All the major supermarket chains are set to go on strike in Southern California tomorrow. I was in the Pavilions across the street from my house today. A lot of the customers were talking to the employees about the strike, offering sympathy, stocking up so they wouldn’t have to cross the picket line.
In the middle of the store, managers were giving instruction to a group of about 25 replacement workers who will start work tomorrow when the strike commences. These replacement workers were an absolute cross-section of LA: Black, white, Mexican. Teenagers and senior citizens. Some dressed up, some ghettoed down. The fact that they were there, preparing to break the strike, didn’t seem to faze anyone.
This is the situation we face. United in our common need to survive (the biggest issue causing the strike is corporate demands for givebacks in health care coverage–the replacement workers have no health care coverage). Yet in practice we are almost totally disunited. Tomorrow, the union (UFCW) will appeal to the replacement workers not to cross the picket line. Yet the union has done nothing to use its considerable resources to fight for the unemployed who will now be employed starting tomorrow. No one has done anything to educate the unemployed about the need for solidarity regardless.
This grocery strike is a symbol of the position that the working class, the poor, face in America. Whether as individuals or as part of a racial or ethnic group, most of us think that our well-being depends on denying the well-being of others. Meanwhile, we’re all sinking lower and lower. This is also an international phenomenon, as jobs go where the wages are lowest, and millions of those jobs permanently evaporate along the way.
From Birmingham to Baghdad, we’re all in the same boat. But, as in that movie Lifeboat, we think about who we can throw overboard so that we can survive. We can do better than that. Equals can unite and like it or not, that’s what we’re becoming: equal. Equally poor.
To become truly equal–equally prosperous in a peaceful world–what’s needed is vision. Emotion. A break with the past so we can leap into the future. We need art, writing, and music to inspire us, to guide us, to help us feel deep in our souls the simple truth that we see everyday with our eyes: This world has enough of everything to take care of everyone.
Without such vision, we’ll never rise above arguing on a grocery store picket line. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an artist, a movie actor. He was able to inspire 48% of the voters in California to follow his vision of lies. Can’t you, as an artist, do better than that? Can’t you inspire the American people with a vision of the truth, a vision of the fundamental oneness of a downsized steelworker, a Salvadoran mother, and a starving musician? Can’t you, as an artist, help the American people envision a future where an Arnold Schwarzenegger is nothing but a joke and our universal well-being is the punch line?
We, as artists, can do this. If we can’t, then humanity is lost. No joke.
LEE BALLINGER is coeditor of our favorite newsletter on music and politics, Rock and Rap Confidential. For a sample issue contact Lee at: Rockrap@aol.com