Honks rang out every few minutes Tuesday afternoon in support as drivers along Front Street read the signs protesting the city council’s recent decision to cut benefits for city employees.
The protesters are angry about a recent vote taken by city council members to cut major health care subsidies for retirees and spouses of city employees, which was previously reported in the Flyer.
Crowds of firefighters, police officers, retirees, and supporters stood in front and behind the building holding signs, some asking Memphians to wake up and others calling out Mayor A C Wharton and city council members.
Joe Norman, the vice president of the Memphis Firefighters Association, said the protest was about hope and educating city council members about what those cuts actually meant.
“We have folks who have given their bodies protecting the citizens of Memphis who are no longer able to do the job and didn’t want to retire but are forced to,” he said. “They have these injuries that have disabled them, and now the insurance that they have to use to treat their line-of-duty injuries is being priced out of their [income] range.”
And that’s not even including the spouses and families of those affected, Norman said.
“A secondary impact is what’s going to happen to the employees that are now on the job. The message has been sent to them that your public safety officers, your police officers, your firefighters are going to be forced into working until they’re senior citizens. You’re going to have an aging force.”
According to Norman, the cut to benefits has “crippled” those who have been employed in public safety for many years, and for those who are still on the job, it might lead to those working until retirement age.
“The message that we’re getting from the council and the mayor is that their biggest priority is capital improvement projects,” Norman said. “I can’t think of one capital improvement project that they haven’t liked. The kick in the teeth was they cut all the retirees’ health care benefits Tuesday night and the next morning, they’re giving $66 million to the Raleigh Springs Mall.”
The Greater Memphis Chamber has also taken a stand for the mayor’s plan, according to the union.
“[The chamber] keeps telling us the benefits are unsustainable,” he said. “They can’t tell us why. They have no math to back it up. They’re just like a broken record. It’s one of these issues where if you tell a lie enough times, everyone starts to believe it. You can tell from the crowd today that we’re not falling for it and the citizens don’t fall for it either. These benefits are not unsustainable. The pension’s been in effect since 1948. It’s got more money in it today than it did in 2008, prior to the recession.”
Norman says the city also refuses to compromise.
“If you spend any time in front of the city administration, it’s easier to nail a piece of Jell-O to the wall than get an answer that you understand,” he said.
Lydia Verret is the wife of a firefighter who has been working with the department for 22 years. To her, the city council vote felt “like a slap in the face,” she said.
“He’s supposed to retire in three years, and our health insurance is going to go up to $1,800. So we’re going to have to pay either our house note or our health insurance,” Verret said. “It’s unacceptable. He’s not a regular guy. He doesn’t have a ‘regular-guy job.’ That’s the least they could do. That’s what they promised. We planned our entire life on this and now they’ve lied.”