How Kaplan teachers won

May 1, 2014

The new contract for Kaplan educators represents a rare victory for workers in the for-profit education sector, explains Will Russell.

ENGLISH AS a Second Language (ESL) teachers at three Kaplan International Center (KIC) schools in New York City concluded a year and a half of negotiations and voted unanimously to accept their first contract on April 16. In doing so, they joined a very small club of workers to have successfully unionized in the for-profit education industry.

While the contract leaves much to be desired, it is nevertheless a significant gain for ESL professionals at Kaplan and a breakthrough for organizing in the sector. The inspiring campaign these teachers waged--first to win union recognition and then to negotiate their first contract--contains many lessons for others trying to organize in the industry and for labor activists in general.

"It's bittersweet," said Kaplan teacher and bargaining chair Emily Lessem of the contract's terms. "I'm really happy that we're getting a contract and getting some important things like job security." Other key gains in the contract include a 60 percent increase in pay for prep time, protection against arbitrary firings, a 401(k) plan, subsidized health insurance, bereavement leave, and holiday and vacation pay.

ESL teachers at three Kaplan International Center schools stood strong for a union contract
ESL teachers at three Kaplan International Center schools stood strong for a union contract (Jed Brandt)

However, there are several conditions teachers at the schools will have to meet in order to be considered "senior" part-timers eligible for benefits, including six months of continuous employment and adequate teacher ratings. Given that many teachers at KIC only work during peak season in the summer, this leaves a substantial share of workers out of the contract. Another significant weakness is that the unit is organized as an open shop, meaning that new hires will not be considered members of the union unless they sign a card.

Nevertheless, educators see the contract as an important achievement. How did Kaplan International teachers get to this point in an industry that is so notoriously hostile to organized labor, and in a shop with a high rate of turnover among teachers? That is a story involving the courage and leadership of many dedicated teacher-organizers.

TEACHERS AT these schools were ultimately spurred to action by a litany of workplace issues and a disregard of labor laws by Kaplan. A separate division from Kaplan Higher Education, the for-profit university facing several high-profile lawsuits and congressional scrutiny, KIC had itself settled at least two previous cases involving complaints of wage theft.

Despite this, the company failed to rectify its practices--it remained customary for management to ask teachers to move hours to different pay periods "as a favor" to avoid paying overtime. Another important issue facing educators at the schools was the complete lack of job security; it was not uncommon to see highly rated teachers terminated suddenly with no explanation.

According to Danny Valdes, one of the teachers at the Midtown location where the idea to seek out a union was first conceived:

Teachers at Kaplan felt taken advantage of for a long time. We lacked basic things like health care, decent and consistent pay, and sick pay, even though the majority of us are professional educators with degrees. The idea for a union was always fulminating in the back of my mind and a few others at the Midtown center. It was definitely a scary leap to make. We weren't sure what the repercussions would be or even if we had the energy and people-power to see it through.

The teachers talked to several unions and eventually went with the Newspaper Guild of New York--Local 31003 of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

One of the main reasons that teachers decided to go with the Newspaper Guild was because it already represents staff at the Washington Post, the newspaper also owned at the time by the parent company of Kaplan, Inc.--based on the reasoning that the union's background working with the company's management would be a benefit.

After finding a union to back their efforts, this group began the person-to-person work of reaching out to teachers at each of the three schools and convincing them to sign cards designating the Newspaper Guild to represent them. A large majority of teachers at Kaplan had already signed cards before management finally learned about what was going on, and the Guild was able to file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election only a few days after that.

MANAGEMENT WASTED no time in reacting to the news with a two-pronged strategy: First, by turning the screws to create a work environment that was even more stressful than before and blaming the intrusion of the union for the change; and second, sowing confusion by bombarding teachers with anti-union propaganda. A series of very tense group and individual meetings were held which facilitated both these goals.

Managers made a habit of interrupting classes and teacher prep time to hand out anti-union materials, such as a doctored labor-rights handbook written to look like as if it were issued by the NLRB and a flyer falsely claiming the company was legally unable to grant our yearly raises while the union election was ongoing (see this archive of Kaplan's anti-union materials). They also helped in the creation of an anti-union committee made up of a handful of teachers who colluded with management in their union-busting efforts.

