I am thankful Shelby County Schools finally plans to raise the minimum pay to $15 an hour, though this should have occurred long before now. We, as a community, have failed to understand we have been keeping our own employees, their children and grandchildren (our students) in poverty.

Our officials have made decisions to hold wages relatively flat, outsource positions to allow lower wages and fewer benefits, and cut much-needed educational positions, rather than fighting intensive cuts to education and seeking much-needed funds from the community.

Supt. Dorsey Hopson announced the planned increase on March 20, saying he would make a formal proposal to the board within 30 days. About 1,200 employees would be affected, some of whom make as little as $10.60 an hour.

The raise is a way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, Hopson said, as the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaches. King was a proponent of economic justice.

The increase would offer a living wage for employees who have struggled to pay for basics for their families for many years. In 2006, Memphis City Schools’ education support professionals negotiated a living wage, which was $10 an hour at that time. Yet MCS did not maintain a commitment to a living wage minimum for these employee

There was another chance for the school system to provide living wages for these workers in 2012–2013, as the merger of the city and county school systems began. If SCS had leveled up the wages of MCS education support professionals to that of their peers at SCS, many would have moved up $3 to $4 more than $15 an hour.

Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson

The first negotiations for living wages for ESPs began more than 37 years after King was assassinated in Memphis. In 2006, nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,000 education support professionals were making less than a living wage ($10 an hour at that time). Yet, their work was critical to student academic success. They included education assistants, early childhood assistants and others working directly academically with children in the classrooms.

Most of the ESPs were parents or grandparents of students in the schools, so their income directly affected the students. Some had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, exhausted at each of their jobs. About 100 or so of the special education assistants were allowed to work some overtime, riding buses to and from school with their special-needs students to assure their safety and better communication with the parents. Some had part-time after-school jobs with the city schools system, too. The additional income helped their families survive.

The break for those pushing for union representation and more pay came in 2005, during the administration of Supt. Carol Johnson and Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar. They seemed to understand the value of organized labor and that support employees were significantly underpaid for their strenuous, caring efforts. The effort to certify representation for the ESPs and other classified employees and to negotiate with the school system launched.

I was hired specifically to organize the ESPs and help them negotiate their first contract for Memphis and for Tennessee. We created an action group that met regularly, open to any education support professional. We surveyed all of them twice to determine their priorities, then detailed their concerns and needs. Of course, wages and benefits were key. So was professional development. ESPs had not had significant professional development in seven years.

As we met, strong leaders emerged: Education support professionals willing to commit time, do the needed research and courageously face some of their supervisors across the bargaining table.

After months of painstaking negotiation, dealing with everything but the money issues, Goar, who was not on the Memphis City Schools’ negotiating team, stopped me as we passed in the administration hallway. He asked what it would take to complete the contract. I responded with what the Memphis Education Association ESP team was determined to achieve: at least $10 an hour, a living wage for the 40 percent below that; and a 2 percent increase, plus step increases, for everyone else.

Goar and Johnson made the barriers fall away, and MCS agreed to the living wage — for that moment. But we were going to have to renegotiate wages every year. That meant creeping slowly forward each year, slower than inflation, though still falling as much as $4 an hour below legacy SCS for similar positions.

Yet, the 2008 draconian City of Memphis cuts to the MCS budget (just as Supt. Kriner Cash arrived) kept infringing on ESP jobs and pay. As budgets tightened, MCS stopped special-ed assistants from overtime work with special-needs students riding buses and replaced them with part-time laid-off bus drivers, much less experienced with the student and family needs.

Union setback affects wages

In 2011, after six years of negotiating ESP contracts and wages, we suffered a huge setback. The Tennessee Legislature abolished teachers’ rights to negotiate contracts under the Education Professional Negotiation Act, substituting the much weaker Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act.

Then the merger hit, and somehow the district sidestepped a requirement to level up wages and salaries. The new Shelby County Schools system gave legacy county teachers a slight increase in salaries to the level of legacy MCS employees, added 15 minutes a day to legacy city school teachers’ schedules with no pay increase and said they would not bring legacy city schools ESP wages to the level of workers at legacy Shelby County Schools. The new district stonewalled for three years before giving the overlooked ESPs an increase, and then only for some in stages.

The new SCS, driven by the Transition Planning Commission, claimed it had to cut budgets further, and outsourced custodial, bus and other services to allow lower pay and lesser benefits for classified staff in those positions, handled by other unions.

Hopefully, we will now learn the importance of wage respect for our hard-working employees and their families, and create a thriving community.

Susanne Jackson is the former UniServ director for the Memphis Education Association/Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.