Skyrocketing consumer debt – which now exceeds $96,000 for the average U.S. household – is fundamentally a labor issue, and a largely overlooked one. Wage stagnation beginning in the 1980s has meant the loss of real income to workers and their families. Borrowing increased; access to credit expanded; innovations like home equity loans also allowed more people to borrow more money. The end result: a steep increase in consumer debt. And for workers, the consequences of such indebtedness is, of course, a sort of forced labor – the wages of the future that are required to pay off liability.
Since the early days of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, organizers began to develop innovative strategies to absolve debt, particularly student debt, and to challenge its systemic roots. New Labor Forum Editorial Board member Andrew Ross was a founder of the Debt Collective, advancing these efforts through campaigns aimed at debt abolition. In this installment of the newsletter, we offer Ross’ forthcoming New Labor Forum article, Why We Need Debtors’ Unions. Ross is also featured the latest episode of our Reinventing Solidarity podcast in which he examines the consumer debt crisis and describes some bold solutions to end the crisis.
Table of Contents
Why We Need Debtors’ Unions/Andrew Ross, New Labor Forum
Reinventing Solidarity Episode 37:”Why We Need Debtors’ Unions”
The Debt Collective
“Fifty Years Defending & Chronicling America’s Mistakes,” Friday, December 9th, 2022, 3pm-5pm, CUNY SLU Event
Why We Need Debtors’ Unions By Andrew Ross, New Labor Forum
Debts are inseparable from labor because they are the wages of the future. When we sign a loan we are committing the fruits of our labor to be performed years hence. And debt has always been used to deepen labor exploitation: from the debt slavery of antiquity and early modernity, down through centuries of peonage involving indenture, sharecropping and bonded migrant labor to today’s payday loan-sharking and wage garnishments for unpaid loans.
The Debt Collective has its roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In 2012, some of the founders of the Debt Collective helped write the Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual and launch the Rolling Jubilee, a mechanism for purchasing portfolios of people’s debt on secondary debt markets — and cancelling it. Using crowdfunded donations, the Rolling Jubilee abolished more than $32 million of medical, student, payday loan, and probation debt. We then collaborated with the New Economy Project to ensure that 120,000 judgement debts — worth $800 million — were forfeited and retired as part of a legal case.
A dramatic increase in national consumer debt began in the mid-1980s and currently stands at 16.5 trillion dollars, making it a key feature of capitalism in the 21st century. Average household debt today in the U.S. – mortgages, car loans, student, medical, and credit card debt – now exceeds $96,000 and is therefore greater than the median household income. Andrew Ross discusses debt as a crucial labor and social justice issue and describes the groundbreaking work of the Debt Collective.