Hundreds protest CUNY budget cuts and stalled contract talks

CUNY_rally_lee-10

Hundreds of CUNY advocates rally on March 10 across the street from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office. Photo by Mike Lee.

By GREGORY N. HEIRES

Hundreds of CUNY workers, students and community activists turned out Thursday evening for a boisterous rally in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office, where they demanded ample funding for the City of University of New York and new contracts for its employees.

The protesters directed their ire at Cuomo, who seeks in his executive budget proposal to slash nearly $500 million from the state’s contribution to CUNY and impose that funding obligation on the city.

Clad in green union T-shirts, DC 37 members expressed their frustration and anger at the failure of Cuomo and CUNY administration to agree to a new contract.

The latest economic agreement expired in 2008, and the workers have gone seven years without a raise.

CUNY has offered DC 37 workers a 6 percent pay increase over six years. In its counter-proposal, DC 37 called for a 14 percent wage increase over seven years and an additional $200 contribution to the union’s welfare fund for each employee.

“It’s amazing that we are such a big part of the city and we don’t have a contract,” said Custodial Assistant Julio DeLeon. “It’s not fair.”

Filling  a city block across the street from the governor’s office at 633 Third Ave.,  the demonstrators carried signs with such messages as “CUNY contract now!,” “Stop the War on CUNY,” and “Invest in CUNY, Invest in New York.”

DC 37 is intensifying its effort to reach a settlement on a new contract. Recently, the campaign has focused on convincing the governor and legislators to restore the $485 million proposed cut in CUNY funding to the state budget. Democrats in the State Assembly are planning to reject the $485 million cost shifting to the city and call for a two-year freeze on tuition, according to POLITICO New York.

If approved, the proposed cut would amount to a 30 percent reduction in assistance from the state, which covered 46 percent of the CUNY budget in fiscal year 2014. Tuition covered 44 percent, with the city providing the remaining 10 percent.

At the rally and during a gathering at the nearby Community Church of New York, CUNY advocates complained about years of tuition hikes and disinvestment by the state. Over the past five years, students have seen their tuition go up $1,500, and they would face another five years of $300 annual increases under Cuomo’s executive budget.

Contending with budget reductions, the administration has reduced classes, used funds for student services for ongoing expenditures and downsized part-time faculty.

Costodial Assistant Roxana Galindez speaks at a forum at the Community Church of New York, where demonstrators went after they participated at a rally across the street from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Manhattan office to demand fair funding for the City University of New York and new contracts for itrs employees. Photo by Mike Lee.

Custodial Assistant Roxana Galindez speaks at a forum at the Community Church of New York, where demonstrators went after they participated at a rally across the street from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office to demand fair funding for the City University of New York and new contracts for itrs employees. Photo by Mike Lee.

Custodial Assistant Roxana Galindez, who works at Queens College, spoke on the panel at the Community Church of New York.

“I wish the state would come to the table to negotiate a fair contract with a reasonable wage increase for all of us workers, without impacting the tuition cost of the students,” Galindez said.

Raymond Luciano carried a bag of empty bottles with him at the demonstration. The pay freeze has forced him to collect bottles in the street to earn cash from recycling, he said. He estimated that he earns about $150 every two weeks by recycling bottles.

“The cost of living is up and my rent has increased four times,” Luciano said in an interview mixing Spanish and English.

“No food. No Money. No good,” Luciano said. “The rich don’t want us to eat.”

Custodial Assistant Raymond Luciano holds bottles, which he plans to recycle to supplement his frozen pay. He earns about $150 every two weeks by recycling.

Custodial Assistant Raymond Luciano holds bottles, which he plans to recycle to supplement his frozen pay. He earns about $150 every two weeks by recycling. Photo by Mike Lee.

“We need a raise,” said Custodian Supervisor Dahlia Linton, a member of Local 1757. “We work very hard. This is unjust.”

Custodian Supervisor Halroy Taitt, who works at New York City College of Technology, is active in the union’s contract campaign. He gathered 3,000 signatures of students, faculty and coworkers for a union petition that calls for fair funding for CUNY. Please click here to sign the online petition.

A diabetic, Taitt said he struggles to meet his family’s household expenses because of rising medical costs. In addition to his prescribed medications, he uses over-the-counter drugs, which aren’t covered by his prescription drug benefit. Taitt must now make a $15 co-pay each time he visits his doctor, who switched to the GHI medical plan from HIP, which doesn’t have a co-pay.

Local 384 Shop Steward Michele Karpeles came to the rally with a busload of 50 coworkers from the College of Staten Island.

“It’s hard to pay your bills,” Karpeles said. The pay freeze has been particularly devastating for members who drive to work from New Jersey and use the Verrazano Bridge with its $16 toll, she said.

Speaking at the forum, Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents professors, said,“This is not an accident of funding. This is a political decision to keep people poor.”

“Of the 10,000 DC 37 members who work at CUNY, about 7,000 don’t earn $15 an hour,” DC 37 Deputy Associate Director Jahmila Joseph said at the rally. “Our members need a living wage.”

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