In the last issue of Solidarity, Bruce Robinson remembered the life of Tom Cashman, socialist trade unionist and long-time associate of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, who died last month. In this and future issues we will print further tributes.
Tom Cashman was, quite simply, one of the finest and most principled people I’ve ever met.
I first encountered him around about 1974 or 75 in the bar of Birmingham University Guild of Students. Tom was there attending a Troops Out conference; I was a naive young member of IS [today SWP] who had begun to have doubts about the Cliff regime and had joined an opposition group, the Left Faction.
Tom started talking to me, and — typically — delivered a no-holds-barred, compressed educational on what was wrong with IS, the difference between personal friendship and political principle, and why I should join Workers’ Fight [forerunner of AWL]. I was to witness him giving similar informal educationals to comrades from all tendencies on the left, over the years, sometimes even buying a pamphlet from a nearby bookstall and giving it to the individual on condition that he or she promised to read it.
I should emphasise at this point that although Tom was not one of nature’s diplomats (to put it mildly), I never witnessed him bullying anyone or becoming in any way aggressive. He simply made his points with appropriate force and let you think about them. He clearly enjoyed vigorous debate, and for a while became something of an internet “warrior”, often displaying considerable dead-pan wit as he made his points.
But it was Tom’s absolute commitment to the labour movement and, in particular, the TGWU (later Unite) that really impressed me. His commitment was total, and based upon an insistence upon political and industrial logic in both the trade union movement and its political wing, the Labour Party. He rejected all short-cuts and political get-rich-quick schemes, insisting that the often dull, daily grind of workplace activism and political involvement was irreplaceable for serious militants.
His refusal to conform to the “left wing common sense” of much of the Stalinist-influenced milieu of the T&G/Unite meant that despite his well-known and respected abilities as an organiser, a career within the bureaucracy was out of the question — but Tom wouldn’t have wanted that anyway.
I should add, on a more personal note, that behind his gruff persona (a persona that I suspect he rather enjoyed living up to, and was frequently described as “curmudgeonly”), lay the proverbial heart of gold. He was not just an inspirational comrade as far as I was concerned, but a reliable and loyal friend. Now that he’s gone I simply don’t know who I’ll turn to for advice, guidance and wisdom when it comes to industrial and trade union issues. And his quiet, personal courage in the last year or so, when he knew the end was near, marked him out as a very special human being.
When I think of Tom, James P. Cannon’s words about a “Socialist Pioneer” (who turns out to have been Cannon’s father) come to mind:
“The old man was the friend and partisan of all good causes, always ready to circulate a petition, help out a collection or get up a protest meeting to demand that wrongs be righted. The good causes, then as now, were mostly unpopular ones, and he nearly always found himself in the minority, on the side of the under-dogs who couldn’t do him any good in the tough game of making money and getting ahead.
“He had to pay for that, and his family had to pay, but it couldn’t be helped. The old man was made that way, and I don’t think it ever once entered his head to do otherwise or live otherwise than as he did.”
Farewell, old comrade and friend!
Johnnie Byrne, Tom Cashman’s partner, has drawn my attention to errors in my obituary of Tom in the Solidarity 333.
Firstly, Tom did not reject the offer of a job in the T&G or Unite. No such offer was ever made. Tom did apply latterly for a job with the T&G but was rejected on the spurious grounds of “lack of experience”. Johnnie commented: “For most of his life, he refused to entertain the possibility of a job in the union… and in truth, his principles were such that he was unlikely to have been offered one.”
Secondly, Tom was not involved in “a plan that kept union organisation on London buses going after privatisation.” Rather “[Tom and Graham Stevenson] had a major part in organising the rest of the country, outside London, back into some kind of national collective bargaining after the break-up of the National Bus Company. This achievement was no less great because they to some extent failed in London.”
Their strategy was to organise the privatised bus companies in the Passenger Transport Trade group in the T&G, cutting across regional boundaries, largely by setting up National Liaison Committees, and to preserve and extend lay member democracy in the union.