What is the Debt Collective?
The Debt Collective is a membership-based union for debtors and our allies. Our current economic system forces us into debt in various different areas of our lives: student debt for education; a mortgage to buy a home; debts for utility bills or phone bills, medical care, or even incarceration. No one should have to go into debt to meet their basic needs! These debts are illegitimate and the system needs to change, and we are united to win that change. How? Through the power of our union.
Our debtors’ union is inspired by labor unions. Individually, workers are at the mercy of their bosses. But when workers come together, with their collective power they can win better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
It’s the same with debtors. As individual debtors, we are at the mercy of our creditors -- for our housing, medical care, education, utilities, and more. But together we can turn our individual debts into collective power. We can use that power to get our debts canceled, but also to change how we finance our basic needs in the first place. We fight for social housing, healthcare, and education for all.
Our debt does not come from personal failure; it comes from failed political policies and a broken economic system. Our debt payments enable a small group of powerful people to profit at our expense. But we can turn this to our advantage. Since capitalism and our creditors depend on us paying our bills, we have leverage and power if we take action together. We can dispute our debts, organize campaigns of strategic nonpayment (debt strikes), bring our voices to the media and the streets, pressure corporations and politicians to end harmful policies and push for structural transformation and collective liberation.
We are not in debt because we live beyond our means, but because we are denied the means to live. We are building a multiracial, intergenerational movement to change this. Our goal is to be a dues-funded union to ensure that we remain politically independent, accountable to our members, and able to fight for one another and our communities for the long haul.
Our Values and Principles
Power in numbers.
You are not a loan! We are building a mass movement to transform individual financial struggle (and the shame and isolation that comes with it) into collective power. Alone our debts are a burden, but together they give us power over an exploitative system. As the old saying goes: if you owe the bank $100,000, the bank owns you; but if you owe the bank $100 million, you own the bank. Together, we own the bank. We meet people where they are and invite them into our organizing so we can leverage our collective power.
The market won’t save us.
Market-based solutions cannot solve the problems that the markets created in the first place. We seek strategies and solutions that center human needs, collaboration and cooperation, not the capitalist principles of competition, profit, and efficiency. That includes modeling an economy driven by mutual aid, worker ownership, socialized finance and institutions that provide community-oriented, equitable, and socially-productive credit as opposed to predatory lending.
We are a membership organization that builds power through collaboration. We aim to build meaningful democracy internally in our union and externally in the world (ie, our communities, our economy, our government). Democratization is a process; no one has the perfect recipe in an unequal world. We commit to this work, and we share power and information through political education, leadership development and skill sharing, input and feedback processes, and distributed organizing.
Be anti-racist - dismantle racial capitalism.
Since the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade and Western-European colonization and into the present day, capitalism has perpetuated racial hierarchies in order to extract, exploit, and profit. We are committed to devising strategies that recognize and respond to the ways racism and colonialism are currently embedded in the dominant political and economic structures, institutions, and laws that shape our lives. We center racial justice, which means supporting each other as we learn about, resist, and transform harmful systems and behaviors while striving for solutions that repair and redress past and ongoing inequities. Combatting racism involves combating capitalism, and vice versa.
Center the most impacted.
Debt is not an equalizer; it intensifies pre-existing inequalities. Poor people, Indigenous and Black people, LGBTQI+ people, women, and other communities of color suffer disproportionately under the current system. The fact that we are all in debt does not change the different ways that racism, patriarchy, homo and transphobia, and ableism continue to affect our everyday lives. It does, however, open up the possibility of new, powerful alliances. We build these alliances, centering the most impacted; this generates strategies and solutions that address historic challenges, uplift our entire society, and acknowledge that when the most marginalized are free, we are all free.
Racial capitalism uses race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, disability, and other differences to divide and conquer us. We can only overcome oppression with solidarity and coalition-building. We support local and global struggles for workers’ rights, Indigenous rights and decolonization, racial justice and reparations, prison abolition, immigrant rights, environmental justice, disability justice, gender and sexual equality, and more. All of our struggles are connected, and deep structural change requires different movements working on a wide range of issues that inform and strengthen one another.
