Teachers at three Manhattan-based English language schools run by Kaplan, Inc. have won their first union contract with the corporation, breaking new ground in efforts to organize the booming for-profit education sector. In 2012, teachers at the three Kaplan International Center New York (KICNY) facilities became the first employees of private English as a Second Language (ESL) schools in the United States to unionize, but they have struggled since to settle a collective bargaining agreement. On Wednesday, they voted to adopt a contract that includes wage increases and greater workplace protections.
For-profit education “is an industry that’s notorious for low pay and no or few benefits,” says Bill O’Meara, president of the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents the New York Kaplan teachers. “This initial contract is an important achievement in their working lives.”
In a statement sent to In These Times via e‑mail, a Kaplan spokesperson said: “We believe that the two-year agreement ratified yesterday by the New York Newspaper Guild, covering approximately 65 teachers working at Kaplan’s three New York City ESL schools, is balanced and reasonable. It offers wage and benefit improvements to the teachers in New York. And it provides these Kaplan International Centers with the continued flexibility to operate their business in a way that best serves the interests of its students and will enable KIC to continue to provide jobs in the competitive New York ESL marketplace.”
The New York City teachers who voted to unionize in 2012 were the first Kaplan employees in the United States to do so. Paul Hlava, an English teacher at KIC’s Soho campus, says this quickly produced a ripple effect: Kaplan ESL instructors across the country received raises in what the union believes was an attempt to dissuade other schools from organizing. Meanwhile, says Hlava, the New York teachers were “stonewalled” as they fought for these same improvements for themselves.
In response, Kaplan teachers escalated their fight, reaching out to students and community members for support and riffing on the corporation’s brand-conscious image. For the last few years, Kaplan has sought to step up marketing of its ESL courses — which are separate from the corporation’s higher education division, but part of the larger corporation owned by Graham Holdings Co., the successor to the Washington Post Co. — with a social media campaign focused around the slogan “the Kaplan Experience,” including a “Kaplan Experience Journal” that encourages students to fill the pages with smiling photos and happy memories of their time spent at Kaplan. Teachers struck back by creating a video entitled “the Real Kaplan Experience,” which details their low wages and working conditions.
According to the video, though Kaplan reaped $49 million in profits in 2012, it keeps more than 90 percent of teachers at part-time status; the average Kaplan ESL teacher makes $25,000 a year. Teachers also say they lack access to benefits: Hlava notes that in his four years of working at Kaplan, he’s seen a doctor only once, and once taught classes while he had strep throat because he couldn’t afford to take days off without pay.
Through their new union contract, Kaplan teachers have won raises that include an increase in wages for time spent preparing classes from $8 an hour to $12 an hour, as well as a company-paid subsidy toward the cost of health insurance. The contract also mandates paid holidays and personal days for “senior part-time teachers” and protections for all part-timers against subcontracting work to non-union “teaching contractors.”
Kaplan teachers see affinity between their own struggle and those of other low-wage workers — particularly adjunct professors, whose struggle for better pay and working conditions has been driving a wave of labor actions at universities of late, and whose ranks are often especially populous at for-profit colleges. Hlava, a graduate of NYU who holds a master’s degree in writing and a teaching certification, has also spent time as an adjunct professor and sees many similarities between the two positions. Like adjuncts, he says, Kaplan teachers’ wages simply don’t match the level of debt they’ve often assumed to obtain professional qualifications. As a consequence, they frequently fall further and further behind on student loan payments even while they work multiple “professional” jobs.
Though Kaplan ESL schools are distinct from the company’s higher education division, they have the same parent corporation, and labor and education activists hope that the ESL teachers’ victory could help make inroads with organizing at for-profit colleges as well.
In recent years, many policymakers and education advocates have urged stricter federal regulations to protect students scammed by expensive degrees that have little practical value. Labor activists have also mulled unionizing for-profit education, which they believe could protect both students and workers.
But only two for-profit colleges — Art Institute schools in New York and Philadelphia — have unionized to date. Organizing efforts are often met with fierce resistance: A bid to unionize the Art Institute of Seattle in 2010 failed after the school reportedly hired a union-busting consultant, held mandatory anti-union meetings and made multiple daily phone calls to faculty.
For this reason, labor and education activists are heartened by the Kaplan teachers’ progress. A 2012 article by activists Joe Berry and Helena Worthen cites unionization at Kaplan as evidence of “stirrings of organization” in the for-profit education sector, and outlines the necessity of greater support for unionization at for-profit colleges: “In the rapidly expanding world of for-profit higher education, there are no faculty unions. It has been predicted that there never will be. These institutions stand ruthlessly by the policy of staying union-free. … The spirit of this organizing is not optimistic, but it is determined.”
Hlava also hopes that the contract victory will “send a message” to teachers at other for-profit schools. “It’s really a tragedy that many people in white-collar jobs think they don’t need unions,” he says, “There’s probably a direct correlation between that and why so many white-collar jobs have become so bad.”
O’Meara believes that the new contract will help set a wage floor for teachers at competitor schools. “Kaplan is one of the biggest companies of its kind in the United States and in the world,” he says. “When they were trying to do things like constantly lowering their starting pay … They were leading a race to the bottom. I hope that other schools will now see that they can’t get away with this.”
Full disclosure: CWA is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content. This author is a member of the Newspaper Guild.
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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.