Bill Kaessinger, an anti-racist unionist and Workers World activist spanning three decades, beginning in the 1960s, died in Norwich, N.Y., on Jan. 13 after a long illness.
Born Aug. 19, 1933, in New Jersey, Kaessinger was introduced to progressive politics at the dinner table. Not only was his dad a railroad worker and staunch unionist, but his mom lodged and fed men on their way to fight fascism in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
As soon as Kaessinger was hired at RCA Globecom as a teletype operator in the early 1960s, he joined the American Communications Association, a progressive union affiliated with the CIO. Staunchly anti-racist, he was instrumental in getting the ASA to rent a bus so Black and white members could attend the 1963 March on Washington. Shortly after that, he joined Workers World Party members in the fight against racism in their Brooklyn neighborhood.
This working-class fighter played an unexpected but strategic role in an April 1966 demonstration when WW’s youth group, Youth Against War and Fascism, dared to take its anti-war message right to Wall Street. Because RCA was around the corner, Kaessinger decided to check out the picket line on his lunch hour. When he saw the line surrounded by a huge pro-war crowd and one heckler set to charge the line, he jumped in and clocked him. One YAWF activist remembers the heckler whining, “Hey, I thought you guys were pacifists.” The attackers backed off after that.
“It was always a comfort to be on a demonstration with Bill Kaessinger,” WW managing editor John Catalinotto noted, “because you knew he always had your back. Actually, he was most likely in front of you taking on the class enemy.”
Active as a shop steward, Kaessinger played a decisive role as a member of the four-person strike control committee (which had two Black and two white members) during a 103-day strike from November 1969 to January 1970. In preparation for the strike for higher wages, ASA affiliated with Teamsters Local 10 to have more clout at the bargaining table.
At the first negotiating meeting, an RCA vice president put the company’s proposed contract on the table and told the union to take it or leave it. But Local 10, using civil disobedience and creative tactics like marching around Wall Street during the holidays carrying a casket labeled “collective bargaining,” forced RCA to come to the table.
“Bill showed real militancy as a strike leader,” recalled Milt Neidenberg, retired member of Teamster Local 840 and a WW founding member. After that, Kaessinger was elected vice president of Local 10, a job he shared alternating years with Ali Rashid, one of the Black members of the strike control committee.
In the early 1970s, Kaessinger helped found the Center for Union Labor Action, whose slogan was “If you don’t have a union, fight to get one. If you have a union, fight to make it fight.” Newly recruited WW members who worked in auto assembly plants in New Jersey and Michigan and in New York City hospitals, libraries, subways and the phone company were eager to push the labor movement to the left.
Among CULA’s many campaigns was one that, in 1973, is credited with being the first to advance women’s rights on the job. Two CULA members who worked in the sex-segregated job of telephone operators fought and won an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission class-action suit. The Bell System was forced to pay the many women operators about $40 million in unpaid wages and to set up affirmative action programs for hiring and promoting women, particularly women of color, into jobs from which they had been excluded. Later CULA won a campaign for paid disability leave for pregnant women in New York state.
Not only did CULA provide vital strike support for workers as diverse as department store clerks, farm laborers and gravediggers, but it also fought utility rate hikes. “I will always remember Bill speaking as both a party member and Local 10 rep telling off Con Edison and other corporate powers,” noted Hillel Cohen, who often organized WW participation in public hearings.
In addition to setting type for Workers World newspaper as a volunteer after a full day’s work, Bill Kaessinger helped build WWP during the crucial first decades after its founding. He will long be remembered for his many contributions to the revolutionary struggle. Bill Kaessinger presente!
Thanks to Mary Pinotti-Kaessinger and Milt Neidenberg for interviews that provided information for this obituary.