Geneseo, N.Y. (March 31, 2011)
Geneseo’s chapter of United University Professions, the union that many State University of New York employees belong to, gathered in protest on the College Green March 22 to rally for labor unions and the preservation of New York State’s education system.
UUP chapter president Tabitha Buggie-Hunt said that the mission of the protest was twofold: protesters’ concerns included the protection of the SUNY system and the support of public workers.
After participants marched for over an hour, they gathered by Wadsworth Auditorium where a crowd listened to speeches delivered by faculty members, administrators and community members involved in the local chapter of New York State United Teachers.
Meg Stolee, a professor in the history department, introduced each speaker. Stolee also addressed both the cuts to SUNY and what she described as a stigma against state employees. “When did public workers become public enemy No. 1?” she asked. “How did a bunch of people who drive snow plows and teach classes get on this list?”
President Christopher Dahl echoed Stolee. “I emphatically do not believe that public employees are the problem,” he said.
The defense of public employees follows a mounting national issue that came to the forefront of national discussion in February when Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pushed for state legislation limiting the collective bargaining rights of state workers. Walker said that eliminating collective bargaining rights will allow the state to better manage rising costs, notably those associated with the state pension system. The Republican majority of Wisconsin passed the bill even after Democratic senators tried to block its passage by fleeing the state. The controversy has sparked debate nationwide over the role of labor unions.
Buggie-Hunt said that the demonstrations in Wisconsin expressed an important idea. “Unions are not as popular as they used to be, and as that happens, people lose sight of their importance,” she said. “Without unions, even people not involved in them suffer.”
Buggie-Hunt said that while the rising concern for collective bargaining rights is relevant at Geneseo, New York employees are “better protected” than those in some other states.
Speakers at the UUP rally were quick to point out that the mounting cuts to the SUNY budget paired with those most recently proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo are just as threatening to the future of SUNY as the diminishment of unions.
College Senate chair and education professor Dennis Showers voiced his support of recent student advocacy efforts. Showers said that students have to learn two lessons early in life: “You get what you pay for and when you make a commitment, you have to know the price of that commitment.” Showers commended students for applying this lesson to their calls for a rational tuition policy that would allow SUNY to increase tuition in order to recoup state funding cuts.
Showers presented a check for $400 to the Geneseo Foundation, the equivalent of what one student would pay in increased tuition to offset Geneseo’s current operating deficit. Other faculty members and administrators followed Showers in contributing their own checks.
Associate professor of psychology Ken Kallio, UUP officer, emphasized the need for flexible tuition and a rational funding policy for SUNY. “The alternative of privatizing public services is not for people of ordinary means,” Kallio said. “Students here are getting a bargain. I don’t want to see that decimated.”
Senior Will Labate, Student Association director of student affairs, voiced the concerns he has as a state resident: “SUNY is the most effective ladder of economic growth and upward mobility in this state,” Labate said. “We aren’t just another government department that can be cut.”
Buggie-Hunt said she was very pleased with the event’s turnout. “Lots of people stopped by, grabbed a sign and joined in. It showed how unified the community is,” she said.
Buggie-Hunt said she was especially happy to see Civil Service Employees Association workers in attendance. “I think sometimes the staff doesn’t get recognized for how much they do,” she said.