Tom Cashman has died of a brain tumour aged 64. He was a life-long socialist and militant trade union activist, who had a long connection to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and its predecessors.
Tom came from a family in Wallasey on Merseyside with Irish roots and labour movement involvement. He joined Workers’ Fight (precursor of the AWL) in 1973 while a student at Middlesex Polytechnic and subsequently recruited his brothers Mick, Tony and Peter and briefly his sister Liz.
Unusually for student leftists at that time, Tom was already working in the Labour Party and was an early member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. He was also active in Irish solidarity work in the 70s, particularly in WF’s critical intervention in the Troops Out Movement.
For most of his working life Tom worked as a bus driver, mostly in Surrey. He built up a base in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), paying close attention to workplace issues. He went from being a garage rep to chair of the Central Bus Committee and then on to various national passenger transport committees in the union. He was one of two key people who devised the plan that kept union organisation on London buses going after privatisation. He was elected to the General Executive Council of the TGWU in the early 90s as part of the United Left, was on the joint executive negotiating the merger with Amicus, and re-elected in the new union Unite.
Tom did not abandon his principles as he took on these positions. He rejected the offer of a job in the union, which would have been better paid and better for his health, as he believed that lay members not officials should control the union and that to represent his co-workers he had to stay “on the job”.
He also fought for his politics openly and without concern that they would bring him into conflict with the mainstream left in the union — one example being his consistent opposition to anti-EU left nationalism, which he spoke against at one TGWU Conference. That reflects Tom’s personality — that he always stated his views, bluntly and without diplomacy but with no personal malice. He was always prepared to have the argument even if he was in a minority but difficult to convince if he did not agree.
Though Tom did not remain in the AWL, he remained friendly to AWL comrades and acted as a valuable source of advice and information on labour movement issues. The independent working class politics he preached over 40 years drew on the group’s ideas. His great strength was to fuse those ideas with a serious and practical orientation to the labour movement. That made him more than either a trade union militant or a propagandist left activist. Tom persisted with his activism and involvement in the class struggle to the end of his life having made his commitment at a young age. We should take his life as an example.
This brief sketch cannot do full justice to Tom’s life and contribution. Solidarity will carry a further article in the next issue and welcomes contributions from others who knew him.
We send our condolences to his partner Johnnie, his daughter Ruth, his family, friends and comrades.
Tom Cashman was, quite simply, one of the finest and most principle 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 naïve young IS'er 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. 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 wile 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!