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Sidney Hillman was a Lithuanian-born leader of the United States Labor Movement during the early 20th century. He served as president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, founded the Committee of Industrial Organizing, and supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt as U.S. President. The Sidney Hillman Health Center and the Sidney Hillman/Phillips Family Practice both bear his name in honor of his tireless efforts in support of workers and their families.

Early Life and Education

Sidney Hillman was born on March 23, 1887, in Žagarė, Lithuania, at the time still part of the Russian Empire, into a Jewish family. His mother’s father and his father worked as merchants and his father’s father was a Jewish rabbi with little regard for the material. His father learned to care more about prayer than business.

Hillman excelled academically from a young age and mastered the typical educational method of the time, rote learning/memorization. He memorized multiple volumes of the Hebrew Talmud by 13-years-old. His family sent him the following year to the town of Vilijampolé, at the time Slabodka, across the river to attend yeshiva and study the Torah and the Talmud more extensively. They hoped he would enter rabbinical school as well.[1]

Revolutionary Beginnings


 While studying in Slabodka, Sidney Hillman attended a secret, illegal study group where he read books by Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx translated into Russian in 1903. He joined the Jewish socialist union of workers called the Bund. The Bund revolted against the Tsar’s regime and Hillman led the 1904 inaugural May Day march in Kovno. The police arrested him not long afterward and he learned further revolutionary social theories from other inmates during his incarceration.

Sidney Hillman chose revolution and politics over prayer and following in his rabbinical family’s footsteps.

Hillman and the Bund members began identifying with the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s Menshevik wing, especially with Julius Martov’s internationalist theories. In October 1906, Hillman left with other revolutionaries after the Tsarist counterrevolution. He used a fake passport to travel to Manchester, England and live with his wealthy uncle and two brothers.

In 1907, Sidney Hillman moved to the United States and arrived on August 8 in New York City, but soon left for Chicago and better jobs. He worked several jobs before finding work at Hart Schaffner & Marx, the men’s clothing manufacturer, as a garment cutter.[2]

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union

In 1910, Sidney Hillman assisted in the strike of 45,000 garment industry workers in New York against their employers and their ineffective union, the United Garment Workers (UGW). The unhappy revolutionaries within the UGW left and formed the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) when the UGW tried to quiet them at the UGW Convention in 1914.

The same year, Hillman accepted a job with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union as chief clerk. The ACWA invited him to be their President and he accepted after receiving a second invite from Bessie Abramowitz, his fiance. He met Abramowitz during the 1910 strike. She was one of the main leaders and a union activist.[3] They married in 1916 and produced two daughters.[4] The ACWA formed contracts with about 85% of the men’s garment producers in New York City and limited their required hours to 44 per week by 1920.[5]

Labor and Social Activism

In the 1920s, the ACWA started offering unemployment insurance, low-cost coop housing, and founded a bank for labor workers. Hillman worked with reformers like Clarence Darrow and Jane Addams. He led the ACWA’s fight to standardize hours and wages across the industry. They tried to help union-backed employers with efficiency studies and loans while choosing arbitration over striking.

Hillman supported reconstruction efforts by the Soviet Union and helped on business projects bringing Western industrial management principles and technologies to 10 clothing factories. The Communist Party supported his efforts, causing further friction between him and Socialist Party members. This ended in 1924 amid conflict and by the end of the 1920s the Communist Party did not have much hold in the ACWA.[6]

Getting the Gangsters Out

Gangsters that already filled the garment industry infiltrated the ACWA while Sidney Hillman fought the Communist Party’s hold. Louis Buchalter, “Lepke,” purchased several trucking businesses, took power over the local truck driver’s unions, and did the same in the garment industry, including the ACWA.

Abraham Beckerman, a Socialist and hired muscle for Hillman, supported Lepke. They joined Philip Orlofsky to profit by undermining the work of the ACWA. In 1931, Hillman led strikes to stop the underhanded deals and kicked them out of the ACWA.[7]

Founding the Committee for Industrial Organizing

The ACWA lost two-thirds of its membership during the Great Depression, but bounced back after the National Industrial Recovery Act. Sidney Hillman greatly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for U.S. President and Roosevelt made Hillman a member of the National Recovery Administration’s Labor Advisory Board in 1933 and the National Industrial Recovery Board in 1934.

Hillman assisted in the draft of the National Labor Relations Act and the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1935, he co-founded the Committee for Industrial Organizing with John L. Lewis and became its Vice President in 1937. He helped fund the 1939 strike by the Textile Workers Union of America and saved the United Auto Workers union in 1938.[8]

The American Labor Party

In 1936, Sidney Hillman co-founded the American Labor Party. In 1940, President Roosevelt selected him for the National Defense Advisory Committee and made him the Office of Production Management’s associate director in 1941. He also headed the labor division of the War Production Board established by Roosevelt in 1942.

Hillman co-founded the Non-Partisan League of the party and supported FDR’s presidential runs in 1936 and 1940. In 1944, during FDR’s last presidential campaign, Hillman raised almost $1 million for the Democrats, registered labor voters, and ensured they arrived at the polls.[9]

Death and Legacy of Sidney Hillman

The Sidney Hillman Health Center and The Sidney Hillman/Phillips Family Practice uphold their namesake’s dedication to the lives of U.S. workers.

Sidney Hillman suffered a persistent illness and died on July 10, 1946, of a heart attack in his Point Lockout home on Long Island, New York. He was buried in the mausoleum of the Westchester Hills Cemetery.[10]

The Sidney Hillman Health Center located in Chicago, Illinois honors the memory of Hillman and his advocacy for “the social and health needs of working families.”[11] New York’s Sidney Hillman/Phillips Family Practice also bears his name in honor of his advocacy for laborers and their families.[12]

References

Bibliography


Fraser, S. (1991). Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: The Free Press.


Josephson, M. (1952). Sidney Hillman: Statesman of American Labor. Doubleday.


Footnotes

  1. Fraser, 1991
  2. Fraser, 1991
  3. Fraser, 1991
  4. Sorin, G. (1985). The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920 (The Modern Jewish Experience). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  5. Fraser, 1991
  6. Fraser, 1991
  7. Fraser, 1991
  8. Josephson, 1952
  9. Jordan, D. M. (2011). FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  10. Josephson, 1952
  11. SHHC. Home Page. Sidney Hillman Health Centre.[1]
  12. The Institute of Family Health. (2010). Locations. Manhattan Health Centers.[2]

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