Say Farewell, Jack Henning

Ten years ago, the head of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, John Nkadimeng, traveled to America. Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and his African National Congress, allied to the union, was considered a terrorist organization by the apartheid regime as well as in the corridors of power in Reagan's Washington.When Nkadimeng landed in America, his first stop was to the California Labor Federation's San Francisco office to thank John F. Henning. News of Henning's action as regent of the University of California had traveled back to Africa and lifted the morale of the exiled anti-apartheid opposition. Cooperating with student and faculty demonstrators on the campuses, Henning had convinced a majority of his fellow regents to force the university to divest millions of dollars from companies doing business in South Africa.In less than a decade, Mandela was released, apartheid was overthrown and South Africa labor leaders such as Nkadimeng were honored guests at Henning's AFL-CIO conventions. What happened in South Africa, says Henning, is just one example of the kind of world sweeping change that can come about when workers unite.Widely known as the voice of conscience in the American labor movement, Henning rose to fame in politics as undersecretary of labor and ambassador to New Zealand under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.In the early 1970s, he started logging time in California--especially in Sacramento--as head of the state's AFL-CIO. If California's unions have a reputation for independence and progressive politics and for challenging national policies from Washington, Henning was a big part of the reason why.Now Henning, 80, has announced that he's retiring from active union duty. Though he doesn't officially step down until July, his preparations for leaving already mark the end of an era. The Sacramento News & Review interviewed him recently in his San Francisco office.Question: There aren't a lot of labor leaders who speak out about issues of race as much as you do. What makes you feel that race is so important?Jack Henning: I know that some might not like my answer, but it's because of religion. I'm not a model for any religion, but I think you have to accept the nobility of the human person if you really commit yourself to a basic religious belief. And the abuse of that nobility is something that should be protested, aside from economic discrimination and the deprivations which minority people suffer in housing and health. Now, one doesn't have to believe in religion to believe in the nobility of the human person. But in my heart, that's what struck me. How can people who profess to believe in Christianity or Judaism or whatever ignore the plight of their fellow human beings who are suffering because of their ethnic identity?Question: You were an official in the Kennedy administration during the civil rights movement. Did that have a big impact on the way you thought?JH: To me, the civil rights movement was the fulfillment of ideas I had years before. I'm not pretending that I had these ideas from birth, but I did have them long before the civil rights movement. I was a believer in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers. They were very strong on racial equality, and peace, and other issues like that. On the masthead of her paper, there was a black person and a white person shaking hands. So I looked on the 1960s under Kennedy and Johnson as the fulfillment of what millions had hoped for.Question: Where do you get your politics from?JH: My first great hero was Eugene Debs [a radical socialist and trade unionist of the turn of the century]. I felt the union movement had to be a truly liberal and progressive force, about something more than wages and hours. Men and women don't join unions to build a better America. They don't join for peace in the world. They join for bread and butter on the table at home. However, there is a contagious momentum in the labor movement if it is liberal. Those who join without a thought of the social purposes of unions are affected by this higher purpose. Not all, but enough so that in our time the liberal ideology prevails strongly in the labor movement. I've felt that social unionism had to be the continuing gospel of our movement. Otherwise, it would be one more materialistic force in our society, without any respect for the social dimensions of human existence.Question: People today seem to be moving in the opposite direction, especially with the Republican majority in Congress. Do you think we're going through a big sea change in the political thinking of people in this country?JH: Liberal belief and liberal thought can be corrupted by the purely materialistic forces that control how our ideas are shaped. The newspapers, radio and television are owned by forces that would exploit us. They are the voice of corporate America. The school system is influenced by those who direct the schools. The Board of Regents of the University of California is an assembly, for example, of those who have so much, compared with those who have little. These are the forces which influence the minds of workers and the middle class ... and I believe there's an ebb and a flow to it. There are also other forces which have weakened our strength. Technological advances. The Longshoremen's union is only a shell of what it once was. Automation decimated the workforce ... American capital uses foreign ships that fly American flags. The advancing genius of changes in production work against workers, especially the unskilled.Question: AT&T recently announced it was eliminating 40,000 jobs, 4,500 in Northern California. Safeway is consolidating, laying off hundreds more. And all of these companies are profitable--none are in any danger of going broke. Why isn't there more protest?JH: Well, the import policies of American capital, which lower the barriers to this country so that companies can gain access to foreign markets, have also weakened unions. It's the power of a small number of people to decide the fate of thousands and thousands. Capitalism was never designed for workers. They're essential to its existence, but the system wasn't made for them. It was designed for the profit of those who have the capital. So we have to expect this. We have to educate the American workforce on the evils of capitalism ... If one speaks of being anti-capitalist, the opposition thinks of a bomb-throwing radical. People refuse to discuss the issue of whether it's a good, moral system, or a system built for predators. I think we have to convince unions that capitalists do not have the right to sit down at a board meeting and decide they're going to eliminate 40,000 jobs. Society itself should not allow it. But we're a long way, unfortunately, from seeing that day.Question: Do you see