ESL teachers in New York continue to fight for a first ever union contract with Kaplan International, a for-profit English language school giant owned by Graham Holdings Company, formerly known as the Washington Post Company.
Teachers for the Kaplan branch New York have been battling for better working conditions for nearly a year and a half. Kaplan teachers in New York are currently represented by a local union that has been attempting to hash out a contract with Kaplan International management for the past several months.
“Right now, you can say that there is kind of a stalemate between the teachers and the management at Kaplan,” Michael Bennett, a teacher at Kaplan New York, told me during a recent phone interview. If the Kaplan New York teachers are able to secure a contract, it could mark a significant turn of events in the ESL industry in regards to teacher pay and benefits. Kaplan New York is already the first for- profit English language institute or branch to have ever been unionized in the United States.
According to Bennett, Kaplan New York teachers want management to agree to a few different conditions, which would be secured in a union-backed contract. Most importantly, Kaplan New York teachers want to see significant wage increases. Kaplan International, the largest and most profitable provider of ESL instruction in the United States pays its workers some of the lowest wages in the industry. Despite inflation and continuous growth by Kaplan, starting teacher salaries at the company have actually decreased from $24 per hour in 2003 to $17 in 2014. “The scary part is that Kaplan sets the standard for the rest of the industry since it is the biggest company in ESL,” said Bennett. “I’ve even heard of one temporary instructor that was paid $15 dollars per hour.”
A Kaplan spokesman declined to comment when reached Friday afternoon.
Although the majority of Kaplan instructors have advanced degrees and years of teaching experience, almost every teacher at Kaplan international is classified as part-time. As a result, Kaplan International teachers are denied benefits, such as healthcare, sick days and paid vacation, which are three more conditions that Kaplan New York teachers want guaranteed in a contract with management. “Many instructors work pretty much full-time hours despite being employed as part-time,” said Bennett. “Fortunately, I am young and don’t worry about seeing a doctor, but there are definitely teachers at Kaplan that need access to healthcare and at least a few paid days off each year to visit a doctor.”
Bennett also expressed that Kaplan teachers are adamantly pursuing the right for ‘paid holidays’ in a new contract. Kaplan instructors are currently unpaid during holidays despite the fact that students pay the same tuition cost regardless if a Kaplan school is open or closed. “I really do not understand why we aren’t paid for holidays when the students still pay tuition for those days in which the school is closed. It is really unfair to both the teachers and the students. If Kaplan isn’t going to pay teachers on those days, then students shouldn’t have to pay either.”
Bennett claims that Kaplan management has been hostile and at times acted aggressive towards the teachers since being unionized over one year ago. He also says that certain teachers have been suspiciously fired in recent months. “I cannot say for sure why some teachers have been terminated, but it is likely because of support for the teacher’s union.”
There are nearly 120 Kaplan teachers in New York that have been unionized since June of 2012. They are represented by the Newspaper Guild of New York, which also represents employees from media companies, such as Reuters and The New York Times. As a result, there have been improvements in the working conditions for Kaplan teachers in other parts of the United States, including slight wage increases. This is seen by many as an attempt by Kaplan management to diffuse talks of additional unionization in other major US cities.
The Washington Post Company changed its name to Graham Holdings after selling its newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in November. Graham holdings owns several media outlets, including various local television stations, Foreign Policy and Slate. However, Kaplan International generates the largest share of the company’s revenue. The company operates 42 schools in eight different countries. There are over twenty Kaplan schools located in the United States.