Build beyond borders.
Debt knows no borders. The U.S. is the imperial center of global capitalism, and big banks, creditors and other capitalist institutions operate across city, state and national borders. Our fight for a fundamentally transformed economy crosses regional divides and emphasizes anti-imperialism and building power alongside worldwide struggles against unjust debt.
Be radical, not rigid.
We aim to dismantle racial capitalism with militance, disobedience, and radical imagination. We want to get at the root of society’s problems without being dogmatic or self-righteous. We may know what’s wrong, but we are all collectively figuring out how to effectively respond -- and no single tactic can solve every problem. This means being inclusive, listening, staying open to new ideas, and practicing humility.
We’re all human.
The real debts we owe are not to banks, lenders, and the government -- but to each other. We all come to this movement with our gifts and our passion but also our challenges and our traumas. We treat each other with care, honesty, and forbearance. We center relationship-building and restorative practices, lift each other up, affirm one another’s identities and life experiences, offer the benefit of the doubt, call each other “in” and not “out”, take breaks, and focus on self-care. We are tough on principles and gentle with people.
Dream and scheme.
We thrive on visionary, bold, and creative tactics. We are not afraid to experiment and find new ways to build and wield power, from street-level action to creative legal strategies that abolish debt to politicizing collective non-payment and default (debt strikes). We use art, music, cultural intervention, and joy to push the boundaries of our collective imagination and assert our dignity. We dare to dream the impossible and work collaboratively to turn it into reality.
Play to win.
We are building power to win real victories and transform our society. We center strategic analysis and think about what it takes to succeed before committing ourselves to specific tactics and campaigns. We turn every moment into an organizing opportunity and parlay small victories into bigger ones, aware there will always be more to do. We play to win broad debt cancellation, reparative public goods, and an economy based on the principle of solidarity.
Our History And Victories
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.
In 2015, we organized the nation’s first student debt strike in collaboration with members who had attended Corinthian Colleges, a predatory for-profit college chain, initiating an ongoing campaign that has helped win changes to federal law and over $2 billion in student debt abolition to date. Along with a complementary legal initiative known as “Defense to Repayment” and an online debt dispute app we built, which was eventually replicated by the Department of Education, the campaign mobilized tens of thousands of people, garnered national and international headlines, and won widespread support from law and policymakers. We proved that it is possible for the government to issue mass debt relief.
Our organizing has changed lives and put universal student debt cancellation and free public college on the political map. In 2019, our members spoke alongside Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressional representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pramila Jayapal, when they introduced College for All legislation. During her presidential campaign, Elizabeth Warren committed to erasing student debt using “compromise and settlement,” an approach based on the Debt Collective’s legal research.
When we first raised the demand for student debt cancellation during Occupy Wall Street, the media scoffed. In 2020, thanks to our efforts, most Democratic candidates in the presidential primary ran promising some degree of student debt cancellation.
We have shown that debtors organized in a union can wield power. In addition to changing the narrative around debt cancellation and forcing the government to eliminate billions of dollars worth of student loans, our suite of digital debt dispute tools has kept tens of thousands of dollars in debtors’ pockets.
Our manifesto, Can’t Pay Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, was published in 2020, outlining a vision for debtor organizing that goes far beyond student debt to include housing debt, bail and probation debt, credit card debt, utility debt, municipal debt and more. We need you to join our union to make this vision a reality.
Our Plan To Win
Big social change can’t happen individually; it is only achieved through uniting and taking action. The Debt Collective works to create the change we all want to see by tapping into our collective power as debtors.
We believe change can occur through:
- Building economic power through campaigns aimed at winning mass debt cancellation and passing policies that advance economic and racial justice.We combine tactics such as debt disputes and debt strikes with media, legal, and direct action strategies to force change at the local and national levels.
- Building multiracial, working-class power through a membership-based debtors’ union.We use local and online organizing, relationship-building, mutual aid efforts, technology including tools to dispute your debts, and political education to build membership and fight for debtors’ rights.
- Building coalitions to create alternative economic systems.We collaborate with groups with similar values to envision and construct more sustainable and equitable ways to organize society beyond capitalism.