New York, NY – James Davis, President, PSC-CUNY, AFT Local 2334, has years of dedicated union service. Although he was elected to his current position in 2021, his union career began much earlier, around 2003, when he began teaching at Brooklyn College.
The Professional Staff Congress is the union that represents 30,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York and the CUNY Research Foundation. The union negotiates, administers and enforces collective bargaining agreements, protects the rights of staff through the grievance and arbitration process, engages in political activity on behalf of CUNY and its staff and students, and advocates for the interests of the instructional staff in its various forms. It also provides benefits and services to its members through such related organizations as the PSC/CUNY Welfare Fund and NYS United Teachers (NYSUT).
LaborPress was privileged to learn from Davis about his background, his history of union service, his vision for CUNY, and his belief that healthcare is a human right – and how that belief led him to his activism regarding the ongoing conflict over the future of municipal retirees’ health plans.
LP: Where did you grow up?
JD: I have lived in Brooklyn since 1997, but I grew up in upstate New York in a small town near Rochester.
LP: Do you come from a union family?
JD: My parents were pro-union, in part because they experienced how vital unions were to creating the middle class in and around New York City where they grew up. For many years my father was a grievance counselor with the union where he worked. My mother worked for the county legal services agency, representing clients who had been denied social security benefits. They imparted to me the importance of a strong social safety net, job security, and a living wage – the kinds of things that labor unions have always struggled for.
LP: What is the trajectory of your career in the union?
I started my teaching career at Brooklyn College twenty years ago in 2003. I got involved in the union immediately because my chapter was working with student activists resisting tuition hikes and military recruitment on our campus during the Iraq War. I moved from coalition work with students to elected union leadership in my chapter’s executive committee and became the chapter chair in 2015 after being promoted to full Professor. I worked on several union-wide campaigns as a local officer, including struggles around adjunct equity, academic freedom, contract enforcement, workload, and our contract and budget campaigns. I joined the PSC executive council and bargaining committee in 2018. I’ve held elected positions on the boards of the union’s state and national affiliates (NYSUT board of directors, AAUP national council, AFT executive council). As a member of a democratic union, I got the opportunity before becoming president in 2021 to participate widely. I’ve been arrested three times in civil disobedience actions with union siblings and have also led legislative lobby visits and testified before elected officials. I’m grateful for each of these opportunities to serve our members and advance the labor movement, and I try to create opportunities for others to develop as union leaders too.
LP: Is there anything that you could say helped form you into the leader that you are today?
JD: My students at Brooklyn College and my colleagues who have been active in the PSC have inspired me and shaped my understanding of my role. CUNY students are amazing, and when you experience up close the challenges that they confront to be successful in college and beyond, it makes you a true believer in the importance of this tremendous university.
Fighting to improve resources for students is central to my union’s efforts – whether it’s safe, well-equipped classrooms, labs, and libraries, or reasonable class sizes, or opportunities to study with professors who have job security and good wages, I am committed to a vision of CUNY where students have the same supports and resources as their peers at private institutions and the country’s flagship public universities. Just because the majority of our students are people of color, one-third were born in another country, many are the first generation in their families to attend college, and nearly all have modest financial means does not mean they deserve any less. My eyes were opened by colleagues who struggled for this vision much harder than the administration. PSC members have a long tradition of being fierce, smart, relentless activists, and I am privileged to step into that tradition and do my part.
LP: PSC is one of only a few unions to oppose the effort to shift municipal retiree healthcare to a Medicare Advantage plan. What, for you, were the stand-out moments in that (still ongoing) campaign, in which you were a prominent participant? What made you raise your voice as early as you did?
JD: Retiree groups have been the most prominent. My role has been to express a position that my union has taken throughout the negotiations between the MLC and the City. We haven’t wavered, so it’s not that I’ve been louder than my predecessor since I took office in 2021 – she had been clear and emphatic – but that the city’s Medicare Advantage contracts, first with Emblem/Anthem, then with Aetna, became more public. As those contracts drew the scrutiny of the media, the courts, elected officials, and the retirees themselves, the terrain of the struggle has changed. I have a team of smart leaders within the PSC who are simply unwilling to do what’s expedient if alternatives are possible – and collectively we have worked to develop and advocate for alternatives.
LP: What are the most objectionable aspects of the shift to Medicare Advantage?
JD: Municipal retirees entered an important compact when they took a city job: in exchange for modest wages they’d have the security of a defined benefit pension and fully covered health insurance while working and in retirement. That compact shouldn’t be broken casually, it has defined the NYC workforce for generations. I understand the obligation that the MLC has to uphold our end of the healthcare savings agreements signed during the De Blasio administration; that cannot be ignored. But our position has always been that depriving retirees of access to traditional Medicare and a city-paid supplemental Medigap plan is not the answer. There is not that much savings to be had for the city there anyway – it’s not the $600 million per year that the consultants alleged could be saved with this approach. Healthcare costs are an increasingly large portion of the city budget, but retiree health care is a small fraction of those costs. Has the City pursued all its options for raising new revenue? Before moving retirees out of Medicare, all these avenues should be exhausted.
