Debt Is Usually Treated As A Personal Failure. Debtors' Unions Are Changing That.

With nearly three out of four households carrying some kind of debt, debtors’ unions are reframing indebtedness as a shared problem and a source of collective power.

In These Times Editors

Illustration by Terry Laban

debt•ors’ un•ion


1. A group of people fighting for the renegotiation and cancellation of debts, and for universal public goods.

So, like a labor union for debtors?

That’s the idea. In 2019, more than three quarters of U.S. households were holding some type of debt. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, 1 in 4 adults are now struggling to pay household bills. But debt in U.S. culture is typically treated as an individual liability or a personal failure. The idea of a debtors’ union turns that experience on its head — reframing indebtedness as a shared problem and a source of collective power.

Think of a saying attributed to 20th-century industrialist J. Paul Getty: If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.” 

Sure. But I haven’t found lenders to be all that open to new perspectives on debt.

Toppling the financial architecture of late capitalism is indeed a tall order. The most prominent organization of its kind, the Debt Collective, organizes on several fronts. 

First, it gives members the resources to fight specific for-profit colleges, lenders and debt collectors that commit egregious (sometimes illegal) abuses. Second, it advocates for public goods like universal healthcare and publicly funded higher education. Third, it organizes debtors to go on strike” and withhold their payments to force debt cancellation or renegotiation.

“You want to thank Black women? Cancel student debt— all of it. Black women carry more student debt than any other group in America. Save your words of appreciation. Policy is our love language.” —Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)

Has this ever worked? 

The Debt Collective has roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it’s undeniable that there’s been a huge and positive political shift over the past decade. Nowhere is that clearer than with the issue of student debt — and the Debt Collective says it’s helped abolish more than $2.8 billion of various types of debt to date.

In 2014, the Debt Collective helped organize a first-of-its-kind strike against Corinthian Colleges. Former students say the for-profit company duped them with false promises about job prospects, so they stopped paying their loans en masse. The Obama administration’s Department of Education ultimately established a federal loan-cancellation process for the defrauded students. The effort stalled out in the Trump years, but the Debt Collective has launched a Biden Jubilee 100” campaign to pressure the new administration to cancel all $1.7 trillion in student debt. That’s a long shot, but closer than ever.

How do I join? 

Learn your rights, get help disputing your debt and join with thousands of others at debt​col​lec​tive​.org.

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