Labor leader Jack Henning, the president of the state's AFL-CIO from 1970 to 1996 and the man credited with helping pass bills that gave farm workers and government employees the right to form unions and strike, died today at his home in San Francisco. He was 93. According to a press release from the California Labor Federation, Henning, a former U.S. undersecretary of labor and ambassador to New Zealand, was among the first American labor leaders to make opposition to racism a worker's rights cause.
The most significant change that developed in the world of organized labor during Henning's long California reign is that the most successful unions transformed from industrial outfits into lobbying organizations. His press-release obit reflects this. There's nothing like, "AFL-CIO organized Wal-Mart," or a warm remembrance of the how farm laborers gained a middle-class wage thanks to a statewide collective bargaining agreement.
Rather, the California union's homage of its long-serving chief is about advances achieved through statehouse, rather than workplace, politicking. In the 1930s, when Henning entered the labor movement, unions were, as a matter of economic fact, on the side of the little guy against big, often oppressive industrial organizations. In 2009, oppressive industrial organizations still abound. But the dramatic shift toward focusing on the public sector has blurred labor organizers' role as the everyman's friend. In Henning's home town of San Francisco, public sector union organizing has meant 2,450 city employees last year made more than $140,000, not including health and retirement benefits or deferred compensation.
To sustain this largesse, the city has had to cut programs for the poor, the mentally ill, the elderly and the drug addicted. It's hart to imagine this is what Henning would have wanted, or even that he'd agree that the choice between six-figure wages and benefits for the poor is valid.
But there's no denying that California's late 20th-century survival strategy has ended up making unions less threatening to industrial bosses, while pitting them against taxpayers and, in many cases, the common man.