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The Chicago Teachers Strike: “Until We Get What Our Students Deserve”

After Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected the demands of the Chicago Teachers Union, 25,000 teachers and 7,000 support staff launched a strike on Thursday, October 17, shutting down the schools for some 300,000 students. Also on the picket line were members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, representing Special Education Classroom Assistants.

On day two of the strike, Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian interviewed elementary school teacher Jesse McAdoo about the conditions in the Chicago Public Schools and why he’s walking the picket line for the schools Chicago children deserve.

Jesse Hagopian: You’re starting the second day of the strike. What was the mood on the picket line over the last couple of days?

Jesse McAdoo: It has been straight fire. All of my coworkers showed up right at 6:30. We had tables set up, there was food out. Just everybody lifting each other up—amazing energy. And that fire pushed us through the cold morning. Dancing the Cha Cha Cha and the chanting. I mean, we’re having a good time out there. You got to have that good energy and that fire and remember that we’re in this together.

Hagopian: Tell me about what you teach and how long you’ve taught. What are the conditions like there?

McAdoo: I’ve been working for CTU for six years. My first two years, I was a special education classroom assistant. Then I went back to school to get a second master’s at the University of North Chicago. My first year teaching I was teaching second grade in the uptown neighborhood of Chicago. I taught third grade the past two years. This year, I’m teaching a first grade, second grade split. Twenty-one students are first grade, nine are second grade, twelve of those students are special needs. Three of those students are recommended to have one-on-one aid. One of my students is wheelchair-bound. It’s the toughest year I ever had teaching and I need more supports.

Hagopian: A first grade and second grade split class with over 30 students and 12 special needs students? Unreal.

McAdoo: I believe it’s breaking the state laws. There’s a 70/30 rule, or 70 percent of your classroom should be general education and no more than 30 percent special education.

And a lot of our kids are going through a lot. My school is in, like I said, uptown. Uptown was one of the most diverse, populations, on the North side of Chicago. A majority of my students are definitely low income and a huge part of our population come from the shelters. We have a revolving door of kids from the shelters that come in and out of our school, and we have a short amount of time to really show them our love. I give them my best, but they might only be around for a couple months.

So we educators often have to also serve as their social workers. That’s the reason we in the union talk about affordable housing in the city. Hey, it’s harder to teach kids who are wondering where they’re going to sleep at night, who don’t know where they are going to be the next day or don’t know if they are going to go to bed hungry.

Hagopian: Tell me about your involvement with the Chicago Teachers Union. Have you been involved in organizing before? Were you involved in the last CTU strike in 2012, or is this all new?

McAdoo: I was a part of the solidarity movement for the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. That’s when I was getting interested in becoming a teacher. I showed up and helped build support for that strike and it’s kind of crazy, the school that I went to support, back in 2012, I then got hired at. So I’m now assisting on the picket line, of the same school, that I was supporting, eight years back.

Hagopian: Amazing. That’s a serious story of the importance of solidarity. I’m wondering what you think are the most important demands of the strike right now.

McAdoo: Definitely overcrowded classrooms. We need smaller class sizes. I think we need, more hiring of special education teachers, and then providing the special education classroom assistance. I’m a Black teacher and we need more teachers that look like me. We need more Black and Brown teachers to meet the needs of our student population. We need more wrap around services. The counselors and social workers are crucial to dealing with the trauma our students are going through.

I also think the CTU’s demand for affordable housing is so important—that goes straight to the heart of issues at my school. Like I said, we have high homeless population at my school. We also have a huge refugee population and I’ll tell you that they can’t afford to live in this city. There are a lot of housing developers that come in, create gentrification, and push families out.

Hagopian: That’s an amazing example of bargaining for the common good. The demand by the union for more affordable housing is exactly the kind of root cause solution we need.

McAdoo: We also connect the affordable housing demand with our demands around retaining teachers. As Chicago employees, we are required, by ordinance, to live within the city limits. That hits hard on young teachers—they can’t afford that requirement of living in the city and teaching. It’s hard on a teacher who wants to start a family. That’s also why we are asking for fair compensation and pay for teachers.

But this strike isn’t just about pay and benefits for teachers. We need a nurse in every school for the students. Say a kid has a health crisis and they need to see a nurse. If there is no nurse there, the school will have to call 911. And that’s a total waste of time, a total waste of money. In any given school there will be a sick kid every day, not just one day a week, when a nurse is scheduled to be there. Right?

Hagopian: For sure. One of the other things has inspired me about your fight is the way that you built collaboration with the SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. What has the relationship been between school workers in different unions?

McAdoo: Oh, it’s been a beautiful thing. The solidarity has been strong between members of the CTU and the SECAs [Special Education Classroom Assistants, represented by SEIU]. You cannot operate a school without the amazing work that these people do in your classroom. They’re there for students that have special needs and they do so much more. Some of them have been teaching for 20 years, and many of them still make less than $35,000.

Hagopian: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “At every turn, we’ve bent over backwards to meet the union’s needs… Despite all this, the Chicago Teachers Union intends to forge ahead with a strike.” What’s your appraisal of the effort from the city to fairly negotiate with you all?

McAdoo: It’s a day late and a dollar short. She’s known everything that the CTU has been pushing, because it’s no different than what they’d been fighting for the past 10 years. She ran her campaign on so much of the CTU’s platform, essentially. Like a straight-up cut and paste. It’s kind of crazy that we’re at where we’re at right now and she’s in such shock. When our contract demands were put out in January of 2019. They didn’t budge or make a move until this past July, when the contract had already expired.

Hagopian: Wow. They waited that long to begin negotiating in earnest?

McAdoo: Nothing new. If she can copy and paste CTU’s platform, and mold them into her campaign speeches and campaign promises, there’s no reason she can’t put it into writing [in the contract].

Hagopian: That’s what I’ve heard the CTU say, “Put your values into writing.”

McAdoo: Put it in writing! It’s fascinating that they didn’t put this in writing. What CTU wants is to put in writing nothing less than the schools that our students deserve.

Hagopian: No doubt. I’m wondering also if you followed the strike wave of teachers in the last couple of years? The Red State Revolt, then the huge LA strike, and there have been strikes in Denver and Oakland and beyond. Have those been part of inspiring the Chicago strike?

McAdoo: You see it’s coming full circle. It popped off with Chicago in 2012, then the Red States had an uprising, from West Virginia to Arizona, in the past couple years—and we’re coming back full circle to Chicago. And right now Chicago is helping to raise the bar for what we can all fight for and what we could win in public education across the country.

Hagopian: No doubt. Your strike in 2012 inspired me and many educators in Seattle to continue our union activism—and in many ways laid the groundwork for the 2015 successful strike we had here. Where do you think the strike is going to go from here? What your prospects are for winning?

McAdoo: The ball is in Mayor Lightfoot’s court now. She’s got a decision to make. I know that we will remain in the streets until we get what we deserve and what our students deserve.

Hagopian: Last thing: Do you have a favorite chant, from the picket line?

McAdoo: Yes I do. It’s a quote by Assata Shakur that we’ve been saying: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

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Jesse Hagopian is a high school ethnic studies and English language arts teacher in Seattle. Jesse is the director of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award and the co-editor of the book Teaching for Black Lives.  

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