Politics

Unions lobby Biden for bolder approach to student debt relief

“We’re fighting for economic justice both inside and outside of the workplace, and canceling student loan debt is a necessary part of that,” the Starbucks Workers United campaign said in 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 loan debt.”

The 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 beginning of Biden’s presidency to convince him to cancel large amounts of student debt.

Some labor groups, especially teachers’ unions, were already vocal proponents of widespread debt relief. But the issue is now attracting support from a far broader swath of organized labor.

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

The broad union backing may provide Biden with some political cover and help counter concerns, even from some Democrats, that student debt cancellation will be perceived as elitist by voters who never attended college.

“This is a working people’s issue,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said during a town hall with young workers last month. “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 said in April that he was considering forgiving “some” amount of federal student loan debt. White House officials have been focusing on a plan to forgive $10,000 per borrower for individuals earning less than $150,000 a year. But administration officials continue to debate internally the political and economic ramifications of forgiving large amounts of debt.

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

Several unions, for example, are urging the White House to drop its plans to limit loan forgiveness based on a borrower’s income, which is aimed at preventing higher-earning individuals from benefiting from the program. But progressives say that means-testing will create a bureaucratic mess that undercuts the benefits of loan forgiveness and may leave out some struggling borrowers.

“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 presidents of five major unions wrote to Biden last week in a letter obtained by POLITICO. The union leaders also suggest that Biden should go higher than the $10,000 per borrower he’s considering, citing a poll showing majority support for “debt cancellation of at least $20,000 per borrower.”

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.

Several of those leaders, including Weingarten, have in recent weeks held calls with Steve Ricchetti, a top Biden adviser, to reinforce their calls for loan forgiveness, according to people familiar with the discussions.

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

Congressional Republicans, who have introduced legislation to block any Biden student debt relief, have said that canceling student loan debt would be a giveaway to wealthy doctors, lawyers and other professionals who don’t need the help.

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Biden supports some debt relief, but he has expressed reluctance to canceling “billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn” as he said during a CNN town hall in February 2021.

The unions are trying to counter that narrative. Most borrowers did not attend elite schools and “almost half of borrowers come from public colleges such as your alma mater,” the five unions leaders wrote in their letter to Biden last week. “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.”

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

Student debt “matters to young voters, and young voters matter to Democrats,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, said. “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.”

Some of the union outreach stretches beyond the White House. SEIU Local 509, which represents educators and social service workers in Massachusetts, made its own plea last month to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh that Biden act “boldly” on student debt relief. In a letter to Walsh, the union said it was concerned about making Biden’s plan “a widespread win for our communities” and urged the White House to go higher than $10,000 per borrower and provide relief automatically and universally without any income limits.

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A Labor Department spokesperson declined to comment.

Union officials and labor experts say that Biden’s highly public affinity for organized labor has opened the door for them wider than in previous administrations.

“It’s a powerful institutional force that can force Biden to be more aggressive on student debt forgiveness,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said. “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 begun “to try to win things that are broader than the usual wages and benefits,” Gordon Lafer, co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, said. Student debt “fits that pattern where it partly does benefit union members — and it’s [also] part of a bigger thing to say, ‘We need to make the economy fair.’”

Labor organizations have already had some success in pushing Biden on student debt relief over the past year. Unions representing teachers, fire fighters, health care workers and government employees were a driving force behind the Education Department’s decision last year to use emergency powers to expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

As of last week, more than 127,000 public service workers have collectively received $7.3 billion of debt relief under the Biden administration’s expansion.

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