the possibility of a resurgence of unions?JH: I hate to say that when workers have suffered enough, they will at last rise in rebellion. But the Gingrich crowd have given us a symbol of the worst parts of the system, and they may arouse violent protest. The union movement is ready to track down these people who are out to destroy workers' rights, and the rights of the aged and the young. Gingrich, by his very presence, is inflaming the hearts of the working people.Question: What's the key to using that?JH: There are only two forces that can stop the march of reaction. One's the labor movement, and the other's political liberalism. I like to think we are doing our part. We had a national telephone conference with the office of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, reviewing the critical congressional races in various states. I hope the leaders of the Democratic Party understand that their only hope of a return to power is through the alignment of labor and liberal forces throughout the country.Question: Are you putting on hold for the moment the hopes that labor might have its own party or political organization?JH: No. They will soon be holding the first convention of a national labor party. I think it's essential for two reasons. It will stir the conscience of the labor movement, making it more aware of its political duties, and it will also eliminate the Democrats' conservative positions. There has to be an independent, separatist force goading the Democratic Party. We do our best, but the party looks on us as an institutional ally that will always be there, no matter how they fail the labor movement or liberal America. The Democrats can't return to power by holding such contemptuous positions. So I don't think we can abandon the labor party idea. It lifts the social ambitions and idealism of the labor movement itself, and it will influence the Democratic Party.Question: What about the minimum wage initiative? The AFL-CIO is helping to put it on the California ballot in November. Why?JH: Because we have no hope and no trust in the government agency that has the responsibility to keep the minimum wage at the level that can meet workers' needs. ... The Industrial Welfare Commission is a five-member body initiated by Gov. Hiram Johnson, a liberal Republican, in 1913. ... With the Republican governors of recent years, the public member has always been anti-labor. As a result, we haven't been able to move them to meet the survival needs of the working people. The minimum wage is not enough to raise a family of two above the poverty standard of the federal government. This isn't according to the labor movement. This is the figure of the national government, under both Clinton and the Republicans. We have no hope in getting the minimum wage raised from $4.25 an hour from this commission. So we are putting a measure on the ballot. It would raise the wage the first year, in 1997, from $4.25 to $5, and then from $5 to $5.75 in the second year. It's the only way we can go.Question: What do the Republicans have in mind with measures like Proposition 187 and the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative?JH: I think these initiatives have had a destructive influence, because they appeal to the worst instincts of voters, whether they're Republican or Democrat. Their efforts are in line with Republican thought, but the race issue is a sensitive one throughout our culture. While we've known progress in the past 40 years, there are still those who judge their fellow Americans by the color of their skin pigment, and the Republicans are appealing to that, whether the pigment is brown, in the case of 187, or black, in the case of affirmative action. Question: You've been executive secretary-treasurer of the state federation through a succession of governors. What do you think about the quality of the political leaders we've had in California?JH: I would say that the Republican governors have been barren of any social sense. That is not to say that they've refused to make any accommodations with liberal demands. But their instincts are conservative, so I've never seen much hope coming from them. The two Democratic governors we've had since 1958, Pat Brown and his son, gave us the only liberal direction we've known in the last 40 years. Now it is true, when Governor Deukmejian took a stand against apartheid on the [UC] Board of Regents and voted to override the Reagan appointees, we won divestment. There are those occasional bursts of liberal thought, but they're quite rare. Earl Warren was another thing. He was never as liberal as governor as he was when he became a completely free man on the Supreme Court. But he became one of the great chief justices in our history. He prevailed when the challenges came to the civil rights laws in the 1960s. What's been the impact of free trade and agreements like NAFTA on the workers of California? Look at the shift in the balance of trade between the U.S. and Mexico. It's overwhelmingly now in favor of Mexico. Goods pour in from American plants below the border, exploiting the Mexican workforce, shipping those goods into the U.S. There's been more social turbulence in the last few years than there has been for generations, and it's shaken the Mexican labor movement. The presidential succession in Mexico has been disrupted by the economic difficulties, and the workers are in a terrible period of deprivation. That's why American capital moved there. They didn't do it to improve the life of the Mexican worker. I'm not contending that it can all be assigned to NAFTA, but NAFTA has been a part of it.Question: What kind of response is labor developing to meet this situation?JH: I think there's a realization that the solution is mainly political. We have to have laws that prevent us from being the victim of trade agreements. We can't solve this problem as the trade union movement alone. I don't urge isolationism. We can't live alone. But we need to curb the advances of American capital. I don't think we're going to solve that without a very liberal government in the United States that's sensitive to our economic needs. We have to move politically.Question: How do you see the new leadership of the AFL-CIO?JH: Well, the institutions which survive the test of history are given to slow movement. But I think we have come to a point of real change in the national AFL-CIO. I don't see dramatic change, but I see a more liberal view in foreign policy. ... I think there will be a movement toward more militancy on the domestic front in job action. ... Solidarity has to be translated into positive action. The farmworkers, in their rise to power, impressed the American people with the techniques they used. They marched and they boycotted, and they did it in a very idealistic way. I'm all for that.


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