May 13, 2020
The shape of SUNY’s fall semester is still uncertain, but UUP isn’t waiting to find out what happens. Instead, the union is acting now to protect students and members.
UUP President Fred Kowal gave that assurance numerous times to hundreds of members who joined in the union’s second of four planned “Tele-town halls” May 13. Based on the response so far, UUP expects the conference-call-style events, with a question-and-answer format led by Kowal, to reach several thousand members.
The two-hour sessions—the first was May 7—are forums for members to air concerns, ask questions and offer suggestions for UUP’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as it pertains to members, students and the future of SUNY.
“As members of UUP, we have the capability and expertise to discuss these issues,” Kowal said in his opening statement. “As at no other time in our history, UUP is being called upon to be more than a union.”
Millionaires’ tax still a goal
Kowal pledged that the union will press hard for a tax on the state’s richest residents as a source of revenue for SUNY. He promised that UUP will urge SUNY administration to be flexible in how it structures not only the fall semester, but the indefinite future, as long as the coronavirus remains a threat to campuses.
“We are going to argue to SUNY that the error needs to be on the side of safety,” Kowal said. “No life is worth anything less.”
Kowal was joined by moderator Pamela Malone, the UUP chapter president at Empire State College, as well as a member of the UUP statewide Executive Board and a NYSUT director.
“We are searching for a member-driven strategy and we want to hear your ideas,” Malone told participants.
UUP pressing for answers
In this second forum, members asked very specific questions about the safety of their students, themselves and family members based on different scenarios, from returning to fully reopened campuses in August, to seeing some but not all colleagues return to campus, or continuing fully remote education.
If campuses do reopen, some callers wanted to know if they will be allowed to continue working from home if they or a family member has a compromised immune system or other health problems that would make them especially at risk from the coronavirus. And some wanted to know how the worst-case scenario would be handled: a return to campus, with an outbreak of COVID-19 shortly following.
UUP is addressing all those concerns and questions in ongoing discussions with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations and with SUNY administration, Kowal said, as well as continuing to hammer out protections for the current situation, in which almost all SUNY employees are completing the spring semester off campus. He told forum participants that the union has not yet received specific plans or answers to many of its questions, and that he sees the union as playing a vital role right now in safeguarding students and employees by raising issues that must be addressed.
“We have to make sure that SUNY understands our concerns, but not only that they understand, but that they take action to protect students, faculty and staff,” Kowal said.
He also told members that “right now, there are no plans for retrenchment or reduction of full-time staff, but we are very concerned and are discussing with SUNY how to limit any impacts on part-time faculty.”
UUP has just reached an agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding with SUNY that will address members’ concerns about effects of the pandemic on teaching, research, scholarship and other work that could affect members reviews for tenure, permanent appointment, reappointment or promotion.
All-out advocacy effort planned
The New York State Legislature never reconvened for any post-budget sessions, as it normally does, because those sessions would have occurred shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his statewide stay-at-home order. But the Legislature will eventually reconvene—possibly as late as fall, Kowal said. In anticipation, UUP is meeting with key lawmakers to advocate for desperately needed state funding to SUNY. Chapters around the state have held tele-conference forums with state and federal lawmakers or are planning to do so.
Kowal asked members participating in this second Tele-town Hall to be ready for the Legislature’s return, when lawmakers may well realize that they must find emergency funding for SUNY, most likely through a special tax on the state’s highest earners. There is precedent for such action; special taxes were applied after the 2001 terrorist attacks and again after the 2008 financial crash that marked the beginning of the Great Recession.
When the Legislature reconvenes, “it’s all hands on deck,” Kowal said, describing the effort that UUP will need by its members. “We have to be continuous with our advocacy.” UUP is set to hold two more Tele-town halls, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19; and at 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 21. Click HERE to register for the forums.