LP: In July of 2021, you said, “Whatever its provisions, a plan to shift the cost-saving burden to union members and municipal employees does not bode well for the future…the answer is not privatization. It is to continue Labor’s fight for a single-payer public health-care system.” Can you expand on this and the dangers of privatization?
JD: There are better and worse Medicare Advantage plans, and there are individuals for whom a Medicare Advantage plan may work better than for others. But the broader point for my union – and it’s a health policy issue not just a political issue – is that healthcare is a human right, and if you believe that, as we do, then you don’t introduce incentives for decisions to be made on the basis of profits over people. That’s the problem with the healthcare industry overall in the U.S. and with Medicare Advantage as it’s evolved since its inception. What began as a program to relieve the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) of a tremendous administrative burden has become a behemoth. The number of retirees in Medicare Advantage plans nationally has doubled in the last decade, and today half of all Medicare-eligible retirees in the U.S. are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan. That dramatic growth should be a wake-up call. Only recently has federal monitoring and accountability for Medicare Advantage providers begun to increase. Only recently has the investigative reporting been done to shed light on the unscrupulous and dangerous practices that Medicare Advantage providers engaged in, from “up-coding” patient records to inflate their charges to CMS, to denials of pre-authorization for routine medical procedures. Reasonable people can debate the merits of this Medicare Advantage plan or that one, or whether a PPO is better than an HMO, but my union’s main concern is that any state or municipality expanding the footprint of Medicare Advantage is accelerating a process of privatizing a public good, further eroding the social safety net and shifting risk downward to the most vulnerable, aged members of our communities.
LP: What has it been like to oppose the MLC and the UFT in your strong disagreement with their position on the proposed change?
JD: I respect my counterparts in other unions. They’re doing what they think is right by their members, and I’m doing what I think is right by mine. I’m not going to hold my tongue when I think they are wrong – we have to be able to disagree within the labor movement.
LP: You’ve had the boldness to say that Mayor Adams’ administration is “anti-worker”. Is this only about the Medicare Advantage pressure or are there other policies that affect your members that you find objectionable?
LP: I’ve used that term to describe some of the policies of this administration. I think it is anti-worker to shift the burden of rising health care costs onto city employees and retirees. The city should bring the hospitals to the table to negotiate more favorable rates and should deal with skyrocketing prescription drug costs – these are the real drivers of the increases that workers are asked to absorb. I think the mayor’s cuts to city agencies are bad for the working people of NYC. Not only do they occupy those municipal jobs that have been cut, they also rely on city agencies for critical services. I hope for better from this mayor in the coming year.
LP: You were able to get members such as college professors to testify at the City Council hearing. Can you give a couple of the most salient examples and how you think their thoughts, words, and knowledge, affected the present Council Members?
JD: City health care is a complex issue. Among our PSC membership, which includes active workers and several thousand retirees, we have healthcare policy experts, political scientists, gifted writers and communicators, and experienced organizers. To simplify things, we developed a proposal for the Council to consider, and a number of the PSC members and retirees who testified spoke to our proposal. It is still viable today despite the contract having been signed with Aetna. It involves a two-stage process. The first stage is for the City to relieve the financial burden that’s been placed on the MLC to effectively self-fund the equalization mechanism in the Health Insurance Stabilization Fund (HISF). That would require the City to redirect a portion of the funds that would ordinarily go toward annual reimbursement of the Retiree Health Benefits Trust (RHBT) and use those funds instead to replenish the HISF. We have shown that the City can do this for 2-3 years without compromising the RHBT. That would create the time for stage two, the City should convene a group of stakeholders to address the way health insurance is covered in NYC for both retirees and in-service members. The stakeholders group should include policy experts, retirees, and union leaders, and its charge should be broader than the relatively narrow charge of the Tripartite Committee that developed the Medicare Advantage proposal for saving the City money – it should focus on hospital and prescription drug costs. The idea that the MLC will effectively self-fund the HISF equalization mechanism through this Aetna program’s savings is a bad proposition. Equalization was a feature of a 1980’s arrangement that is no longer viable; the HIP rate has been and will continue to be lower than the comprehensive benefits plan rate, draining the HISF of funds for which the MLC is held responsible. It’s unsustainable, and no one who is knowledgeable on this matter disagrees. So let’s restructure the HISF rather than prop it up with the savings that the Aetna deal is intended to generate.