February 03, 2009

Union action helps protect public higher ed

Source: New York Teacher
Caption: UUP President Phil Smith addressed union members during a rally Jan. 30 at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to resist drastic cuts to higher education. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Mid-year cuts threatened for SUNY and CUNY community colleges have been averted thanks to vigorous and persuasive advocacy by NYSUT and its higher education affiliates.

As New York Teacher went to press, NYSUT legislative staff were reporting that the union's concerted push on behalf of community colleges has staved off Gov. David Paterson's proposal to impose 10 percent mid-year cuts on community colleges.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin reported that the union's message - that community colleges are needed more than ever in an economic downturn - found a receptive response from lawmakers, who refused to go along with mid-year cuts of $11 million at SUNY and $4.2 million at CUNY.

Those cuts were part of the deficit-reduction plan the governor and Legislature were seeking agreement on at presstime.

Just a few days before, hundreds of United University Professions and other NYSUT members sent a loud message to the state that they are going to stand up against the threat of massive budget cuts to the state university's campuses and hospitals in 2009-10.

Union members chanted "SUNY cuts have got to go!"and "Help our students graduate!" as they rallied at the Capitol Jan. 30 in a protest to Gov. David Paterson's plan to slash the State University of New York's upcoming budget.

His proposal calls for a $201 million cut to SUNY's four-year colleges, and a $64.8 million cut to City University of New York colleges.

 In the 2009-10 academic year, however, the two community college systems still face additional cuts: $46 million at SUNY and $17 million at CUNY.

Union members at the rally cheered when UUP President Phil Smith reminded lawmakers that SUNY is a leading source of economic growth in the state; 80 percent of its graduates stay in New York.

"Many campuses are limiting future enrollments, canceling classes students need to graduate, and not replacing departing full-time faculty," Smith said.

"Especially in this time of economic stress, students need access to an affordable, quality public higher education now more than ever. Unless more state support is made available, thousands of students will find the doors to SUNY closed," he said.

At the breaking point after years of prior underfunding, SUNY's three hospitals face a $25 million cut in state funding. Without additional funding, Smith said, the uninsured and underinsured - whose numbers are increasing as the ranks of unemployed swell - will have nowhere to turn for life-saving treatment."

Assemblyman John McEneny, D-Albany, got a rousing response from the crowd when he said three of his four children have gone to University at Albany.

"I know firsthand the importance of SUNY to individual families,"McEneny said.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi told the UUP members their NYSUT sisters and brothers "are at your side" and that the governor's punitive budget proposal "cannot and will not be accepted."

The governor's proposed budget also contains a number of provisions that would affect working conditions for UUP members and other state employees, as well as the quality of life for retirees.

Among those proposals: elimination of a contractually guaranteed 3 percent salary increase due to go into effect this year. That cut would hit a number of state workers, including UUP members, and some Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and staff at CUNY.

Also proposed: a pay lag for state workers, future increases in the cost of retirees' health insurance premiums and increases in the cost to retirees for Medicare Part B.

Tier 5 proposed

The governor plans to introduce a Tier 5 state retirement system, which would double the time it takes to become vested from the current five years to 10, and would introduce a stricter way of calculating the final average salary for retirement.

UUP members at the rally said their spirits are strong but they fear for their campuses.

SUNY Canton, for example, has gone to a four-day week and lowered the temperatures of the buildings to save energy costs.

"We have to find time for faculty governance, which is difficult," said Raymond Krisciunas, vice president for academics of the UUP chapter at Canton.

UUP has launched an ad campaign that warns New Yorkers their children may not be able to get the college courses they need, and that families may not get specialized emergency care such as burn treatment at SUNY hospitals, if the cuts go through (See related article Page 2).

The PSC at CUNY plans to carry its public education effort about cuts throughout the semester, with a series of public hearings that will feature PSC members and state and city lawmakers.

PSC President Barbara Bowen has spoken out about the cuts, noting that enrollment is rising even as funding is declining.

In a recent article in The Chief, a New York City newspaper aimed at civil service employees, Bowen cited a new report by the Fiscal Policy Institute that documented a long history of declining state aid to publicly funded colleges, with CUNY's four-year colleges suffering a 14 percent decline since the early 1990s and aid to the CUNY community colleges dropping by 26 percent in that period. SUNY's aid for four-year and community colleges dropped by 5 and 12 percent, respectively.

"That's not a smart economic strategy, and it's not good stewardship of two of the country's great systems of public higher education," Bowen told The Chief.

President Obama's federal stimulus package could pump billions into education nationwide, and NYSUT is pressing lawmakers for New York's fair share of that money.

"Federal stimulus aid is only one part of the solution - and a very beneficial part - but we will not let lawmakers off the hook for the state cuts to higher education funding," Lubin added.

The cuts, he said, "could literally mean life or death to New Yorkers who need the SUNY hospitals, or the difference between a college education and unemployment to thousands of young people and older New Yorkers who have lost their jobs and want to hone their skills so that they can return to the workforce."

- Darryl McGrath, with Liza Frenette