Today our guest blogger is Nick Coke, a captain in the Salvation Army. He tells the story of his churches campaign to achieve the living wage for those in the community. An inspiration, demonstrating how much can be achieved when we work together for the good of our communities.
Salvation Army members are taught the story from a young age. They know how in Victorian England girls as young as 8 years old worked 16 hours a day in match factories in the East End of London. They know about the low pay, the appalling working conditions and the corrosive cancer of the jaw bone that workers developed from handling the phosphorous used to make the matches. They could also tell you how in 1892, William Booth and his team responded to this outrage with the ‘Lights in Darkest England’ Campaign. How they opened up a match factory in Bow, East London, to offer an alternative to the terrible conditions that matchmakers faced and to ‘show up’ the wealthy businessmen making a fortune on the back of the matchworkers. In The Salvation Army factory, workers got a tea break, their wages were much higher and the phosphorous used to make the matches was safe. It’s an amazing story of social justice – of how a group of Christians, motivated by their faith, were willing to take a risk to change an industry and to stand with ordinary workers to fight for a living wage. The campaign was a great success.
I live a short walk from the site of the match factory. Every time I pass it, I think of the radical Christian men and women who took a risk to make a change. They looked beyond simply meeting the needs of the workers and instead fought with them for justice and for ‘the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven’. In Stepney where I live, The Salvation Army church that I lead with my wife tries to do the same.
February 2007 was a watershed moment for us. We were 4 years into a Salvation Army church plant when we began to think and pray really seriously about the issue of social justice in our neighbourhood. It wasn’t a case of needing to be convinced that action was required – we were already convicted by Biblical commands to do something. What we struggled with was an understanding of how to act, how to actualise change and how to move from service to justice. We were already busy in serving the community and meeting needs where we could. What we felt challenged about was how we could move from offering a ‘sticking plaster’ solution to offering a ‘cure’.
What changed everything was when we discovered ‘community organising’ and a grassroots campaigning movement led by Citizens UK (www.citizensUK.org) that brought local people together to discuss issues, listen to one another and to take action together on democratically agreed goals. As a church we threw ourselves into the work. For the past 6 years we’ve been involved in all sorts of campaigns around drugs, housing, unemployment and a living wage. We are so proud of what we’ve been able to achieve with others.
The match-factory story really began to resonate with us when we considered that just as in Victorian Britain there were those in our neighbourhood who were paid a poverty wage. We kept meeting cleaners, carers, catering staff – hard-working people who were finding it impossible to make ends meet on the minimum wage. So, one Sunday morning the congregation gathered to pray outside the building our church meets in and from the street we could see the towers of Canary Wharf and The City glittering in the sky. These vast symbols of business, wealth and status right on our doorstep highlighted the inequalities in our city. Determined to take action we completed a living wage audit in our congregation and discovered a number of people who were on the minimum wage. One church member was a cleaner working for a housing association literally in the shadow of Canary wharf. We decided it was time to act.
First we researched the issue – we discovered our member and 30 of his colleagues were all on extremely poor contracts that not only paid the minimum wage but didn’t allow for sick pay or holiday pay. The workers had been trying to raise their voices with their employers but with little success. What was required was a strong alliance that could bring some more pressure to bear. So, one morning we met with the CEO along with 2 of the cleaners, a Roman Catholic priest, a representative from the mosque, a union organiser, a university lecturer and a secondary school head. The most powerful moment of the meeting by far came when our church member testified about how difficult it was to live on the minimum wage and how his family life could be transformed by a living wage. The CEO listened respectfully to his employee’s story. It was a moment of grace – the ‘upside down kingdom’ in action where the powerless became powerful.
A week later we received the good news that all 30 of the cleaners were going to be given new contracts. Wages would be set at the living wage level – sick pay and holiday pay were included. Amazingly, the company went the extra mile and backdated the workers’ pay for a whole year to a living wage level! It was an outstanding result beyond our wildest dreams.
The living wage campaign continues. In fact it’s needed more than ever, as the cost of living increases and wage levels remain static. There is an increasing interest in the campaign as politicians, faith leaders and journalists are beginning to wake up to its transforming potential. There is certainly an opportunity for the local church to take the lead in communities all over the UK – advocating for it, lobbying businesses and organisations that aren’t paying it and, dare I say it, examining our own pay structures. For us in Stepney it’s a continuation of The Salvation Army match factory campaign as we continue to fight for a ‘light in darkest England’.
For information on how to get involved in the campaign visit The Living Wage Foundation website: www.livingwage.org.uk
A short film on the ‘Lights in Darkest England Campaign’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGmv9q6j2tg
Captain Nick Coke: firstname.lastname@example.org