As soon as it became apparent that college campuses would shut down and move to online learning due to COVID-19, higher education union leaders began working to ensure that the health and hard-fought rights of union members are protected.
The union has taken “a calm, measured, common-sense approach as we work with SUNY and the governor’s office to address a very difficult situation,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions on SUNY state-operated campuses.
President Barbara Bowen of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY solicited issues from local chapters and thousands of members who “expressed concern not only for themselves but also for vulnerable students and colleagues,” she said. “The union principle that an injury to one is an injury to all is literally true now.”
The PSC, UUP and NYSUT local unions at community colleges all over the state scrambled to respond. It got very complicated very quickly. Soon, campuses were mostly closed, and all instruction had to move online.
Adjunct Professor Doug Cody, a member of UUP and the Faculty Association at Suffolk Community College, had to suddenly convert six courses to online instruction. The longtime unionist said he did what was required to keep everyone safe, but it was a real compromise.
“I really love what I do,” he said, “and I believe face-to-face is the only way to teach people.”
Most faculty members tapped into technology — such as Zoom, Google Meet, or WebEx — to try to convene at times when classes were ordinarily scheduled. But, “It’s just not the same,” Cody said. “Being face-to-face with students is extremely important. You can tell if they are engaged, and you can see right away if they understand. It cannot possibly be the same.”
Higher ed activists mobilized to support colleagues and health care providers who needed support.
With protective gear running low for front-line health care workers, lab technicians at Kingsborough Community College in New York City donated hundreds of pairs of gloves, goggles, lab coats and hospital grade disinfectants and hand washes for Bellevue Hospital workers.
Chief lab techs Alicia Trust, John Acevedo, Eulalee Cambridge and Maria Norako, all PSC members, dug through the microbiology and other labs that use personal protective equipment. “We even diverted a new delivery of gloves and alcohol,” Trust said.
UUP purchased 100,000 medical isolation gowns for doctors, nurses and medical staff on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic at SUNY public hospitals in Brooklyn, Stony Brook and Syracuse.
“These are our colleagues, our friends, our neighbors, our health care providers, and they are union members showing up every day, saving lives and fighting this dreaded disease without the appropriate gear,” said UUP’s Kowal. “We wanted to help.”
The PSC is teaming up with the New York State Nurses Association to create a Homework Hotline to provide academic support to the children of nurses while their parents are risking their lives to keep other New Yorkers safe. “We are grateful for the opportunity to have something to offer, even if it’s small, to those who are offering so much,” said Bowen.
Making the case for higher ed funding
This spring, the NYSUT Fund our Future campaign made a higher education stop with a campus tour and panel discussion at Corning Community College. The union campaign called on the state to invest more in public education — from pre-K all the way through college. Far left, NYSUT Secretary-
Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham said a well-rounded education is the social justice issue of our time. “New York needs to educate all students so they can strive to attain their full potential.” At left, economics professor Robert Kephart and Jennifer O’Hara, an instructor in the business department, both members of the Professional Educators of Corning Community College, shared why community colleges need their fair share of funding.