The Rev. Jim Conn got the call Tuesday morning. A few hours later, he was leading a small delegation of union activists into Santa Monica’s Miramar Sheraton, site of a bitter and protracted labor battle, in search of William Worcester, the hotel’s general manager.
Once inside, Conn and his contingent, all adorned with bright orange stickers reading “Where’s Worcester?” approached several employees standing behind the cash register in the hotel’s cafe. “We’re trying to get a fair election for the workers,” Conn, an Episcopalian who served 22 years as the pastor at the Church in Ocean Park, said in a friendly voice. “We wanted to talk to him about being fair.”
While Worcester was nowhere to be found, Conn’s presence at the hotel came as little surprise. As a charter member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), he is part of an interfaith coalition that is changing the face of social activism in Los Angeles.
Conceived two years ago during the Living Wage campaign, CLUE has evolved into a loosely knit but ambitious organization that already has made its impact felt in several of L.A.'s most important labor struggles. From the fight to win better pay and benefits for hotel workers on the Westside to a dispute with USC over cutting costs by contracting out jobs, CLUE has mobilized a small but vocal segment of the Southland’s religious community on behalf of the area’s ever-burgeoning population of low-wage employees.
And CLUE is not an isolated phenomenon. Faith-based activism is on the rise around the country, as churches and synagogues form alliances with unions and community groups. This resurgence of progressive religious engagement represents a sharp contrast with the political exertions of the Christian right and harks back to the epic social movements of the 1960s.
“I’m seeing churches again looking at inequities in society and, in light of their historical commitment, saying that this is not right and something has to be done about it,” says the Rev. William Campbell, the pastor at Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles and an early member of CLUE.
But CLUE and similar interfaith coalitions face a daunting task. In a post-ideological age dominated by the imperatives of the free market, they find themselves confronting a political and business culture in which appeals to morality often are met with open cynicism. Moreover, they must win over a religious community generally more inclined to run soup kitchens than to join picket lines. Yet they have set as their mission nothing less than the overhaul of an economic order that seemingly has consigned millions to poverty.
“It is a monumental undertaking,” acknowledges the Rev. James Lawson, a CLUE founder who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement before becoming pastor at Holman United Methodist Church. “Can the American people redress economic wrong? Yes.”
Religion and Activism Go Way Back Together
Faith-based social activism has deep roots in the United States, going back more than a hundred years. By the 1920s and ‘30s, clergy were deeply involved in the massive labor unrest that rippled through the nation. Religious leaders were once again instrumental in the political upheavals of the 1960s, most notably the civil rights, antiwar and farm worker movements.
But the alliance between labor and clergy began to fray during this latter period, strained by the fervent anti-communism and pro-Vietnam War stance of leading trade unions. Many clergy and congregations pulled out of the political trenches and turned their focus inward, joining the vast majority that had never been engaged.
Yet, while faith-based activism waned, it never disappeared. In Los Angeles and other cities, interfaith organizations were established to oppose the nuclear arms race and to counter U.S. foreign policy in Central America. When the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala brought a stream of refugees, often without legal papers, to Southern California, the church-based sanctuary movement sprang up to protect them.
Meanwhile, labor had begun to re-create itself, spearheaded by a new generation of immigrant union leaders in Los Angeles. It was the convergence of the local labor and Central American movements that gave birth to CLUE in 1996, when Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (then called the Tourism Industry Development Council) and former director of the Central American Refugee Center, decided to enlist the religious community in the cause of the living wage.
Religious Leaders Had a Long-Term Vision
Her first call was to Mary Brent Wehrli, a professor in UCLA’s social welfare department and a comrade from the Central American cause who had close contacts with prominent clergy.
“Our concept was a really humble one--to bring together about 20 interfaith religious leaders to talk about the idea of a living wage and support that campaign,” Aparicio recalls. “The religious leaders didn’t want a single-issue campaign. They wanted a movement, a theological statement, a long-term vision. It took me by surprise that there would be so much passion.”
