are not looking for work anymore. What we want to do is to bridge that gap, stop compartmentalizing and grow as one vision.”

Kirk said Trenary shared a personal experience with a temporary services firm.

“He gave an example at the table where he worked for a company that hired through a temp agency and they had close to a 250 percent turnover rate per year, but when they started hiring directly it went down to 35 percent.”

Keedran Franklin, who was in on Monday’s meeting, called it a “great meeting” and pointed to a “plan to go into different neighborhoods in the urban community and talk to the people so the Chamber and Memphis Tomorrow can see the actual blind spots the current economic model has been missing.

“There will be a follow-through meeting so we can get into specifics,” said Franklin. “I think it’s the right step, but we want to see results.”