restricted access Why We Should Support Organizing in the For-Profits
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Why We Should Support Organizing in the For-Profits

In the rapidly expanding world of for-profit higher education, there are no faculty unions. It has been predicted that there never will be. These institutions stand ruthlessly by the policy of staying union-free. Nonetheless, there are reports of attempts to organize. A recent email request sent out on the Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), a network of contingent faculty across the United States and Canada listserve, brought in several dozen messages about interest or efforts going on below the radar. Stirrings of organization exist already in such places as Kaplan, the commercial art schools, the ESL schools, and others. The spirit of this organizing is not optimistic, but it is determined.

This is an important issue for all educators because the for-profit sector is huge and growing. It includes the largest institutions of higher education (Phoenix, DeVry, Kaplan) in the country. For-profits employ somewhere between 140,000 and a million faculty. Their business model is overreaching traditional institutions by competing with them, by absorbing populations that would otherwise not have access to them, and by establishing themselves within or linked to traditional institutions (such as Stanford) as for-profit subsidiaries.

Is it possible that faculty in the for-profit sector might succeed in bringing in a union, or something like a union? Briefly, we will outline first why the for-profits can be organized, and second, why they should be organized.

The for-profits can be organized because:

  1. 1. The for-profit faculty are "our people" already. Many faculty at the for-profits also work in unionized places currently or recently. They know how different it is to teach under a union contract. They bring an understanding of union practices including organizing and bargaining.

  2. 2. The motives that drive these attempts to organize are the same ones that led to the teacher-faculty unionization movements of the 1960s and 1970s: decent pay, power over our work, and better educational conditions for our students. However, there is an additional motive today: desire for job security. This was not a major factor in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a teacher shortage and tenure was nearly universal.

  3. 3. In the for-profits, management tends to be corporate CEOs, not educators. When organizing comes to the attention of these CEOs, their inexperience [End Page 35] with labor unions exposes them to foolish moves (like firing the entire faculty, which happened at East-West in Chicago) that get them in trouble with the National Labor Relations Board. Their ignorance of workers' rights puts them at a disadvantage.

  4. 4. The majority of teachers in the for-profits are working-class people. In the for-profits, there is no top-level elite faculty with tenure and lifetime pensions and benefits. That top level is occupied by owners and managers. The faculty at for-profits are mostly like the adjuncts and full-time non-tenure track in other institutions—low-income, bottom-level, no job security. In this sense, faculty and students, who are also overwhelmingly working class, usually attending college on government loans or grants, have much in common. For both faculty and students, the ladders of opportunity are disappearing. This is true for both undergraduate and graduate programs.

  5. 5. For-profits are weaker politically now than in many years, primarily due to congressional investigations, the Department of Justice suits and other criticisms over their fraudulent recruiting and use of federal student aid funds. In fact, most for-profits are dependent on federal money. This is a substantial source of leverage in organizing especially now since federal expenditures are under such a microscope. It is no longer unusual to hear criticism of the use of public funds to bust unions.

  6. 6. The Occupy movement has made all workers, especially precarious ones, more hopeful and willing to fight. It has explicitly targeted the 1% (including Goldman Sachs, which owns part of Argosy and the Art Institute schools), who are the owners of the biggest for-profits.

  7. 7. A regional workforce-based strategy is no longer an outlier among organizing strategies. Rising regional organizing strategies already...