In 2015, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association became America’s second-largest teachers’ union to leave the NEA and create their own union. This is the story of how its teachers took back power from an overbearing colossus—and how they’re doing now.
Tucked against the Mississippi River and two state lines, Memphis is a town with a storied—and often bitter—history.
It is home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In 1968—the year he died—Memphis was the epicenter of racial and labor struggles. A malfunctioning garbage truck crushed two black workmen to death. Soon after, black sanitation workers hoisted now-iconic “I AM A MAN” signs and picketed for safer working conditions.
That same decade, at the height of the civil rights movement, the city’s black teachers’ union merged with the local chapter of the National Education Association. For years after that, the newly created union kept a rule: it would alternate between black and white union presidents to cater to its combined membership.
Walk M-SCEA’s long halls, and you’ll see a picture of every one of those leaders. Talk to the current union heads, and you’ll get the sense that Memphis and its majority of African-American teachers are still making history.
The reason is that in 2015, the M-SCEA committed treason in labor-union terms.
After years of poor representation from the NEA, members decided to disaffiliate from the $354-million behemoth altogether and create a “local-only,” independent union. Now M-SCEA’s 3,500 members are enjoying a return to local autonomy and priorities, and constitute the second-largest local-only teachers’ union in the United States.
Keith O. Williams (who is no relation of AFFT’s Keith J. Williams), led the M-SCEA’s exodus from the NEA. An educator with decades of experience in Memphis, Williams had actually headed the local NEA chapter for years before leading the disaffiliation. In a late March meeting with AFFT, he and other union leaders explained what had led to the rift with the NEA—and how the M-SCEA accomplished its exit.
The union’s worst problems with the NEA started around 2009. The M-SCEA was unhappy with two education initiatives leaders say the state-level union, the Tennessee Educators Association (TEA), supported: the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, and a $90-million grant from the Gates Foundation meant to improve teacher effectiveness. Both programs, Williams said, measured teacher performance against student advancement in untenable ways.
While federal and national interests leapt in to boost achievement in urban districts like Memphis City Schools, the local political landscape was also in turmoil. In 2013, Memphis City Schools merged with the larger Shelby County Schools, creating the 14th largest district in America, with 150,000 students. Williams and fellow teachers again opposed the shift, fearing that their mostly-black urban district would get drowned in the needs of the mostly-white surrounding suburban district.
Then, just one year later in 2014, Shelby County’s six suburban Memphis municipalities decided to secede from the unified district. The administrative and financial upheaval again left teachers and parents reeling. Memphis City Schools had to cope with falling enrollment, lower budgets, and teacher layoffs.
In the midst of these roiling seas, Williams decided to rescind his retirement as union president—an exit he’d already made in 2015 after five years at the helm. For him, another sore point was the TEA/NEA’s inability to fight the layoffs of some 500 teachers.
“TEA Legal was terrible,” Williams said. “We had (hundreds) of teachers laid off, and NEA couldn’t help.”
In sum, he explained, “They served the whole other state and not us.”
Besides the radical changes taking place around them, Memphis City teachers also found dysfunction within their union. For the M-SCEA, the tipping point came when the TEA never paid back $106,000 it borrowed from the state’s largest NEA local.
By July 2015, Keith and his fellow veteran teachers decided it was time to leave the TEA/NEA altogether. The M-SCEA had always exercised what’s known as a “local option” with the parent union: they already owned their own union office building and maintained their own UniServs.
That arrangement made disaffiliation simpler, but by no means easy.
Once the TEA/NEA heard of the M-SCEA’s intention to disaffiliate, the state union threatened to remove the Memphis teachers’ local option. According to Williams, throughout the wrangling, “NEA never came down and tried to make it right.”
The state union’s intransigence was clear to Williams and fellow M-SCEA leaders at the last meeting between the two sides—which took place in the local’s Memphis headquarters. When it was clear the impasse was permanent, the TEA state representatives left and immediately removed M-SCEA’s access to the database of its Memphis members.
Luckily, the M-SCEA’s membership coordinator had been saving contact records of individual members for a long time—simply in the course of her daily duties. The M-SCEA was thus able to recreate the members’ database on its own, which was critical to standing on their own.
Without the ability to communicate with members, Williams said, the M-SCEA would have been “lost.” As it was, while the TEA/NEA spent several weekends knocking on doors, trying to raid the M-SCEA’s membership to form a competing local, the M-SCEA was able to launch their own membership drive.
And it worked.
The M-SCEA walked away with nearly all the local’s educators and now boast a membership of 3,500. The new TEA/NEA local managed to snag only 500 members.
About half of the city and county’s 7,000 teachers do not belong to a union at all, mainly because Tennessee is a right-to-work state that has never required mandatory fair share fees as Pennsylvania did. However, Tennessee also allows multiple unions to represent a single workplace, thanks to a 2011 law that instituted a procedure called “Collaborative Conferencing.”
According to the law’s definition, Collaborative conferencing is the process by which school employers and teachers “confer, consult and discuss and to exchange information, opinions and proposals on matters relating to the terms and conditions of professional employee service, using the principles and techniques of interest-based collaborative problem-solving.”
The law requires teachers and school districts to negotiate working conditions and pay, but allows the district final say in contract decisions. It is thus places less pressure on public employers and taxpayers to accede to all union contract demands. However, Williams and his colleagues still came to memorandum of understanding with the school board in 2015 and continue to officially represent half of Memphis’ teachers.
In all, the M-SCEA’s “organized and systematic withdrawal” from the TEA/NEA, Williams said, lasted from July to August 2015. He remains executive director of the union, while 31-year teacher Anthony Harris is president.
The main benefit to being completely local, Harris explained, is simply the accessibility M-SCEA members have to the union and leaders. “We’re more hands-on,” he said.
In fact, the M-SCEA has managed to re-create many of the services the union used to have under TEA/NEA. They offer professional liability insurance coverage, hired an attorney for legal services, and even maintain a political action committee. At the same time, by eliminating the dues money that went to TEA and NEA, the union has reduced dues to about $300 a year, compared to an annual $750-800 before.
The 3-year-old, local-only M-SCEA is both more efficient and even more focused on Memphis teachers’ concerns. However, Williams acknowledges they cannot rest on their laurels.
Many of the teachers who joined the newly independent union are veteran teachers who might soon retire. When a new school year starts, the union still has to work to recruit members among new teachers.
“We do have to make a concerted effort to keep our members,” Williams said.
In that and much of what M-SCEA has accomplished, it’s clear the union will serving its teachers—and making history.