Respect begins at work: a short labour history of the Salvation Army

By Marion Pollack

The Salvation Army’s mission statement identifies respect as a core value, which includes a commitment to promote the dignity of all persons. According to its website, the Salvation Army helps one person at a time, believing that each person is infinitely valuable and equally worthy.

Workers picket outside the Salvation Army shelter on George Street in Ottawa, March 2012.
Workers picket outside the Salvation Army shelter on George Street in Ottawa, March 2012.

Yet often, the Salvation Army’s organizational values do not apply to workers. A comprehensive review of the Salvation Army’s labour practices over the last 20 years reveals that it desperately needs to adopt a new approach to eradicating poverty and serving humanity.

The Salvation Army is a sizeable organization. It’s the largest non-governmental direct provider of social services in Canada, operating in over 400 communities. From 2013-2014, government funding accounted for 35 per cent of the Salvation Army’s revenue (donations accounted for 29 percent). For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the Army realized an excess of revenue of $110 million over expenses.

In other words, the Salvation Army is not broke, and it receives a considerable portion of its funding from taxpayers. Yet despite these truths, it has developed a despicable track record with its workers across the country.

The Salvation Army vs. PSAC: Keeping workers in the cold

It was very cold in Ottawa in January, 2012. People needed shelter from the bitter cold. Salvation Army workers were forced to experience those freezing temperatures themselves as they walked the picket line at the Booth Centre. They were on strike to improve their poverty-level wages, and as a result, the workers were unable to provide much needed services to a highly vulnerable population. This group of 60 Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) members were earning significantly less than workers at a nearby shelter.

In the media, the Salvation Army made the dubious claim that it could not afford to pay decent wages. Yet, despite the fact that both shelters received exactly the same government funding, workers at the neighbouring shelter located less than 750 meters away earned between $2 and $3 more per hour for comparable work. After 76 days, the strike was settled when the workers opted for binding arbitration.

Sadly, this was not the only time the Salvation Army received media attention for its labour relations rather than its charitable actions.

The Salvation Army vs. CAW: Cutting jobs for women

In April 2011, the Salvation Army closed its A.R. Goudie Eventide long-term care facility in Kitchener, Ontario in the middle of contract negotiations with the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) Local 1106. This put a number of women workers out of jobs, many whom had worked at this facility for more than 25 years.

“It’s ironic how difficult it is to reach a fair contract with this well-known social service agency,” said CAW Kitchener Area Director Bill Gibson in a CAW press release.

“If the Salvation Army doesn’t treat its own staff with basic respect and dignity, how can it be credible within the community?”

The Salvation Army vs. UFCW: Demanding concessions

Picket lines appeared at Salvation Army thrift shops in September, 2005. Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union (UFCW) at stores in Regina and Saskatoon were forced to walk the picket line for 13 days to win a collective agreement. The major issue was the Salvation Army’s demand for increased flexibility.

In the fall of 2002, UFCW members at the Salvation Army Waterston Centre in Regina ratified a new three-year collective agreement. The agreement included a wage increase and improved bereavement leave. At the outset of bargaining the Salvation Army had tabled a lengthy list of concessionary demands. However, the union succeeded in having them all removed during negotiations.

The Salvation Army vs. HEU: Contracting out union jobs

In 2003, the Salvation Army was one of the first union employers on Vancouver Island to use the BC Liberal government’s anti-labour healthcare privatization law — Bill 29 — to fire the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) members who provided health support services at the Sunset Lodge, a long-term care home in Victoria, BC.

According to an HEU report, “Bill 29 shredded key collective agreement protections and facilitated the largest mass firings of women workers in Canadian history.”Gordon+Campbell+thumbs+up

Gordon Campbell’s legislation was used to deliver to multinational corporations hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare contracts. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada shut down several pieces of Bill 29, deeming parts of the legislation unconstitutional.

