Save Lives. Save Jobs. Save CUNY.

The City University of New York labor union, Professional Staff Congress, organized a city wide protest on July 18 in response to a looming $31.6 million cut to CUNY funding, with caravans occurring simultaneously in all city boroughs excluding Manhattan. Along with hundreds of participants attending the caravans by bike or car, thousands more joined via Zoom or Facebook Live. 

The Queens caravan attendees gathered at York College to tape protest signs to their cars or bikes prior to the two hour protest. Cyclists also completed a pre-caravan ride from Sunnyside to York College, stopping at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The caravan passed Queens College and ended at Queensborough Community College, passing through various neighborhoods in each area. 

“The goal was to connect with communities and to make sure that people understand that the defunding of CUNY decreases the quality of the education that they are getting or might be seeking in future years and to signal to Albany legislators and executives that we’re organized across the whole city and that we need money so we can reverse these layoffs,” said Luke Elliott-Negri, a non-teaching adjunct at the School of Labor and Urban Studies who worked with Andrea Vasquez, vice president of the Union, to plan the event. 

In order to compensate for the budget cuts, over 2,800 adjuncts have been laid off so far, with the possibility that more educators will not return to a job in the fall. 

“Because so many teachers are being fired, there will be fewer courses offered and classrooms will be more crowded,” Tony O’Brien, a retired Queens College professor, said. “Students are also being asked to pay increased tuition even though most come from poor or modest families hard hit by the pandemic and the economic downturn accompanying it.”

As of the fall of 2019, a part-time undergraduate student at a CUNY community college has a tuition of $210 per credit, for New York State residents. Tuition for the 2020 school year was set to increase by $200 with a $120 health and wellness fee. 

“Many of my students work full time jobs, many are continuing education and so what I worry about is students not being able to pay tuition because of it,” Derek Ludovici, co-lead cyclist and adjunct at Brooklyn College and City College, said. “I already have students who sometimes can’t make class because they can’t pay the subway fare and so to get to class they would risk a 100 dollar fine jumping the turnstile. Really our students already suffer enough and these extra tuitions are going to hurt them even more.” 

“For students, their education will not be funded by the resources necessary to keep the quality high,” said Leah Mortenson, a clinical instructor at St. John’s University and an adjunct at Queens College. “There would be a tremendous loss of educational programs and opportunities at CUNY.” 

Programs such as CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs are facing defunding. The ASAP Program is an academic program that helps low-income students to graduate by providing financial and academic support including tuition and fee waivers, MTA Metrocards, tutoring, financial assistance for the cost of textbooks and more, which can become expensive and essentially impossible with the impending budget cuts.

“CUNY has been historically underfunded for decades now by the state and the city,” said Jane Guskin, a co-lead cyclist, adjunct at Queens College and doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. “New York has plenty of wealth. Lots of people and corporations have made huge profits from the pandemic and they should be paying more taxes to support education, healthcare, and other social needs.” 

Of the thousands of adjuncts who have lost their jobs, at least 400 have lost healthcare benefits as well. 

“Students, faculty, and staff would lose health insurance in the midst of a worldwide health crisis,” Mortenson said. “The fact that CUNY has let go almost 1/4 of its adjuncts means that thousands of classes won’t be taught and students won’t be able to complete classes required for graduation. Adjuncts hold up CUNY. We make it run, and we work tirelessly for our students.” 

The potential outcomes of defunding CUNY would differ for students and staff, but both would be impacted regardless.

“When we take union action to defend ourselves and our students, we will appeal to these communities for support, knowing that our struggle is their struggle too,” O’Brien said. “I think the caravan succeeded in beginning this serious outreach to the community. Young people, especially, but also people of all ages along the route, responded to us with smiles, waves, and the clenched-fist salute of workers on the march.” 

The outcome of the Queens caravan was positive in many ways, contributing to the overall success of the citywide protest. 

“We got some good media attention for sure,” Elliott-Negri said. “A lot of legislators were paying attention and were involved. I think another effect of this was it was very positive for the 1,200 or so PSC members who participated. The reports I heard from people on the Zoom was that they felt very connected to the events through their digital participation and so there was a kind of internal solidarity that comes from an action like this.” 

The limitations due to COVID-19 only proved the strength of the unity throughout the thousands of participants.

“I think it’s important to stand together against the budget cuts and to demand that we tax the rich to pay for public higher education,” Guskin said. “CUNY should be free, excellent, and anti-racist, and that requires more funding. We should all fight for that goal. Education is a right.” 

Action will undoubtedly continue as the livelihoods and educations of many are threatened by the various budget cuts.

“Because we all stand to lose from defunding, we all stand to gain from sticking together and taking bold action to stop the cuts and layoffs – action like a strike,” Elliott-Negri said.

Not only will current educators and students be affected, but future CUNY students will be impacted as well, leaving the future of CUNY in our hands.

“Dear high school students, many of you will be CUNY students before long,” O’Brien said. “Get involved now. Support our fight to keep students and staff safe, to save lives, to save your future education. Thank you from the PSC!”