Several weeks ago we, as concerned Christians, met at a local church with some of the striking workers from the Salvation Army Booth Centre on George Street in Ottawa's Byward Market. The staff members spoke first and at length about the people they serve, some with serious mental health problems and those trying to conquer alcoholism or addictions, many of whom are homeless. It was clear to us that these workers, whether as a front-line counsellors or as support staff in the kitchen, must have both skill and dedication to do what they do. These workers have both.
Some of us went last week to visit the Booth Centre on George Street. On the picket line we met a front-line worker named Rob. His wife is looking after their two-month-old boy and he wonders what kind of future his family will have if they are forced to live on his current salary. Rob is making a little over $14 an hour and is aware that his counterpart at other shelters in the city are making $17 to $18 an hour. He also knows that, regardless of how long he works for the Salvation Army, there will be few if any incremental increases in his wages. A member of the kitchen staff and one of the cleaners both told us how the Centre's clients are like family. They also told us how difficult it is to clean up when someone has been sick or how risky it can be when there are needles lying around. Both staff members make $11.31 an hour.
Willis, a humble man and a client currently living at the shelter, is full of wisdom and feeling that moves one to tears. He's been sober for a while now and talks about how good it would be if there was more compassion on the street; how good it would be if people didn't spit on him. Willis has very little money and suffers from chronic depression. Willis feels the staff's absence and told us how difficult it is to get advice and assistance to find an affordable place to live.
The workers are concerned about their wages because it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide their labour for poverty wages. They already live dangerously close to the margin. Some of the staff make use of the Centre's food bank because they do not have enough each month to feed their families. The Centre seems to be creating its own clientele.
We have offered the Salvation Army leadership several opportunities to express their concerns but they have refused to engage. We have offered to be part of an equitable and just solution to the present dispute. We were told that "[t]he Salvation Army is not prepared to enter into discussions with outside groups regarding this matter. As a Church, The Salvation Army deems this an ecclesiastical matter between the organization and its employees." It is now time for us to make our concerns public. As members of the larger Christian community we feel it is our right and our duty to go to the Salvation Army and call them to account, especially as they claim the dispute to be an ecclesiastical matter. These concerns transcend denominational particularities and call upon all Christians to speak with one voice, the voice of justice.
We are asking the Salvation Army to lead rather than follow. We are asking that the Salvation Army forsake the "race to the bottom" where depressed wages and impersonal working conditions only worsen the already socially destructive and soul-destroying disparity between rich and poor. We are asking the Salvation Army to be leaders in the fight against systemic poverty by paying a living wage, even a family wage, and work with their staff and all of us toward a resolution to this dispute.
We the undersigned maintain our offer to help bring this present dispute to an equitable and just resolution. The staff are willing to engage but we have yet to convince the Booth Centre's management. The staff continue to fight for the rights of their clients as they struggle to lessen the gap between rich and poor and management and staff. We invite the managers to engage in the Spirit of justice.
Rev. Wayne Menard
Chaplain Carleton University
Member, Ottawa Monthly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
Rev. Frances Deverell
Canadian Unitarians For Social Justice
Rev. David Illman-White
Centretown United Church, Ottawa
First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa
Rev. Bill Baldwin
Church of the Ascension (Anglican), Ottawa