The Disability Justice and Rights Caucus of Workers World Party (WWP) sadly announces the passing of our magnificent leader, Mary Pinotti Kaessinger, on March 14, 2023, at the age of 77.
Mary Pinotti first became politically aware in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement and the movement to protest U.S. imperialism’s war against the Vietnamese people. After transferring from a college in Evanston, Illinois, to the much more militant campus at Berkeley, California, she participated in the five-day “Stop the Draft Week” protests being held in front of the Oakland Induction Center.
Ronald Reagan was governor of California at that time. He, along with the entire U.S. ruling class, launched a crusade against the heroes of the Black Liberation struggle, the Black Panther Party. Panther leader Huey P. Newton was in jail awaiting trial on trumped-up charges. Mary supported many marches in defense of Huey and the other Panthers, who were being attacked, jailed and killed. Huey was acquitted because of the people’s struggle. When the police then turned on Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, Mary sat in a vigil one night to keep the police out of his house.
Mary then moved to New York City, where she became active in the surging women’s liberation movement. She took part in disrupting the “Miss America Pageant” in Atlantic City, New Jersey, dumping garbage cans on the pageant site to protest its sexist portrayal of women.
At that time, WWP and its youth group Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF) were doing a lot of prisoner defense work. This is how Mary met Veronica Golos and became very active in solidarity work.
YAWF Women had a magazine called “Battle Acts.” One of their slogans was “Bail is Ransom for the Poor,” and they wanted to do something practical to help women. They started to raise money for bail, forming the “Women’s Bail Fund” and getting lawyers for women prisoners and places for them to stay when they got out. They organized many marches around New York City’s Women’s House of Detention between 1970 and 1972, chanting solidarity messages to the women behind the walls. Mary was a founder and one of the leaders of the Women’s Bail Fund.
Mary the union organizer
One day Mary, while taking part in a prisoner support demonstration at 100 Centre Street, saw Bill Kaessinger there with the YAWF banner. The rest is history. When Mary expressed an interest in union organizing, Comrade Bill said his union was doing some and to call the union office. Bill had led a successful 103-day strike at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1969-1970. Mary and Bill eventually married.The Teamster division that Bill belonged to was organizing at Continental Insurance Company. Mary got a job at Continental and tried to organize. When they were not successful and Mary got fired, she got a job at an organized plant at RCA and became a member of Teamsters Local 10.
Within two years, Mary became a Teamster shop steward. Later, when she had earned the trust of the Executive Board, she became editor of the quarterly union newspaper and head of the Safety Committee, where the critical issue was asbestos. Mary then became a “wireman,” now known as an electrician — the first woman in two generations to hold that job; an Indigenous woman in California had first achieved that position. Mary answered the question for all her union members: In her own words, “Can a woman do a man’s job? You bet!”
In 1970, Mary joined Bill, Veronica and other comrades as members of Workers World Party.
Along with other party members, including Gavrielle Gemma, Sue Steinman and Kathy Dennis, Mary went to Chicago in 1974 for the founding meeting of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). Back in New York City, CLUW did organizing and strike support work. In 1978, Mary herself played an important role in a strike at RCA, which resulted in greatly improved members’ severance pay and other rights and benefits.
When WWP formed the Center for United Labor Action, Mary worked on various issues, including organizing the women telephone operators at “Ma Bell,” supporting striking cemetery workers in Jersey City, New Jersey, and supporting workers at the LNG (liquid natural gas) plant in Staten Island, after workers there had been killed in a gas explosion. The Center for United Labor Action popularized our party’s slogan, which is needed today more than ever: “If you don’t have a union, fight to get one. If you have a union, fight to make it fight.”
Becoming a disability rights activist
In the late 1980s, Mary was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because the disease is adversely affected by heat and because it causes unexpected fatigue, Bill and Mary moved to a colder, less stressful area of upstate New York, full of dairy farms. But they did not move from the struggle. They protested against fracking at the South Plymouth City Council.
After Bill died in 2013, Mary returned to New York City and became active in the movement there again. She proceeded to embed herself in the city’s disability justice and rights movement. She was elected to the Executive Board of Disability Pride NYC (DPNYC) as its Recording Secretary. DPNYC has organized Disability Pride parades in the city since 2015, the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is a civil rights law for disabled people, won through struggle.
Mary also became an organizer for the Peoples Metropolitan Transportation Authority, fighting for elevators in the city’s subway system — which still lacks elevators in more than three-quarters of its stations and lines. When an African American mother, Malaysia Goodson, was killed falling down the stairs of an inaccessible Manhattan station while trying to save her baby’s life, solidarity with Malaysia in the fight for mass transit access became the focus of monthly protests at hearings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Posting a sign with Malaysia’s photo on her trusty scooter, Mary left an MTA rally to scoot to a meeting of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities concerning that year’s Disability Pride parade. When then MTA Chair Joe Lhota said “No” to more elevators, and the Peoples MTA disrupted his speaking engagement at a city museum, the signal for starting the protest was given by General Mary Kaessinger raising her fedora. (For news story and video, see workers.org/2018/05/36896.)
