Credit: Associated Press
Sidney Hillman, a longtime leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), believed that the labor movement should embrace the cultural, intellectual, and family concerns of its members as well as their bread-and-butter economic needs—a vision called "social unionism." From the 1920s through the 1950s, ACWA members and their families could live in union-sponsored apartments and be treated in union-sponsored health clinics. They could get loans from the union-sponsored Amalgamated Bank (opened in 1923), and they could obtain life insurance from the union, too. Union members participated in union-sponsored sports leagues (including women’s softball) and took vacations at a retreat owned and run by the union. The union sponsored choral groups, put on plays and musicals, organized concerts of both classical and popular music, and sponsored classes and workshops on economics, politics, and history for its members. Retired garment workers could relax at one of the union’s senior citizen centers.
What Hillman, ACWA’s president from 1914 to 1946, helped achieve for his own union’s members he hoped to win for all American working people. Although he did not win everything he hoped for, Hillman, as a founder of the Committee for Industrial Organization (which later became the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and a key adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was one of the chief architects of America’s social welfare system.
Born to religious parents, at age fourteen Hillman was sent to Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, to study to be a rabbi. Inspired by the revolutionary fervor against czarist Russia, he quickly left the seminary to get a job so he could study politics and economics at night and aid labor organizers and political activists during the day. Hillman organized typesetters for an illegal Jewish union and was twice jailed for his political activity. Already an avid reader of Russian translations of Western social thinking (including works of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer), he continued his political education in jail under the tutelage of fellow prisoners involved in the revolutionary movement. After participating in a failed uprising against the czar in 1905 and fearing the resulting crackdown, Hillman fled for England.
In 1907 Hillman moved to Chicago and began working as an apprentice cutter for Hart Schaffner & Marx (HSM), the nation’s largest manufacturer of men’s clothing. Three years later, a dozen women HSM workers, including a radical named Bessie Abramowitz, walked off the job. They were working ninety hours a week but earning only eight or nine dollars. The company had announced another wage cut, which, on top of its failure to pay overtime wages, pushed the women to the breaking point. The walkout triggered a four-month citywide garment strike of 45,000 workers, more than half of them women.
Most of the male HSM workers made fun of the initial group of women strikers, but Hillman was more sympathetic. Abramowitz and other women workers invited him to join them at Hull House, where Jane Addams had offered to host strategy meetings and help mediate the strike. Two months into the strike, the leaders of the United Garment Workers (UGW) tried to settle with the company without gaining any improvements. At a mass meeting of strikers, Hillman—speaking in a combination of Yiddish and broken English—denounced the deal and urged his fellow workers to continue the strike. Now recognized as a key strike leader, Hillman—with the help of Addams and lawyer Clarence Darrow—negotiated a favorable settlement. He also negotiated a relationship with Bessie. The two married in 1916, and she became an important union leader in her own right.
In 1914 Hillman, Abramowitz, and other Chicago strike leaders met with other disgruntled UGW members from Baltimore and New York at the union’s national convention. Angry at the native-born UGW leaders for selling out the immigrant workers, they formed a breakaway union, the ACWA. Hillman, twenty-seven at the time, was elected ACWA president and set up office in New York.
Hillman knew he had a lot to learn. Addams and Darrow introduced him to their network of leading middle-class progressives and socialists, including Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League, Walter Lippmann, and Felix Frankfurter, all of whom advocated some version of "industrial democracy." The reformers were outraged by the clothing industry’s exploitation of its workers, particularly its abuse of women and children. They provided valuable support for the fledgling ACWA, pushing for laws to protect employees and to regulate the brutal business practices made possible by laissez-faire capitalism.
For the next three decades, Hillman oversaw ACWA’s huge growth, particularly in factories making men’s garments. During World War I Hillman built a partnership between the union and the federal government to maintain production and improve working conditions in factories making military uniforms. This convinced him of the importance of government protection of workers and regulation of the economy on their behalf. By 1918 the ACWA had 138,000 members, had union contracts with 85 percent of men’s garment manufacturers, and had reduced the workweek to forty-four hours.
Hillman gained the loyalty of his members by making the union a part of their daily lives and by winning victories at the workplace. But he was still a Jewish radical who viewed the union movement as a vehicle for transforming society. "Messiah is arriving," he wrote his young daughter toward the end of World War I. "He may be with us any minute—one can hear the footsteps of the Deliverer—if only he listens intently. Labor will rule and the world will be free."
