Labor - And A Whole Lot More

The Lifelong Crusade of Jack Henning
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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 them.

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 powerhouses.

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 civil rights.

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 leaders, as 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 objections.

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 Kuwait."

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."


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 Street....

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 destiny....

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 of Capitalism

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 capitalism....

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 liberalism.

Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister