Jan. 9, 2015

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Higher ed unions embrace free community college

uupdate 1-9-15

NYSUT, UUP and the union's other higher education affiliates and locals can be proud of the role they have played in advocating for affordable higher education, a campaign that undoubtedly helped lead to President Obama's proposal for free community college education.

That’s what American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told union leaders at the NYSUT Higher Education Policy Council meeting Jan. 9.

"We've made student debt front and center," said Weingarten, who scheduled an unexpected talk at the New York City meeting of the council, which acts as an advisory body to NYSUT. Her remarks there came one day after the president proposed a national plan for the federal government and states to provide up to two years of the cost of tuition and fees at community colleges.

The AFT, NYSUT, and its higher education affiliates—including UUP—has already embraced the concept of free public higher education as part of a growing national movement to address the staggering cost of a college degree. Their advocacy has caught the attention of members of Congress and federal education officials.

"I'm grateful that the president has listened to us on this," Weingarten said. "Because at the end of the day, it's meaningless to say that college matters, without providing the means to support it."

UUP and the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY are part of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a national coalition of labor and student groups that has advocated for both free public higher education and a solution to the student debt crisis. The CFHE is set to hold its 8th National Gathering in California Jan. 16-18.

UUP has proposed a package of initiatives for this legislative session that includes a proposal for student loan forgiveness and for the state to pay 50 percent of SUNY’s annual funding. Students are currently carrying 63 percent of the annual operating costs for SUNY.

All six UUP officers attended the meeting, along with NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta and Vice President Catalina Fortino, who oversees higher education policy. This was the first council meeting led by newly appointed council Chair Roberta Elins, president of the NYSUT local United College Employees of FIT.

UUP President Fred Kowal presented an overview of the union’s legislative initiatives, and Secretary Eileen Landy gave an overview of CFHE.

Council members also applauded the work done by UUP to keep SUNY Downstate Medical Center open and public. Much of that effort has been led by UUP Treasurer and Downstate Chapter President Rowena-Blackman Stroud, who helped organize a coalition of faith-based community groups in the fight to save the hospital. The AFT recognized that effort last year with a $25,000 coalition-building grant shared by UUP and the Public Employees Federation.

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