Interview: Mgr John Armitage on the Mass for migrant workers

When Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor concelebrates the Mass for migrant workers on May Day he will be renewing a centuries old link between the Catholic Church and the poor of London. On that day when the Cardinal joins with Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark and Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood there will be parallels drawn with the actions of Cardinal Henry Manning, who back in 1889 stood with the dockers in their struggle to win a living wage of 6d an hour. Previously they had been paid 5d. The Vicar General of the Brentwood, Diocese Monsignor John Armitage has lived in the East End all his life. His family have always worked at sea and been closely involved with the organisation of labour. Mgr Armitage was born in Canning Town, his father a merchant seaman. In 1966, he carried the banner of the National Union of Seamen in the great strike of that year. It was another 13 years before John Armitage was ordained a priest in the Brentwood Diocese and another couple of decades before he took over as parish priest at St Margaret's in Canning Town. Later he moved to the larger parish of St Anthony's at nearby Forest Gate. Talking to Mgr Armitage about the 1889 dock strike, it is difficult not to believe he was not there. Thinning on top he may be but he assures me he was not carrying the seaman's banner on that day. "In those days there were a large number of unskilled workers in the docks. There were many from Ireland and the work was casualised," said Mgr Armitage. "Dockers were paid for a days work and it was job and finish." The strike materialised because the dockers wanted an extra 1d on their pay. The dispute brought 20,000 men out on strike, closing down the docks for early a month. The Cardinal stayed with the strikers often acting as an intermediary and thereby ensuring that the dockers tanner was won. "Many tried to intervene between dockers and management without success. The only one who stood by the dockers right through was Cardinal Manning," said Mgr Armitage. "He knew his people. He knew how important it was for the men to maintain their dignity." It was on 10 September 1889 that Cardinal Manning spoke to the dockers, telling how their demands had been met. A trade union lodge was later named after him, becoming known as Cardinal Manning Lodge. The London Dock Strike and the role of Cardinal Manning became known throughout the world. Mgr Armitage goes as far as to suggest it helped inspire Pope Leo XIII to write the great Rerum Novarum encyclical on workers rights in 1891. "Leo XIII was aware of the great social unrest throughout Europe and the distancing of working people from the Church. He got inspired by Cardinal Manning's link with the people and his intervention. This, when combined with other happenings in Europe, such as the unsettling actions of republicans and anarchists, helped inspire Rerum Novarum," he said. Bringing the story up to date, Mgr Armitage sees real parallels in the area between the 1890s and today. "We've got people living on the minimum wage, doing two or three jobs just to support their families and survive. Many of these are migrant workers. This time the Church is working together with other churches and faiths to support working people." Mgr Armitage sees the wheel as coming a full turn from the days of Cardinal Manning when on 1 May his successor Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor will come to concelebrate Mass for the workers. The East End based priest is keen to emphasise that the Mass will be for all workers not just the migrants. He sees a real unity of purpose between migrant and local workers with the latter also being denied basic rights such as holiday and sick pay as well as pension provisions. The main contribution of the Church in the area to improving the condition of workers over recent times has been the support offered to the living wage campaign. Championed by The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) and then taken on for the whole of the capital by the umbrella organisation London Citizens, the living wage campaign has sought to get workers a living wage level of £6.70 an hour. Research conducted by London University for Telco and the trade union Unison found that this was the minimum level required to live above the poverty line in the area. "When we meet on 1 May on the feast of St Joseph the Worker we will remember that it was Catholic social teaching that inspired us to go down the present path. It is about the dignity of the individual and his or her family to go out and earn a decent wage," said Mgr Armitage. There are three key things happening on 1 May, Mgr Armitage explained.. "The Mass will mark the living wage campaign and the launch of London Citizens Workers Association (LCWA). The aim of the LCWA is to encourage low paid workers to organise together in support of the living wage campaign and have the confidence to join trade unions," he said. "The third element is a study being undertaken for the three dioceses by the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge to find out what is happening among migrant communities and what the implications are for the Church." Mgr Armitage is keen to point out that the Catholic Church in this country has always been a migrant church. "The question is, how we face the future. how do we best serve the people?" he said. Mgr Armitage does though, sound a note of caution regarding the migrant workers coming in from the European Union Accession Countries. . "They are grateful for any work they can get, but there is a danger that if they take low wages this will push all the wages down. If they are paid less it will have a knock on effect and could start to undermine the gains and aspirations of the living wage campaign. It is important that everyone remains united in the aim to obtain a living wage. Migrant workers whether coming from the accession countries or elsewhere need to be encouraged to join a trade union," said Mgr Armitage.

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