“This is a working people’s issue,” AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler said at a recent town hall with young workers. “There is a sort of stereotype that we’re talking about Ivy Leaguers who have racked up all this debt. It’s absolutely not true.”
Biden himself has perpetuated the falsehood that broad-based student debt cancellation would disproportionately benefit the presumably affluent graduates of top private universities, saying during a CNN town hall last year that he doesn’t want to erase “billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.”
Labor leaders are attempting to counter that narrative, which GOP lawmakers and right-wing media outlets have also pushed in an effort to characterize student debt relief as an unfair giveaway to wealthy doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.
The vast majority of students do not attend elite schools and “almost half of borrowers come from public colleges such as your alma mater,” the presidents of five major unions wrote to Biden last week in a letter obtained by Politico. “They wind up under a mountain of debt not because of financial mismanagement or cavalier behavior on their part, but because of choices at the state level to disinvest in public higher education and shift more of the cost to students.”
The letter was signed by Shuler of the AFL-CIO; Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers; Becky Pringle of the National Education Association; and Mary Henry of Service Employees International Union.
With Biden expected to announce his final decision on student debt relief in July or August—closer to when the pandemic-related moratorium on federal student loan payments is scheduled to lapse—labor leaders are seeking to shore up the president’s commitment to cancellation and encourage his administration to eliminate more than $10,000 per borrower automatically and universally without any income limits.
“We ask that your administration enact robust student loan forgiveness that cannot be means-tested and does not require an opt-in for participation,” the five union presidents wrote last week in their letter to Biden. They also implored him to be more ambitious, citing a poll showing majority support for “debt cancellation of at least $20,000 per borrower.”
According to Politico, some labor leaders have also made the case for wide-ranging student debt relief to senior White House officials behind closed doors, while SEIU Local 509, which represents educators and social service workers in Massachusetts, has pressured Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to fight on behalf of student debtors.
Organized labor is “a powerful institutional force that can force Biden to be more aggressive on student debt forgiveness,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “The fact that the AFL-CIO and all of these unions are saying this is not a fringe issue… will move the needle.”
It has been more than a year since the Biden administration received a memo from the U.S. Department of Education outlining the extent of its authority to broadly cancel federal student debt without legislation. Despite repeated demands from dozens of Democratic lawmakers, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has not yet made the concealed memo public.
Legal experts and Democratic lawmakers say the Higher Education Act of 1965 clearly empowers Cardona to wipe out over $1.8 trillion in student debt held by roughly 45 million federal borrowers nationwide.
Section 432(a) of the law states that the education secretary has the authority to modify loan terms and “enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand, however acquired, including any equity or any right of redemption”—a provision the Biden administration has invoked to unilaterally eliminate $25 billion in student debt for about 1.3 million borrowers.
Congressional Republicans in April inadvertently acknowledged that Biden has the power to wipe out federal student debt with the stroke of a pen by introducing legislation to prevent him from doing so.
The Debt Collective has drafted an executive order for the president directing Cardona to “cancel all obligations to repay federal student loans,” which would save borrowers hundreds of dollars per month and boost the nation’s gross domestic product by more than $173 billion in the first year alone.
Recent polling shows that a majority of adults in the U.S., including those without education loans to repay, are in favor of student debt cancellation. Demands for action are especially pronounced among young voters, whose support for Biden has plummeted ahead of November’s crucial midterm elections when the Democratic Party will try to maintain its congressional majorities.
Student debt “matters to young voters, and young voters matter to Democrats,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, told Politico. “It is one of the big things that just weighs them down, and if the labor movement can help them take that—one of the big burdens—away from them, that’s huge.”
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