On March 31, the New York State Legislature made a choice: it passed an austerity budget that imposes deep cuts on children, students, the elderly, and the working and middle classes, in order to reduce taxes for the richest people in the state.
The cuts included a $95.1 million reduction in State support for CUNY senior colleges and a $12.3 million reduction in base aid to CUNY community colleges. Protests and grassroots lobbying helped prevent a further cut of $5.2 million in community college aid proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo – but with $350 million in State cuts to CUNY in the last three years, this year’s budget dismayed many.
“Albany has chosen the rich over the rest of us,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “The governor and the legislators who failed to stand up to him have made their priorities clear. This budget is not just cruel, it’s counter-productive: economic austerity for millions of New Yorkers will not revitalize the economy.”
Many community and labor groups, including the PSC, opposed the reliance on spending cuts. With the support of many economists, they argued that the State’s $10 billion deficit was largely a revenue crisis, the result of decades of tax cuts for the wealthiest New Yorkers combined with the 2008 financial crash. This grassroots coalition urged Albany to continue the surcharge of 1% to 2.12% on taxable income above $200,000 that is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. The surcharge affects only the highest-paid 3% of New York residents, and raises about $5 billion annually.
“The fight is not over,” said PSC First VP Steve London after the budget was passed. “We need to work for passage of a supplemental budget that includes an extension of the high-income surcharge, and makes good use of additional revenue, above earlier projections, expected later this year.” London noted that the surcharge, which remains in effect through December, is popular with the public, and that the Assembly continues to support its extension.
The PSC pressed hard for a fair budget on many fronts. Union members met with legislators in Albany and in their local districts, while thousands of members called and sent messages to their representatives. Union leaders testified at public hearings, and the PSC’s message was driven home with a TV ad campaign on broadcast and cable channels in both Albany and New York City.
On March 15, nearly 500 academics and college students from CUNY and SUNY converged on the State Capitol in a mass lobbying effort to urge restoring funds to public higher education. In mid-March, more than 3,100 PSC members e-mailed the governor and legislators in support of funding CUNY and continuing the tax surcharge on top incomes.
But as the March 31 budget deadline drew near, signals from Albany indicated that the surcharge, opposed by both Gov. Cuomo and the GOP-controlled State Senate, was unlikely to be renewed, and that large cuts to social programs would follow. Polls showed that the public supported extending the surcharge by a 2-to-1 margin – but that majority opinion ran up against the solid support for Cuomo’s austerity campaign from New York’s political, financial and media establishments.
Key backing for the governor’s plan came from the Committee to Save New York, a group of bankers, real estate developers, and other business interests that raised $10 million to push Cuomo’s message that there was no alternative to massive spending cuts.
The looming decision to give the rich a tax break came at a time when the top 1% of New York State residents take home 35% of all income. In New York City, where social inequality is even more extreme, the richest 1% of city residents garner 44% of total income. If top tax rates were the same as 30 years ago, Bowen noted in legislative testimony, New York would have a net budget surplus.
To cut services to poor and working-class New Yorkers in order to fund a tax cut for the rich is simply unacceptable, PSC leaders said – and they felt it was urgent that they do everything possible to convey that to politicians and the public. At a special meeting the night of March 11, the union’s Executive Council voted unanimously in favor of engaging in nonviolent, direct action at the State Capitol on March 23.
More than 150 PSC members and community allies traveled to Albany for the March 23 demonstration. “I believe you have to take a stand,” said Glen Petersen, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Baruch, who was among the union members who decided to risk arrest. “This was a very clear, articulate way of saying you oppose the cuts the governor is trying to impose.”
Sitting in her bus seat, BCC Biology Professor Nikki McDaniel put aside the worksheets on meiosis and human reproduction she was preparing and ticked off the reasons she was traveling to Albany to support those engaged in direct action. Seventy-five percent of BCC students, McDaniel estimated, are working full-time while faced with increasing tuition costs and decreasing financial aid. Professors carrying a 5-4 course load find themselves unable to give students all the attention they need.
“I feel like I don’t have a choice,” McDaniel said of her decision to demonstrate. “If you want to affect change, it takes real action.”
Riding on the same bus to Albany, Gail Green-Anderson, co-director of the writing program at LaGuardia, told Clarion that recent rounds of budget cuts have meant fewer tutors and longer lines at the school’s writing center at a time when LaGuardia’s enrollment has grown swiftly. Further cuts would do great harm, she said: “If the Writing Center can’t get more tutors, more of my students will fail their classes.”
After they arrived in Albany, participants marched on the State Capitol from a small church where they had met to review their final plans. PSC members and CUNY students were joined by public school advocates and tenant activists, making common cause in the budget fight. Entering the Capitol building, they chanted and marched in an open area on the second floor near the governor’s offices. Cries of “Tax the rich, not the poor! Stop the war on CUNY!” echoed off murals depicting battles between white settlers and Native Americans.
“These cuts are not fair to kids or students at CUNY,” said Chauncy Young, a Bronx school parent and member of the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice. Young said he joined the PSC-led action because “no one group can do it alone.”
At about 2 pm, twenty-nine PSC members and four students sat down and blockaded the entrance to Gov. Cuomo’s office. They and their supporters filled the hallway with call-and-response chanting (“Tell me what democracy looks like.”/“This is what democracy looks like!”) as several legislators looked on. State senators Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) and Rubén Díaz, Sr. (D-South Bronx) joined in the chants, while others gestured their support.
“I think a lot of people were coming to observe us not just because we were making a lot of noise, but because we were right,” said Bill Friedheim, a retiree from BMCC.
To the cheers of their supporters, Friedheim and the 32 other blockade protesters were arrested and led away one-by-one in handcuffs by State Police. PSC President Barbara Bowen, First VP Steve London, Secretary Arthurine De-Sola, Treasurer Mike Fabricant, and seven other members of the union’s Executive Council were among those arrested.
“It was very empowering,” said Irene Rozenberg, a senior at Brooklyn College who was among the arrestees. Getting arrested “is not as scary as you think,” she told Clarion. “You get to see your teachers in a different way.” Rozenberg said she was strongly opposed to cuts in student aid, noting that she had had to drop out of school from 2007 to 2010 due to a lack of funds.
The 33 detainees were released on their own recognizance after about two hours in custody. Their action received extensive media coverage in New York City and Albany, as well as other parts of the State. Several reports linked the force of the protest to the larger labor demonstrations in Wisconsin.
The Associated Press reported that the March 23 sit-in reflected “an uncommon level of protest” over this year’s budget. Mobilizations against the cuts continued into the last week of March.
On March 24, a “Day of Rage Against the Cuts” drew more than a thousand people in lower Manhattan. Scores of CUNY faculty and students joined the march from City Hall Park to Wall Street, including a contingent of students from Hostos playing homemade drums made of empty water coolers. As the protest snaked its way through the narrow streets of the Financial District, Lina Cruz, a member of the Hostos student government, told Clarion that further cuts would undermine efforts to win longer hours for the school’s library. It currently closes at 8 pm, a problem for the many Hostos students who work during the day. “If we don’t have the resources, how are we going to make sure students succeed?” asked Cruz.
On March 30, hundreds of protesters from several community-based organizations descended on the State Capitol and occupied it through the night as legislators, working behind closely guarded doors, sped through the process of approving the final budget. Signs and T-shirts saying, “Protect kids, not millionaires” and “$ for the needy, not the greedy!” captured their anger at Albany’s budget choices. Among the protesters was PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant, who came at the request of the union’s community allies.
“Time to move off the defensive, as we have today,” Fabricant said in a Twitter post that night. “Our power will grow because we represent the interests of the 99%.”