Fueling this passion was a deep concern over what the founding members of CLUE saw as intolerable economic injustice. Alarmed by the growing gap between rich and poor, they zeroed in on L.A’s mushrooming low-wage economy, in which tens of thousands of workers toil below the federal poverty line even though they hold down full-time jobs.
“We’re trying to talk about the morality of paying decent wages,” says Linda Lotz, who was hired early on as CLUE’s interfaith coordinator. “Every book of scriptures addresses this by saying that you should pay your workers decently, treat them fairly.”
Led by Lawson, Campbell, Conn, Rabbi Leonard Beerman (rabbi emeritus at Leo Baeck Temple in West L.A.), the Rev. Dick Gillett (a retired minister who heads the Episcopal Diocese Task Force on Economic Justice) and other eminent local clergy, CLUE jumped into the highly charged debate over the Living Wage measure, which mandated minimum salaries for workers employed by companies contracting with the city.
CLUE members testified at City Council sessions, met privately with council members and voiced their support for the ordinance in the media, stressing the ethical dimension of the issue.
“I think they had a significant effect on public opinion, which overwhelmingly supported the Living Wage in spite of the mayor’s sentiment,” says Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who steered the measure to victory despite vociferous opposition from Mayor Richard Riordan and the business community. “A lot of the popularity came because the coalition was reaching out to people in communities, in churches and synagogues.”
CLUE members themselves were surprised at how the Living Wage campaign caught on among fellow clergy.
“It was fascinating how quickly they came on board,” Gillett says. “I think there’s a widespread sense in the religious community that the social and economic inequalities are growing and that something has to be done about it.”
Frank Clark, executive director of the Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Churches, agrees, noting that CLUE’s appeal has cut across denominational lines.
“Ten years ago you wouldn’t have seen evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics, Jews struggling with these issues as much as now,” Clark observes. “I see pastors grappling with poverty issues, job issues, child-care issues, and expressing enormous frustration over their inability to deal with them.”
Meanwhile, CLUE has lent its backing to several other labor battles. Perhaps the most dramatic was the recent campaign to win improved contracts for workers at Westside hotels, an effort that followed a landmark agreement in January between Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 11 and seven downtown hotels, which provided a gradual increase in housekeepers’ hourly wages from $8.15 to $11.05, as well as certain job protections.
When the Westside establishments--including the Century Plaza, Beverly Wilshire, Beverly Hilton, Bel Air, Summit Rodeo and Summit Bel Air--balked at the new terms, Local 11 and its supporters turned up the pressure. While workers staged temporary walkouts, CLUE launched operation Java for Justice, dispatching small teams in full ministerial garb to have coffee and deliver brief sermons on workplace fairness in several of the hotels’ dining rooms.
The standoff reached its symbolic high point April 8 when an interfaith procession of 60 priests, ministers and rabbis marched through Beverly Hills, depositing bitter herbs outside the Summit Rodeo (and presenting milk and honey to managers at the Beverly Wilshire and Beverly Hilton, which by then had signed the contracts). Two months later, the Summit became the last of the hotels to reach agreement with Local 11.
Although CLUE was only one part of a broad coalition, the participation of religious leaders gave weight to the union’s message that luxury hotels could afford to pay their workers a higher wage.
“The addition of CLUE meant that various Protestant and Catholic pressure was going to be brought to bear, and I think [Summit Rodeo owner Efrem Harkham] didn’t know where that was going to stop,” says Rick Chertoff, executive director of the western region chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee, which played a major role in mobilizing the Jewish community to back the union contract drive.
Local 11 president Maria Elena Durazo, who led the Westside hotel campaign and helped raise the initial funds for CLUE, believes that the group represents an essential ally for labor. “The movement will not be successful unless there is a real solid participation of the religious community,” Durazo asserts.
