Sanitation Division worker Maurice Spivey dispels talk of a strike while saying the compulsory holiday-week work plan is not fair nor needed. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

As word circulated Friday of a “potential unsanctioned strike” by City of Memphis Solid Waste Division workers, those being pointed to as behind such a move said no such thing has ever been a part of what they said is an ongoing effort to secure fair treatment.

Under the subhed “Solid Waste,” a section of Mayor Jim Strickland’s weekly newsletter began with this: “As you may have heard, we’re facing a potential unsanctioned strike in our Solid Waste Division this Saturday.” Strickland then gave the city’s take on the background and noted contingency plans had been made.

Not long afterwards, Maurice Spivey and about two dozen other Solid Waste Division supporters gathered on the corner of Beale St. and Fourth Street. Amid a drizzle and chill, Spivey said, “No one was talking about a strike.”

At issue is a move – mandatory overtime Saturday workdays during holiday weeks – that Strickland’s administration framed as “providing Memphis residents with great collection services on holiday workweeks and on the Saturday after the holidays.”

Solid Waste Division workers are represented by AFSCME Local 1733. Spivey and the workers with him Friday are union members but are not local officials or designated spokespersons.

“We’re simply asking him (the Solid Waste Division director) to recognize that we were already cooperating with the Saturday pickup, the holiday thing. He didn’t have to make it compulsory,” said Spivey.

“We’re older workers. They took away certain components that we had in the past. What two or three trucks used to be able to do, now they are asking one truck to do. We’re men and women. We’re human beings. Our bodies get tired. You need that extra day of rest. We needed the weekend to recover to get ready for Monday morning.”

Taking their position to the public was the purpose of Friday’s news conference by this group of Sanitation Division workers. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Spivey traced the talk about a strike to a Jan. 17 letter sent to Strickland from AFSCME Local 1733 President Jas Hunter. The letter included this reference:

“It has been brought to my attention that some employees of the City of Memphis Solid Waste Division are attempting to organize a work stoppage. It is schedule for Saturday, January 25, 2020. I assure you and your administration that the leadership of Local 1733 does not support any action that violates city ordinance or the Memorandum of Understanding, between the City of Memphis and AFSCME Local 1733.”

The TSD had not reached Local 1733 officials by press time. The letter from Hunter to Strickland, ended with this notation: “AFSCME Local 1733 is committed to our membership who is working to ensure that we deliver world class service to the community in which we live, play, and work.”

Spivey said there is “a major rift” within the union on the matter. He and others are asking for a general membership meeting.

“We need to know exactly what y’all thought y’all were doing by going out here negotiating out of negotiating season,” he said, referencing union officials. “We have a time, starting in March, that we negotiate. They did this in December.

“Then we have a process before any changes take place in our working conditions, hours, work pay…we have to have a discussion and a vote. We never discussed it and they never allowed us to vote and they just implemented it.”

Strickland’s emailed update notes that last September talks were started with AFSCME.

“Initially, we made efforts to improve service by offering voluntary overtime days during holiday weeks,” Strickland stated. “However, it became apparent that this option wasn’t working. We attempted this 11 times, and each time we were unable to sufficiently obtain the necessary amount of employees to participate to ensure continued service.”

After meeting with Solid Waste Management and AFSCME Local 1733, the consensus for improving collection services during holiday weeks was to have mandatory overtime Saturday workdays, Strickland’s update asserted.

“In other words, the employees are required to work the Saturday of any week following a holiday and will receive time and a half for any hours over 40 worked that week. This only occurs 11 times a year.”

Saying the plan was in line with the city’s AFSCME Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the city’s personnel policy and the Fair Labor Standards Act, Strickland noted it was presented to AFSCME leadership in September 2019, and that they agreed in December 2019.

“All employees were notified about the agreed-upon plan on January 2, 2020, and this week is the first week that the policy is being implemented,” the Strickland message stated.

Spivey said conditions associated with the voluntary plan led to decreased participation, asserting that during the last holiday worked, “management asked us to wash our trucks in 30-degree weather just to keep us on the clock.”

Next step?

Spivey said he next would try again to get the requisite 100 union members’ signatures to have a general membership meeting on the issues.

“We did not get an opportunity to discuss nor vote, which is the minimum requirement for the changes that are taking place.”

“We didn’t say nothin’ about no strike,” said Brendia H. Clark. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Brendia H. Clark, a sanitation worker for 30 years, said, “They know it’s not right. They are trying to turn the citizens against us. … It’s a shame before almighty God how they are treating us. We didn’t say nothin’ about no strike. We want to be treated fair and with dignity. We are ladies and gentlemen.”

Kevin Brooks voices his support for Sanitation Division workers in opposition to the compulsory work plan for holiday weeks. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Kevin Brooks, who was introduced as “an organizer” helping the workers, made reference to the level of low wages and low benefits in Memphis, adding, “This is a larger issue. We have to start recognizing the validity of all of our citizens. If not, we will not grow. …”

No one, he said, “wants to talk about justice… It’s simply about justice; that all citizens matter. It’s not about workers, it’s not about labor. It’s all about the city; the great citizens of the great city of Memphis.”