Emergency Picket Demands Better Funding

Professor Cesar Barros speaks at the RUP emergency picket that took place on Tuesday, April 10 outside the HAB plaza. Photo courtesy of Julia Thornton.

On Tuesday, April 10, the Radical University Professionals (RUP), a recently formed group of SUNY New Paltz professors and faculty, held an emergency picket in the plaza outside of Haggerty Administration Building. They demanded Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allocate more funding for the State University of New York (SUNY), provide SUNY professors and faculty with fair, livable wages, and end the stalled negotiations for a fair contract.       

The Radical University Professionals are advocating for Cuomo to address several grievances: they are calling for the state to adequately fund SUNY and provide the resources required for quality public education, while they demanded the state and Cuomo address the stalled negotiations for a fair contract for SUNY faculty.

Signs reading “FUND SUNY NOW” and “NO MORE STATUS CUOMO” were held at the protest as chants sounded across the plaza. These were interspersed with speeches made by New Paltz professors and leaders of New Paltz student organizations, such as Democracy Matters and New York Students Rising.

“SUNY New Paltz is under attack / What do we do? / Fight back!” the crowd of  dozens of people said in unison. Some students passing on their way to class, or to go into the Atrium drifted by, while others stopped to watch the group advocating action from Gov. Cuomo. 

“The goals of the movement ultimately are to get ample state funding for SUNY. That would include the resources necessary to provide faculty with reasonable salaries, with the ability to provide quality educational experiences to students without having to hike their tuition to pay for it,” said sociology professor and member of Radical University Professionals Brian Orbach. “Really, we view the State University as a state responsibility.”

The RUP formed about two weeks prior to the picket in the HAB plaza. Orbach explained the immediacy of action.

“Our contract negotiations have been stalled for so long, and basically, the faculty are fed up,” he said. “That was the sort of immediate impetus, but it is linked to basic concerns-the underfunding of SUNY, the shifting of the burden of SUNY onto students with tuition hikes, all of these things are problems. The contract stalling was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The faculty who are spearheading the RUP movement are also members of the United University Professions (UUP), a union for SUNY employees. UUP is currently trying to negotiate a new contract with Gov. Cuomo. However, the Cuomo Administration has yet to finalize the contract.

While the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law of New York State prevents previous contracts from expiring before a new one is reached, the union has been unable to reach an agreement for a new contract with Cuomo for 21 months. While the State University budget recently passed, new contract negotiations remain stalled. The current contract makes it difficult for professors, especially more recently employed professors, to receive raises without addressing administration directly.

Professors at SUNY New Paltz are paid 20 percent less than their counterparts at the average four year public university, while adjuncts at the college are paid around $3,000 per class. SUNY New Paltz is one of the lowest paid campuses in the SUNY system, according to the RUP website, RUPinfo.net.

The necessity for funding professors and engaging with their grievances was repeated throughout the picket.

Donna Goodman, a longtime SUNY New Paltz faculty member and active UUP member, now retired, concluded the speeches. She reiterated the existential necessity of professors, especially those in the public sector, in ensuring a better society.

“We are not a business. We are society itself. We are the families and communities and workers that make society happen. Teachers are the reason that any other professions exist,” Goodman said. 

Goodman then expressed the solidarity of this movement with other teachers’ movements taking place across the country.

“We are fighting for a fair contract from one union, but our fight is national, our fight is worldwide. West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky is on its way,” Goodman said. “What we can take from all of these and from the heroic Chicago teachers strike of 2012 is the solidarity between the community and the teachers […] that’s what made those strikes successful.”

Goodman then mentioned the law preventing NYS teachers from striking.

“New York State law prevents us from withholding our labor to achieve our goals,” she said. “But nothing prevents us from acting in solidarity with other unions, our neighbors, our students and their parents.” 

“We have a great task ahead of us, one that as educators we should be expert at, and that is teaching everyone around us the importance of workers, of teachers, of students, of a robust public sector of SUNY,” Goodman added. “SUNY is the lifeblood of New York’s future.”

Speakers at the picket called attention to the effect of underfunding not only on SUNY professors, but also on SUNY students. They evoked the burden placed upon students vis-a-vis the underfunding of SUNY and the multi-year budget crisis. A general unity between SUNY students and faculty was also emphasized.

Molly Seiden, a third-year student and President of the New Paltz International Socialist Organization spoke of the burdens of students dealing with rising tuition prices and disparate public funding.

“We call for the state to invest back into SUNY as it originally promised. However, students are currently funding about 64 percent of this institution, while the state is funding 36 percent” she said. “These are private school levels. This is not what public education should look like.”

Briana Sullivan, a third-year student and the president of New York Students Rising spoke about the treatment of SUNY by the State.

“Cuomo has turned the New York state public education system into a cold business in which students are treated as consumers rather than the future,” she said.

On the unity of the students and teachers, Sullivan said, “We suffer together.”

Upon the conclusion of the speeches, the picketers marched from Haggerty Administration to the plaza outside Humanities, echoing chants like, “SUNY/united/will never be defeated!”

Outside Humanities, Professor of Literacy in the Education department Kiersten Greene emphasized the inclusiveness of the movement.

“This is a movement with no leaders now. This is a coalition, a collective voice. This is a group of people that have come together in a moment’s notice to say ‘Enough is enough,” Greene said. “We’re not gonna get quiet anytime soon.”

Professor of Language, Literatures, and Cultures Cesar Barros commented on the necessity of the movement.

“The movement is necessary because the state and the state government is dismantling this system– it’s far from funding SUNY properly,” he said. “We are not in a recession anymore, but it feels like we are still in a recession.”

Professor Obach later commented on the aftermath of the protest. 

“I feel that we successfully got the message out,” he said. “I think that the Governor should be getting the message, and that was the goal.”

The RUP are planning to host more events of action, and are hosting a Town Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 19 in the Sojourner Truth Library. The event is going to serve as an opportunity to air grievances and to strategize, according to Obach. 

Other events will be promoted on the RUP Facebook and Twitter pages.

Seiden commented on the origins of the movement.

 “Humans aren’t stupid, you know? If we don”t see the progress being made when the politicians are telling us, and when we don’t see our resources going into our conditions, then we’re going to organize and get mad,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.”