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Threatened SUNY Downstate Workers Refuse To Back Down, March Instead

September 10, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

Grim skies over this year's rain swept Labor Day Parade up 5th Avenue on September 8 may have done little to deter defiant marchers, but the gloomy climate almost certainly exemplified the struggle union workers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Central Brooklyn find themselves.

"The mood at the hospital is very somber," United University Professionals delegate Barbara Rosser said while waiting to march. "It's something that I thought I would never experience. I've been at Downstate for 11 years, and I've been in health care for 25 years. And I've never experienced a mood that I'm experiencing today."

Leaders at the financially challenged institution are currently engaged in a series of severe austerity measures ostensibly meant to blanch the hospital's red-soaked ledgers. The latest round of cuts announced over the summer cost 360 people at the medical center their jobs. Still more "non-renewal" notices are expected.

"This year's parade is especially significant for us because of the losses we are suffering," SUNY Downstate Managed Care specialist Paula White said. "We come into work daily with this fear of the axe falling on our necks."

George Burke, a staff assistant in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, said that his union's presence at this year's Labor Day Parade was important to demonstrate the injustices being inflicted upon hardworking SUNY Downstate employees.

"What's happening at SUNY Downstate is not just," he said. "Why are they targeting SUNY Downstate? The contract says you can't cherrypick workers. But right now they're cherrypicking who they want to keep and who they don't want to keep."

UUP has requested a town hall meeting with newly-appointed SUNY Downstate President Dr. John Williams in an effort to obtain some clarification about what exactly administrators are planning. But so far, it's unclear exactly when that meeting might happen. Meanwhile, an audit of the hospital's fiscal health directed by the State Comptroller's office, is still ongoing.

"They haven't said anything," Rosser said. "They haven't given us a plan. There's no transparency. We don't know what's going on. We operate on rumors. You come to work every day hoping there's something concrete. Something that you can hold onto to base your future on. But there's nothing."

Despite all the anxiety, hardships and bad weather, siting out this year's Labor Day Parade was simply not an option for UUP Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud.

"Oh, we have to march," she said. "I think it's important that we maintain our visibility. It's also an opportunity to apprise our brothers and sisters in labor about what's going on at SUNY Downstate. Several brothers and sisters have already come up to me and offered their support."

UUP members also marched in this year's West Indian-American Day Parade held a week prior in Brooklyn where they had an opportunity to interact with both legislators  and the greater community.

"We distributed flyers, and today we're hoping to have that opportunity as well," Blackman-Stroud said.

Labor groups representing workers at SUNY Downstate have been urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to step in and help save the medical center from cuts they say will be utterly devastating to the surrounding community.

"Our message is very, very clear," Blackman-Stroud said. "The governor has not weighed in. We are asking him to intervene and address this issue. And when you think about it, and you look at the unemployment numbers in Central Brooklyn, we have moved up, which is not a good thing. Especially in light of the November presidential election. This should be a priority for all of the legislators, and especially the governor."

Burke's message to the governor was equally fundamental: "Treat us the way you would like to be treated," he said. "Follow the guidelines of the contract and take a look at what SUNY Downstate is on the map for - we've had Nobel Prize winners."

Rosser said that she felt "compelled" to be in this year's rainy Labor Day Parade - no matter how dire the circumstances.

"This parade is as important as the Civi Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and any other movement in America," she said. "I think the government should recognize that state workers contribute considerably to New York State and step in. We chose to commit ourselves to the State of New York. But when Wall Street went under, they came after us. I think government should rethink this. I think government should think long and hard about depleting the workforce at SUNY Downstate."

UUP Membership Development Officer Alfred Rees traveled all the way from Syracuse, New York to be a part of this year's Labor Day Parade.

"This is one of the ways to show working people are here," he said. "We're the people that do the work. Without us every stops."

White said that she is convinced SUNY Downstate has begun losing patients "because they're hearing about closing, restructuring and downsizing."

As the rains continued to lash 5th Avenue, Rosser said that as a union member she was not only representing UUP - but "the mainstream of America," as well.

"We represent the American workforce," she said. "And that's essential."

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