Radical New Strategy in Union Leadership
Indeed, clergy are an integral part of labor’s new emphasis on building broad-based community support for workers’ rights. This strategy reflects a sea change in both the local and national leadership of the trade union movement over the last few years.
“There are a lot of common values between labor and the religious community--the value and dignity of work, the right to a living wage, the right to a safe workplace, the right to collectively bargain,” says John Sweeney, the reform-minded head of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney has enthusiastically recruited clergy to join in organizing efforts and credits the religious community with helping to bring credibility to union campaigns.
Religious leaders say that the labor movement has done much to restore its own credibility.
“The labor movement had become fat and happy in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the leadership for a number of reasons really became content in what some people called business unionism, where the union heads made common cause with corporations,” Gillett says. “But now the tone of organized labor has seen a big change . . . so the stereotype of the old labor leader with a cigar in his mouth who’s trying to enrich the union treasury is not accurate.”
An Ability to Mobilize Across Class, Race
With the labor movement returning to its egalitarian roots, the religious community is once again heeding the call to action. In the last two years, the number of interfaith labor organizations around the country has jumped from 12 to 38.
“There’s no question there is a movement afloat to try and reconnect the religious community to the labor community, and for the religious community to be much more involved in economic justice issues,” says Kim Bobo, executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, based in Washington, D.C.
CLUE has emerged as one of the most dynamic of these interfaith coalitions, demonstrating its ability to mobilize L.A.'s religious community across class, racial, religious and geographic lines.
CLUE is now applying this same approach to a number of battlegrounds throughout the Southland. These include LAX, where CLUE has joined forces with local and national labor unions to push for enforcement of the Living Wage ordinance; USC, where several ministers were arrested during graduation ceremonies for protesting the university’s wage-and-benefit-slashing policy of contracting out jobs; Hollywood, where the intervention of clergy and other community leaders has led to an agreement guaranteeing union jobs on a massive development project; and Pasadena, where religious and community activists are pushing for adoption of a Living Wage measure.
CLUE also has thrust itself into the increasingly contentious debate over the county’s implementation of welfare reform, issuing a “call to action” decrying “a new system whose flaws create despair, not hope.” The letter was signed by nearly 70 clergy and lay leaders.
Though CLUE leaders all acknowledge the importance of faith-based social services, they split on the question of whether clergy abdicate their responsibility by not joining the struggle to remedy glaring poverty. Lawson, for one, believes that social activism is not optional.
“How do you sit down to counsel and pray with a member that’s been downsized without recognizing the role of downsizing, the corporate mind that developed a value system that excluded the employee as a value or asset? How do you counsel an elderly couple that’s sick, worked hard their whole life, and discovered they have no health insurance or so limited that it doesn’t cover their health needs at age 75? How do you compartmentalize your pastoral care?”
Another impediment for CLUE may be reluctance on the part of some clergy to challenge powerful business interests, particularly those that wield clout within their own religious community. The potential consequences of stepping on corporate toes was dramatized last year when a Jewish commission composed of rabbis and other leaders investigating the sweatshop industry was pressured by manufacturers who also were patrons of various Jewish organizations.
This experience notwithstanding, CLUE members assert that clergy will not be deterred by such factors.
“I think there’s the stomach for it,” declares Rabbi Steven Jacobs, a longtime activist and head of the Valley congregation Kol Tikva. “There’s an element in the religious community that’s not going to be bowled over by princes and mayors.”
CLUE is hoping to bring more clergy and laity into the activist fold on Labor Day weekend. With the County Federation of Labor, the group is encouraging congregations throughout the Southland to address the issue of work and its relationship to biblical principles of justice and dignity. Similar initiatives are taking place across the country.
It’s too early to say whether CLUE will ultimately help usher in the kinds of social transformations that earlier faith-based movements did. But Rabbi Beerman and his colleagues believe that their collective appeal for justice will be heard.
“I think we’re more than a voice crying in the wilderness,” he says. “I think we’re a voice that’s trying to arouse the conscience of decent human beings everywhere.”