Although there was a parade of more than a 1,000 people looping down the streets of New York City, following the music of a band with a big horn sound, it wasn’t Mardi Gras. In fact, it was not a celebration at all, but a proclamation — one that was chanted by the marchers: “Students, Faculty and Staff Unite. Same Struggle. Same Fight.”
It was union time. It was bullhorn and microphone time. It was time to protect an endangered City University of New York system that has been underfunded for far too many semesters. This year’s state budget proposal looks no better, and it threatens CUNY even further by proposing to shift $485 million in state-funded costs for CUNY’s senior colleges onto the budget of the city. More tuition increases are proposed.
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“CUNY belongs to the people! All the people of New York are claiming it tonight!” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, representing academic and professional staff at the City University of New York.
“We’re going to claim these streets!” Bowen shouted. “Education is a right. It’s a need as basic as eating and sleeping!”
Dozens of unions, community groups and alliances joined the onward push of the PSC, where members work in labs with broken heating systems that ruin experiments; where bathrooms are not cleaned; where salaries have stayed stagnant during the six-year drought without a contract. Members of DC 37, who also work at CUNY, have toiled seven years without a contract. Nearly 7,000 of don’t even make $15 an hour.
“Basic living essentials don’t hold still. Transportation, rent and food have all gone up,” said Pat Rudden, a PSC member and English faculty member at City Tech. She is also president of the Hunger College Alumni Association, which supports the push for adequate, overdue funding for CUNY.
“Alumni are a sleeping giant. We are everywhere,” Rudden said.
Crowds began gathering at a stage that shouldered the sidewalks on Third Avenue, beneath mirrored and glassed skyscrapers. Impassioned students, faculty and leaders from allied groups spelled out why this movement matters. From there, they walked to the Community Church of New York.
“It’s always great to see masses of people understanding the core issues and voicing their displeasure,” said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who marched in the rally.
Crowd member Iris DeLutro, a PSC member, activist, and NYSUT board member, said the toll on CUNY can be seen in faculty who leave for better jobs elsewhere.
“It’s really important to have highly qualified staff,” said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner, who was also there. “It’s important for us to support our colleagues.”
DeLutro said prolonged underfunding has resulted in lack of adequate services for students and in the extension of college from four to five years for many students because they cannot get the classes they need. They’ve been cut.
Like many of her colleagues, DeLutro wore a shirt that read: “Five Years Without a Union Contract Hurts CUNY students.” On the back it read, “Ask me why.”
Another year has passed since the shirts were first produce.
Library faculty member Tess Tobin of CUNY’s New York City College of Technology said students and faculty both need more respect.
“We definitely need a contract,” Tobin said. Too few faculty means overcrowded classrooms. Campuses are not maintained. There are regular problems with air quality, including sustained over blasts of heat.
“Students can’t study. We can’t work,” she said.
“Tuition shouldn’t be raised. We have overcrowded classes,” Tobin added. “Our school has a very high percentage of first -generation college students. They come to class. They work 40 hours a week. Raising tuition sometimes is the line between dropping out and finishing.”
Many in the multitudes hoisted signs, and at each intersection unfurled bold, red banners that read #DefendCUNY.
Queens College faculty member David Gerwin was there because of his union. As a teacher of secondary education students, he said he got involved with PSC through the hardships that EdTPA imposes on students.
At a hearing on the issue, Gerwin said no deans showed up. No CUNY administrators. “But you know who did show up? NYSUT and PSC leaders. I realized I needed to get more involved.”
Gerwin teaches a seminar class – one that provides precious time to train students on how to run programs and groups in their last class before they head out. It should hold 16-18 people. He now has 28.
He said his colleague published a paper on neurological development in a well-regarded science journal but, because the college’s heating and cooling system doesn’t work, the mice lab subjects for the research died.
The ongoing problems with air quality “affect the ability of students to do research,” he said. Lab equipment needs to be dry to accurately measure, but the humidity in the building is so bad, it can’t be used, Gerwin said.
He said another colleague just moved to a college in another state.
Despite the lives changed by public higher education, despite the gains to the tax rolls through the education of people who then work good jobs, despite the lifts from poverty through education and the skills brought to New York businesses – SUNY and CUNY have suffered losses of more than $1.5 billion since 2008. Those staggering losses are attributed to the self-funding of mandatory costs (energy, technology, administration, collective bargaining, building rentals) and the reduction in state support, which drives up tuition.
“Students’ tuition increases should be invested in student academic programs, services and faculty,” said Pecorale. “However, much of that funding is paying for mandatory costs that are not covered by the state’s maintenance of effort for funding SUNY and CUNY.”
Meanwhile, the band, Underground Horns, played on and on as the more than a thousand people filed from the rally on Third Avenue, down the streets and into the Community Church of New York. People showed up from alliances, religious groups, labor groups, coalitions and community groups. There, the protestors quieted down as a choir group sang, opening the conversation about the crisis at CUNY and to make further plans for action.