The Price of Salvation

I struggled with this piece to go beyond simple reporting and get at a bigger theme or idea — but it was interesting all the same.

A private investigator stands across the street from a union demonstration, monitoring it for his employer. A speaker, a blonde woman with a shrill voice, singles him out: “They’ve even hired a private investigator to follow us around!… You know who he’s reporting to, right?” She then addresses him directly: “Hello! There he is! Say hi, everyone!” The crowd roars a laughing “Hello.” The investigator stares back, a neutral expression on his lips, his eyes shielded by dark sunglasses.

This isn’t a big automotive company, the federal government, or a transit union. These are front line workers and cleaners at Ottawa’s Salvation Army men’s shelter. Their job is to check clients into the shelter, provide them with essentials like food and toiletries, and connect them with housing support and counselling.

The shelter is called the Booth Centre, after Sir William Booth, the Brit who founded the charity in 1865 to bring Christianity to the poor – something he realized couldn’t be done without helping them materially, too. The Booth Centre has 168 beds on George Street in the Byward Market, as well as addiction treatment programs, a lobby to warm up in the winter, a cafeteria, clothes and blankets. It employs about 60 front-line workers and cleaners. They were on strike for 75 days this winter, from January 6 to March 21.

Management won the battle of wills to see who could hold out the longest when the union called off the strike and agreed to go to binding arbitration. An arbitration panel will consider both sides’ arguments and make a final decision some time in upcoming months.

One of the leaders of the strike says that after 75 days, there was nothing more to be gained. “Otherwise, this would have gone on indefinitely. So we may as well call it quits. I mean, we’ve made our point. We’ve got the case we need to go to arbitration with. That’s it,” says Bill Riopelle, the president of the Salvation Army local of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Riopelle’s also a frontline worker with the centre’s drug and alcohol treatment program.

I meet Riopelle for coffee at a little café across the street from the shelter during his first week back on the job, at the end of March. When he pays for his coffee, which costs two dollars, he leaves a loonie in the tip jar. He’s 51, thin, with a bushy grey-tinged mustache and rough hands. He worked in construction before going back to college to study social services work. He speaks slowly and deliberately, with a slight smile on his mouth and in his eyes. As he lounges  back in his chair in an old purple sweatshirt and faded jeans, he looks more relaxed than the other times I’ve seen him this winter – shivering on the picket line or rushing around, organizing.

Riopelle says the union has been able to gather information in recent months that will help its case before the adjudicator. He also says the union has won over some of the public. “If you’re working throughout that period, you don’t get the point across.”

Riopelle goes on to say the strike strengthened the bond between union members, even though they decided they would never convince management to give in.

Management has history on its side. Fifteen years ago, in 1997, there was a picket line outside the centre. Back then, the issue was wages, just like it is now. Back then, cleaners, the lowest-paid workers, were making $6.85 an hour. Today, they’re making $11.31.

Just as they did this time around, the workers went to binding arbitration after a few months on strike. At arbitration, the adjudicator agreed mainly with management, which had offered a 15 per cent raise over two years.  The adjudicator didn’t buy the argument of the union, which said that its workers should be earning the same wages as those at other Salvation Army shelters, which they said were between 20 and 70 per cent higher. In his decision, the arbitrator said that a shelter in another city isn’t a fair comparison, partly because it’s “a separate employer and has a different bargaining history with a different union.” He also took into account that it was the Booth Centre’s first collective agreement with PSAC.

So perhaps this time around, management is holding out for another favourable judgment.

Since 1997, the union and management have been renegotiating the collective agreement every few years. Two years ago, discontent started to boil up again. Last summer, Riopelle helped hammer out a new agreement that would have granted the unionized workers a 7.5 per cent pay increase over three years. But when it came to a vote, the workers turned it down and opted for a strike. To bring them closer on par with other shelters, they say a raise of at least 15 per cent raise is necessary.

This time around, the union compared Booth Centre wages with those at the other homeless shelters in Ottawa. It says its workers make between two and five dollars less per hour than people in the same jobs at the Mission and the Shepherds of Good Hope.  For example, according to the union, front line workers at the Sally Ann make $14.46, while they make $19.12 at the Mission. The rubbing point for the union is that the City of Ottawa gives each shelter an equal allowance for every client the shelters take in – $43 dollars per person, per night.

