Jack Henning, California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Emeritus, 1915-2009
Passing of a Lion of the Labor Movement
Longtime California labor leader Jack Henning died today at his home in San Francisco. He served as executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO for 26 years before his retirement in 1996.
“Jack was a lion of a man and a great labor leader,” said California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski. “His vision and his
magnificent oratory inspired several generations of union activists.”
He was an iconic figure of the American labor movement, an extraordinary man
with a brilliant mind and a deep commitment to working people. He was always
the first to stand for social justice and the strongest voice for the underprivileged.
Henning's leadership produced some of the great milestones in California labor
history. Almost immediately after his election to the top office of the state AFLCIO,
he joined the struggles of the United Farm Workers, campaigning
successfully for passage of the historic Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.
He led the campaign to restore Cal-OSHA in 1988 a year after it was abolished
by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, and spearheaded a successful drive to reform
the state’s worker’s compensation system.
“His commitment to global unionism and anti-racism were ahead of his time, and
he never hid from a good fight,” Pulaski said. “He led the labor movement at
times of great growth and opportunity, and through challenging times as well.
There will be a silence where his voice once was heard, and he will be dearly
The man whose oratory and commanding bearing came to symbolize the
California labor movement was born in 1915, the son of a charter member of the
Plumbers union. His father’s three-foot steamfitter’s pipe wrench, now copper2
plated, adorned his office for decades. His mother’s father was an early member
of the famous Teamster Local 85.
He was a man of remarkable and convincing presence. His speeches were, in a
word—spellbinding. Enthralled union conventioneers would rise to their feet
cheering, matching the crescendo of Jack Henning’s voice.
He was the father of seven children, 12 grandchildren and six greatgrandchildren.
His wife Betty passed in 1994.
Henning was 7 when San Francisco building trades unions were crushed in the
post-World War I anti-labor movement and his father was thrown out of work for
nearly a year. He began his successful career in the labor movement in 1938
while working with the Association of Catholic Unionists in San Francisco. That
same year he joined his first union, the United Federal Workers of the CIO not
long after graduation from St. Mary’s College. Later he was a member of the
Boilermakers in San Francisco. He became administrative assistant to C.J.
Haggerty, then head of the California Labor Federation, AFL of L, in 1949, and
frequently represented the Federation before state commissions and regulatory
Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown named Henning director of the state Department of
Industrial Relations in 1959. Three years later, he was summoned to Washington
by President John F. Kennedy where he served until 1967 as United States
Undersecretary of Labor. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Henning as U.S.
ambassador to New Zealand, where he served through 1969. He returned to the
California Labor Federation and was elected executive secretary-treasurer in
1970 to succeed Tommy Pitts as principal officer of the state AFL-CIO.
While at the helm of the California Labor Federation for 26 years, Henning was
faced with an 18-year reign of Republican governors. Despite the odds, he
produced legislative gains that amassed nearly $4.2 billion for the state’s
worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance and unemployment disability
insurance programs, benefiting millions of California workers—a remarkable
His influence was reflected in progressive legislation that brought broad
improvements in working conditions, the minimum wage, women’s rights, labor
standards enforcement, low-income housing, consumer protection, safety and
health standards, education, and child labor laws.
He led battles in the Legislature that produced advances in collective bargaining
rights for all workers employed by public agencies encompassing employees of
cities, counties and the state; for teachers and public school employees including
those of the University of California and California State University systems.
At the same time, he defended workers against employer assaults on their rights
and established gains, such as attempts to destroy the 8 hour day standard, eliminate prevailing wage requirements, erode job safety protections, privatize
work in government and education, reduce social insurance benefits, impose a
school voucher system, abolish teachers’ tenure and the endless anti-union
pursuit to make California a “right-to-work” state.
His work in the labor movement was considered by many as an expression of his
progressive ideals engaged in class warfare against the chilling influence of
conservatives, reactionaries, right-wingers and constant corporate assault on
workers, the poor and the disadvantaged.
He served 12 years as a Regent of the University of California where he fought
for affirmative action and led the successful fight to have the university divest in
apartheid South Africa. His public service included numerous boards and
commissions, community and church positions. Henning was a recipient of the
1986 Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He was awarded honorary
doctorates by St. Anselm’s College, St. Bonaventure University, and St. Mary’s
While he was noted for visionary speeches and writings, Henning also stressed
the basics of trade unionism throughout his stewardship. “I believe strongly in
social unionism. We begin with the fundamentals of wages, hours and conditions,
employment. However, the very nature of labor organization brings the
movement into the areas of social change, to concern with seniors, with race
discrimination, with housing, with unemployment—issues that go beyond the
During his speech at the 1996 Federation convention, Henning delivered a
thundering defense of political liberalism that was his farewell address after 26
years as executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. The
loudest, longest cheers followed Henning’s closing words:
“And 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.”