Given at St Mary and St Michael's Church, Commercial Road, on 14 September 2014, the 125th anniversary of the 'Cardinal's Peace' settling the Great Dock Strike.
This East End of London is a place of great and proud traditions. Among them is the event the anniversary of which we keep today. The Dock Strike of 1889 was a remarkable moment and for many different reasons.
Writing last week in the Catholic Herald, John Cruddas MP stated that this strike and its settling 'was the first time that organised labour was recognised as a legitimate interest in setting the terms of the working environment. It was the first time that Catholic and Protestant had worried together to support a grouping that was the organised and democratic interest of labour. It was the first time since the Reformation that the Catholic Church has played a leadership role in a secular matter of wages and industrial policy. It was also the first time that an ideology was developed that was pro-business and pro-labour, that reconciled workers and workers in a common good.'
Then he added: 'The enduring legacy of the strike lies in the development of Catholic social teaching and the politics of the common good.' He concluded that this developed Catholic Social Teaching 'still provides the framework to build a good and prosperous society.'
This is a great legacy and something of which we can rightly be proud.
This evening we focus not least on the role of Cardinal Henry Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, in the settling of this strike and on him as the one who set out the principles and values on which that settlement was achieved.
Cardinal Manning, at that time, was not a young man. Far from it. In fact his coming to the East End on 10th September 1889 was, I understand, the last time he left Archbishop's House. That was the day on which he made what has been called 'the last great speech of his life' and he went from it to negotiate the final details of the settlement.
But in a much earlier speech, in 1874, he had addressed 'The Dignity and Rights of Labour' in which he anticipated all the arguments of Rerum Novarum, the foundation document of the entire corpus of Catholic Social Teaching. For a person's work, their labour, he claimed the same rights as those given to a person's property, calling that work 'capital in the truest sense'. In addition he argued that it was the duty of every employer to recognise the crucial importance of a worker's family life and indeed their need for rest.
His words: 'If the hours of labour resulting from the unregulated sale of a man's strength and skill shall lead to the destruction of domestic life, to the neglect of children, to turning wives and mothers into living machines, and of fathers and husbands into - what shall I say, creatures of burden? - I will not use any other word - who rise before the sun and come back when it is set, seared and able only to take food and to lie down to rest; the domestic life of man exists no longer, and we dare not go on in this path.'
On this basis, Catholic Social Teaching has developed into a wide and comprehensive body of thought. Pope St John Paul II, for example, continually deepened it, stressing over and over again its foundations in the God-given dignity of very human being and therefore of the family and of the common good of all.
In doing so he constantly referred to the Book of Genesis, to the very passage we have just heard. Seeing the creation he has made, God proclaims it to be 'very good'. In that creation, he places the human person in a unique position, because it is the person alone who is made in the image, after the likeness, of God himself. In our freedom, in our intelligence, in our creativity, in our ability to generate new life in love, we are indeed made in the image and likeness of God. This is the true foundation of the dignity of every person, and upholding that dignity must always be the first building block of a sound and productive society, the first step in search of the common good.
The ways in which we come together, in the activities which make up our life in society, are of course the testing grounds of the practical acknowledgment of this dignity and of how we work together for a common good that excludes nobody. What the Great Dock Strike helped to establish was that recognition of this dignity was shockingly lacking in the patterns of employment in force in the London docks at that time, and, I may add as a person from Liverpool, not only in London. In contrast, that dignity was recognised and given practical expression by those who fashioned the democratic structures and organisation of the dockers which emerged under the leadership of Ben Tillett. The partnership between him and Cardinal Manning was surely both clearly principled and deeply personal.
Catholic Social Teaching continues to develop these fundamental principles of the priority of human dignity and the importance of the common good, across a wide spectrum of concerns. In 2012, for example, in the midst of the world-wide economic crisis, the Catholic Church published a document entitled 'The Vocation of the Business Leader' based on precisely these principles. Today there is increasing interest, as John Cruddas said, in Catholic Social Teaching providing a framework for building a good and prosperous society. I constantly meet business leaders who recognise the vital importance of the partnerships called for in that Teaching and the importance of the well-being of employees as a key factor for good in a sound and lasting business.
We know that this is far from always the case. We know that working conditions exist today, in this city, which are not far from effective slavery, as well as the presence of extensive de facto slavery too. It is right to struggle against these outrageous conditions, just as it is right to seek to work with those who share a desire to develop a healthy ecology of enterprise in our society today.
The Dock Strike was a significant and seminal moment in our development as an industrialised and enterprise-led society. So much has changed since then. So much is there to be achieved. But this evening, at this Mass and under the patronage of St Joseph the Worker, we give thanks for the brave men of that day and we pray for the cooperation of all today in rebuilding our common good and the recognition of human dignity in every circumstance. Cardinal Manning would wish no less.