I went to a funeral yesterday. I seem to be going to a lot of them these days. This one was a bit different, though: it was for a comrade who I hadn’t seen for over twenty years, but whose recent work as a T&G full-time official in the North West, organising migrant workers and other low-paid and vulnerable groups, had come to my attention so that I was planning to get back in touch when the news of his sudden death reached me. He died (aged just 48) with his boots on, so to speak: he was negotiating on behalf of the Salford refuse strikers when he collapsed.
I first met Mick Cashman in the late 1970′s when he was a leading light of the Wallasey Labour Party Young Socialists and a member of the International-Communist League (forerunner of the AWL). Like most of the young Wallasey comrades, Mick had a wicked sense of humour and enjoyed a drink. He wasn’t, perhaps, that interested in the finer points of socialist theory, but his commitment to the cause of working class emancipation and his hatred of injustice were unmistakeable.
Sometime in the 1980′s he dropped out of organised revolutionary politics and began to devote himself more to work within the T&G, where he was a well-respected activist and eventually became a full-time officer. But he never went over to the right, the soft-left, or that peculiar brand of semi-Stalinist careerism that infects the bureaucracy of so many unions.
Like many leading figures in the labour movement of the North West, Mick came from a Catholic family, and his funeral service was in a (packed) Catholic church, presided over by a priest, complete with incense and all the usual religious mumbo-jumbo. But the service was given some dignity by Mick’s brother Peter (himself an ASLEF activist) who, on the verge of breaking down in tears, delivered one of the most moving eulogies I have ever heard, starting with “This is the saddest and the proudest day of my life”, and going on to outline Mick’s achievents as a socialist and a trade unionist. We left the church to the strains of the ‘Internationale’.
But it was the wake afterwards that was the true memorial to Mick. The great and the good of the T&G (up to and including Woodley and Dromey) were, quite properly, there. More important, though, were the dozens of rank and file activists come to pay their respects, and a significant number of political comrades, past and present. That’s when it really came home to me that Mick’s life was worth far more than the religious mumbo-jumbo in the church: he’d been part of a great and noble movement that doesn’t need superstition or the false comfort of belief in an after-life, to vindicate itself. The comrades, some laughing, some crying, some doing both, were testimony to that. There were only two short speeches: elder brother Tom (a T&G exec member) told a rather good joke, describing his brother as “a worker-militant on a bureaucrat’s wage”; and Mick’s son read James Connolly’s poem “We Only Want the Earth”. There was nowhere in the world I would rather have been, and no people in the world I would rather have been with, at that moment.