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Labor & Economy

CLUE: 20 Years of Fighting for Economic Justice

Rev. Jim Conn

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Twenty years ago a small group of Los Angeles faith leaders – both clergy and lay people – sat around a table in a church library and came up with a name for a new advocacy organization. We were convened by Maria Elena Durazo, then head of the local hotel workers union, and Madeline Janis, founding director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. The group would bring the voice of the religious community into the debate at City Hall to establish a living wage.

That idea was simple enough. If the city contracted out work to private companies, the employer had to pay more than minimum wage, something closer to what the minimum wage would have been if it had kept pace with inflation. 

The group decided to call itself CLUE – Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. At the time I didn’t say anything, but in my mind I thought it was a bit corny. It made me think of the board game, or the “get a clue” cliché popular then. But I was not about to say such a thing when the gathering was being chaired by the eminent civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson, and the table included people like Westside Rabbi Leonard Beerman and Pasadena Episcopal activist Marty Coleman. These people were giants in my eyes.

Later that day, speaking with a homeless advocate friend, I mentioned the meeting and off-handedly told him the group had named itself CLUE. “Oh,” he said, “As in ‘Get a CLUE.’” At that moment I realized that, cliché or not, no one would ever forget the name.

Following the success of the living wage campaign in Los Angeles and nearby cities, CLUE decided to continue its work on behalf of low-wage working families. Eventually the board of directors adopted a formal mission statement:

As CLUE we educate, organize and mobilize the faith community to walk with workers and their families in their struggle for good jobs and dignity in the workplace.

Over two decades CLUE has gone through growing pains, but its work has continued to expand and its presence has been felt in many struggles. Congregations “adopted” stores in support of their employees during a grocery worker strike. Over 200 clergy processed through the streets of Beverly Hills in their religious robes on behalf of hotel employees. Both lay and ordained religious people joined in civil disobedience at Los Angeles International Airport and in front of Walmart in Chinatown, and in the middle of a downtown street during a deluge on behalf of security guards. Besides these public actions, CLUE delegations have met quietly with business people, developers and elected officials about the conditions of the working poor.

In February CLUE launched a new initiative to bring added strength to similar efforts in Orange County. Some 250 people packed into Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Shalom to honor several local faith and labor leaders whose work makes a difference there.

Yes, Orange County has changed. Its demographics have shifted and many people seem hungry for a justice delayed. For example, an activist group from one Latino neighborhood, along with union and faith leaders, recently pushed the city of Anaheim into adopting district elections. They argued for what activists called “the people’s map” that will likely lead to the Latino barrio electing one of its own to the city council for the first time in that city’s history.

In early March CLUE held its fourth In-Gathering, a training event that focuses on a particular issue. In the past these provided deep background on immigration, income inequality and wage theft. This time the convocation highlighted the problem of pay disparity for women, their safety in the workplace and human trafficking — a problem overwhelmingly affecting women.

Nothing in this work directly addresses human-caused climate change. Instead, CLUE focuses on one set of problems in one region in one state. But as Pope Francis argued in his encyclical, climate change and economic inequality are deeply interrelated.

CLUE’s work addresses an economic regime that says “MORE, MORE!” We must use more of the earth’s resources. We must own more things. We must own more and bigger — even if that ”more” increases economic inequity, makes it difficult for some families to survive and keeps millions impoverished.

No one sitting around that table 20 years ago thought we were taking on the major issues of our time. We just thought it was unfair for the city of Los Angeles to hire out work that paid a wage so low that people couldn’t live on it so that the city could save a few dollars. We believed our faith traditions opposed such policies. Since then we’ve become a movement to redistribute wealth so everyone can thrive. And that’s true for the earth as well.

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