CHICAGO – A public forum was held at the UNITE here Nov. 26 to discuss “Alternatives to the Terror Economy,” the economy being promoted by the Bush administration. The forum was organized by the Committee for New Priorities of Chicago Jobs with Justice.

Ron Baiman, an economist working at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, began by asking, “Are we facing a ‘new’ economy, or the same old contradictions of capitalism?” He said that we are indeed in a recession, but believes that its severity and probable length are being underestimated.

According to recent studies, this will be the most serious economic downturn since WWII. The downturn began long before Sept. 11, and is due in large part to the frenzy of spending that supposedly resulted in a “wealth effect.” There was a surge in consumer spending that caused growth in the economy, but it was growth that created crippling debt because it was based on credit, not income.

The mandate to “spend at any cost” was issued during a time in which there was no rise in real wages (which are still below the 1973 level), so only a very small percentage of property owners really benefited from this spending frenzy.

Margaret Blackshere, president of the Illinois Federation of Labor, began by blasting the way that the attacks of Sept. 11 have been used by corporate interests and the White House to disguise an anti-worker, anti-union agenda they were trying to implement well before then. “Bush was scary before Sept. 11,” she said, “and he’s still scary now.”

She recalled how, even as union rescue workers were pulling the bodies of their fallen brothers from the wreckage in New York, “corporate predators had descended on Washington” to obtain massive bail-outs and tax break packages at the expense of taxpayers.

The airline industry bailout, for example, has saved millions for the airline corporations, but no similar assistance has been provided to the tens of thousands of workers who’ve lost their jobs. There will be another big United Airlines layoff in February, she noted.

Blackshere said that organized labor was at a disadvantage because it has developed a pattern of defensive reactions that can be traced back to the PATCO face-off with President Reagan in the 1980s.

After PATCO, unions tended to react with protectionist strategies that prevented them from entering into the sorts of coalitions that could organize resistance to the corporate agenda. But unions have realized that this was a mistake, and are now beginning to work constructively in alliances with other groups.

She outlined the economic stimulus policy proposed by the AFL-CIO. We need far more than an extension of unemployment benefits, she argued; we need a broad expansion of who gets benefits to include those newly employed or employed part-time, welfare-to-work employees, etc. In addition, she stressed that expanding temporary benefits won’t save people from falling into poverty – we need federally funded health insurance and job programs, and the restoration of social service safety nets. We “must not let them take away our rights in favor of corporate rights!”

Bernice Bild, from the Committee for New Priorities, summarized the economic stimulus package proposed by the 57-member Congressional Progressive Caucus. This package is somewhat bigger than that proposed by the AFL-CIO.

The few jobs that will be created (or saved) by the current “war economy” through military spending are inadequate to compensate for the numbers of jobs lost. We should be using the resources that will go into military production for the production of intercity rail services and restoration of urban infrastructures – production that will benefit many people over the long term by providing jobs and improvement of services, she said.