Hillman, Sidney

views updated Jun 08 2018


Sidney "Hilkie" Hillman (March 23, 1887–July 10, 1946) was president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACW), founding member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), co-director of the federal Office of Production Management (OPM) during World War II, and director of the CIO Political Action Committee. Born in Zagare, Lithuania, to a family of merchants and rabbis, Hillman's intellectual achievements at a young age enabled him to pursue rabbinical studies. At Yeshiva, Hillman chafed under severe restrictions against secular training, and in 1903, he joined the socialist Bund. As a young revolutionary and labor organizer, Hillman fled Russia in late 1906 to avoid the czar's persecution. He immigrated to the United States the following year.

Settling in Chicago, Hillman went to work in the needle trades where he experienced oppressive labor conditions. He emerged as a local leader of independent immigrant garment workers during the violent Chicago garment strike of 1910, garnering notice from such Progressive leaders as Jane Addams. In 1914 Hillman assumed the presidency of the new Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, an organization devoted to industrial unionism, led largely by socialists, anarchists, and Bundists, and made up predominantly of women and Jewish immigrants—three factors that encouraged the enmity of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and conservative craft unions. Hillman's organizing talents were prodigious: by the end of World War I the ACW represented nearly 50 percent of the nation's garment workers.

In the reactionary 1920s, employers, AFL officials, and government representatives increasingly targeted Hillman for his allegiance to left-labor political organizations, especially his close relationship to supporters of the Russian revolution. Some of the nation's leading attorneys, including Harvard's Felix Frankfurter, rushed to defend Hillman. The 1924 convention of the ACW endorsed the presidential candidacy of Progressive Robert M. La Follette, signaling a moderation in Hillman's socialist activism. For founding ACW cooperative banks and housing programs, and for instituting a union unemployment insurance plan, Hillman was recognized by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as "the flaming genius of union labor in the U.S." by the late 1920s.

As the Depression worsened in the early 1930s, Hillman's commitment to a workers' vision of "industrial democracy," in which workers' organizations were made more powerful without revolutionary class struggle, led him to endorse a cautious course of action for the ACW, including agreeing to wage cuts, endorsing prohibitions against child labor, and boycotting sweatshop-manufactured goods. He campaigned vigorously for a national unemployment insurance plan. Hillman was well regarded within the Democratic Party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he counted among his confidantes such leading New Dealers as Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis, Harold Ickes, and Senator Robert Wagner. Although Hillman held reservations about the labor provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act, he did accept appointment to the National Industrial Recovery Board (NIRB) and quickly emerged as labor's most audible voice in the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and in Washington.

Hillman found his service on the NIRB acutely frustrating, though by 1935 the ACW had recovered from its early Depression-era slump and its members had achieved significant wage increases. With the Schechter decision, which declared the NRA unconstitutional, Hillman's optimism that government intervention in the economy would lead to economic recovery faded. In response, Hillman turned to the solution of mass industrial unionism. At the 1935 AFL convention, Hillman advocated the right of autoworkers to industrial union representation in a series of floor debates that culminated in a fight between the United Mineworkers' John L. Lewis and the craft-based carpenter's president William Hutcheson. Within days, the Committee for Industrial Organization, later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was founded as a federation of industrial unions closely tied to the Democratic Party. Among the unions newly affiliated with the CIO were those in mining, the needle trades, typography, auto, steel, rubber, radio, oil, millinery, and mill and smelting. Initially, the CIO attempted to work within the institutional framework of the AFL, but by mid-1936 the AFL executive council suspended the ten founding unions of the new federation; expulsion of the renegade unions followed in 1937. Hillman served as vice-president of the fledgling organization.

Although considered a labor moderate, Hillman himself had little patience for peacemaking within the AFL; instead, his experience as president of the ACW led him to endorse a "new unionism," incorporating a mass movement for industrial unionism with bureaucratic interventionism of the sort expressed most clearly by Roosevelt's Second New Deal and the expansion of the welfare state. A significant component of the new unionism vision was rationalization within the workplace with the intent of eliminating outmoded work practices and bringing efficiency in production to employers. Roosevelt's secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, called regularly on Hillman for advice. That advice was respected even by Roosevelt, who reportedly said upon encountering congressional opposition to the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act, "I will never let Hillman down."

Hillman was so wedded to the Roosevelt administration and the new unionism ideal that by the late 1930s his political opponents within and outside of organized labor questioned his commitment to the CIO rank and file. As a supporter of Roosevelt's reelection to an unprecedented third term, Hillman found himself in opposition to Lewis, the president of the CIO, and to members of the Communist Party. Hillman's support proved key to Roosevelt's reelection in 1940, while the Hillman-Roosevelt coalition secured the election of Philip Murray to the presidency of the CIO in the same year. For his unwavering support, the administration rewarded Hillman with positions on the National Defense Advisory Commission, the Office of Production Management, and in 1942 the War Production Board. Hillman also directed the CIO's Political Action Committee, an organization seen by opponents as too closely tied to the Roosevelt administration.

Troubled by President Harry Truman's unpredictable attitudes toward progressive labor, alarmed by what seemed an impending red scare, and frustrated by failures of the CIO's southern organizing campaign Operation Dixie, Hillman died of heart disease in July 1946.



Dubofsky, Melvyn. The State and Labor in Modern America. 1994.

Fraser, Steven. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. 1991.

Josephson, Matthew. Sidney Hillman: Statesman of American Labor. 1952.

Nancy Quam-Wickham

Sidney Hillman

views updated May 29 2018

Sidney Hillman

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.

New Deal

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.

Political Activities

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

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 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. □

Hillman, Sidney

views updated Jun 11 2018


HILLMAN, SIDNEY (1887–1946), U.S. labor leader. Hillman was born in the small town of Zagare in Lithuania, son of an Orthodox flour merchant and grandson of a rabbi. He received a traditional ḥeder education, and at the age of 14 was sent to study at a yeshivah in Kovno. There he rebelled against both religion and his father, and became involved in revolutionary socialist politics, spending six months in prison as a result of his participation in the abortive revolution of 1905. Soon after his release Hillman emigrated to England, then to the United States (1907), where, after a short stay in New York, he settled in Chicago. In 1909 he went to work in the Hart, Schaffner & Marx clothing factory and a year later he helped head a strike that spread from the plant to all of the city's 35,000 garment workers. For the next five years Hillman was active as a union organizer and was instrumental in getting the Chicago garment trade to accept the principle of the "union shop." This experience was fundamental in shaping his concept of "industrial constitutionalism," that is, the idea of a structured harmony between labor and management, that was to be his main contribution to the American labor movement.

In 1914 Hillman returned to New York as chief clerk of the Cloakmakers Joint Board in the women's garment industry. Soon after, the United Garment Workers split in two and Hillman was elected president of one of the factions, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which in 1915 won recognition as chief bargaining agent of New York City's garment workers. As president of the Amalgamated, Hillman set out to achieve sweeping reforms in the industry, by negotiation where possible, through strikes where not. In 1918 the union won a 44-hour week, and in 1920 it was granted a contract that called for a union shop, guaranteed unemployment insurance, and the right to help set production standards. The union also pioneered by going into banking, by means of which it managed to tide many garment businesses through difficult times with loans and stock purchases. The period of the New Deal saw Hillman rise to positions of national leadership. He was appointed to the National Recovery Administration during President Roosevelt's first term and in 1938 he joined Philip Murray and Walter Reuther in forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations (cio), becoming head of the executive council of its Textile Workers of America. With the outbreak of World War ii Hillman became Roosevelt's chief labor adviser. He was appointed labor member of the National Advisory Committee in 1940 and associate director general of the Office of Production Management in 1941. He also served on the Supply Priorities and Allocation Board and was director of the labor division of the War Production Board. At the same time he remained active in the cio and helped found its Political Action Committee, which sought to commit the labor movement to increased political militancy. After the war his interest also turned to the international labor movement and he was vice president of the World Federation of Trade Unions at the time of his death.

Throughout his career Hillman was sympathetic to the goals of the Jewish labor movement in Palestine. He was chosen one of the "non-Zionist" members of the Jewish Agency Executive in 1929 and as a confidant of President Roosevelt sought to win him over to a more pro-Zionist position.


G. Soule, Sidney Hillman, Labor Statesman (1939); M. Josephson, Sidney Hillman (1952); C.E. Zaretz, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (1934), passim; M. Epstein, Jewish Labor in U.S.A. 19141952, 2 (1953), 390–5; S. Perlman and P. Taft, Labor Movement (1935), 313–6.

Hillman, Sidney

views updated Jun 27 2018

Hillman, Sidney (1887–1946) US labour leader. He was first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (1915) and helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. He rallied support for President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, established the American Labor Party, and helped form the World Federation of Trade Unions (1945).