May 21, 2020
With summer rapidly approaching, UUP’s focus is on the unanswered questions about the fall semester, even as the union continues advocating on behalf of members who had to suddenly switch to remote instruction in March.Among the union’s immediate priorities:
- Making sure that campuses respect the July extension of the union-negotiated telecommuting program with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
- Getting the word out to contingent faculty to apply for unemployment benefits if they have not been scheduled to teach in the fall—and then making sure those faculty understand the complex application process.
- Determining the safety conditions that must be met if UUP members do return to campuses in the fall.
Those are just a few of the issues UUP is dealing with as it waits for SUNY to announce how the fall semester will unfold, UUP President Fred Kowal told members in the union’s fourth and final “Tele-town Hall” phone conference May 21.
“I think what’s necessary is for SUNY to make a decision soon,” Kowal said. “I don’t want to be in a situation in which SUNY can’t make a decision and members are told, ‘Well, you need to prepare for two situations: one on campus and one at home.’ We need to make a decision, because preparing for this decision is going to be a massive undertaking.”
Focus shifts as fall looms
The two-hour forums, all held in May, reached nearly 2,000 members, who offered ideas, asked questions and aired concerns about dealing with the pandemic. Empire State Chapter President and statewide Executive Board member Pamela Malone hosted the forums.
Kowal pledged that the union will press for a tax on the state’s richest residents as a source of revenue for SUNY. He also said that the union will urge SUNY to be flexible in how it structures any return to campus, as long as the coronavirus remains a threat.
“We are going to argue to SUNY that the error needs to be on the side of safety,” Kowal said.
The first Tele-town Hall was a chance for members to discuss what working from home had been like, and how to advocate for SUNY. The focus shifted in the second and third forums as members began to look ahead to the summer arrival of students returning to several campuses for clinical rotations.
Some contingent faculty also began learning that they would not be called back to teach in the fall. Kowal has assured members that UUP is advocating for the retention of contingent faculty.
Kowal told forum participants 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,” Kowal said. “But not only that they understand, but that they take action to protect students, faculty and staff.”
UUP working to protect all members
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 in discussion with SUNY on how to limit any impacts on part-time faculty.”
UUP 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.
The union is working on a document that sets out its standards for the protection of students, faculty and staff if campuses reopen, and is also addressing the possibility that some UUP members will not feel safe returning to campus and may wish to indefinitely work from home.
The state Legislature never reconvened for any post-budget sessions, because those sessions would have fallen during the statewide stay-at-home order. But the Legislature eventually will reconvene—possibly not until fall, Kowal said. UUP is already engaging in advocacy for desperately needed state funding to SUNY, by meeting with key lawmakers. Chapters around the state have either already held tele-conference forums with state and federal lawmakers or are planning to do so.
Kowal asked members participating in the 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.
So, 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.”