Faculty unions have struggled to make inroads in for-profit higher education. Organizing drives have been few and far between. One of the last major efforts was by the American Federation of Teachers, which made an unsuccessful bid in 2010  to represent instructors at the Art Institute of Seattle.
But this week the Newspaper Guild of New York is celebrating a vote to unionize nearly 100 instructors in English as a Second Language who work for a Kaplan Inc. division in New York City. Kaplan's ESL operations in New York City are not part of the company's higher education division, but are part of the larger corporation. Final certification is still pending from the National Labor Relations Board, but there were only three contested ballots (which were excluded), and the vote for the union was 56 to 28.
The instructors are the first at Kaplan to be unionized.
Bill O'Meara, president of the New York area chapter of the Newspaper Guild, said that the Kaplan instructors had sought out the union, rather than that the union went after this particular organizing target. He said that the Kaplan employees had talked to a teachers' union before approaching the Newspaper Guild. Another local of the Newspaper Guild represents journalists at The Washington Post, whose parent company owns Kaplan. O'Meara said that the Post tie may have mattered only indirectly. He said that the members of the union's new unit learned about the Newspaper Guild from its past representation of Newsweek journalists (before the magazine was sold by the Post).
A Guild announcement of the new union said that some instructors -- many of whom have master's degrees -- are paid as little as minimum wage, and that benefits are minimal. Asked if the union would look for other potential members in for-profit education, O'Meara said that the Kaplan employees were the first teachers in his branch of the Guild, but that he was open to future organizing. "I think any employees who aren't being treated the way they should be by their employer should look at unionization," he said, including those in for-profit higher education. "Our union will fight for them."
A spokesman for Kaplan declined to comment on the various claims made by the union. "I think you have to take what they say from their perspective," he said.