Tennessee and Memphis teachers unions are fighting — each other

A turf war brewing between the state and Memphis teachers unions spilled over into local educators’ inboxes Wednesday.

In an unexpected move, the Tennessee Education Association told Memphis-area union members in an email that it had created a new chapter for them on Wednesday. The TEA did so after the local teachers union moved to break from the state and national unions — a decision that has left educators confused about who represents them.

“I think everyone’s got to be puzzled about what’s going on,” said Ken Foster, the former head of the local union. “I don’t know if the average teacher in the classroom knows what is going on, but I guess they would have some questions.”

The conflict stems from a series of changes — including Foster’s departure — at the local union, the Memphis and Shelby County Education Association, that appear to have provoked the state union. At issue is whether the local chapter can make its own decisions about its staff and policies, or whether it falls under the state union’s oversight.

Recently, the local union — which represents about 4,500 teachers, or about half of local educators — has taken advantage of its autonomy to make a slew of leadership changes. Most notably, Keith Williams, the five-year union president whose term ended in July and who is now running for City Council, returned as executive director in August. He replaced Foster, who had held the executive director position for 15 years.

Williams has used his new position to wage a battle against the state union, which he said had failed to serve local members. He said the local affiliate handles all grievances filed by its members, but when they choose to turn court cases over to state union officials they are ignored.

“They haven’t done one thing for members in Memphis and Shelby County,” Williams said.

So he retained Memphis attorney Michael Floyd to inform state union officials that the local chapter was seceding.

“Effective immediately my client has elected not to be affiliated with either the NEA or the TEA,” Floyd wrote to TEA President Barbara Gray on Wednesday.

That led to the letter that landed in educators’ inboxes this week, saying the state union has created the new “TEA West” to represent Memphis members.

Exactly what the decisions mean, and whether the local union’s secession can stand, is unclear. The TEA’s letter to educators suggested that union members would have to approve a split. Williams said the local chapter’s board had voted to disaffiliate, but members had not yet been asked to vote on the move.

Gray said understanding how the decision to disaffiliate was made would matter going forward. “The governance document of MSCEA requires certain procedures to be followed, and we don’t know if any of these procedures were followed or not,” Gray said. “But we do know that we’ll be working with the membership of MSCEA to make sure that their voices are heard in attempts to rectify the situation.”

For now, the state union is telling local educators that their membership to TEA and the national affiliate still stand, and they are still entitled to legal representation and other services. Its email to local educators signaled that the dustup was likely to be resolved, although there are “serious questions that need to addressed.”

Williams suggested that he was open to resolution but willing to engage in a prolonged battle against the state union if it does not continue to let the local choose its own staff.

“If there cannot be a resolution, it looks like this may be a fight,” Williams said. “They have said we do not have right to retain the local option, and we believe that we do.”

You can view the letter and email here: