Solidarity and Striking Dockers


Last week I led the third of our The Why sessions. These periodic reflections on our experiences and faith in action are done in the light of different principles from Catholic Social Teaching, using their values to help discern how to move forward. This month, in which we celebrate St Joseph the Worker – during the Year of St Joseph – seemed an especially appropriate time to focus on Dignity of Work, which has also been an important consideration during this pandemic, with its job losses, furloughs and insecurity. 

I began with a reflection on the meaning and value we give to, and derive from, our work – and the effects, therefore of being unable to work; and the question about what it is, in our work, that can give us dignity. Pay and conditions, health and safety lie at the heart of this; but affirming our dignity – in ourselves and in others – is about much more than what we earn. Our work should be something which enables us to flourish – humanly, creatively, ethically… a flourishing which many people, even those in well-paid jobs, do not necessarily enjoy.

But first, I situated Dignity of Work in its historical, social and geographical contexts. Saturday 15th May was the 130th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum, modern Catholic Social Teaching’s foundational text. The encyclical introduces principles such as human dignity and the common good, but its focus remains true to its subtitle – ‘On the Conditions of Labour’. 

So, I said, raise a glass to Pope Leo XIII, and to our own Cardinal Manning, who influenced and fed into the encyclical’s drafts. And then refill your glasses to the brim, and raise them again, this time to the dock workers in London’s East End… The Great Dock Strike of 1889, in which Manning acted as a mediator, highlighted once again the appalling conditions, poverty and exploitation of the working classes, and – through reports from Manning – came to the pope’s attention. Rerum Novarum and its focus on labour, published only twenty months later, was no coincidence. 

London Dockers strike 1889 Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Striking London dock workers 1889
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions,
via Wikimedia Commons

And as I spoke it occurred to me that there is something rather awe-inspiring and counter-cultural in these unwitting and unlikely influencers: uneducated, despised, overlooked and consigned to slums and squalor; but capable of influencing not only social and industrial history (as did other strikers, such as the matchgirls), but also an entire and enduring body of Catholic social thought. Here we truly have the values of God’s kingdom, in which hierarchies are turned upside-down and God raises the lowly!

God’s values are also founded on solidarity, and people coming together for each other’s good – for the common good. The strikers and their families received donations from other workers, including dockers as far away as Australia – poorly paid themselves, but keen to support a struggle on a faraway continent. Closer to home, there was support from Jewish tailors as well as Catholic priests, and soup kitchens run by Jewish groups and the Salvation Army – a solidarity transcending the otherwise pervasive divisions of race and religion. A generation later this same, seemingly unlikely coalition famously came together in Cable Street, with dockers among those supporting their Jewish neighbours. 

And the solidarity has never ceased. Thanks to my work I’ve been privileged to witness many examples of solidarity and care, and people putting their faith and love into action. Despite the fragmentation and isolation of modern life and especially this pandemic, we can and do come together and to each other’s aid in so many ways. 

The other day I came across this report from a Catholic Social Teaching Conference, and an address by Maurice Glasman. Recalling East London’s contribution, and its rich history of idealism and solidarity, he finished by reminding his audience that we need it now:

“we are still in desperate need of a common good. We have to build this common good between immigrants and locals, between faithful and secular, in order to assert the fundamental truth of Catholic social thought: that human beings are not a commodity and that by working together you preserve the dignity of the person.”

So, this evening, in this month of St Joseph the Worker and Rerum Novarum, raise your glasses to the striking dockers of 1889, to their modern-day heirs, and to all who work together, bridging differences and divisions, to preserve the innate, God-given dignity of every person. 

Sr Silvana Dallanegra rscj, is Caritas Westminster’s Development Worker for West London

You may be interested in The Catholic Vision of Work – Westminster Social Justice and Peace Forum 2021

Learn more about the Dockers Strike and its legacy.

Find out more about The Why and its place in our Road to Resilience.

View our Love in Action/Catholic Social Teaching resources



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