A CHRISTMAS OF DISCONTENT?
In the current climate of strikes and the cost-of-living crisis we could do a lot worse than reflect on some of the thoughts of Cardinal Manning in the late nineteenth century. He was influential in the foundational document on Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour), published in 1891.
During the 1889 dock strike he gave one of his most famous speeches where he argues:
“Starving men may be locked out with impunity. The hunger of their wives, the cries of their children, their own want of food, will compel them to come in. It is evident that between a capitalist and a working man there can be no true freedom of contract. The capitalist is invulnerable in his wealth. The working man without bread has no choice but either to agree or to hunger in his hungry home. They forget that when thousands of women and children suffer while they are refusing to grant a penny more in wages, or an hour less in work, there is a wide field of misery caused by their refusal, which prolongs a strike. It is then no private affair, but a public evil which excites the public condemnation.”
Today’s economic and social circumstances are rather different to those prevailing at the end of the nineteenth century. Many people are part of the ‘gig’ economy – effectively self-employed. The trade unions today are strongest in the public sector – so the conflict between ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ is a bit different in this context.
In 2017 TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, spoke at a Vatican conference entitled ‘From Populorum Progressio to Laudato Si’. Speaking to The Tablet she commented that what we needed today was a new Cardinal Manning:
“There is a very strong and practical model from Cardinal Manning. He didn’t just make moral pronouncements but rolled up his sleeves and tried to bring about a fair settlement to the dockers’ dispute.
“When I speak to those young workers of sports direct, McDonalds or Amazon, they feel pretty alone in the world. They are facing employers that are far, far more powerful than the dockers’ ones and need somebody to stand by their side and speak up for their rights. I would hope the Church can play a role.”
The basic proposition of Cardinal Manning’s speech remains the same: everyone deserves to be paid a ‘living wage’ – enough to keep themselves and their family. Rerum Novarum goes beyond this to talk about the ‘dignity’ of the person. This includes not just paying someone a fair wage for work done but the conditions under which they work and the rest periods and time off that they are allowed.
We do well to remember this when confronted with so much polemic in the tabloid press.