In media releases and in statements to newspapers, Salvation Army spokesman Michael Maidment has fought back, saying the union is making unfair comparisons between starting wages at the Booth Centre with the wages of experienced employees at the other shelters. And he says the use of volunteers at the shelters, as mandated by their collective agreements, is different. The other shelters can use volunteers in their kitchens, Maidment says, while the Salvation Army must use unionized employees. This affects the shelter’s bottom line. In a press release, Maidment said: “The Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre has an annual budget of 8 million dollars, 90% of which is invested in direct program delivery and services, far exceeding the guidelines established by the Canada Revenue Agency. The Salvation Army is one of the most efficient charities in Canada investing just eight per cent annually on administration.”

It’s been hard to get a closer look at management. Its PR department has been about as forthcoming as a stone, turning down multiple requests for an interview. On the phone, a PR rep said the centre is disappointed with the tone of media coverage so far.

Management emerged from behind their desks to fill in for the unionized staff during the strike. But the union accuses management of neglecting the clients, reducing services and failing to ensure the shelter is safe. Carleton professor Teresa Healy co-published a report which said that “[with] more unrestricted time and increased drug usage there is growing concern about client safety. A pickaxe was brought into the Booth Centre. Tension is mounting.”

But Healy is a researcher not only at Carleton, but also at the Canadian Labour Congress. She previously worked for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. She attended the protest I described at the beginning of this piece, even taking the megaphone at one point to lead a protest song.

Some lines from her report are cutting, like one that describes picketers being made fun of by management on cold winter days: “Many [strikers] report being taunted on the picket line. One told us, ‘they are always looking at us ….or some supervisor sees us (through the window) and they (gesture by hugging themselves and shaking)’.” But all the findings of her report, including the neglect of clients, seem to be based on the statements of the strikers, themselves.

I wanted to get inside the Booth Centre and see what it was really like for the clients during the strike, to see how management was running the place, with the front line workers gone.

The PR rep declined to offer me a tour, so one warm Sunday morning, I walk in through the front door. I proceed down a short hallway framed on one side by an administration desk, protected by a glass window. A woman greets me warmly through the window from behind a desk.

The hallway leads to an open lobby – a few tables and about two dozen chairs scattered around a fluorescent-lit room, in front of a big-screen television showing an action movie from the Space channel. A man is sprawled out sleeping on the tile floor. The chairs are those cheap plastic ones you might see on a pool deck, and when I lean back in one, it threatens to collapse. The walls are off-white, and the floor tiles too, but they’re stained here and there with dark lines. The men play cards or stare at the TV. The place is grubby and cramped, but it doesn’t smell too bad, and I can imagine how nice this dingy lounge must be on colder days. Some of the men have muffins or sandwiches I assume they got from the shelter. Many are clean shaven – the shelter provides a shaving kit.

Perhaps the clients are left a little too much to their own devices. A tall thin man wearing a half-white, half-fluorescent pink baseball cap, with a faint grin on his face, sits next to me and rattles a bottle of pills. A few minutes later, he snorts a layer of powder off the table and brushes the excess off onto the floor. He finishes off his hit by pulling out an mp3 player with fluorescent pink headphones, and blasting Eminem.

I head outside to speak to men who use the shelter, where I’m more comfortable revealing myself as a journalist. They lean against the building, smoking. Cigarette butts line the ground like breadcrumbs. I speak to about 15 of the men and find no consensus about how life has changed since the strike – other than the fact that the food has markedly improved. One clean-shaven man who looks me straight in the eye tells me that service is better all-around since the strike. “The old staff, they would literally throw the food in front of you… Now, there’s a warm smile,” he says. “So far as we’re concerned they can stay on strike forever,” says another. But others agree with the union. “We miss our staff,” one says, adding that he can no longer get access to a housing support worker as easily as before. But on the whole, the clients hardly seem neglected by the management, as the union alleges.

The Salvation Army is still a deeply Christian organization, and I wondered if this affects the work environment there. Donna Baines is a professor of labour relations at McMaster University who has studied the charity around the world. She says it’s still heavily influenced by its Salvationist traditions, and that Salvationist senior management expect a kind of self-sacrifice from everyone who works there that runs up against our modern concept of professionalism.  “If you’re working with people with addictions… there’s only so much a sympathetic lay person can do,” Baines says in a telephone interview. “Their quintessential ideal worker is a self-sacrificing Christian.”

