London Dock Strike 1889 – public meeting outside the West India Dock

Here are we in the late stages of advanced capitalism and not, after all, beyond the ‘end of history’. Today there is a (very) limited one-day public sector workers’ strike in the UK on the matter of pay and conditions, including pensions. The ‘Coalition Government’ has announced plans to legislate to make electoral rules for union ballots more stringent. The world has changed so very much since the seeds of tribal Old Labour certainty were planted in my childish breast.  People like me are the inheritors of the old traditions and of the history which saw Cardinal Manning resolve the London Dock Strike to the benefit of the workers, the system of whose pay is described thus:

‘..a ‘call-on’ system was adopted, whereby a number of times a day, workers would congregate at each of the docks and a foreman would select which ones to hire, often for less than a few hours at a time, based on the availability of work. The system was degrading and encouraged both favouritism and petty corruption, as trade union leader Ben Tillett describes: “We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work”.’ [source]

But, of course, the old miserable certainties and the old loyalties have dissolved.  One must still, however, in all circumstances work out what is the good action and the right action. Whilst being as gentle as doves, we must also be as cunning as serpents – the Lord knows that our political and financial masters and mistresses are the latter, after all. With that, I give you some more words published in 1908 by Mr Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

“You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.” Orthodoxy, 1908

Having said all that, it is important to realise that, whatever the sanctimonious balderdash being talked on both sides, trades unionism is not in itself a function of natural law or a force for evil. Trades unionism is a collective response to the collective power of capital and what is termed ‘the Establishment’: in theory, at least, one pays one’s dues and one acts in collective solidarity with one’s fellow members as an economic exercise rather than an ideological one.  The right to strike is not bestowed upon ‘the people’ by benevolent rulers: like the vote, it is fought for, bargained for, campaigned for and achieved through force, determination, horse-trading and collaboration.  Trades unionism is not an exercise of the saints – and there are some truly unpleasant individuals in the movement, some of whom are, naturally, far less interested in collective bargaining than in their own careers. But it’s also important to realise that today’s economy is so fragmented and our culture so fractured that the rights and wrongs of any specific dispute are very hard to figure out. When I hear a talkshow host asking parents to phone in if they are ‘against the strike’ because their children are not in school today, I worry, a bit.  The tiny divisions between us and the great divisions between us are unhealthy – and maybe inescapable.



Addendum: Thanks to Twitter, here is the short version of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on participation in trades unions and industrial action:


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