May 11, 2020
Members air pandemic questions, concerns in first UUP Tele-town Hall
uupdate 5-11-20

The most difficult challenge that UUP has ever faced—that of working in the country’s hardest-hit state during a pandemic, with all the accompanying tragedy, loss and uncertainty—could also be a time of unprecedented strength for members.

UUP President Fred Kowal sounded that note of hope during his sobering introduction to the first of four planned “Tele-town Hall” forums hosted by UUP May 7. The union is hosting the conference-call discussions so that members can share ideas, ask questions and propose solutions in this most uncertain time that SUNY has also ever faced.

Pamela Malone, chapter president at Empire State College, helped moderate. “We’re here to listen and collect ideas from you,” she told members.

Tough times but union strong

Kowal opened the forum with some stark facts. The coronavirus had, as of May 7, killed more than 73,000 people nationally—25,000 of them New Yorkers. The country is at 15 percent unemployment, a figure that might double by summer. More than $5 trillion in the gross domestic product has been lost in less than two months. New York faces a $15 billion budget deficit, “and it will grow,” Kowal said.

“This is not an overstatement: We are now in the midst of a coronavirus-induced depression; we are facing an economic catastrophe,” Kowal told members.

But, he added, “we are at a place where ideas are born and can be projected into society … the challenge I make to all of you is to think of UUP as more than a union; think of it as an institution that can bring real change.”

Members took that challenge and ran with it.

They offered ideas—the Albany chapter, for example, developed a six-point guide that says any loss of jobs and health care at SUNY would be unacceptable—and they urged UUP to work with other unions. They talked about the shutdown’s toll on students. And they urged UUP to unify as never before its diverse membership, which ranges from building-services professionals to physicians treating COVID-19 patients.

A call for unity

Carol Gizzi and Carolyn Kube, respectively the past and current chapter presidents at Stony Brook HSC, were among those who noted the challenge of finding common ground.

“We do need to bring the membership together, and particularly the hospitals are siloed off from the academics,” Kube said. “My ideas is, you need to break down the silos. Everyone is competing for money. We need in some way, a campaign, to show our members we’re all in this together.”

Kowal agreed, saying that “there is a real and direct human cost on our membership. We’re in this together, and we need to stay strong with our members in the hospitals.”

Melinda Lemke, an academic at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, said she worries that permanent changes in higher education may be imposed by opportunists.

“I think we also need to be very mindful and actively aware of how the new knowledge economy is going to be reshaped, and ask, who benefits?” she said.

Many questions; few answers

The forum did not develop an immediate plan, but it did provide a strong sense of what matters to members.

Tops among those concerns: online learning is not an automatic substitute for classroom learning, and members have a tremendous uncertainty about the fall semester. Will it be entirely online, or a mixture of classroom and online learning? What will enrollment be? How much of the state will reopen this summer?

Unfortunately, as Kowal told members, not all the answers are known yet. UUP leadership has been in steady discussions with SUNY administrators and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations to protect work conditions, and to especially make sure that contingent employees are protected. And he pledged that UUP will press to be included in campus committees now being formed on how to shape the fall semester.

“What I’m counting on is to have a role so we can point out flaws and problems before students come back, and the semester starts,” Kowal said. The situation facing UUP, he added, “is best described as, we are working in the chain of justice. We are each a link. The goal is to build a stronger union.”

The other three forums will be May 13, 19 and 21; registration for the May 13 forum is closed.

Click HERE to register for the forums on May 19 and 21.

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