The Salvation Army planned to lay off 64 workers at the lodge, and to contract out jobs. Despite protests, petitions, pickets, letters, and union offers of concessions that would have saved the $200,000 the Salvation Army said it needed to avert its plans, the Salvation Army went ahead and contracted out this work.

The Salvation Army’s stated core value of relevance includes a commitment to the pursuit of innovation and effectiveness. Contracting out unionized work to private, for-profit companies is certainly not innovative, and future developments showed it was not at all effective.

In a predictable turn of events in 2005, the Salvation Army was forced to terminate its contract with the private for-profit service provider at Sunset Lodge, following two years of complaints of dirty rooms, sub-standard food and high rates of staff turnover.

The Salvation Army vs. OPSEU: Resisting pay equity

The Salvation Army has at times, resisted adherence to the Ontario Pay Equity Act. In the late 1990s, the Salvation Army argued that individual Army agencies were the true employers, and refused to implement one overarching pay equity plan.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) made protracted appeals to the Ontario Pay Equity Commission. When OPSEU won in 1997, it believed this would be the end of the struggle. Despite this victory, the Salvation Army continued to insist on separate pay equity plans.

The union finally prevailed, and the Salvation Army began its pay equity payments in March 2001.

When the Salvation Army talks about their core value of excellence – striving to be the best at what we do and a model for others to emulate, one can only hope this would include following the appropriate labour legislation.

In December, 1999, workers at London, Ontario Salvation Army homes for developmentally disabled children and adults made the difficult decision to strike. It was a hard choice, and reflected the workers’ anger, frustration, and despair with the Salvation Army as an employer. OPSEU’s demands were simple: paid training, benefits, and a pay increase. For example, they sought remuneration for twenty hours of yearly mandatory unpaid training.

During this long strike, the Salvation Army argued that it did not have the money to provide a reasonable wage increase for its workers. The union questioned this, as earlier in the year, the Salvation Army paid $475,000 in cash for a piece of property in a nearby city.

During the dispute, OPSEU won an injunction against the Salvation Army to cease using intimidation, threats, coercion and force to prevent lawful picketing. The court ordered the Salvation Army to cease unlawful surveillance and interception of private communication with union members on the picket lines.

Its unlawful behaviour during this strike was hardly in line with the Salvation Army’s stated core value of integrity. “We are honest, trustworthy, and accountable,” they claim on their website.

After 17 weeks on the picket lines, OPSEU and the Salvation Army finally settled.

The Salvation Army vs. BCGEU: A lifestyle clause?!?

In August, 1999, the Salvation Army was in bargaining with the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) for a first collective agreement covering 54 workers at the Army’s Dunsmuir facilities. A significant obstacle to attaining this contract was the Salvation Army’s insistence on a lifestyle clause

This insidious clause required workers to maintain a “Christian lifestyle,” refraining from drugs, gambling, alcohol, homosexuality and pre-marital sex during and outside work hours. The BCGEU rightfully saw this as an attack on the rights and freedoms of the workers and was ultimately successful in ensuring the lifestyle stipulation did notsalvationarmydoingthemostgood apply to unionized workers.

In February, 1992, members of the BCGEU set up picket lines at two Salvation Army locations in Victoria, BC. After three weeks on the picket lines, the Salvation Army finally offered a two percent wage increase, provided the union agree to layoffs and reduced hours. BCGEU rejected this offer, and prepared a leaflet urging people not to contribute to the Salvation Army’s Red Shield appeal.

This tactic proved successful. The strike ended after eight weeks. The workers settled for a 12.5 percent wage increase.

Is it getting better?

While some Salvation Army workplaces are unionized and appear to have respectful and fair relations with their employees, this long yet inexhaustive review of the organization’s labour battles raises some serious questions.

People have benefited from Salvation Army programs. Many individuals have kicked their addiction to alcohol as a result of attending Salvation Army treatment centres. Vulnerable youth have participated in Salvation Army activities with great success. The Salvation Army has housed and fed many. But the frontline workers who deliver these programs deserve fair wages, benefits, and ultimately, respect, as promised.

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