The three-day strike in Denver that ended Valentine’s Day and won public school teachers in Colorado a retreat from bonuses and a return to traditional pay raises is a welcome sign for union leaders representing Shelby County Schools teachers, entering negotiations with the district Feb. 28.

Issues that triggered teacher walkouts in Denver in February and Los Angeles in January are shared by teachers here, said Keith Williams, executive director of the 3,500-member Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

A multiyear, $90 million grant awarded in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teacher effectiveness in Memphis left in its wake teacher pay based on bonuses, incentives, hard-to-measure performance indicators and other factors, union officials said.

“We had a contract in this district for many, many years where teachers worked under contract with salaries, advanced degree pay — all of that went away,” Williams said.

Restoring Shelby County Schools to a traditional salary schedule like the Denver teachers won, including cost-of-living-adjustments and pay for advanced degrees, is the top priority for union leaders.

Nationwide, the wave of teacher walkouts began with 35,000 West Virginia educators a year ago. By September, it swept over Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina, as well as the Jersey City School District in New Jersey and the Tacoma School District in the state of Washington.

Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

These walkouts are signs of hope for unions representing teachers and government workers who have found themselves targeted by Republican-led state legislatures, suffering a blow from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.

The court’s Janus vs. AFSCME decision ruled public-sector unions can no longer collect fees from employees who don’t want to join, although unions bargain for better pay and working conditions on behalf of both members and nonmembers. The fees were allowed in states without right-to-work laws. Tennessee is a right-to-work state, which guarantees workers are not compelled to join a union. It also means workers here don’t enjoy union protections.

Tennessee teachers have suffered weakened union power since 2011 when the Republican-controlled legislature stripped the teachers’ unions of collective bargaining powers in place since the 1970s. Unions were forced to follow a process that ultimately gives school boards the power to decide issues and ban teacher strikes, Williams said.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-31), who represents parts of Cordova, East Memphis and Germantown, considers the Supreme Court ruling “the biggest win for workers’ rights and workers’ freedom in over a generation,” Governing magazine wrote.

For teachers seeking to exercise their agency by leveraging union power, it helps to understand Kelsey is part of conservative movement to “erode union power,” according to the magazine. He is listed as a Tennessee chairman for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is leading the charge to decimate unions.

Tikeila Rucker is very aware of this.

“Unions are under attack,” said Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, which is aligned with the Tennessee Education Association. “It’s to destroy the working-class people, destroy the middle class. We’re under attack across the nation.”

Tikeila Rucker, United Education Association of Shelby County.

Still, officials of both the local associations are optimistic Shelby County Schools will come to an agreement called a “memorandum of understanding” that will keep schools open.

A recent meeting with Joris M. Ray, Shelby County Schools interim superintendent, bodes well, Rucker said: “We shared concerns about the salary schedule, and he, too, supports a salary schedule. When we get back to the table this should be an easy fix.”

Williams added: “It is our expectation that we are going to return these teachers to a known salary schedule, and that they are going to get better benefits, that they are going to do something about the curriculum.”

At the state level, the TEA has set goals of erasing decisions based on high-stakes testing and fully funding education as its 20/20 vision goals. An National Education Association Red for ED campaign is highlighting teacher issues, strikes and seeking support.

If the state’s 20/20 goals aren’t met, there may be an opportunity for a possible work action,” Rucker said. “I may not necessarily say a strike, but a work action. That may be something we start to organize across the state.”

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 Surdna Foundation and Community Change.