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Standing Oration

Crowd on Its Feet to Honor Retiring Labor Leader and Master Speaker


In Jack Henning's hands, the microphone has always been an incendiary device.

As California's top labor leader for the last 26 years, he has gained near-legendary status for his passion as a public speaker, thundering from the political left against what he regards as the scourge of unbridled capitalism.

As an orator on labor issues, "nobody comes close to him," said Miguel Contreras, the union chief for Los Angeles County.

But on Tuesday, 80-year-old John F. "Jack" Henning bid an emotional goodbye to his union brothers and sisters and his bully pulpit, retiring as executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

He is being replaced by San Mateo County union head Art Pulaski, 43. While lacking Henning's speaking flair, Pulaski is expected to modernize and energize the political apparatus of the state labor federation.

Tuesday's farewell address at the federation's biennial convention in Los Angeles was a vintage fire-breathing performance for Henning. At one point, he called on those to his political right to go to any major U.S. city "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. . . . Let the defenders of the established order live with that moral outrage. Their day will come."

Henning is closing a public career that also included such positions as U.S. undersecretary of labor in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and ambassador to New Zealand.

Born in San Francisco, where he was raised in a union-minded blue-collar family, Henning earned a degree in English literature at St. Mary's College. After college, he did volunteer work for the Democratic Party. That led to a job with the food stamp program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and exemption from military service when World War II broke out.

Later in the 1940s, Henning held both union and management jobs at a pipe and steel plant in San Francisco. Then, in 1949, began the first of his two stints at the California Labor Federation, initially serving as a senior staffer.

Assessing his career in a recent interview, the white-haired Henning--his voice raspy from age but still deep--recalled the inspiration of serving in the Kennedy administration. "I never have known anything like the spirit . . . that motivated the people appointed by Kennedy," he said.

Henning also took special pride in his ambassadorial appointment by President Johnson. "Given my modest origins--my father was a plumber--I never dreamed I'd wind up an ambassador, which normally is reserved for millionaires," Henning said.

But after the arrival of the Nixon administration in 1969, Henning returned home from New Zealand and within a year took the helm of the California Labor Federation. He was elected to 13 consecutive two-year terms and never faced an opponent for the post, which currently pays $82,500 a year.

Henning regards a handful of the state federation's legislative and political victories as his greatest accomplishments.

First, he cited the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, a historic law that gave farm workers the right to bargain collectively. For his efforts in winning that legislation and for backing the United Farm Workers in its bloody battles with the Teamsters in the 1970s, Henning has long been praised by the UFW.

Henning also noted the labor federation-sponsored initiative campaign in 1988 that led to the reinstatement of Cal/OSHA, which regulates workplace safety and health for the state's workers.

Now Henning is hopeful that November will bring him a final major victory with another state ballot initiative: the labor-sponsored measure to boost the minimum wage from the current $4.25 an hour to $5.75.

Despite his general popularity in labor circles, Henning has drawn criticism on a variety of counts. Some union activists questioned whether he too readily put labor's political clout in the hands of longtime Assembly Speaker and current San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown instead of maintaining more independence to extract greater favors.

Henning has also been faulted for failing to either build a solid organization or delegate responsibilities, instead running the labor organization through the force of his own personality.

Some labor officials add that Henning has been out of touch with the times, slow to adopt new computer and telecommunications technology to modernize labor's operations. Said one official who asked not to be identified: "If Jack ever put a cell phone in his car, it would be rotary dial."

Henning's rejoinder is that he, in fact, has a cellular phone in his car but has used it only two or three times. "I'm not given to the fancies of the day," he said.

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