California lost a remarkable public figure with the death
of Jack Henning on June 4 at age 93. Henning, properly John Francis Henning,
was not well known outside his base in California, but he was one of the most
effective labor leaders in U.S. history.
Labor leader was just one of Jack Henning's identities,
although it was an identity that was foremost in whatever he did. He also was at times a state official,
a federal official, an ambassador -- and more. Whatever his position, Henning
was an eloquent and forceful advocate, a powerful crusader in behalf of those
who do the work of the world and against the wealthy and privileged who exploit
Few leaders of any kind have been as liberal and
outspoken as Henning, a gifted, often spellbinding orator who had the rare
ability to sway people with words as well as deeds. And few leaders have ever
done more for ordinary people. He was tough, make no mistake. But Henning,
tall, trim, handsome, silver-haired, had the look, distinguished manner and
physical presence of a polished professional diplomat.
Henning was born and raised in San Francisco, where his
father was a charter member of the Plumbers Union. But though he shared the
working-class background of most union leaders of his generation, he was
unusual in also being a college graduate - St. Mary's 1938, with a degree in
English literature. Henning worked his way through college as traveling
secretary and administrative assistant to the coach of what were then St.
Mary's highly ranked football teams. Fans of football history should remember
the colorful coach -- Slip Madigan, who forged his teams at St. Mary's, a small
Christian Brothers college with less than 1,000 students, into national
Henning caught the attention of the AFL's California
Labor Federation through his work with an association of Catholic unionists who
were trying to racially integrate San Francisco's then segregated shipyard
unions. That led to Henning's
appointment in 1949 as the Federation's research director and administrative
assistant to the executive secretary-treasurer. Henning held that post for a
decade, meanwhile becoming highly active in the Democratic Party and in local
political and civic affairs.
Henning left the Federation post when Democratic Gov. Pat
Brown, another San Franciscan with an Irish-Catholic background, appointed him
State Industrial Relations Director, one of the most important positions in
Brown's cabinet. As director, Henning was especially helpful to the state's
badly treated farm workers, bringing their plight to the attention of news
reporters and others several years before the rise of Cesar Chavez and the
United Farm Workers.
Henning left the state job in 1962 when another
Irish-Catholic Democrat, President Kennedy (also, coincidentally, another
"John F."), appointed him Undersecretary of Labor. Henning held the
post under President Johnson after Kennedy's assassination, but was forced out
in 1967 by Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz after he and Henning, both of them
men with quite healthy egos, became embroiled in what was essentially a
personality conflict. The AFL-CIO and other labor groups put heavy pressure on
Johnson to retain Henning, but the president instead named him ambassador to
New Zealand, where a labor party was in power.
One of the very few working-class ambassadors in U.S.
history, Henning "was surely the most imminent and most successful
diplomat to ever grace our shores," a member of New Zealand's House of
Representatives declared after Henning lost the ambassadorship to an appointee
of President Nixon in 1969.
Henning returned to the Labor Federation, which had
become an AFL-CIO body after the two organizations merged in 1955. He served
briefly in his previous position as research director and then was elected to
the first of 13 consecutive two-year terms as executive secretary- treasurer.
The position alone, which he held until resigning in 1997, made Henning one of
the country's most important labor leaders, but what made him particularly
effective was his emphasis on union political activity. That, in fact, was the main reason for
his election. The Federation's leadership had become so politically inept that,
as State Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh quipped, "Labor couldn't get a
Mother's Day resolution passed."
Henning believed strongly that without politically
vigorous unions "we can realize neither the immediate objectives of the
trade union movement nor the ultimate good of society."
Henning led the Federation in efforts that had much to do
with labor-friendly Democrats wresting control of the State Legislature from
the Republican allies of virulently anti-labor Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970 and
retaining control for the next quarter-century. And as labor's chief lobbyist
in Sacramento, Henning played a major role in the passage of thousands of bills
that strengthened social insurance and job safety programs, child labor laws,
and women's employment rights, and otherwise helped workers -- plus other progressive legislation
dealing with education, health, the environment, consumer protections, and
Thanks in large part to Henning, California farm workers
and teachers and other public employees won union rights, setting important
precedents for the continuing efforts to win or strengthen such rights
nationwide. He considered the granting of those rights his most important
legislative victories - and rightly so.
Henning also performed valuable service in his 12 years
as a gubernatorial appointee to the University of California's Board of
Regents. He was a leader, for instance, in getting the university to divest
itself of investments in racist South Africa and in fending off heavy attacks
against UC's affirmative action policies.