Mary has given major talks on Disability Justice and Rights, representing the party at the National Council on Independent Living’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., and has written many disability rights articles for Workers World newspaper, which can be accessed here: workers.org/author/mary-p-kaessinger/.
In 2017, Mary gave an historic talk at the Workers World Party national conference: “Disability Rights: A working-class issue” at tinyurl.com/aun6p889
In 2020, Mary was elected an alternate delegate to the Workers World Central Committee by its Disability Justice and Rights Caucus (DJRC).
A fighter remembered
Some of Mary’s collaborators in the Disability Justice and Rights Struggle commented on her passing.
Parents to Improve School Transportation or P.I.S.T. posted: “Mary Kaessinger — a bold self advocate who always combined disability rights with workers’ rights — has passed away. Mary was a friend who kept PIST informed of the early NYC Disability Pride parade plans, and also brought us to meet the Flatbush Tenant Coalition (FTC) and the Spectrum strikers. Condolences to all who knew her, she will be missed.”
Disability Pride NYC posted: “With deep sadness we share the passing of Mary Kaessinger. Champion of disability justice and rights. Co-founder of the Coalition of Labor Women, Disability Pride NYC Board Member and a dear friend. As we grieve with this news, we share some of Mary’s writings here: workers.org/author/mary-p-kaessinger.”
Sasha Blair-Goldensohn of the Elevator Action Group of Rise and Resist said: “Mary was someone you could count on. To show up and listen before talking herself, but speak up when she felt the time was right. Quietly but firmly, making thoughtful points with a wry smile and gentle voice. We will miss her.”
Sasha told Workers World that Mary would have loved the March 29 MTA hearing protest rally and testimonies, which included fourth and fifth grade students marching to the rally from their integrated co-teaching class from the Earth School, a public school near Tompkins Square Park, where they are doing a social studies service learning unit about disability rights and activism. One-third of their class are students with an IEP (Individualized Education Program for Students with Disabilities).
Jean Ryan, President of Disabled in Action, wrote: “Mary was such a kind, gentle, funny, capable and determined person. She showed that in every interaction we had. She showed up to events and volunteered with a positive quiet fortitude. Since we both had mobility disabilities, we often talked about getting around our city. When we were talking about subway elevators, she said the worst was when she missed her own birthday party because three elevators were out of service. By then, she could ruefully smile about it, but she also was determined to see that the elevators were not neglected anymore.”
Nadina LaSpina, pioneer international Disability Justice and Rights Fighter, Author, and Educator and Grand Marshal of the NYC 2019 Disability Pride Parade, said: “Only Mary could be at the same time gentle and fierce, speak softly and demand firmly, hit the target with an arrow and a smile. Her activism was successful because it was unique.”
More class consciousness ‘in her little finger’
Betsy Piette, a managing editor of Workers World newspaper, related: “Decades ago, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Mary was on a panel focused on how the antiwar movement of that time needed to turn toward organizing the working class. The other panelists were all intellectuals from the university, many with degrees, who had written on the subject. Mary was the only woman and only true worker of the lot.
“The men tended to try to shut her out when she spoke, until Workers World Party founding member and militant Steelworkers Union leader Comrade Vince Copeland, who was in the audience among other comrades, stood up and lambasted them, saying, ‘Mary has more understanding of the class struggle in her little finger than the rest of you combined.’ Needless to say, the audience cheered.”
Susy Kaessinger, Mary’s stepdaughter and closest relative who splendidly managed her care, is planning a future virtual memorial in Mary’s honor. The Disability Justice and Rights Caucus of Workers World Party (DJRC) is hosting its monthly Second Sunday Dialogue on Sunday, April 9, at 7:00 p.m. EDT to honor Mary and show videos of Mary’s speaking and leading protests. To receive more information or to receive the zoom link for the April 9 meeting or to contribute your comments about Mary to “Reminiscences of Mary Pinotti-Kaessinger,” which the DJRC is compiling, please email [email protected].
Mary is also survived by her sister Anne and her other stepdaughter Amber.
All of us — who miss so much Mary’s training on the strategy of “being nice as a weapon” to promote the struggle for justice and rights for workers and oppressed peoples — can best honor Mary’s awesome spirit and legacy by heeding the last words said 108 years ago by another great fighter and labor organizer, Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”
Much of the biographical information in this obituary was provided by Mary herself, in an interview with Edward Yudelovich of the DJRC, after Mary moved back to New York City.