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A relatively small group of New York City teachers’ announcement that they’d reached a collective bargaining agreement with their school might have gone unnoticed by those in higher education circles last week, but for one significant detail: their employer is Kaplan, Inc., a major player in for-profit higher education.

Collective bargaining agreements for faculty members in profit-education are extremely rare, but that’s something unions would like to change.

The 65 English-as-a-second language instructors teach mostly high school students at three Kaplan International Center locations in New York City and are affiliated with the Newspaper Guild of New York and Communications Workers of America. They voted to form a union in 2012 and recently won a two-year contract that ups their prep-time pay to $12 per hour from $8 and provides a modest health insurance subsidy and a 401(k) matching contribution. The contract also guarantees a minimum hourly rate for all employees, protections from subcontracting work and a clear discipline process, plus other non-financial gains.

Union experts took the development as an important precedent in the adjunct union movement, which so far has not penetrated the for-profit sector that employs so many adjuncts and -- union organizers say -- poses particular concerns about academic freedom. Virtually all professors at for-profit colleges and universities lack tenure, and the overwhelming majority are part-time. And while many have autonomy in the classroom, others are expected to teach standardized curriculum. Like their counterparts at nonprofit colleges and universities, adjuncts at for-profits face relatively low pay compared to tenure-line professors, little to no job security and other poor working conditions. (And many adjuncts take on courses at both for-profit and nonprofit institutions at the same time.)

Experts said many of those challenges could be addressed through collective bargaining with for-profit institutions, as in the Kaplan case.

“I think this is great – I don’t want to say ‘watershed,’ because it’s a small group – but it’s very, very important,” said Malini Cadambi Daniel, higher education campaign director for Service Employees International Union, of the Kaplan development. SEIU represents 18,000 adjunct professors and is recruiting more through metro-wide organizing strategies in at least nine major U.S. cities. “There has to be a lot more like this,” Cadambi Daniel said. “It has to happen.”

And it will, she said, noting that SEIU is already planning on for-profit drives. She said it won’t be easy – organizing adjuncts at traditional institutions already is hard, given their commuter status, and adjuncts at for-profits are even more “atomized.”

But Cadambi Daniel said in some ways organizing might be more simple. While for-profits may have ample funds to fight union drives, she said, at the same time “there’s something counterintuitive here.” Where union drives have become ideological battles at nonprofits, such as at religiously affiliated colleges and universities that have fought National Labor Relations Board jurisdiction over their campuses, for-profit institutions are more likely to respond to union drives as “business decisions” only, she said. So some institutions might decide early on in the process that it’s easier – or cheaper -- to work with unions than against them.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, agreed. “It is indeed rare for adjuncts at for-profits to organize,” Maisto said via email, “but it is happening, and I will always say that yes, absolutely, it's possible for adjuncts at for-profits to organize.”

In addition to the recent Kaplan drive, non-tenure-track faculty have formed unions at two Art Institute locations. The first formed in 1986, in affiliation with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. A second formed later in New York, with the American Federation of Teachers.

But about three times as many have tried and failed, including at the Art Institute’s Seattle location, where adjuncts tried to organize with the American Federation of Teachers in 2010. The union was voted down. But it seems the drive at least helped to better working conditions for adjuncts there. In a 2012 article about adjuncts and for-profits, Joe Berry and Helena Worthen, both adjunct activists, said that “Class sizes were cut, many part-timers got more work, and teacher facilities were improved.”

But the authors note that “[w]hat teachers did not get was increased control over how they did their work, or how students were taught, which would have come with a successful union drive.”

In a statement, Emily Lessem, a Kaplan teacher who chairs one of the New York units, said that while the agreement was “far from perfect, it will provide job protections and benefits and have a powerful impact on Kaplan teachers in New York City and across the country.”

Bill O’Meara, president of the Guild, said of the Kaplan teachers: “These are educated workers who knew they deserved more than they were getting and they knew they needed a union to get it.”

William Herbert, executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said it’s “probable” that similar union drives are to come, as adjuncts at for-profits seek job security, improvements in their working conditions and even retirement benefits.

Via email, a Kaplan spokesman noted that Kaplan International Centers are separate from the corporations's higher education group, and called the new contract “balanced and reasonable.” He said it “offers wage and benefit improvements to the teachers in New York” and that 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 [the centers] to continue to provide jobs in the competitive New York ESL marketplace."  

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