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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 13

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This is the grave of Sidney Hillman.

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Hillman was born into a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1887. He was training to be a rabbi, but fell in with political radicals, joined the Bund, and fled Tsarist anti-radical oppression in 1906, coming to the United States. He was 19 years old. The next year, he arrived in the United States and moved to Chicago. He found work in the garment industry, which was dominated by women. It would be the last manual job he would ever hold. In 1910, Hillman helped lead a strike of 45,000 garment workers against not only their employers but the conservative AFL-affiliated United Garment Workers, which the workers split from when it tried to settle the strike without granting the workers’ demands. Out of this came the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Hillman, who had briefly moved to New York to work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and who was not enjoying his new job, came back to Chicago to head the ACWU, where he became of labor’s most progressive leaders, even as his union remained small.

He became a great admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. Supporting the mass organizing of the industrial shopfloor that the AFL continued to resist, Hillman became one of the founding leaders of the CIO. He helped Robert Wagner write the National Labor Relations Act and worked very closely with Frances Perkins to lobby congressional support for the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Hillman went on to be labor’s man in the White House during World War II, working within the Roosevelt administration as the head of the labor division of the War Production Board. This included trying to stamp out wildcat strikes during the war from workers desperate for a raise. He was the first chair of the CIO Political Action Committee in 1942, rallying support for Democratic candidates. Hillman’s role in the Democratic machine became so great that by 1944, Thomas Dewey and other conservatives were leading the charge that FDR had to “clear it with Sidney” before choosing Harry Truman as vice-president, setting the framework for the anti-labor redbaiting campaigns of postwar Republicans and southern Democrats.

Sidney Hillman died of a heart attack in 1946.

And yes, I did it clear it with Sidney before posting this.

Sidney Hillman is buried in Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson New York.

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  • LeeEsq

    If I’m remembering my history correctly, most of the European radicals at the time hated the Bund and did not perceive them as fellow radicals because of their insistence on maintaining Jewish identity and insisting on distinct Jewish political rights as opposed to assimilating into the greater working class whole.

  • Bruce Vail

    “Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor” by Steven Fraser is an exhaustive biography:

    http://www.amazon.com/Labor-Will-Rule-Hillman-American/dp/0029106303

  • Bruce Vail

    FYI – Hillman Foundation (in NYC) is devoted to supporting pro-worker journalism:

    http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/clearitwithsidney

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