Unions press Biden for bolder approach to student debt relief

“We are fighting for economic justice both inside and outside the workplace, and canceling student loan debt is a necessary part of that,” the Starbucks Workers United campaign said in a statement. a statement to POLITICO. “So many young people across the country cannot afford to pay rent and buy groceries in the same week, let alone pay thousands of dollars in student loans.”

Amazon and Starbucks unions are the latest to join a coalition of progressive groups, student debt activists and civil rights organizations like the NAACP that have been trying since the start of Biden’s presidency to win him over. to cancel large amounts of student debt.

Some labor groups, particularly teachers’ unions, were already strong supporters of widespread debt relief. But the issue now draws support from a much wider range of organized workers.

The AFL-CIO last month announced its support for canceling student debt. The same goes for traditional blue-collar unions, such as United Auto Workers, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and United Food & Commercial Workers, all of which signed a letter last month urging Biden to cancel student debt “immediately.” .

Broad union support may provide Biden with some political cover and help counter concerns, even from some Democrats, that student debt cancellation will be viewed as elitist by voters who have never attended college. .

“It’s a workers issue,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said at a town hall meeting with young workers last month. “There’s kind of a stereotype that we’re talking about the Ivy Leaguers who have racked up all this debt. This is absolutely not true.

Biden said in April he was considering canceling “some” of federal student loan debt. White House officials have been focus on a rebate plan of $10,000 per borrower for people earning less than $150,000 per year. But administration officials continue to debate internally the political and economic ramifications of writing off large amounts of debt.

The new effort by organized labor, a powerful force in Democratic politics, is aimed not only at bolstering Biden’s commitment to moving forward with debt relief, but also at influencing how he should structure the details of a loan cancellation program.

Several unions, for example, are urging the White House to drop its plan to limit loan forgiveness based on the borrower’s income, which aims to prevent the highest earners from benefiting from the program. But progressives say the means test will create a bureaucratic mess that will undermine the benefits of loan forgiveness and could leave out some struggling borrowers.

“We call on your administration to enact a strong student loan forgiveness that cannot be means-tested and does not require an opt-in for participation,” said the presidents of five major unions. wrote to Biden last week in a letter obtained by POLITICO. Labor leaders also suggest Biden should go above the $10,000 per borrower he is considering, citing a poll showing majority support for “debt cancellation of at least $20,000 per borrower.”

The letter was signed by the AFL-CIO’s Shuler; 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 the Service Employees International Union.

Several of those executives, including Weingarten, have had calls in recent weeks with Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s top advisers, to bolster their calls for loan forgiveness, according to people familiar with the talks.

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Congressional Republicans, who introduced legislation to block any Biden student debt relief, said student debt forgiveness would be a gift to wealthy doctors, lawyers and other professionals who don’t need help. assistance.

Biden supports some debt relief, but he has expressed reluctance to write off “billions of dollars in debt for people who went to Harvard and Yale and Penn,” as he said at a town hall on CNN in February 2021.

Unions are trying to counter this narrative. Most borrowers did not attend elite schools, and “nearly half of borrowers come from public colleges such as your alma mater,” the five union leaders wrote in their letter to Biden last week. “They find themselves 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 divest from public higher education and transfer more of the costs to the students.”

Since Monday, more than 70 unions — both local groups and national affiliates — have now signed on to a public campaign to get Biden to forgive student loan debt organized by the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group.

Student debt “matters to young voters, and young voters matter to Democrats,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “It’s one of the big things that weighs them down, and if the labor movement can help them get rid of it — one of the big burdens — that’s huge.

Some of the union outreach extends beyond the White House. SEIU Local 509, which represents educators and social service workers in Massachusetts, issued its own call last month to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh for Biden to act ‘boldly’ on student debt relief. . In a letter to Walsh, the union said it feared making Biden’s plan “a sweeping win for our communities” and urged the White House to go beyond $10,000 per borrower and provide automatic, universal relief. without any income limit.

A spokesman for the Department of Labor declined to comment.

Union officials and labor experts say Biden’s very public affinity for organized labor has opened the door for them more widely than in previous administrations.

“It’s a powerful institutional force that can force Biden to be more aggressive on canceling student debt,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of Cornell University’s Worker Institute. “The fact that the AFL-CIO and all of these unions are saying this is not a fringe issue … will move the needle.”

Unions have recently started “trying to win things that are broader than typical wages and benefits,” said Gordon Lafer, co-director of the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center. Student debt “fits this pattern where it partly benefits union members – and that’s [also] part of a bigger thing to say, ‘We have to make the economy fair.’

Labor organizations have already been successful in pushing Biden for student debt relief over the past year. Unions representing teachers, firefighters, healthcare workers and government employees were one of the driving forces behind the Department for Education’s decision last year to use emergency powers to expand the civil service loan cancellation program.

Since last week, more than 127,000 public service workers have collectively received $7.3 billion in debt relief as part of the Biden administration expansion.

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