Hillman, Bessie (1889–1970)
Hillman, Bessie (1889–1970)
Russian-born American labor leader who, with her husband Sidney Hillman, founded the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the first union to represent unskilled immigrant workers. Born Bashe Abramowitz in Russia in 1889; died in 1970; educated at home by tutors; married Sidney Hillman (a labor leader), on May 1, 1916 (died 1946); children: two daughters, Philoine Hillman (b. 1917); Selma Hillman (b. 1921).
In 1905, at age 15, Bessie Hillman fled her isolated home in Grodno, Russia, to escape the local marriage broker. She arrived in the United States without a skill and without a lesson in English. Settling in Chicago, she took a job as a button-sewer in a sweatshop managed by Hart Schaffner & Marx and went to live in a boardinghouse owned by a family friend. On September 22, 1910, protesting the lowering of her piece rate from 4 cents to 3.75 cents, Hillman put down her needle and led seven women out the door. For her disobedience, she was fired and blacklisted from every shop in Chicago. She sought representation from the president of the United Garment Workers (UGW) but was told that they would have nothing to do with an unskilled immigrant. (The union membership was primarily made up of cutters, who viewed the waves of unskilled immigrants as a threat to their privileges.) Along with many other workers who were denied union help, Hillman went to Hull House, where Jane Addams and Ellen Gate Starr , recognized her as a potential leader and helped her with her English. Within three weeks, Hillman was speaking before a secret meeting of 100 or so Hart Schaffner & Marx workers, urging them to join her and the seven women who had walked out in protest. These workers then returned to their shops to elicit support from some 8,000 tailors who eventually joined in the call for higher wages and a reduction of the work week from 60 hours to 44.
When demands were ignored, strikes spread from company to company, eventually involving 30,000 workers. The walk-out lasted for five months, during which time the strikers faced starvation and police brutality. The UGW did nothing to help, and in the end the workers were forced to return to work. In most companies there were no changes, but at Hart Schaffner & Marx, the strikers, represented by lawyer Clarence Darrow, were permitted to appoint a three-member arbitration committee (the first collective bargaining agreement), of which Hillman was made a member. Over the next several years, Hillman and other strike leaders were successful in laying the groundwork for the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), an independent union which was officially named in December 1914. The new union then began organizing clothing workers around the country.
On May 1, 1916, Bessie married Stanley Hillman, co-founder of the union and its first president. The newlyweds went directly from the ceremony to march at the head of the union's annual May Day parade. In the years that followed, for almost a quarter of a century, Hillman and her husband devoted themselves to the union, working out of headquarters at 15 Union Square, in New York City. (After the death of her husband in 1946, Hillman would be voted vice president.) For months at a time, she was on the road, leading campaigns for glove workers in upstate New York or shirt workers in Pennsylvania. The birth of her two daughters, in 1917 and 1921, restricted her activities somewhat, but as soon as the girls were old enough to be left with a housekeeper, she was on the road again. "When I was growing up, I was aware of her being away," recalled her older daughter, Philoine Hillman , in 1973, "but I did not feel deprived, because when she came home we were always a part of her activities." Indeed, the Hillman home was a central point in a large Russian community, and it was not unusual for the house to be filled with people. Bessie's younger daughter, Selma Hillman , remembered her mother standing on picket lines, or making sensational speeches, but she missed a certain closeness with her. "Mother never discussed her problems with me," she remembered, "which is a shame. If she had been more open, we'd have had something to talk about when she got older and needed companionship."
In her role as union organizer, Hillman took to heart the ACWA slogan, "Touch the worker from cradle to grave," and felt strongly that it was her duty to raise workers' self-esteem along with their wages. She headed up several educational programs, including adult-education courses for union members. She was also sensitive to women's rights and for years was active in the Women's Trade Union League, whose purpose was to give women, who made up a majority of the work force, an equal voice in the union. As a result of her concern for day care, the ACWA instituted a large number of child-care facilities.
Hillman also served on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and was on a subcommittee of the President's Commission on the Status of Women. In an essay, "Gifted Women in the Trade Unions," in the anthology American Women: The Changing Image (1961), Hillman wrote: "I have a deep conviction that, given a more important function within the labor movement, women could do much to restore the union image as the indomitable fighter for social justice and enlightenment, an image that has been sadly undermined in recent years."
Bessie Hillman did not give up organizing until the union forced her to retire at age 70 because of her health. She died, five years later, in the middle of an operation for an intestinal tumor.
Julianelli, Jane. "Bessie Hillman: Up From the Sweatshop," in Ms. Vol. 1, no. 11. May 1973.
Cassara, Beverly Benner, ed. American Women: The Changing Image. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1962.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts