CHICAGO – “This is class war,” declared Barbara Ehrenreich, activist and author. Ehrenreich was responding to testimony before a Chicago Workers Rights Board on April 6 that focused on the devastating impact of the economic crisis and federal and state budget cuts.

The hearing was organized by Chicago Jobs with Justice, Chicago Federation of Labor and the newly created Action for New Priorities (ANP).

The testimony, often wrenching, was delivered by workers and unemployed, trade union leaders, religious and community leaders. Many described facing life and death choices posed by the brutality of the Bush administration policies and corporate greed.

Bernice Bild of ANP called for an end to phony national unity that is being used to conduct a war against people at home. “This administration is trying to foist upon us a huge increase in the military budget and more tax cuts for the rich. It has nothing to do with the ‘war on terrorism,’” she said.

Regina Hagerman, a 28-year-old member of the Service Employees International Union Local 880 and a home health care worker, was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While she has health insurance, the coverage doesn’t adequately cover her prescriptions. “I can’t afford the drugs because I have a mortgage to pay. I’ve got over $50,000 in medical bills,” she said. “It’s taking a toll on my five kids. They don’t know what will happen to me.”

Another young man, Nathan Burbank, tearfully said he was denied medical coverage by his insurance company after it was discovered he had cancer. They rejected it on the grounds he had a pre-existing condition.

Maria Gonzalez, of Blocks Together, a community group in West Humboldt Park, described the fight to win a new community health clinic. “People are dying from diseases because we can’t get access to services,” said Gonzalez. Humboldt Park, a predominately Latino community, has twice the uninsured rate as compared to the rest of Chicago.

Carol Merriweather was a cashier at a fast food chain. She was fired unjustly, lost her home and was forced into a homeless shelter. “Because so many workers’ rights are being violated, many others end up unemployed and homeless,” she said. Merriweather and others described the dramatic rise in homelessness and hunger in Chicago.

Another panelist told about the severe crisis of affordable housing caused by the destruction of thousands of units of public housing. Mildred Long, a resident of Maplewood Courts and member of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, said the crisis was caused by Republican-shaped legislation that will demolish 100,000 units of public housing nationwide.

“Where will our families live? What schools will our children attend?” asked Long.

In response, board members blasted the priorities of the Bush administration. “The Defense Department can’t account for $1.2 trillion in transactions. Yet, what will get greater scrutiny, a $400 billion defense budget or $14 billion in funding for TANF [Temporary Aid to Needy Families]?” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) asked.

“The greatest challenge for the Bush administration is to define foreign policy beyond the word, war,” said Jaime Owen Daniel, an academic worker at the University of Illinois who chaired the meeting. “But the same goes for domestic policy.”

“Now is the time for action,” declared Rene Maxwell, of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Let’s get ready to rock and roll.”

The author can be reached at JBachtell@ameritech.net

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