February 7, 2024
By Vince Gasparini, special to UUP
Union leaders, lawmakers and frontline hospital workers packed the state Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase Feb. 6 as United University Professions held a rousing press conference and rally against the planned closure of Downstate Health Sciences University Hospital.
UUP President Fred Kowal opened the event in front of more than 100 UUP members standing on the staircase holding signs that read “New York Needs Downstate,” “Brooklyn Needs Downstate” and “Stop SUNY’s Closure Plan.” About half of those members were Downstate workers, who boarded a bus hours earlier to travel upstate for the noon event.
Kowal made it clear in his message, part of which was directed to Gov. Kathy Hochul and SUNY, that not just the people of Brooklyn, but the working people of the state of New York will not stand for the continued disinvestment in the hospital.
“It is an abominable and unacceptable plan,” Kowal told the crowd. He said it was “reckless” to close the hospital and that the Brooklyn neighborhood around SUNY Downstate needs more health care, not less. He called on the governor to improve health care in Central Brooklyn—a demand that prompted cheers, chanting and loud applause.
An urgent role in Brooklyn
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn native whose district covers parts of Brooklyn, echoed Kowal’s sentiments. Myrie voiced his support for SUNY Downstate by sharing his personal experience with how the hospital has helped him.
“When I had COVID, I did not go to some fancy Manhattan hospital. I went to Downstate,” the senator said enthusiastically.
Redetha Abrahams-Nichols, president of UUP’s Downstate Chapter, voiced her frustration with the state consistently defunding SUNY Downstate.
“We keep trying to prove ourselves to the state of New York, and every time we turn around, we are defunded,” she told the crowd.
Abrahams-Nichols has worked at Downstate for 23 years, and she emphasized the importance of SUNY Downstate for underrepresented residents in Brooklyn.
“I expect good health care for Black and Brown people,” the Downstate chapter president said.
Leaders from some of the most powerful labor unions in the state and in the nation spoke at the press conference, including AFT President Randi Weingarten, New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, NYSUT President Melinda Person and Public Employees Federation President Wayne Spence.
A number of elected state officials spoke at the event, including Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, Sen. Iwen Chu, Assemblymember Latrice Walker and Assemblymember Monique Chandler-Waterman.
Closure threatens diversity in health care
Speakers at the press event made it clear that the hospital is important to the community it serves, citing the need for diverse voices in health care as Black maternal mortality rates in New York City and throughout the state remain high. They also made it clear that SUNY Downstate deserves to be rewarded, not punished, for being designated as the sole COVID-only hospital in New York during the early days of the pandemic in 2020.
At the end of the rally, Kowal emphasized that “New York needs Downstate,” and the crowd took up that chant, with the sound echoing off the stone walls around the Million Dollar Staircase.
Watch the UUP website at UUPinfo.org for updates on the campaign to save Downstate. Members are encouraged to learn more about this fight, take action and send e-letters to lawmakers—all of which can be done through the Brooklyn Needs Downstate webpage on UUP’s website. Click HERE to view that page.