Sidney Hillman (March 23, 1887–July 10, 1946) was the president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), a key leader in the early days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Hillman was born into a Jewish family in Zagare, Lithuania, the son of Schmuel and Judith (Paikin) Hillman. As a child, he gained a reputation for possessing an acute memory and was able to recall long sections of the Talmud effortlessly. His parents hoped he would become a rabbi, but instead his studies in economics brought him into contact with a Marxist study group. This association led him into involvement with the Bund, a (secular and socialist) Jewish labor group in Russia. Hillman was involved with trade unions as a young man, and spent eight months in jail during 1904–1905 for taking part in a May Day protest. Upon his release he took part in an abortive 1905 revolution in Russia. When the czar launched pogroms and began jailing dissidents, Hillman fled to England in 1906.
The following year he immigrated to the United States. Hillman settled first in Chicago, where he worked in a warehouse and later as a retail clerk. Eventually, like many other Jewish immigrants, he gravitated toward the garment industry, where he apprenticed as a garment cutter. He was working for industry giant Hart, Schaffner, and Marx in 1910, when a strike broke out. Hillman was able to use his skills as an agitator and organizer to help bring order to the citywide walkout of more than 45,000 garment workers. The strike reached an ambiguous end, and Hillman was part of a group that split from the United Garment Workers (UGW), an overly cautious affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Hillman became the business agent for a rival organization.
During the 1910 strike, Hillman met Bessie Aranowitz (1889–1971), an activist in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers'Union (ILGWU). Hillman took a post with the ILGWU in 1914, and Aranowitz and Hillman married in 1916. The two were a good match, and each agreed that the UGW was an ineffective union. Later in 1914, Hillman's local garment cutters union merged with several others to create the ACWA; Hillman was elected its first president. Although the ACWA grew steadily and benefited greatly from capital/labor accords during World War I, the AFL did not recognize it until 1933. The ACWA often found itself not only battling employers, but also fending off raiding from both the AFL and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In addition, organized crime groups active in the garment trades threatened ACWA locals in the 1920s, and the rise of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) led to a new contender for the loyalty of garment workers.
To combat such challenges, the ACWA under Hillman actively promoted social unionism. The group set up union cooperatives, banks, and cooperative housing units. In an unusual move for the time, the ACWA even offered unemployment insurance for members and, in 1920, became the first national union to advocate a five-day work week. Hillman, who was still a socialist at this juncture, also helped establish a short-lived ACWA factory in Russia. The latter experiment bought temporary peace between the ACWA and the CPUSA, but Hillman eventually tempered his youthful radicalism, and he utterly rejected revolutionary ideology. The experience of World War I deepened Hillman's beliefs that the interests of capital and labor could be reconciled. Also unusual for the 1920s was Hillman's willingness to accept modified Taylorism as a more efficient way of producing garments and textiles.
By the late 1920s, Hillman battled declining ACWA membership in the wake of an anti-union climate and the ACWA's battles against organized crime. The election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act led to a revival of ACWA fortunes and to affiliation with the AFL in 1933, though the ACWA's industrial unionism and the AFL's control by craft unionists were an ill fit from the start. Hillman was, however, an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal. By this time Hillman—once an advocate of a separate labor party— had further tempered his views and cast his lot with the Democratic Party. Roosevelt appointed him to the National Recovery Board in 1933, the first of several New Deal political posts he would hold. Hillman is often credited with helping craft such landmark bills as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Hillman's political clout exceeded the power he held within the AFL. He was an early ally of John L.Lewis and was one of the cofounders of the 1935 Committee for Industrial Organizing, the renegade faction within the AFL that eventually bolted and formed the rival CIO. In 1937, Hillman became vice president of the CIO. He used ACWA resources to set up union organizing committees for steel, rubber, retail, and autoworkers. Hillman was also influential in helping textile workers rebound from their loss in a 1934 nationwide strike. ACWA money helped underwrite the Textile Workers Organizing Committee, which, in 1939, became the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA).
Hillman was an essential aide to President Roosevelt during the World War II era. He served on three wartime presidential commissions during World War II, and was co-chair of the Office of Production Management. His most lasting achievement came in 1943, when Hillman founded the CIO's political action committee (PAC) to support President Roosevelt's reelection bid. The CIO's PAC is widely considered the first such political fundraising organ of its ilk, though PACs are now a standard feature in American politics. Hillman became so associated with government/labor cooperation that he was sometimes criticized by more militant leaders for becoming too cautious. Hillman and Lewis became estranged when Lewis turned against Roosevelt and the New Deal. Hillman took flak in 1941, when he spoke out against United Auto Workers of America members striking a North American Aviation plant, and in 1943, when he opposed the United Mine Workers’ refusal to abide by a wartime no-strike pledge. Hillman's 1945 role in setting up the World Federation of Trade Unions is sometimes cited as leading organized labor down an ill-advised path of Cold War unionism that made organized labor subservient to U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Political conservatives also attacked Hillman. Both he and the CIO's PAC were thoroughly investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, though those investigations came long after he had repudiated radicalism and the TWUA operated according to conventional trade-union precepts. Hillman died suddenly at his home on Long Island in 1946. In 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation was created to grant annual prizes for those who gain distinction in public service and social justice. In 1992, Hillman was elected to the Labor Hall of Fame.Suggested Reading
ONE OF THE AMERICA’S most powerful and influential labor leaders, Sidney Hillman cofounded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which...
(March 23, 1887–July 10, 1946) Sidney Hillman was president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and advisor to President...
From its origins as a dissident group within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Committee for Industrial Organization (1935-1938; in...