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Saunders, labor leaders and lawmakers push Biden for student debt relief

AFSCME President Lee Saunders speaks at a student debt roundtable. (Photo credit: Natalia Pérez Santos)
By Pete Levine ·

Student debt is crushing working families. More than 43 million people carry an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt, including AFSCME members.

Many took on student loans to attain the skills and credentials needed to pursue jobs in public service. They are nurses, librarians, social workers, child care providers, and more. Yet their economic security is in peril: on average, borrowers spend nearly $400 a month toward student loan repayment.

That is why AFSCME President Lee Saunders, along with AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and other labor leaders called on President Joe Biden to provide across-the-board student debt relief during a roundtable talk on Wednesday.

“This is a priority for the trade union movement because it is a labor issue affecting millions of our members across the country,” Saunders said. “Working families are confronting a tidal wave of student debt and barely keeping their heads above water.”

He spotlighted the ways in which student debt is tied to income inequality.

“Women hold two-thirds of the country’s student debt. Black and brown people owe, on average, 80% of their original loan,” Saunders said. “And let’s push back on this back on this myth that student debt relief will only help Ivy League elites. That’s just a pundit narrative that doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny at all. The truth is that the folks carrying this debt are overwhelmingly working class.”

AFSCME members, Saunders said, want Biden to “go big” on student debt – “providing across-the-board debt relief, making the process as easy as possible for all borrowers, giving working families the hand up they need.”

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UDW member Donise Keller. (Member-provided photo)

Donise Keller, a child care provider from California and a member of United Domestic Workers (UDW), is one of the millions facing crushing student debt. In her 20s, aiming to better her life and the lives of her kids, she enrolled in trade school.

“I was 26, and I took out around $26,000 over about two to three years,” said Keller. “And it just blew up. Now, I owe around $50,000. The school was very expensive. But they told me not to worry about it, we’ll give you student loans and grants because you are low-income. That’s all I heard and didn’t know enough about loans to ask any questions.”

A mother of three children, Keller could only watch as her loans collected interest month after month. She couldn’t afford to pay them down, getting stuck in an endless cycle that so many borrowers experience. In fact, most borrowers have no household wealth at all.

“That student debt seems insurmountable,” said Keller. “I’m a single mom just trying to survive, and the price of living is increasing.”

Thanks to her union, however, Keller is now able to pursue a bachelor's degree in early childhood education – for free.

Unfortunately, many don’t have that opportunity.

Shuler noted that millions of members of AFL-CIO unions hold jobs that require more than a high school diploma.

“That means working people are pursuing additional education, training and credentials that often fall on the individual to pursue. Often, that means taking on more student debt,” she noted.

Warren described how the student loan debt crisis evolved.

The $1.7 trillion of student loan debt – the amount all borrowers in the U.S. owe – “did not just fall out of the sky,” the Massachusetts senator said. “It happened because of deliberate policy decisions to make investments in cutting taxes for the richest Americans and paying for it by shortchanging the educations of our children.”

Schumer said that pursuing college used to be a ladder up to the middle class. But now, the New York senator said, “The debt has become an anchor down. These doors of opportunity that were available a generation ago, are not.”

Pressley, who has championed student debt relief in the House of Representatives, acknowledged the bravery of those like Keller, who struggle with student debt and are telling their stories.

“There is no shame in struggle,” said Pressley. “The shame is that we are not doing everything in our power to alleviate the burden of that struggle.”

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