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One Memphis teachers union takes the first step toward the bargaining table

A woman wearing glasses speaks into a microphone while standing at a podium in Shelby County Schools’ central office auditorium.

Danette Stokes, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, presented a petition with enough signatures to start the bargaining process to the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board at its Tuesday meeting.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

One of Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ two teachers unions says that it has enough signatures to force the district to begin negotiating a new contract — more than four years after the previous one expired. 

Over 15% of district teachers say they want to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a new labor agreement, the union says.

Danette Stokes, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, presented the MSCS board during its Tuesday meeting with a petition calling for what’s known as “collaborative conferencing.”

Tennessee’s Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act says that at least 15% of eligible school district employees must sign a petition to launch the process, in which teachers can discuss salary, insurance, benefits, and working conditions with their employer. 

If the board verifies those signatures, it would have to create a committee of district officials and board members to oversee a confidential poll asking all professional educators and some other classroom employees if they want to begin negotiations and to select which teachers union they want to represent them. 

Over half of the district’s 6,000 educators must approve beginning the process, a 2011 law states, and the number of seats each union gets at the table is based on the number of votes they receive.

MSCS teachers have been operating without a memorandum of understanding with the district since 2018, when the last agreement expired. Educators most recently went to the bargaining table in 2019, but the two sides have not agreed on a new contract. 

Last month, Stokes told Chalkbeat that the last collaborative conferencing session was unsuccessful because the United Educators union had fewer representatives at the table than did the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, the city’s larger teachers union.

“We were not able to get the things we needed,” Stokes said. “They dominated and we ended up with nothing.” 

But MSCEA leaders disagree, saying the agreement from the 2019 bargaining session is still on the table and close to being signed. 

The Commercial Appeal reported last month that MSCEA President Anntriniece Napper instructed union members to “ignore any request” from UEA or Stokes to sign a petition to restart negotiations. MSCEA is also currently suing the district, alleging it failed to supply teachers with proper contracts.

Keith Williams, executive director of MSCEA and a recently elected school board member, said Tuesday that the district has addressed main teacher concerns by getting the district to adopt a new teacher salary schedule in 2021 and boost health insurance coverage earlier this year. 

Williams believes a third issue — teacher raises — will be addressed soon. 

He pointed to Interim Superintendent Toni Williams’ claims Tuesday that she still intends to move quickly on reviewing and increasing teacher pay. 

In previous statements to the Commercial Appeal, the district said the last collaborative conference had ended, and the superintendent expressed support for a new bargaining session.

But the MSCEA disagreed. “Why would we want to bargain a whole new MOU when we have no impasses now?” Keith Williams said Tuesday. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. … We’ve worked too hard and too long to fall for some buffoonery.” 

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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