California lost a remarkable public figure with the death of John F. Henning on June 4 at age 93. Labor leader, government official, ambassador. Jack Henning had been all of those – and more – during a career that spanned many decades.
Eloquent, visionary, forceful, successful. He had been all of that, too, in what was a lifelong crusade 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 Jack Henning, a gifted 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 the tall, silver-haired Henning had the look and distinguished manner of a polished professional diplomat. He was of Irish decent, of course. One glance would have told you that.
Henning was born and raised in San Francisco, where his father was a union plumber. 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, and time spent as traveling secretary and administrative assistant to famed St. Mary’s football coach Slip Madigan.
Henning caught the attention of the AFL-CIO’s California Labor Federation through his work with an association of Catholic unionists trying to racially integrate San Francisco’s then segregated shipyard unions. That led to his appointment as the Federation’s research director in 1949. He held that post for a decade, meanwhile becoming active in the Democratic Party and in local political and civic affairs.
Henning left the Federation to serve as State Industrial Relations Director, later as undersecretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and, finally, as Johnson’s ambassador to New Zealand.
One of the very few working class ambassadors in U.S. history, he "was surely the most eminent 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, briefly as research director and then as Secretary Treasurer. That position alone made him one of the country’s most important labor leaders, but what made him particularly effective was his emphasis on union political activity.
He believed strongly, as he once told me, 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 then Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970 and retaining control for the next quarter-century.
And Henning, as organized labor’s chief lobbyist in Sacramento, helped push through thousands of bills that liberalized social insurance programs, strengthened job safety programs and otherwise helped workers, plus other legislation dealing with education, health, the environment, civil rights and other broader areas.
Thanks in large part to Henning, farmworkers and teachers and other public employees have union rights. He saw the granting of those rights, during Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, as his most important legislative victory – and rightly so.
Henning also performed valuable service in his dozen years as a Brown appointee to the University of California’s Board of Regents. He was instrumental, for example, in getting the university to divest itself of its investments in racist South Africa and in upholding UC’s affirmative action policies.
Henning’s concerns extended far beyond this country. He urged American unions to lead a "counter revolution" — to join with unions worldwide to develop a common strategy to deal with the multinational corporations that are seriously undermining the status of working people everywhere.
"Global unionism," Henning explained, "is the answer to global capitalism. There is no other answer."
He was asking a lot of the labor movement, but committed unionists can accomplish much more than you might think, for themselves and for many others. There’s never been better evidence of that than Jack Henning himself.
Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle Labor Correspondent, has covered labor and political issues in California for a half-century, Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com