In order to garner more support in the upcoming election, teachers had to come together and formulate strategies to counteract both the toxic working atmosphere and the propaganda coming from management. According to Paul Hlava at the SoHo school:

[W]e banded together and we tried to find everything contrary to what the management was saying. It was really wonderful... when after one teacher was targeted for not having complied to policies that we were never informed of, we went home and searched our e-mails and found everything we could to counter management's points. We used their own info against them.

As the old adage goes, the boss can be the best organizer. The process of combatting the multitude of falsehoods and misrepresentations in management's claims ended up being one of the best tools for maintaining cohesion and solidarity among teachers. In a forthcoming article in the journal Academe, Empire State Building Teacher Jon Blanchette writes:

Another example of [this] foolishness was a flyer entitled "Do you really want to do this?" claiming that we could "be forced to pay up to $600 per year just to keep our jobs at KIC." Having done the math, it was found that $600 per year in dues was for a salary around twice what the average teacher was making.

AS SOON as the campaign was in the open, teachers set up a blog, Teachers For a Better Kaplan, to combat these lies and facilitate communication among teachers. Contracts providing generous benefits at KIC schools in other countries were posted to show teachers what they could gain and to counter the company's claims that they were unable to grant what the teachers were asking for.

When elections were held on June 7, 2012, union supporters won overwhelmingly with a 52-26 vote. Speaking on the landslide victory and the role of the rank-and-file teachers in securing it, the organizer on the campaign Nastaran Mohit said:

The biggest asset to organizing this particular group of [workers] was that we had strong leaders at all three locations who really believed in the unionization process, and were sick and tired of being treated as disposable. Winning a two-to-one margin in the election was a testament to that, particularly in the face of the aggressive anti-union campaign Kaplan waged. Those teachers really carried the campaign, even when things began to look grim and morale was low.

Though the victory was a clear mandate for the union and a validation of the teachers' grievances against the company, the difficult workplace conditions faced during the campaign took a toll on the teacher-organizers. As Ben Bush, a teacher at the Empire State Building location put it:

Since there had been some divisions in the workplace over the union, we were initially hesitant after the election to do any visible actions to push for a fair contract. The reality seemed to be that the more we were out there showing a presence, the more teachers who were more hesitant to get involved began to feel comfortable supporting the union, even if it wasn't by taking part in riskier actions but by wearing a button or passing the petition around.

The teachers were about to face a year and a half of drawn-out negotiations with a company that seemed to refuse to budge on the slightest and most reasonable points put on the table by the teachers' bargaining unit. The purchase of the Washington Post newspaper during this period by billionaire Jeff Bezos left the KIC divisions unaffected, and their parent company was eventually renamed Graham Holdings Company.

When it came to negotiations, the newly rechristened company was just as intransigent before the sale of the paper as after. Employing the elite law firm Jones Day, it combined a "just say no" strategy with making onerous demands of its own.

These included the company's right to put video cameras and other surveillance equipment in the classroom, random drug testing of teachers, subcontracting educators outside the company, and the right to alter the duties of teachers at any point. As one of its lawyers put it during negotiations, this included the right for the company to have teachers do anything up to cleaning the school's toilets.

Most cynically perhaps, in order to deter incipient organizing efforts at other KIC locations in the U.S., the company granted small pay increases at all schools, save those in New York City, falsely repeating the claim that it was legally unable to give us these raises while the contract was in negotiation.

THE EDUCATOR-organizers at Kaplan had their work cut out for them to maintain morale during the contract campaign and to get newly hired teachers invested in the union. According to Hlava:

We'd have these conversations where we'd say let's remember to be human beings. We wanted to create an environment where we were a group that people wanted to be a part of. That meant going up to new teachers, shaking their hand, and talking to them about their classes.

