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If blacks lose ground, can Memphis make progress?

On Tuesday night, an intergenerational coalition gathered at City Hall to argue that widespread loss of public jobs might strip many hard-working Memphians of rights won during the civil rights movement. On Tuesday night, an intergenerational, rainbow coalition gathered at City Hall to argue that the widespread loss of public jobs might strip many hard-working Memphians of the rights won during the civil rights movement.

Privatization, they argued, had the power to do to them precisely what racism had done: jeopardize their ability to own homes, find jobs and support their families.

“This is a moral fight. This is a fight for you to do what’s right,” Rodriguez Lobbins told the City Council.

The marathon budget session became a stage for a noisy, angry debate over balancing community needs and fiscal values. The question dividing elected officials and residents: Should government be streamlined if it means stripping away decades of gains made by the working class and minorities?

The Memphis sanitation workers – facing a call for outsourcing of their jobs – emerged as the human faces of the combative 2011 budget debate, which also proposed painful cuts for police and firefighters.

“They are always trying to pick on the little man,” Richard Blaylock, a North Memphis resident, said. “They never look anywhere but down here. That is not right.”

Sanitation workers, some of whom had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., packed City Council chambers, carrying “I am a Man” signs and invoking King’s name. Seventy-one-year old Georgia King, one of scores of citizen speakers at the meeting, told the council she could hear Dr. King asking, “How long?” The crowd responded in unison with her. “Not long!”

Just a few weeks after U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis appeared in Memphis for a celebration in conjunction with inducting the 1,300 workers who took part in the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike into the Labor (Department) Hall of Fame, today’s workers found themselves wondering if they would be jobless and unemployable.

Efforts to outsource 500 public jobs to private companies came as many African Americans are losing economic ground, and worker’s rights are a hot button issue. The jobless recession, coupled with the effects of predatory lending, created an economic climate that has left thousands of African Americans unable to get jobs or provide for their families.

A year ago, The New York Times profiled Memphis as a city where sizable African-American income and wealth was being destroyed, erasing nearly two decades of slow, steady progress. The median income of African-American homeowners in Memphis rose steadily until five or six years ago. In 2010, it receded to a level below that of 1990 — and roughly half that of white Memphis homeowners, according to the analysis conducted by Queens College Sociology Department.

Memphian Michael Dickerson and several other speakers were prepared to take to the streets.

“If 17,000 marched in 1968, if you carry out your evils, I’ll use every ounce of my energy into seeing 170,000 people march in this city if you do it,” Dickerson said.

Council chair Myron Lowery said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have more cards (from people wanting to speak) than I have ever seen in my life. This is what democracy is all about.”

Many spoke of shared fiscal sacrifice and demanded that the City Council ensure that local corporations pay their fair share of taxes.

“Stop the corporate welfare, the handouts,” Shelley Seeberg, the administrator of AFSCME Local 1733, said. “Public workers didn’t create this crisis and you need to stop balancing the budget on the backs of the hard workers for the city.”

Tommy Grayson urged spreading sacrifices across all classes and ethnic groups.

“Do it fair,” he urged. “Spread it out like water.”

The budget debate was settled after a compromise was put forth by Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, who emerged  as a bridge builder intent on reducing labor’s pain while streamlining government.

Highlights of the council-approved budget include:

• A one-time 18-cent increase in the property tax assessment to help fund the budget and school obligations. Mayor Wharton noted that is the same amount the council returned to taxpayers in 2008, after school funding was cut. Many of the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting had urged the council to restate the previous tax rate.

• Councilwoman Janis Fullilove’s proposal to use as much as $13 million of the city’s $76 million in reserves for a buyout plan for sanitation workers. This allows the city to reduce the size of the sanitation workforce without layoffs. Under an earlier proposal, 500 positions were to be eliminated.

• Downsizing government by laying off 125 workers and eliminating 248 positions that are vacant. City workers will forgo raises and will only get one paid holiday.

• Eliminated $2 million for police recruiting and training.

• A Service Assurance Committee will be established. Mary Cashiola, the city’s spokesperson, said the committee will meet to discuss gaps in service as it relates to police and fire. The city will put $5 million in reserves and, should it be necessary, service can be reinstated using that funding.

• The Memphis Fire Department will shrink in size as it eliminates 111 jobs through attrition over three years.

• Higher court fees for moving violations and parking tickets.

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