Sidney Hillman (1887-1946), Lithuanian-born American labor leader, was a founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and an important figure in reshaping national labor and welfare legislation during the New Deal.
Sidney Hillman was born on March 23, 1887, in Z ˇ agare, into a middle-class Jewish family. In 1901 he was sent to a Jewish seminary to study for the rabbinate. However, a year of religious study convinced Hillman that his interests were primarily secular, and he became involved in the Jewish Bund, a radical workers' organization dedicated to trade unionism and socialism. The small part he played in the Russian Revolution of 1905 resulted in a 4-month prison term. Fearful of the postrevolutionary wave of repression, he left Russia for England, where he stayed briefly.
Early Union Career
Arriving in the United States in 1907, Hillman went to Chicago and became an apprentice fabric cutter for a men's clothing manufacturer. In 1910 he went out on strike with his fellow employees, and despite obstacles thrown up by the leaders of the United Garment Workers of America (UGWA), the workers won a notable victory.
Hillman's active participation in union affairs as business agent for the UGWA coat-makers' local in Chicago taught him that "Power is always seized, never bestowed." His success in building the Chicago local brought him to the attention of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), which called Hillman to New York in 1914 to serve as chief clerk of its arbitration machinery.
However, a revolt was brewing within the UGWA; the workers had grown dissatisfied with the conservative policies of the union's leaders. The revolt erupted in 1914, when the immigrant tailors seceded from the UGWA to form their own national organization. The rebels invited Hillman to become president; he readily accepted. The new union, known as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), was opposed by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) because it drew membership away from the UGWA, an AFL affiliate.
Despite its existence outside the mainstream of the labor movement, the ACWA flourished under Hillman's astute leadership. During the 1920s, when most American trade unions were foundering, the ACWA not only survived but also pioneered in a whole range of activities, from labor banks and unemployment insurance to cooperative housing projects and a Russian-American Industrial Corporation. The union also maintained an extensive education program for its members. These activities won Hillman a reputation as the "labor statesman." But even the labor statesman was unable to save his union from the ravages of the Great Depression, when membership and funds declined precipitously.
Hillman was prepared to grasp the opportunities opened to unions by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal labor legislation. Hillman rebuilt the membership and finances of the ACWA and then united with other labor leaders in an aggressive campaign to bring industrial unionism to the mass-production industries.
After finally winning membership in the AFL, the ACWA, led by Hillman, bolted in 1936, when the AFL refused to support the Committee on Industrial Organization's program for industrial unionism. When the committee became permanent as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938, Hillman was elected vice president. From 1937 to 1939 he was also chairman of the CIO's Textile Workers Organizing Committee. The massive industrial unions, under the guidance of such men as Hillman, David Dubinsky, and John L. Lewis, drastically altered the nature of labor-management relations and made organized labor a significant force in national politics.
In the 1930s Hillman shed the last remnants of his socialist background and became an ardent New Deal Democrat. But because he retained a broader social vision than most labor leaders and felt comfortable among intellectuals, he became a confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt. He served on Roosevelt's first labor advisory board (1933-1936). To guide socialist voters in New York into the Roosevelt camp in the 1936 presidential election, Hillman helped establish the American Labor party, a sort of halfway house between the Socialist and Democratic parties.
In gratitude, Roosevelt in 1940 made Hillman labor's representative on the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense and, during World War II, associate director of the Office of Production Management. Hillman was Roosevelt's major adviser on labor affairs.
Hillman was an accommodator and an opportunist who sought to offer workers a better living and society a reasonable degree of social stability. On July 10, 1946, at the height of his national reputation and influence, he died of a heart attack.
Further Reading on Sidney Hillman
Two laudatory biographies provide the best introduction to Hillman: George H. Soule, Sidney Hillman: Labor Statesman (1939), is excellent up to the time Hillman became important in Washington politics, and Matthew Josephson, Sidney Hillman: Statesman of American Labor (1952), discusses his whole career. Two books which offer the fullest introduction to the development of unionism in the garment industry are Joel Seidman, The Needle Trades (1942), a brief but thorough survey, and Benjamin Stolberg, Tailor's Progress: The Story of a Famous Union and the Men Who Made It (1944), which treats Hillman unfairly. Irving Bernstein's The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933 (1960) and Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1970) provide important information on the milieu in which Hillman worked.
Additional Biography Sources
Records of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1989.
Fraser, Steve, Labor will rule: Sidney Hillman and the rise of American labor, New York: Free Press; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.