Labor-faith coalition urges Cuomo to keep hospital open

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The Rev. Al Sharpton, New York City Comptroller John Liu and New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio joined a broad coalition of faith, labor and community leaders on May 9 to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to save vital healthcare services for the people and communities of Central Brooklyn. The coalition later held an interfaith service at a local church, then marched and rallied with hundreds of workers and community residents in front of the hospital.

They were fighting for the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, which has been in the political crosshairs of Cuomo and the state Legislature, a target for downsizing, privatization or possible closure. The United University Professions chapter at Downstate and the Public Employee Federation have been working with a community coalition to keep the hospital open. UUP is an affiliate of the AFT and the New York State United Teachers, and it represents 35,000 SUNY faculty and staff—3,300 of them at SUNY Downstate. PEF is affiliated with the AFT and represents 700 workers at the medical center.

Members of the coalition blasted Cuomo for placing the lives of millions of New Yorkers at risk by failing to commit funding for SUNY Downstate. The institution is the borough's fourth-largest employer and serves as a safety-net facility, accepting patients regardless of their ability to pay. A large number of its students are people of color who go on to professional careers in the health professions.

REv. A. Sharpton at Suny Downstate Rally

"The people of Central Brooklyn cannot do without the vital healthcare services provided at SUNY Downstate," said Sharpton, pictured at right. "We cannot stand idle and watch yet another Brooklyn hospital closes its door to the mostly poor people of color living in this community. Our lives matter."

Hundreds of UUP members who work at the hospital turned out, as did several NYSUT leaders, including executive vice president Andrew Pallotta, who is an AFT vice president; UUP president-elect Fred Kowal; UUP secretary Eileen Landy; UUP vice president for professionals J. Philippe Abraham; and Professional Staff Congress president and AFT vice president Barbara Bowen. Kowal addressed the crowd.

"We stand shoulder to shoulder with the coalition of community, faith and labor organizations here to save SUNY Downstate," said Kowal. "Some elements in the state budget threaten Downstate with closure or privatization. Brooklyn can't afford to lose its only state-operated public hospital. Brooklyn can't afford to lose thousands of jobs."

UUP's Downstate chapter president Rowena Blackman-Stroud said she was moved by the turnout and the community support.

UUP rallier at Suny Downtown Rally

"Our members have shown great courage in fighting for their patients, and the community has shown great courage in standing up for this hospital," Blackman-Stroud said. "This is part of what we believe will be a sustained campaign by the community around the hospital to make Albany listen and act. We demand no less, and our members stand in solidarity with the people of Central Brooklyn in this just fight."

The enacted state budget provides no additional state funds for SUNY Downstate. It also calls on the SUNY chancellor to submit a sustainability plan by June 1.

"The community is coming together to stand up against the attack on SUNY Downstate Medical Center," said Bishop Orlando Findlayter, senior pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship and chair of Churches United to Save and Heal. "We don't understand why the governor refuses to do the right thing. Downstate is a vital part of this community, and therefore, we call on the governor to provide the necessary funding to keep it open."
In addition to the UUP and PEF, top leaders of the Civil Service Employees Association have expressed their support for the community coalition's efforts and have spoken out publicly about the administration's lack of commitment to the facility's future. They have also urged the governor and SUNY to work with them and the community to develop a sustainability plan that ensures it will continue to be a public hospital that provides essential healthcare services. [NYSUT, Barbara McKenna/photos by David Grossman/video by Matthew Jones]

May 10, 2013