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Western Mass labor federation representing 30k regional workers calls on Biden to cancel student loan debt

Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation logo
Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation

A labor federation in Western Massachusetts representing thousands of workers has added its voice to a chorus demanding President Joe Biden take action to cancel student loan debt.

On the campaign trail, Biden was a vocal advocate for student loan debt cancellation. In April 2020, he even issued a pledge to cancel at least $10,000 of debt per person upon taking office – a concept proposed by Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

After a pandemic-related repayment moratorium was extended through May 1st, Biden is hearing calls from inside his own party to address the issue – including from Warren. She told WAMC last week that the increasingly unpopular president needs to do more than suspend payments.

"We've got nearly 900,000 people right here in Massachusetts who owe about $30 billion in student loan debt," said Warren. "If we cancelled $50,000 of student loan debt, that would totally wipe out debt for 84% of the borrowers here in Massachusetts. That'd be about three quarters of a million people. I mean, that would be just amazing.”

The Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation agrees. It represents around 60 public and private unions and 30,000 workers in the region, including service workers, educators, and more. It issued a resolution pressing Biden to cancel all student loan debt immediately through an executive order. Spokesperson Ian Rhodewalt explained why:

RHODEWALT: We are calling for President Biden to sign an executive order immediately, canceling all student debt. Not $10,000, not $50,000 or any other means-tested amount, but all student debt. And the Higher Education Act of 1965 gives the President of the United States the power to cancel all student debt by executive order, using what are called the Compromise and Settlement powers of the Department of Education. And some of the points that that we raised in discussing this are that it's an immensely popular issue. Student debt cancellation has net positive support nationally, and in 38 states and DC. It's just a very popular issue. Across the country, women hold two-thirds of student debt. Black women in particular are bearing the brunt of this $2 trillion crisis. There was a tweet from Congresswoman Barbara Lee recently that said 20 years after taking out student loans, the average white borrower has paid off 94% of their loans, while the average black borrower still owes 95% of their student loan debt- Pointing to the fact that it is a racial justice issue.

WAMC: Walk me through what the labor federation thinks the impact of this would be were Joe Biden to move on this. What would the outcome of that be, and how would it reflect itself materially on the ground here in Western Massachusetts?

So 55% of Massachusetts residents have some amount of student loan debt. The average amount is $33,256. We as a state are, I think, in the top 10 of states that have highest percentages of student loan debt borrowers. Immediately canceling that would allow all that money to stay in the state's economy, state and local economies, and help out at kitchen table budgets for working families.

I found interesting in the press release that it also calls on other Massachusetts state and local labor unions to join in on this call. What was the objective of reaching out to put pressure not just on elected officials, but fellow unions to push this message forward?

So that is to continue to build the broad-based appeal on the president. He has framed himself as a union-friendly president, and we are wanting to let him know that unions have demands on him, such as canceling student debt. And the labor movement, as we have all seen, is in a period of upsurgence after decades of being beaten back by union busting measures. An executive order to cancel student debt would benefit working class people, union workers across the country.

When you reach out to folks like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Representatives Jim McGovern and Richard Neal, what exactly is the message to folks like that, Democrats in Joe Biden's party who you're reaching out to to say this is an important issue to this labor federation? What's the thinking there?

Well, our goal is to, as I said, build this mass appeal and have multiple different angles and leverages to pressure him. We have, Senator Elizabeth Warren is already calling on [Biden] to cancel student debt. And we are just wanting to further that demand and make sure that it's canceling all student debt. And just to point further to the broad-based swaths of populations that it would affect, some 44 million people have student loan debt. And in the 25 years that income-based repayment plans have been in place, it's really important to note that only 32 individual borrowers have ever had their student debt canceled by these income based repayment plans. The President has in his power, with his signature, he, on an executive order, he could easily cancel all student debt.

Why wouldn't the President do this?

That's a great question, and I don't know. It's politically popular, it's in his best interest if he wants to have something to, for his party to run on in the fall. It would be a feather in his cap, so to speak. One thing that sometimes gets lost in the political discourse around student loan debt is that it only affects young people or people of the Millennial generation or Generation Z. But one out of five people responsible for paying off student loan debt is over 50, and older Americans can have their Social Security garnished for falling behind on their payments. And I think we found in 2020 that older Americans really rallied behind Joe Biden as a candidate, so pointing to that fact was also instrumental in our thinking of building this broad-based appeal.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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