Although he occasionally led strikes to break a logjam and show the union’s strength, Hillman became known for forging positive relations with employers. Garment workers were often employed at small firms in a highly competitive industry where shops operated on a shaky profit margin, and wages were the businesses’ largest cost. Hillman’s strategy was to organize workers at all skill levels within the entire industry to prevent any shop from undercutting the wages of other employees. Sometimes, Hillman would even get the union to provide loans to employers to help struggling firms improve their management.
Hillman recognized labor’s potential to wield political influence if unions mobilized their members and families in elections. In 1924 he and other progressive unionists supported Robert M. La Follette’s presidential campaign. In 1932 the upsurge of urban working-class voters, especially in the North and Midwest, catapulted FDR into the White House and brought huge Democratic majorities in Congress.
Hillman believed that the ACWA’s success in organizing workers on an industry-wide basis could be duplicated in other major sectors, particularly those (like autos, steel, and chemicals, and unlike clothing) where goods are manufactured in relatively few large factories. In 1935 Hillman joined John L. Lewis and others to leave the American Federation of Labor and form what would become the CIO. Two years later, Hillman became the CIO’s first vice president and spurred the creation of several new unions among textile and department store workers.
Many ACWA members—particularly Jewish immigrants—were socialists who believed that the labor movement should have its own political party as it did in Europe. So in New York—where the ACWA’s headquarters was located—Hillman formed the American Labor Party. Radicals and Socialists could vote for FDR and other prolabor progressive candidates (such as Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio) on the American Labor Party ticket, while the same candidates also ran on the major party tickets.
In 1944, under Hillman’s leadership, the CIO formed the nation’s first political action committee (PAC). Its primary goal was to help FDR win a fourth term and to help keep the Democrats in power in Congress, but it also sought to push a progressive policy agenda, called the "People’s Program," that was somewhat to the left of FDR—including a national planning board, civil rights, and federal aid to education.
Throughout the Roosevelt administration, Hillman was constantly maneuvering to win support for stronger government involvement in economic planning and workplace regulations. Hillman envisioned a greater role for government in order to rescue Americans from the Depression and to guarantee full employment and job security. He pushed for a short workweek, public works, and unemployment insurance. He argued for national planning and a "more equitable distribution of our national income" in order to increase workers’ buying power and dig the economy out of the Depression.
He worked closely with key New Dealers, including Senator Robert F. Wagner and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, to draft and pass the National Labor Relations Act (giving workers the right to unionize) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing the minimum wage and forty-hour workweek).
In 1944 Republicans and conservative newspapers spread rumors, probably apocryphal, that FDR would respond to suggestions for vice presidential candidates by saying, "Clear it with Sidney." FDR’s opponents used that phrase repeatedly to claim that the president was too beholden to labor. Anti–New Dealer William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American held a "Sidney Limerick Contest" to mock Hillman and his relationship with Roosevelt. Labeling Hillman a Socialist (an accurate description), the Republicans erected billboards with the slogan: "It’s YOUR country—why let Sidney Hillman run it?"
Despite the conservative attacks, the CIO-PAC’s work under Hillman became the model for building electoral organization among union members. It proved so successful that years later other groups—particularly big business as well as issue advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club—adopted the PAC model for wielding electoral clout. For Hillman, the key to success was mobilizing members to work as campaign volunteers and to vote on election day, not simply to donate money.
Hillman died in 1946, but his close associates assumed the union’s leadership. By the mid-1950s, the ACWA had about 350,000 members (two-thirds of them women), representing the vast majority of workers in the men’s clothing industry. The ACWA (along with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers union) had significantly raised garment workers’ standard of living. Union leaders justifiably boasted that they had virtually eliminated the sweatshop. Americans could fill their closets with union-made clothing.
That reality is long gone. In the 1970s the clothing industry began moving its production overseas, particularly to Asia and Latin America. By 2000, most of the clothing Americans purchased in retail stores was imported. The number of clothing workers in the United States plummeted. A new wave of immigration from Asia and Mexico kept a segment of the industry in the United States—primarily in New York and Los Angeles—but the sweatshop had returned with a vengeance. Most of the sewing factories in the United States today violate wage, overtime, and workplace health and safety conditions. Thus Hillman’s enduring legacies cannot be found in America’s sewing factories. His legacies are, instead, his vision of social unionism, his successful efforts to expand the CIO industrial union movement, particularly among immigrant workers, and his brilliance at mobilizing union members in political campaigns to give labor a stronger voice in US politics.
Credit: Associated Press Sidney Hillman, a longtime leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), believed that the labor moveme
From its origins as a dissident group within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Committee for Industrial Organization (1935-1938; in...
ONE OF THE AMERICA’S most powerful and influential labor leaders, Sidney Hillman cofounded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which...