September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

Reopening higher ed poses real threats

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: Downstate Medical Center Chapter members show their union pride after receiving 2,000 face masks purchased by United University Professions for front-line hospital workers. Photo provided.

Lives are at stake, United University Professions officers and members said during an August virtual rally for a safe SUNY reopening five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of unionists, students, lawmakers and community advocates united online to demand that SUNY upgrade its campus reopening plans.

“All of us are here for one reason,” said UUP President Fred Kowal, “because we are committed to the health and safety of our state.”

The union and its advocates have grown increasingly concerned that money, not safety, is driving SUNY’s decision-making.

UUP has pushed SUNY to put safety first in reopening campuses. It calls for routine testing of all students, faculty and staff; tracing and isolation of those with the virus; masks in public locations; and expansion of its telecommuting agreement with the state.

Rowena Blackman-Stroud, the UUP Downstate Medical Center Chapter president, said, “Even though Downstate was a COVID-19- only hospital, they faced shortages of personal protective equipment.”

Hospital staff sickened, and some died. As UUP has repeatedly said, the state must step up financially to not only adequately fund its hospitals, but to pay for testing and protective gear for campuses and hospitals.

In New York City, the Professional Staff Congress Executive Council unanimously supported 10 demands CUNY must meet by Aug. 26 to save lives, save jobs and save the university.

If it fails to do that, the PSC puts “all options on the table for union action.”

The administration has repeatedly failed to keep employees safe until forced to do so by the union, said President Barbara Bowen. It failed to comply with the state directive to engage with the PSC on a reopening plan, failed to adhere to its contract with the union, failed to act with urgency in bargaining over the shift to remote work, and failed to comply with the CARES Act requirement on continuity of employment.

“Like all New Yorkers, PSC members have witnessed unbearable loss of life in our city,” Bowen said. “We have seen violent inequities of race and class laid bare, and many of us have joined the movement to end them. We have mourned the loss of friends, students and colleagues, as CUNY has endured more deaths from coronavirus than any other university in the country.”

The state’s community colleges are still waiting for 20 percent of state aid for the fall, which further compounds their inability to fund accommodations related to COVID–19.

In June, SUNY passed troubling emergency regulations that allow SUNY to control the distribution of funds to local CCs with no transparent methodology or formula.

“Our campuses do not have the funds to provide temperature checks, testing and proper cleaning between classes, as well as social distancing and PPE,” said Roberta Elins, president of United College Employees at Fashion Institute of Technology, who represents community colleges on the NYSUT Board. “Where is that money going to be coming from?” This year’s budget crunch has only one solution. More revenue. NYSUT legislative efforts continue to push on the federal side, but the CARES 2 and HEROES bills are hung up in Congress. NYSUT also continues to work on the state revenue initiative.

The NYSUT Board of Directors adopted a resolution on “Reopening Colleges and Universities Responsibly.” Among the commitments: “that in the fight to ensure the safety and health of NYSUT members, our students and our communities, we will use every action and tool available to us.”

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