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We should strive to understand the larger forces that drive people to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to seek better lives and opportunities.

This academic year, CPS partnered with Delaware-based private agency TRades and PRofessions Inc. to hire a cohort of about 25 teachers from the Philippines. They have been placed in various schools across the district and are mainly working as special education teachers.

Each one of these experienced educators paid $12,700 to the private agency, which amounts a year and a half of total living expenses in Manila, the capital city, or three times the average annual salary of a teacher there. Going into debt to work in a country with a different language and culture took a significant amount of investment and determination by these teachers. “We came here to share what we know,” one member of the cohort told me, “and we aspire to enhance our professional aspect as well as to live a better life.”

According to Vice News, the CEO of this company, Julieta Sasuman, pockets about half the fees, which no doubt have helped pay for her weekend home in the picturesque Pocono Mountains. Sasuman, who is originally from the Philippines and became a teacher in New York, took advantage of a profitable niche filling vacant teacher positions with applicants from the Philippines. Because many Filipinos learn English and the educational systems are comparable, emigrating to the United States for skilled jobs such as nursing and teaching is not uncommon.

Union activists became aware of these teachers’ presence at the start of the school year when the question arose as to how to bring them into the CTU on the eve of the teachers’ strike.

“I saw that we, as a union, would have to organize to support our own members who had suffered mistreatment in the process of coming to and working in the U.S.,” Jahn Elementary School delegate Erin Lunch said, after she learned how this cohort had been mistreated by the agency. “I saw parallels to our ongoing organization of charter school staff who are often victims of corrupt practices of charter proliferators. We must look past politics and education opportunists and support workers rights.”

But others expressed concern about why these jobs were being filled by people from other countries when there are teachers here looking for work. And some wondered aloud if these workers were legally credentialed to teach special education. The answer is that they are, and that they are in fact fulfilling a need that CPS hasn’t been meeting for years. Focusing on where the teachers come from deflects from the real problem: that CPS has failed special education students and flagrantly violated Illinois’ special education law, leading to state oversight of CPS special education program.

“Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS slashed public funds for special education programs, closed hundreds of vacant special education positions, commingled special education funds with regular education funds to make it easier to divert money from special needs students and violated federal special education laws by creating obstacles to delay and deny services to special needs students,” CTU Financial Secretary Maria Morena added.

While the idea that “immigrants are coming here to take our jobs” is not uncommon, it is critical for trade unionists to reject the racist conclusions that these ideas can easily lead to. Unfortunately, the labor movement has not been immune to such xenophobia. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration from China as politicians and labor leaders blamed those immigrants for falling wages. With Trump’s China trade war and the fears that COVID-19 have stoked, the stage has been set for another wave of anti-Asian sentiment.

Instead of being threatened by workers who come here just as many of our immigrant ancestors did, we should reach out to and bring into our organized ranks those workers who share our common interest in fighting for better wages, dignity on the job, and a better school system for the students who attend CPS.

We should strive to understand the larger forces that drive people to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to seek better lives and opportunities. They work for the same employer we do, an employer that does not always put the needs of students or educators first. They are subject to the same pressures and conditions of work that drove our union to organize in the first place.

In the lead up to our 11-day strike, many of the cohort signed union cards and attended union activities. During the strike, they helped maintain picket lines, and none crossed. Through our efforts to learn about their working conditions, union activists not only became aware of their mistreatment by the agency that recruited them, but we also learned that some of them are not even employed in the job they were promised by CPS.

It turns out that some members of this cohort are trained and experienced Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs), but are instead working as special education teachers. While they are legally certified to teach, it is not their area of expertise or the job they were promised. Moreno, who has worked both as a teacher and SLP, has met with CPS to try to resolve this problem.

“The CPS recruitment office misled educational workers and placed them in an inappropriate situation,” said Moreno. “To expect one profession to be able to do the work of another, on day one, without any prior experience or training is just plain wrong. In addition to overcoming that obstacle, they are working under the same unreal workloads and difficult working conditions all our members face.”

This is clearly an issue that also affects our special education students and families, who deserve to have experienced teachers who actually sought out the position instead of found themselves assigned there one day. These teachers need to be given the necessary professional support as well as a path towards eventually working in the specialty for which they trained.

In our work to meet the particular needs of these members, the CTU partnered with community organizations such as Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and the Filipino rights and advocacy organization AFIRE Chicago. We connected them to legal support and put them in contact with organizations that could counsel them about the process of securing their rights. As J-1 visa holders, they enjoy the legally protected right to engage in collective bargaining and cannot be discriminated against for exercising their rights as union members.

At a time when the Trump administration seeks to pit Americans against immigrants and against each other, building solidarity through education and organizing is more important than ever. Much like how CTU organized and then welcomed charter school staff into our Union, we should welcome our new Filipino sisters and brothers and look for ways we can all be stronger together.

Dennis Kosuth is a school nurse and active CTU member.