Eugene union rep Rick Henson, 62, retired July 11 after a union career spanning four decades and three unions.
Henson grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and decided early on that he wanted to move to Oregon. After a stint in Job Corps and a Carpenters apprenticeship in San Jose, he made it to Eugene in 1972, and worked framing houses and doing residential remodels. He took a job as a carpenter at Lane County Housing Authority in 1974, and became a member of AFSCME Local 2831. When the local needed a rep from his job classification on the bargaining team, Henson got involved, and found he had a knack for bargaining. He ran and was elected president of the local, and got active in the Lane County Labor Council.
In 1988, 300 members of the Western Council of Industrial Workers went on strike at Springfield’s Morgan-Nicolai door factory, and Henson threw himself into solidarity efforts on their behalf, even traveling to the company headquarters in Oshkosh to protest. The strike ended with the closure of the plant two years later, but the community support network that had grown up around it kept going in the form of the Eugene-Springfield Solidarity Network, a local chapter of Jobs With Justice.
Henson was laid off by the Housing Authority, and in 1990 went to work as a union representative for Service Employees International Union Local 49 — the Portland-based union of hospital support workers and janitors. He was lead negotiator for the support staff bargaining unit at Kaiser Permanente locations from Longview to Salem. When Kaiser demanded that Local 49 members start paying a $80-a-month share of the health insurance premium, he helped lead a 26-day strike in September 1997.
“The employer was trying to lean on the lowest-paid workers and try and force them to pay more than higher-paid workers for health care,” Henson says.
In the end, Kaiser backed off its premium demand, and members went back to work.
Henson succeeded Local 49 secretary-treasurer Tom Cunningham, and served a three-year term, but lost reelection in 2000 to Kaiser employee Don Weston.
Oregon AFSCME Executive Director Ken Allen offered Henson a job. Henson remained on staff at Oregon AFSCME 14 years, commuting to the Portland office, and served as the state field services director for four years. When longtime Eugene AFSCME rep Lou Sinniger retired in 2010, Henson left that post to take a position working out of Eugene. He served as president of the Lane County Labor Council.
Henson looks back at many years of involvement in campaigns worth fighting for, including the Kaiser strike, pay equity changes at Lane County, and a union arbitration at the City of Eugene that won over $1 million for members.
“[As a union rep] you don’t win every fight, but you keep going, to help improve working peoples lives,” Henson said. “Folks should take on the big fights and not be afraid of them, because the things we’re fighting for are worthwhile.”
In retirement, Henson has a long list of to-dos, including rehabbing a 32-foot boat, and working on fences, rock walls, and terraced hillsides on his property. He’ll also join his wife, Pat Riggs-Henson, in the AFSCME Retirees chapter. Riggs-Henson, a longtime activist in AFSCME Local 2831, retired in 2010 after 31 years at Lane County and now serves as an elected member of the Springfield Utility Board. Together 30 years, they have four adult children (one deceased), five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They’ll continue to be involved in the Lane County Labor Council and in local community campaigns.
Portland-based AFSCME staff rep JaNell Earley will transfer to Eugene to take over Henson’s assignments. Earley most recently worked with Local 88 (Multnomah County).