"How did a union of health care workers founded in New York City by
radical Russian immigrants and composed primarily of Black and Hispanic
women gain a powerful foothold in Appalachia despite determined
opposition from employers and national and state politicians, as well as
the impact of the consolidation of the hospital industry?
John Hennen tells this inspiring story in a way that speaks directly to our current
moment, when a long era of declining union power may be coming to an end."
Eric Foner, PhD
Dewitt Professor Emeritus of History
Author and historian John Hennen was born in Huntington, West Virginia in 1951, and educated in Huntington’s public schools. During his formative years, Huntington was a thriving industrial city with a diverse and heavily unionized economy. It was only retrospectively that Hennen realized how the labor movement was at the foundation of the city’s vibrant civic life and how its citizens, whether from a union household or not, benefited from the city’s union density.
His father, a local banker, largely made his living by structuring home loans for Huntington’s industrial workers, whose union contracts provided them with the means to buy homes and subsidize Huntington’s model youth recreational programs.
Hennen’s mother, whose own mother was widowed on the eve of the Great Depression, struggled like millions of others to survive the 1930s. She once told him that her life during the Depression made her a socialist. His understanding of class relations at the time was about what you would expect from a White middle-class twelve-year old during the Cold War. Later, he developed an appreciation that his mother was expressing her belief in the principles of the Social gospel, or Christian Socialism, not any political dogma. As a teenager, an older sister introduced him to the local civil rights movement, and this awakened in him an awareness of both overt and systemic racism in the city. Over the next few decades, he integrated a commitment to social, economic, and environmental justice issues with his academic pursuits. An early chapter of A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers describes the dynamics of the sometime tumultuous environment in Huntington during the 1960s and 1970s. Civil rights leader Phil Carter has identified these years as the seedbed for Hennen’s later work as a
During a checkered undergraduate career between 1969-1975, Hennen, unburdened by the crushing debt which accompanies a college education now (in 1970, for example, his tuition costs at Marshall University were less than $10 per class hour), was able to occasionally suspend his formal education and earn a few dollars working as a janitor. In this work, he learned firsthand about the economic insecurity faced by some of the city’s poor non-union workers. His co-workers, male and female, Black and White, were not cleaning floors and toilets in order to experience something new like he was; they were working to live.
In addition to low tuition, by early 1970 the eighteen year-old Hennen was not facing the likelihood of being shipped off to Vietnam, having drawn a securely high number in the new draft lottery. Although student deferments were abolished, the literal luck of the draw insulated him from having to face the decisions that other young men dealt with. His marginal involvement in Marshall’s campus antiwar movement continued, but without the urgency of being thrown into the maelstrom of the war.
Hennen finally finished his undergraduate work in 1975 after enrolling at West Virginia University for two years. His interest in academic history was flourishing, but the notion of graduate school in the field had not taken hold, although he held the possibility in reserve. Like many of his contemporaries with the same advantages as he (college degree, no serious debt, no danger of going to war,) he embarked on a decade-long experiment in deciding “How to Make a Living.” This journey, simultaneously liberating and depressing, carried him through a hodge-podge of work experiences (restaurant work, house painting, sign painter in training, landscape labor) and living arrangements. In his early thirties, still attracted to but tiring of the inherent instability of this way of life, Hennen began graduate work at Marshall, this time with a true commitment to studying history.
As a graduate assistant, he was offered the chance to conduct oral history interviews with local Vietnam veterans. Here he learned to appreciate the complexities of the soldier’s life in Vietnam and its aftermath. The class realities that had favored middle-class American college students, and the class and racial inequities of the Vietnam era more generally, impressed themselves upon him and shaped a more mature value system. He continued his graduate work through an MA at Marshall and a PhD from West Virginia University (1993), and since then has compiled a body of research and writing with a major emphasis on Appalachian working-class history. Visitors can refer to Hennen’s vita for specifics.