When we got teachers who were more hesitant to get involved with the union, we would invite them to have drinks with us and meet the other people involved, and they would see that we weren't just a few people complaining in the teachers' room, but dozens of people fighting. Seeing that it exists in a larger space plays a role in making teachers who were on the fence [understand] that this was something real and larger.

Crucially, teachers were able to get their students into the game on their side. According to Mohit:

The company started to show significant concern when we mobilized their customer base, their students. Once Kaplan saw how much students cared for their teachers and their working conditions, they were legitimately concerned. Some students volunteered to come to negotiating sessions and voice their disgust, and the negotiating committee took them up on that. Students threatened to take their money elsewhere and go back to their home countries and encourage their peers to do the same.

Teachers made smart use of social media by taking advantage of Kaplan's keen sense of brand awareness. They hijacked the Twitter hashtag that the company encourages students use to promote its schools by posting videos and memes connecting facts like the teachers' lack of sick pay to "the real #kaplanexperience." They encouraged students to "like" their Facebook page Teachers and Students for a Better Kaplan, which substantially expanded their ability to reach former, current and prospective students.

A petition demanding a fair contract garnered more than 1,300 signatures and became another important organizing tool to mobilize teacher, student and community support.

Teacher-organizers also held several leafletings and pickets to build awareness of their campaign and to put pressure on the company. One such rally held inside one of the schools last October involved teachers parading through the halls with the radical marching band the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Actions such as these created a lot of buzz among teachers and students alike and provided a shot in the arm to the morale of teachers engaged in the negotiating process.

A rally and march of Kaplan teachers with workers at the educational publishing company Scholastic in February of this year also mobilized a large number of teachers and community members, while forging connections and solidarity with workers at Scholastic who were fighting their own contract battle. Kaplan teachers were always the base and the driving force of each of the rallies, but the role of groups from the community in these actions was substantial.

Another of these groups was a labor solidarity organization that originated from Occupy Wall Street called 99 Pickets. It played a dual role in the campaign by helping to organize turnout to some of the rallies and by hosting workers' assemblies that many Kaplan teachers participated in. Talking about the impact that the solidarity meetings had on Kaplan teachers, Bush said, "99 Pickets made us feel much more like part of a community. Seeing that you're not alone in the struggle made a big difference to Kaplan teachers who went to their meetings."

Keeping momentum for such a long period often proved difficult. In order to do so, teachers had to utilize a creative mix of tactics to keep teachers involved in the contract fight. "The combination of different tactics was important," Hlava said. "It was great to have rallies every few months, but combined with social media, it created the look of having a longer, sustained thing between the big actions. The media attention we got played a big role in this as well."

KAPLAN TEACHERS will have to continue with the member-to-member base-building that helped them to win union recognition and their first contract if they want to gain a stronger contract when the current one expires in 18 months.

Taking part in events such as the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor conference in the fall and the Labor Notes Troublemakers School will provide valuable opportunities to connect with other union activists and to deepen their organizing knowhow.

It's worth taking note of the fact that KIC workers in other countries were only able to win the strong contracts they currently have after organizing or threatening strikes or walkouts. Whether this level of action will be necessary to build on their current gains and win a stronger contract next time around, this is the time for teachers at Kaplan to think about what they want their workplace to look like and how they will build their power to realize that vision when negotiations reopen.

The effect of the struggle at Kaplan International on other efforts to organize for-profit educational institutions remains to be seen. One thing that can't be missed though is the impact that this experience has had on the teachers themselves, who took collective action to improve their common experiences in the workplace. According to Hlava:

Participating in this made me realize that everyone working with me has two to three jobs just to live in New York City. And these are people with advanced degrees, some of whom work as teachers and professors and even baristas. It made me care a lot more about the community and realize it's not just me. Everyone is struggling. At the 99 Pickets meetings, hearing from people at Dylan's Candy Bar and the Laundry Workers' Center who were going through the same things as us really brought that home to me.

"I don't think any of us would trade this experience," said Ben Bush. "It's amazing to see your actions make a difference in the world. We were able to improve working conditions at a major corporation, and we're hopeful that down the road it will create real changes across the industry."

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