Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, looked out at the crowd filling the front lawn of the Capitol Friday and shouted a rousing call to action.
"UUP is in the Plaza! NYSUT is in the Plaza! The AFL-CIO is in the Plaza!" Smith called to more than 300 unionists and students gathered Friday for a rally to protest Gov. David Paterson's budget cuts to the State University of New York. The crowd shouted back "Yes!" to each refrain, then roared a cheer that echoed off the state capital buildings.
The rally came on the opening day of UUP's Delegate Assembly, when UUP leaders and delegates gather to discuss policy. The buses that UUP had reserved for the trip to the Capitol filled to capacity, and UUP members who could not get on a bus shared rides in personal vehicles to attend the rally.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told NYSUT members to remain confident and stay strong.
"I know all about budget cuts, and one thing I know for sure is you can fight them, and you're doing the right thing," he said, invoking the memory of many similar battles from his days as a United Federation of Teachers activist in New York City.
The numbers in the governor's budget are both grim and incredible. If the $118 million cut proposed for SUNY's senior colleges goes through, it would bring the total budget cuts in the last two yeas to $528 million. The cuts to CUNY would total $84.4 million, following a cut of nearly $100 million in the current budget.
The state's community colleges would fare no better: Cuts to both SUNY and CUNY schools would total almost $60 million.
All higher education systems also face potential additional cuts in both personnel and operating funds. Gov. Paterson recently announced that the state deficit is $750 million more than he thought it was, bringing the total to $8.2 billion. It is not yet known how much of that would affect SUNY, or what the possible personnel cuts would total.
Assemblyman Jack McEneny, an Albany Democrat, and SUNY Albany senior Alex Naidoo also spoke at the rally. McEneny told the crowd that "what SUNY does every day is invest in the most valuable resource that the state of New York has –— its people — especially its young people."
NYSUT's higher education affiliates throughout the state have sustained an urgent public campaign against the proposed cuts since the governor released his budget last month.
The most recent event in this strategy, the UUP rally Friday, drew the largest turnout in memory for such an event by UUP. In New York City, the Professional Staff Congress has publicly challenged the governor to start investing in the City University of New York.
And throughout the state, members are reminding their local lawmakers that higher education is an economic engine for the state, in which students become future entrepreneurs, and communities see the ``` revenue generated by a campus fanning out into local businesses.
UUP represents more than 35,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY, and the PSC represents more than 20,000 faculty and staff at CUNY four-year and community colleges.
The PSC has also said in a statement on the PSC Web site that the Executive Budget "goes directly against the direction signaled by the federal government, which has spotlighted community colleges and called for 5 million new community college graduates by 2020."
NYSUT's immediate past executive vice president, Alan Lubin, also touched on the disconnect between the federal message about community colleges – as stated by President Obama during his visit last fall to Hudson Valley Community College in Troy – and Paterson's chopping-block approach to higher education.
"We watched the president of the United States say how important education is, and how important higher education is, and then we come home to Albany, and hear our governor say it doesn't matter at all," Lubin said as the crowd yelled in response.