But Bill Riopelle says Christianity at the Booth Centre is no sweat. There’s no undercurrent of expected self-sacrifice. “The employer realizes we’re people doing our jobs as well as we can and nothing more is expected of us. We’re not out there to make sacrifices or put in extra hours of our own time – just do the best job that we can… It has really no bearing on my role.”

On a rainy January day, I walk among the picketers, chatting. The line is barely a line – a light dusting of people in ponchos and rubber boots, ambling back and forth on the George Street sidewalk. The union keeps the line going from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, and with only 60 employees, working 4-hour shifts for 75 dollars a day, they’re spread thin. They wear placards, draped over themselves like yokes, a hole cut for the neck, a sign draped on their fronts and backs. The signs say “Equal Pay, Equal Work” and “Happy Staff, Happy Clients, it does not take much.” The ink from my pen mixes with water droplets. My feet are wet, my jacket glistens, and I feel like the water has seeped in at my armpits, collar, and wrists. For the strikers, though, the day is a blessing, a patch of warmth. On another visit, in early March, it’s only minus five, but it’s a damp cold that gets into my bones. Quickly, it feels too cold to bear.

Sundays are communal lunch days in the PSAC heated trailer parked in a lot across the street. One worker cooks a giant meal, and everyone pitches in to help pay for it. When I go in early March, Jennie Chomcey is on lunch duty. She’s a young front line worker with round cheeks and a thin nose, in a blue hoody, with purple glasses. She and her boyfriend made several lasagnas, bean salad, dip, meatballs, and three different kinds of cupcakes with giant, shiny sprinkles that look like plastic but are apparently made of sugar. About twenty people are crammed in the trailer, which is about the size of an OC Transpo bus. Posters with PSAC slogans against workplace harassment are on the otherwise bare walls. The little room is full of laughter. A large man with a scruffy beard appears when his friends least expect it and snaps photos of them, their lips creamed with icing. They scream in protest. “Let me see that!” Chomcey yells.

Like most of her colleagues here, Chomcey resents her employer. She works on a casual basis now. “Never do full time ever again in my life,” she says. When she was full time, she says when she asked for time off, it would never be approved until the last minute. “You really are just a number. The only time I’ve ever seen our [high-level superiors] is when you’re in trouble for something. Even if it’s the smallest mistake, they’re on you for it.”

Marilyn Sylvestre sits on a chair nearby, a smudge of blue icing on her lower lip. She wears an old stained white sweatshirt and black pants. She speaks with a faint French accent and curls her words together. She’s overweight, and looks like she hurts a bit when she walks. She’s worked at the Booth Centre for five years, and she makes $11.30 an hour. She has two kids at home, one in his late teens, the other in her early twenties, both of whom work part time. Her husband is sick and can’t work.

As they head out the door to go back outside, everybody gives Chomcey warm words of appreciation. “Thanks for the food, girl. You cooked up a storm,” one says. “I’ll let the boy know,” Chomcey says.

On the day of the protest where the strikers taunt the private investigator, this warm and fuzzy bunch becomes an angry mob, with the lack of subtlety typical of these gatherings. PSAC is delivering a position paper at the offices of real estate baron Graham Bird, who’s also a Salvation Army board member. “Mr. Bird flew away,” someone quips, when they find he’s left before they arrived.

The strikers wave little purple union flags and sing “Solidarity Forever” – “cause the union makes us strong!”

“If this is an organization that promotes family values, where are they?” a man bellows into a megaphone. “Shame, shame!” the crowd responds.

It has the feel of any other strike.

“The bottom line is when you get down to it – when a non-profit becomes big, they’re not different in the eyes of the employees from any other boss,” says Gene Swimmer, a labour relations expert at Carleton University.

It’s a strike like any other — but its leader is slightly unusual. At the protest, Bill Riopelle hardly touches the megaphone, except to introduce other speakers.

“It’s not my character,” he says, over coffee. “I’d rather leave it up to those who can actually deliver those rousing speeches… I sit back, watch, and act later.”

On Riopelle’s first day back on the job, he had a peculiar chat with the executive director of the Booth Centre, who told Riopelle that he basically lived at the shelter for the duration of the strike, working 12 hour days.

“You wouldn’t believe how long four hours is outside,” Riopelle said to him.

“And he says, ‘That’s nothing, you wouldn’t believe how long 12 hours is in here.’”

Riopelle sees both sides. “It was as hard on them as I’m sure it was on us.”

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