Kaplan Instructors Vote to Unionize at 3 New York Centers

June 15, 2012

Teachers at three English-instruction centers operated by Kaplan Inc. in New York have overwhelmingly voted to form a collective-bargaining unit, marking the first successful unionization vote by employees of the for-profit education provider.

The instructors at the three Kaplan International Centers, who teach English as a second language, voted, 56 to 28, to form a union affiliated with the Newspaper Guild of New York, despite a campaign by the centers' management to discourage them from so organizing.

The three centers are part of a business unit that is distinct from Kaplan Higher Education, which operates Kaplan University, an online-education provider, and has more than 70 campuses in 20 states. Nevertheless, the success of the New York unionization vote could portend similar labor elections among units of Kaplan Inc.'s higher-education division.

Joe T. Berry, an independent labor educator who helps track labor organizing in higher education for the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, said on Thursday that the National Labor Relations Board's decision to allow the unionization vote at the Kaplan International Centers "reconfirms the previously established NLRB position that you can organize local units of these national chains and you don't have to organize the whole chain."

The Kaplan centers are not the first for-profit education providers whose employees have voted to unionize. Notably, instructors have unionized at two for-profit higher-education institutions owned by the Education Management Corporation, which in turn is owned in large part by Goldman Sachs. Those institutions are the Art Institute of Philadelphia and the Art Institute of New York.

Nevertheless, Mr. Berry said, the vote at the Kaplan centers "is a breakthrough at another of the major national chains that represent a substantial portion of the for-profit industry."

More Unions Inevitable

Richard J. Boris, executive director of the collective-bargaining study center, said the unionization of faculty members at other for-profit colleges was inevitable, given the proprietary sector's growing share of the nation's higher-education market and work force. "The proprietaries are going to have to choose between strife or allowing their faculties to organize," Mr. Boris said.

Because instructors play little role in the governance of most for-profit colleges, Mr. Boris said, they do not face nearly the same obstacles to unionization as faculty members at private colleges, who, under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1980 decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, have largely been barred from union representation based on the argument that their involvement in college governance makes them managers, not workers.

As of Thursday afternoon, the National Labor Relations Board had not yet certified the unionization vote, which occurred on June 7 at the Kaplan centers. But Kaplan had not announced any plans to object to unionization at the centers.

"We are awaiting the certification of the results from the National Labor Relations Board," said Mark Harrad, a spokesman for Kaplan Inc. He did not comment further on the unionization vote and declined to respond to allegations that the management of the centers used deceptive scare tactics to discourage instructors from voting to form a union.

In a written statement announcing the successful unionization vote at the centers, Bill O'Meara, president of the New York newspaper guild, described the instructors at the centers as "professional employees, many with master's degrees, who are paid at an assortment of illogical hourly rates as low as the $7.25 federal minimum wage."

"They know they should be treated better," he said, "and they deserve a lot of credit for maintaining their focus through Kaplan's incredibly intense campaign."

Dozens of workers at Kaplan University sought to unionize six years ago, but that effort was abandoned in the face of opposition from the company.