Henning sometimes clashed with AFL-CIO President George
Meany and others in labor's national hierarchy over their conservative approach
to foreign affairs. As Henning said, they often equated dissent with
treason. The national
well as leaders of most other state labor federations, enthusiastically backed
the anti-Soviet Cold War policies of even such anti-union presidents as Richard
Nixon. But Henning and his fellow Federation leaders in California raised loud
Meany forced the Federation to withdraw its endorsement
of Democrat George McGovern for president in 1972, largely because of
McGovern's opposition to the war in Vietnam. Henning did get the AFL-CIO to
endorse a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze endorsed by California voters in
1982, even though the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Director, Irving Brown,
denounced it as a nefarious plot by "people on the other side."
Although nothing was said publicly, the AFL-CIO undoubtedly was unhappy with
the invariably liberal positions of Henning's federation on later matters of
war and peace, including the U.S. invasion of the Persian Gulf, in part to
defend the authoritarian regime that ruled oil-rich Kuwait. The AFL-CIO backed the U.S. in that
conflict, but Henning declared unequivocally that "it would be a crime
against history if any U.S. military man were ordered to die in the name of
The AFL-CIO has been in full agreement, however, with
Henning's call for U.S. unions to lead a "counter revolution" - to
join with unions worldwide to develop common strategies to deal with the
multinational corporations that are seriously undermining the status of workers
in all countries. Researchers and labor activists have been carrying on that
work for more than a decade at the University of California's appropriately
named John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations.
Jack Henning's countless efforts to guarantee fundamental
rights and a decent living to working people and their families everywhere
"will reverberate for generations to come," noted California
Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
"He'll always be remembered," said Senator
Edward Kennedy, "as one of
the true giants of the American labor movement."
Henning himself said, "If, by a suspension of the
laws of nature, I were young again, I would follow no other course, no other
flag but the flag of labor."
A HENNING SAMPLER
Jack Henning was a notably outspoken and forceful leader,
as this sampling from his writings and speeches should make clear.
On the Role of Labor
Although labor is no longer acknowledged as the principal
agent of social change in American society, it is the one progressive force
with the capacity to build a new and nobler nation. Labor teachings must be
honored if the nation is to enjoy liberal priorities, if the nation is to know
full employment, racial amity, academic freedom, adequate housing, decent
health and the social services of a contemporary state....
The labor movement must remain liberal if it is to
survive. We can argue about the definition of liberalism, but we know it as a
commitment to wages and hours and conditions of work that are worthy of the
human person and as a commitment to the service of all humanity....
It is our obligation to confine, to restrain, the abuses,
the encroachments of capitalism on our foreign policy and on our domestic
policy, to set the guidelines for the containment of capitalism, to keep it in
the position where it serves all of the people and not the criminals of Wall
We must be a fighting part of a movement that protects
the well-being of the masses and brings the wealthy to their knees and brings
them within the control of a democratic society....
We must develop a new militancy or retreat cowardly into
the mist of history....
Somehow we must save the nation from the failings that
have unsettled the faith of our youth and caused all the world to doubt our
We must protect the liberty of the individual - the one
dissenting man in our society....
The denial of freedom to the dissenter is the denial of
freedom to all....
We must protect the integrity of the environment and all
the other comparable areas which affect the living decency of man....
We must stand with those who often are scorned and
abandoned. We must stand with the poor, with those who know deprivation because
of skin or race or creed, with those who know deprivation because of the
blemishes of body or mind....
On Labor, Politics and the Nature
We hold the center of political life as if it was a
proper, respectable place to be. The center has done this to us: It has allowed
American capital to batter our membership down. We need the left in our minds
and in our institutions. The left can remove the barbarism of American
capitalism. The left means that government will be the liberal force that will
either humanize capital or shut it down....
Capitalism moves in collective fashion against all that
is essential to the existence of
our movement. Labor made the American working class and the American
middle class, and now capital feasts on the bones of the workers....
Go to any major city in the U.S. and see what capital has
done to the poor. See the centers of wealth and the mansions and the corporate
wealth. And then see the impoverished. Then see the homeless, beggars at the
table of wealth - that and nothing more. Let the defenders of the established
order live with that moral outrage. Their day will come....
Capitalism by its very nature has a primitive and
terrifying power. It was never designed for the advance of working people. It
was designed for the accumulation of profit by the entrepreneurs who direct
You can't bring the barbarians to book by the bargaining
table alone. You will bring them to book by democratic - small "d"
democratic - political action....
There are worthy individual employers, but capitalism
doesn't move with individual employers who are good or bad. It moves as a
collective -a collective always hostile to labor. The only way workers can
survive against this capitalistic onslaught is through unions and political
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister