The Art of the Possible

by: Joe Buff

Protests. Marches. Strikes. In-your-face confrontations. These are controversial tactics used to gain economic justice. Sounds like a famous line sung with gusto on a bustling, seedy street scene in the Broadway musical, Evita: “Politics is the art of the possible.” The words evoke a feeling that political victory is at hand. Substitute the words “economic justice” for politics and you have the occupation of Lutheran Minister, Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, who works for CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles County. This job requires courage to overcome fears, expressed in Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.

Alexia preached at both services of St. Luke on November 6, and discussed CLUE with the St. Luke Adult Bible Class. CLUE’s staff of 4 with 11 interns is the central core organization that plans and coordinates projects for the working poor for a coalition of over 600 religious leaders and 1,200 lay people from a broad range of ethnic and denominational constituencies, including Christian Evangelicals, Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic, Pentecostals, and Korean. CLUE also partners with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, labor organizations, and community groups, with a stated goal of joining low wage workers in their struggle for economic justice. When dealing in this complex arena it is best to define terms: Justice is righteousness, the quality of being true or correct, or possibly, in economic justice in our modern world where laws say something is not illegal, expanding into fairness and morality. The operative word is “change,” the antithesis, represented by corporations, companies, businesses of all types, managements, supervisors, and individual bosses who may not be fair or moral in their relations with their employees and will resist change.

Alexia estimated the working poor in Los Angeles County, the largest county in the U.S. which is also more populous that 42 states in the U.S., and contains ¼ of California’s population, to be more than 1/3 of the 2010 census of 10 million, or over 3 million working poor, including their families. Alexia stated that for community organizing efforts, there were two primary goals for Christians: to bring moral authority to an issue in dispute, to speak out; and, the second, to be chaplains to the working poor. Her rapt Sunday School audience at St.Luke was concluding a series on the book, A Public Faith, by Miroslav Volf, and was trying to compare Alexia’s projects to Volf’s guides. Not an easy task. And hard questions arose about CLUE’s tactics, and a Christian’s response to a real need. Imitating Jesus, Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer, and others reminds us of their tactics and the frailties of human responses. Life is not so simple after all; neither is our response to economic justice.

Alexia, who is bilingual, reviewed CLUE’s actions in several major projects. One was the protest of service union hotel workers, where maids who normally cleaned a certain number of hotel rooms per day were told by management they would have to clean an additional number of rooms each day as a new quota so that the hotels could lay off a number of maids to save money. One of the women was a single mother of three earning $13.00 per hour and paying $1,200 a month for an apartment.

Another major protest involved health insurance for a grocery workers’ union, where the CEO of a major corporation refused to come to the bargaining table. In a series of stratagems, CLUE first learned of the CEO’s love of dogs and brought several puppies to his gated house in a protest march that was televised. CLUE also learned the CEO was religious, who his pastor was, and formulated protests that eventually brought the CEO back to the bargaining table.

Alexia ran out of time on November 6 so there was very little Q and A. The Adult Sunday School class reviewed and discussed her mission and her presentation the next Sunday, November 13. A wide range of subjects was covered. One hot topic was the inclusion of union members as working poor, since union members with good paying jobs and insurance and benefits did not appear to fit the profile of “working poor.” In many instances working poor in unions would be the bottom tier of a wage scale where the contentious issue of a “Living Wage” is a difficult issue. Who are the “working poor”? Dissecting the group of 3 million, it is obvious that there is a central core of people who cannot take care of themselves, and Christians, such as St. Luke, and organizations such as CLUE and other religious and commercial groups, should become involved to help. One large group is veterans, especially those unemployed, often mentally or physically handicapped who are not capable or competent to take care of themselves, as are large groups of non-veterans. And the Lord said unto Cain, where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9)

Other groups include students protesting college costs, immigrants, car wash protests for those fired over unjust labor practices by employers, and other projects seeking economic justice. These are hot topics of discussion for Christians, with wide variations of responses from the class that showed a lot of interest and empathy but also divergent views on tactics. Much more information is needed to understand other groups that CLUE works with. For more information, see CLUE’s web site, for other projects, such as college students protesting to the University of California regents (CLUE’s letter to the regents is online), as is the protests of car wash workers and others. Is it possible for such disparate groups to reach mutual agreements? Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” Matthew12:25). The recent “Occupy” movement said on national TV that one of their goals was “Economic justice.” Sound familiar?

Alexia was seeking advocacy for CLUE. As job losses and home losses in the economy spreads, and poverty wipes out more of the middle class of America, groups such as the working poor must be reevaluated and congregations and religious, business, and other groups must address the question: Is this a project we wish to become involved with? Alexia is a dedicated person who provided a personal, in depth educational moment to those who heard her, and agreed or disagreed with her tactics, as she does indeed live her life in a complex, confrontational world where “Politics and life and economic justice are the art of the possible.”

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