Supporters of the imperiled SUNY Downstate Medical Center chanted, shouted, sang and prayed at a rally Tuesday at the Legislative Office Building in Albany that drew nearly 700 NYSUT members, other unionists, clergy, lawmakers and community activists.
The rally was timed to draw the attention of lawmakers to the public hospital's economic plight on the day before Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address, which introduces the governor's agenda for the legislative session that begins Jan. 9.
The situation for the Brooklyn hospital is desperate as its workers - thousands of them members of United University Professions, the NYSUT local at the State University of New York - wait to hear whether Downstate will be closed, drastically downsized or privatized.
SUNY has not publicized the hospital's fate, leaving employees worried about what lies ahead for thousands of mostly low-income residents in the surrounding Flatbush neighborhood who depend on the hospital for everything from critical care to ongoing medical services at dozens of outpatient clinics.
"The most important thing is we want to keep the hospital open, not only for the staff, but for the patients' safety," said UUP member Melvin Vargasirizarry, who works in Downstate's patient relations department. "Most of the community [residents] make less than $15,000 a year."
Hundreds of unionized Downstate employees - most of them UUP members - already have lost their jobs or have been notified of impending layoffs.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, Vice President Kathleen Donahue, UUP President Phil Smith, Downstate's UUP Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud, New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, several lawmakers and more than a dozen Brooklyn and Queens clergy from the Churches United to Save and Heal coalition called on Cuomo to heed his conscience and keep the hospital open, and public.
Smith told the crowd that thousands of other employees, including members of the Public Employees Federation and the Civil Service Employees Administration, stand to either lose their jobs altogether or to be forced to reapply for lower-paying, non-unionized jobs at a privatized Downstate. The resulting upheaval would damage training programs for nurses and doctors at Downstate, said Smith, a medical college professor at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse.
"I have never seen a successful medical school that does not have a strong hospital to do its teaching," Smith told the crowd. "This is going to affect not just the economic climate around Downstate, but the entire state."