The English-as-a-second-language teachers at EF Education First in Brighton were unhappy. Their pay was too low, they said, schedule changes were handed out just a few days in advance, and many of them had no paid vacation or health insurance, including those who frequently taught nearly a full course load.
That’s why the two dozen teachers were surprised to learn in November that the international education company, whose US headquarters are in Cambridge, had been ranked the No. 1 largest employer in the state in the Boston Globe’s annual Top Places to Work employee survey.
After learning about the ranking, which is determined by an outside company, the teachers reached out to the Globe.
“It really hurt to see that,” said Bathsheba King, who has been an EF teacher for more than three years. “That’s not our reality.”
In the fall of 2015, the local EF teachers voted to join the Boston Newspaper Guild, the same union that represents reporters and other Boston Globe staff and is affiliated with the international NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America. EF, which is based in Switzerland, has unions elsewhere, but the Brighton teachers are the first unit to organize in the United States. After almost two years of contract negotiations, they hammered out a tentative agreement with the company in December, and the vote is set for Wednesday.
The contract doesn’t meet all the teachers’ demands, but it’s a start, they said. And it could pave the way for teachers at other EF schools around the country to form collective bargaining units. The NewsGuild-CWA would not say whether it has talked to other EF employees, or if it plans to, but acknowledged that the local union efforts would not go unnoticed.
“I’m sure other locations are aware of what we accomplished here in Boston,” said Katherine Munroe, a Maine-based sector representative with the NewsGuild-CWA. “I’m sure from a national level, it’s been watched.”
EF is one of the world’s largest international education firms, with 46,500 employees in 116 countries.
The local starting rate for teachers at EF is $26-$29 per 80-minute class, plus $3.50 for 15 minutes of prep time, according to the teachers. They aren’t paid for the 10-minute breaks between classes, which are frequently filled with questions from students, or for the additional time it takes to grade papers, create tests, answer e-mails, or make photocopies. Teachers who work a full schedule start off making roughly $33,000 to $37,000 a year, with no pay during six weeks of school break, though they do get paid holidays. Some have second jobs as bartenders, tutors, or Uber drivers to make ends meet.
“We’re the lifeblood of this organization. . . . We are the product that EF sells,” said King, who usually teaches 32 to 36 hours a week and spends anywhere from 10 to 20 additional hours preparing for class each week. “We love teaching. We just want to pay our bills.”
As part of the Top Places to Work rankings, the employee engagement company Energage surveyed the 1,200 full-time EF staffers who work at the Cambridge headquarters, comprising the vast majority of the company’s workers in the state, and the country. The teachers were not part of the process.
If the contract is approved, the teachers will get a 1.5 percent cost-of-living raise across the board and an additional performance-based pay increase, topping out at 1.25 percent. The prep-time rate will also go up by $1 an hour. (Union dues, at 1.4 percent of pay, will wipe out some of this increase, although a one-time bonus will mitigate the cost of union dues in the first year). The contract also includes policies on discipline, outlines a path to full-time employment, and requires most schedule changes to be given to teachers a week in advance. Health care for part-timers still will not be provided and neither part-timers nor full-timers will get paid vacation time.
The company said in a statement that its teachers’ wages and benefits are “among the highest in the highly competitive international language schools industry.”
“We are pleased that through collective bargaining negotiations, the Boston News Guild and EF have tentatively agreed to a labor contract that continues this same level of benefits that EF teachers currently receive and that allows EF to continue providing its teachers with a supportive work environment and its students with positive learning experiences.”
The company said it did not anticipate union activities at other schools or divisions, but the efforts here could lay the groundwork for just that, said Gary Chaison, professor emeritus of labor and industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester.
Seeing a contract already in place can help convince others workers to organize, especially one negotiated by the CWA, a powerful union whose agreements can set a strong precedent, Chaison said. And once that standard has been set, he added, there’s nowhere to go but up.
“In negotiations you don’t go backward,” he said. “You always go forward.”