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Chicago Teacher Defends Choice To Cross Picket Line During Strike Despite Backlash

CHICAGO (CBS) -- For nearly two weeks now, Chicago has been watching the teachers walk the picket lines and march in the streets as the Chicago Teachers Union continues its strike.

Those who violate the picket line are called scabs, traitors, or deserters. But some teachers are still risking it all and crossing the picket lines, as CBS 2's Tara Molina reported Monday night.

Some teachers said they couldn't afford it anymore. Molina talked to one teacher who would not go on camera, saying they are a single parent living paycheck to paycheck, and are feeling like they don't have a choice but to return to work at this point. Others believe in what the union is fighting for, but not the way it is fighting.

"It's an emotional experience to go through," said Ifeoma Nkemdi, a second-grade teacher at Newberry Math and Science Academy in Lincoln Park who is crossing the line. "You have basically a majority of your colleagues that you work with that are screaming at you, calling you names, calling you a 'scab' – when you know the kind of work that you do."

She said of an encounter with her striking colleagues, "They started chanting, 'Turn your back on her,' and everybody, they turned their back on me."

It is work Nkemdi has been doing for 15 years, so she has been through a teachers' strike before. She also said she knows what it's like to sacrifice and to lose – from her job within an arts department to her car and her home.

"I lost the car. It was repossessed," Nkemdi said. "And I think the next time, it was an apartment."

But her reason for leaving CTU last week, and walking through a picket line to go back to her second-grade classroom, is just as much about what she's gained over the years.

"I commend everyone on this ability to see what is needed, but it's the how we are going to do this? And it that 'how are we going to do this,' how are we teaching our children how to do this?" Nkemdi said. "And we should be careful of teaching them to go to war with one another. Does it really get done that way?"

CPS didn't respond to requests for a confirmed number of teachers who've crossed the picket line, but Nkemdi told us she's not alone.

Others have made the same decision, but are afraid to speak out. Nkemdi joins Joseph Ocol, whom CBS 2 has spoken with multiple times.

"The kids are the ones losing," Ocol said. "The kids are the ones who eventually will suffer."

Ocol was expelled from the union for crossing the picket line on a one-day walkout in 2016.

And despite the backlash, in person and online, both Ocol and Nkemdi tell us they're standing up for what they believe in by not standing in line.

"Children need to see all sides of how there are so many different strategies of getting what you want in this world," she said. "It's not just one."

Through communications director Chris Geovanis, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey issued a statement that addressed the reasons for the strike more than the choices of teachers like Nkemdi:

"We have 25,000 rank and file members who never wanted a strike, yet were forced to the picket lines to try to win in writing the very promises for equity and educational justice the mayor made as a candidate to our students. Literally one half of one percent of the CPS budget -- $38 million – separates CPS and the CTU from a tentative agreement. Instead, the mayor who said she was providing over $100 million in TIF slush funds to CPS is instead clawing back $100 million in costs the City has previously shouldered. If we were bargaining with candidate Lighfoot instead of Mayor Lightfoot, we feel a strike could have been averted. It's time for the mayor to live up to her promises as a candidate and settle this strike."

School will be canceled for a ninth day on Tuesday for the strike. The current teachers' strike is now the longest since 1987.

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