PEF President Wayne Spence at the SUNY Downstate Rally this month
PEF President Wayne Spence addresses the Brooklyn Needs Downstate rally on Feb. 29, 2024.

March 7, 2024 — When SUNY Chancellor John King started making calls in January about a plan to “transform” SUNY Downstate, unions like PEF and United University Professionals (UUP) were quick to mobilize. Their message? Brooklyn Needs Downstate! 

SUNY Downstate - Heart of our Community At a rally on February 29, 2024, a crowd of about 1,200 hospital workers, community members and union activists gathered on Clarkson Avenue, outside the entrance to Downstate Medical Center in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, demanding that SUNY and Governor Hochul reconsider the plan. 

“Brooklyn is rising, and we will not be stopped by a chancellor, not by a governor. This hospital will survive, and it will because it is the people’s hospital,” said UUP President Fred Kowal. “We stand together, because we will not let it close. Not today, not tomorrow. Never.” 

Several politicians, including State Senator Zellnor Myrie, whose district includes Downstate, Assemblymember Monique Chandler-Waterman and Assemblymember Latrice Walker, all spoke against the plan, which would move 150 beds across the street to Kings County Hospital and farm out a variety of other specialty services offered by Downstate.  

“We will not yield, we will not stop,” said Senator Myrie. “We are at this rally today, but if we have to hold 10 more rallies, we will hold 10 more rallies.” 

Community members, clergy members and civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton joined the rally as well, sharing messages on behalf of the surrounding community and patients who depend on services at Downstate, which is the fourth largest employer in Brooklyn and home to the borough’s only kidney transplant center.  

“We find money in the federal government to take care of people all over the world, and we should,” said Reverend Sharpton. “So now, find the money to take care of people in Central Brooklyn!” 

PEF President Wayne Spence, NYSUT President Melinda Person, NYSNA President Nancy Hagans and AFT President Randi Weingarten all delivered unified messages to the crowd. President Spence recalled the history of Downstate’s excellence and innovation to illustrate its influence not only on Brooklyn and New York, but the world. 

“The MRI was invented right here at Downstate,” Spence said. “This is who we are! We are not fly-by-night, we are not small! We are, intellectually, a powerful organization! We have proven who we are!” 

President Spence also called on the crowd and the governor to remember all the work that the healthcare heroes at SUNY Downstate performed when they were designated a COVID-only hospital in March 2020.   

“If Andrew Cuomo would have had his way in 2012, we would not have been here because we would have been closed,” Spence said. “We stood up to the challenge during COVID and we saved lives. We should not have to justify our existence! We should not be here having this conversation!” 

President Spence said it is time that SUNY and the governor step away from their plans and focus on the community that needs SUNY Downstate. 

The claims made by Spence and other union leaders are supported by a survey of Brooklyn residents. The survey, conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), polled more than 600 residents in Central Brooklyn last month. Respondents overwhelmingly said they and/or their families received good or excellent care at Downstate (79%). Additionally, the majority of respondents felt that relocating the services from Downstate to Kings County Hospital will increase wait times for emergency rooms and surgeries and have a negative impact on jobs and the local economy. 

The full survey is available, here. 

PEF gathers elected leaders, NYC clergy for discussion about SUNY Downstate. Read the story here.

Photo gallery from SUNY Downstate Rally