Taking strikes to the bosses' doorsteps

Los Angeles religious leaders join grocery workers as a protest gets personal

There were the usual protesters with placards and union members ticking off their demands and chanting.

But something unusual also stood out Tuesday in the parking lot, the staging ground for the four-month-old Southern California grocery-store strike by 70,000 workers: men and women of the cloth.

In a tactic that labor and religion experts say is a growing phenomenon, two dozen Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, and Lutheran clerics joined the country's largest labor dispute and the longest supermarket strike in state history.

"It is the poorest and the downtrodden who need our voice, so we are taking an active stand on their behalf," says Rabbi Steven Jacobs, one of the participants in the cross-California "justice pilgrimage."

Along with 50 grocery-store workers, the clerics boarded a bus for an eight-hour, multistop journey to the East Bay home of Safeway CEO Steve Burd. Once there, they joined a contingent of 200 protesters and marched to Mr. Burd's palatial estate, where they delivered 10,000 letters appealing to him to resume negotiations in the deadlocked strike.

"After several decades of moving off the national radar, America's religious leaders are taking their heads out of the sand and restoring some of the tactics that helped build the great unions in the first place," says Rick Fantasia, a professor of sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

The idea to visit Burd's house came from activists who felt the old-style protests would not bring the necessary public attention to the extended strike, in which thousands have already picketed over 3,000 stores. It is not an unusual move these days: Activists are increasingly taking public demonstrations and dissent beyond the usual public venues outside corporate buildings, parks, and other staging areas, and going directly into the neighborhoods of targeted business people.

"The idea of taking protests to business leaders in their homes has caught on again," says Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Organizers know it is a way to win the public over by showing how such leaders are living in luxury while their workers can't make ends meet."

The effect of the visit to the East Bay town of Alamo, where many homes are hidden behind gates and labyrinthine driveways, is public pressure, say analysts. The bus riders walked half a mile to the base of Burd's driveway and sent a contingent of clerics to deliver the letters while the rest sang, "This Land is Your Land." The event drew local and regional media.

These shifting tactics are helping to bring support back to unions. After the rise of groups such as the AFL-CIO in the 1930s - movements supported by Catholic priests and other religious organizers - union clout steadily declined, Dr. Fantasia and others say. Beginning in the mid-1990s, leaders began mobilizing more vigorously and looking to old sources of support from community organizations, immigrant groups, students, academics, and clerics.

"There is a real movement to restore the moral power that employee unions had in the past and that employers have tried to destroy," says Fantasia.

The pilgrimage was organized by the Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), an interfaith organizing body. Clerics have not moved en masse into higher-wage disputes like those in the auto and airline industries. Instead, they've stuck to lower-payscale strikes like this one: strikes by janitors, office workers, and grocery clerks. "Clergy are helping to spotlight many situations where they deem employers have acted unjustly to break unions," says Fantasia.

How much the pilgrimage has raised the consciousness of the public - which analysts say has been a crucial factor in maintaining support so far - is incalculable, analysts say. What is more palpable, is the support felt by union workers.

"This has gone on too long and a lot of people are suffering," says Ron Jackson, a 20-year veteran of Lucky's and Albertsons who has lost 75 percent of his $43,000 salary since October. "We owe these clerics a lot for helping to keep the spotlight on those of us who have no other way to speak."

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