July 17, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
Union members working at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn rallied underneath a punishing summer sun on Monday afternoon as Downstate officials met inside with the state lawmakers to discuss a so-called “restructuring plan” that could cost hundreds of people their jobs.
“I think people have a right to be worried,” a reticent State Senator Velmanette Montgomery said following the closed-door meeting.
Members of UUP – United University Professions and PEF – Public Employees Federation decided to organize the impromptu demonstration in front of the SUNY Health Science Education Building at Lenox Road and East 34th Street after hearing about the private meeting between hospital officials and the Brooklyn Delegation over the weekend.
“This restructuring plan threatens vital health care services for thousands of residents in Brooklyn,” UUP Downstate Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud said. “It is unconscionable to cut staff and cut hospital services when Central Brooklyn residents desperately need Downstate’s medical services.”
At full strength, about 75 to 100 workers picketed up and down the sidewalk for the better part of three hours denouncing looming cutbacks, while inside Downstate officials, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall and lawmakers convened their meeting.
At one point, demonstrators attempted to gain entrance to the education building itself, but were unsuccessful.
“We decided that we needed to come out even if it was just a few of us and stand here and let the chancellor know, and let Carl McCall know that we want the jobs to stay here at this institution,” PEF Region 11 Coordinator Jemma Marie Hanson said. “We will not tolerate anything else.”
But finally, after marching all afternoon, picketers were given little hope that layoffs will not play a prominent part in the way decision makers address SUNY Downstate’s budgetary woes. Instead, members of the Brooklyn Delegation discussed the need for retraining and incentivizing early retirement, as well as the need to adjust to the new “realities” of restructuring.
“We need to find jobs in other places for people who work here now,” Assemblyman Nick Perry said. “We’ll try to lessen the impact and make sure we don’t concentrate the pain on folks that have worked so hard to keep this institution one of the best in the country.”
State Senator Kevin Parker blamed the need for restructuring on “the change in the way health care is being delivered” – but offered at least a glimmer of hope that jobs might yet be saved – in the form of a few million bucks from the state.
“I know right know we’re kind of negotiating with a guillotine at a lot of people’s necks,” State Senator Parker said. “And right now we’re trying to work with the governor and help the governor become a hero in this thing. We know the governor can save the jobs that are at stake. It’s a significant amount of money over two years, but it’s not something that’s undoable.”
SUNY Downstate officials, meanwhile, are reportedly close to naming a successor to former president John C. LaRosa, and bringing in a consulting team to administer the actual restructuring plan.
Blackman-Stroud emphasized the importance of having input into whatever restructuring plan finally emerges and well in advance of any announced layoffs.
“These job losses will devastate Brooklyn’s already weak economy,” Blackman-Stroud said. “More families will lose their homes to foreclosure, more small businesses will shut down and the borough’s already high unemployment rates will skyrocket.”
Longtime SUNY Downstate staffer and neighborhood resident Earl Alleyne said that workers have been kept in the dark about their fate for too long.
“There is a lot of uncertainty around all the departments,” Alleyne said. “When we ask what’s happening, all we hear from management is, ‘I don’t know.’
Despite all the talk of layoffs, retraining and retirement, Hanson said that there are, indeed, areas that could be cut.
“The managerial positions and higher positions are not being cut,” Hanson said. “It’s only the people that are working on the units. Now that’s a problem. Ultimately, the hospital stays open and works hard by having those people on the units working. We need to look at the hierarchy within downstate and see what can be cut from the top as well, because there are a lot of high-paying jobs there. You don’t cut the little guy that’s actually doing the work. You look at the overall structure and you try to make adjustments accordingly so we can at least try to keep this hospital open.”
Union members say they will keep up to fight save jobs at SUNY Downstate and have thus far amassed about 2500 signatories on a petition calling on Governor Cuomo help fund the medical center.
“I’m confident that we will be able to get the governor in the right place,” State Senator Kevin Parker said.