Debtors fight back at up-from-debt summit

SEATTLE – Hundreds of working people crowded a union hall here Mar. 14 and cheered calls for action to end the nation’s debt crisis – medical debt, mortgage debt, student loan debt, credit card debt, pay-day loan debt, and prison inmate debt. 

It was a diverse crowd –  young, middle aged, elderly, African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American Indian, and white. Asked by the chairperson for a show of hands of those in debt, every person in the convention raised a hand. 

Heather C. McGhee, president of Demos, delivered the keynote in a live streaming speech.

“There is a reason we’re all in this same boat,” she told the crowd. “Wages are too low, jobs are not paying enough. There is no universal child care.” 

The challenge facing the people, she continued, “is to realize these are common problems and there are common solutions….This system calls for a collective response.”

She delivered a “call to action” to working people across the nation. “We can take on the biggest banks and we can win,” she said as the crowd applauded.

The daylong national convention in the main meeting hall of Service Employees International Union Local 775 was co-sponsored by the Alliance for a Just Society, Demos, Washington Community Action Network (CAN), NAACP, Puget Sound Alliance for Senior Action (PSARA), and other labor and community organizations. The meeting was streamed live on the Internet to similar gatherings in 10 states including Virginia, Maine, Montana, and Oregon.

“We can no longer talk about poverty and inequality without talking about debt,” said Washington CAN Executive Director Will Pittz. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement changed the nation’s perception, he said. Before it was “irresponsible borrowing” that “put the blame on all of us.” Now it is “irresponsible lending” which puts the blame on the banks “where the blame belongs.” 

Jill Reese, associate director of the Alliance for a Just Society, who chaired the convention, said debt “has a deeply personal impact,” with millions suffering shame and stigma from bills they cannot pay. “But no more. We will not allow the debt industry to control our sense of what is possible.” The convention, she said, ends the stigma “and empowers all of us to fight back.”

Participants at all the regional conventions signed a petition to President Obama asking him to take action to ease the debt crisis by appointing a panel to investigate the crisis and to recommend solutions.

Reese presented a “Statement of Values” for a “Debt-Free Future.”

It included a call for cancellation of all debt incurred through “predatory or fraudulent” lending, public refinancing of unpayable debt, “reasonable and ethical” limits on the amount of profits, and a ban on use of debt as a form of criminal punishment. The principles also included strengthening of the “public safety net” to minimize the pressure to go into debt, protection from collection agency harassment, and the creation of a full employment economy with jobs that pay a living wage.

Another set of principles focused on the “debt industry” proposed the elimination of “securitization and sale of debt” by banks, and a ban on pay day loans that charge interest rates as high as 300 percent.

Washington CAN activist Chettie McAfee, told of J.P. Morgan-Chase bank foreclosing on her home. She lost her job and her house lost $100,000 in value when the housing bubble burst in 2008. She fought back, remaining in her home and is now joined in the fight against mortgage foreclosures in Seattle.

Danielle Fulfs told a workshop that she worked her way through college earning a doctorate in International Relations at the University of Chicago. She is now $100,000 in debt. Unable to find a job in her field, she now toils at three low-wage jobs in Seattle to pay the installments on her student loans—$800 per month, half her income. Owning a home in Seattle, having a family “is just laughable,” she said. 

Washington CAN organizer Chris Genese, told the workshop aggregate student loan debt is now about $1.3 trillion and could trigger the next recession if action is not taken to ease the crisis. The goal of the movement, he said, must be “free” higher education open to everyone. 

The closing plenary session featured a panel of elected officials listening to participants tell stories of falling deep in medical debt. 

Toni Potter, a Washington CAN leader, said no one at St. Josephs Hospital in Tacoma told her about the Charity Care law when he husband fell ill with pancreatic cancer. She found out about the law after her husband died. She wrote a letter of protest to the hospital. “Two weeks later I got a letter from the hospital that I had been forgiven $47,000.” Again the crowd cheered.

Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who campaigned for a $15 per hour minimum wage when she ran ran for office and was elected as a socialist, promised to do everything she can to compel hospitals in Seattle to tell low-income patients about the Charity Care Act. 

“The problem is we don’t have public health care,” she said. “It is unfortunate that these big corporations are sucking our blood. It is grassroots action like today that is going to win what we need, like single-payer health care.” The crowd stood, cheering.

Sawant, who is standing for reelection, called for “more than doubling” the pay of health care workers, many toiling at the minimum wage. She also urged enactment in Seattle of a “tenants’ Bill of Rights” as well as “rent control” to reduce the ruinous rents charged by landlords in Seattle. 

Photo: Rosalind Brazel, Communications Director of Washington CAN


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.