On September 22, 1910, Chicago garment workers walked off the job. This strike not only was one of the key garment worker strikes of the era, but also started the long and respected labor career of Sidney Hillman, later one of the most important labor leaders in the nation.
Hart Schaffner Marx was a Chicago clothing store that started in the 1870s, opened by two brothers named Harry and Max Hart. Eventually other family members were brought into the business, thus the law-firm sounding name. The company grew quickly, first making work clothes, then getting contracts to make clothing for the military, and then becoming among the largest makers of men’s suits in the country.
All of this was predicated of cheap immigrant labor. The company wanted a lot of product and it wanted it cheap. Moreover, workers were pretty easy to come by. This was the era of mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe and these people needed jobs. In Chicago, working in the garment trade might well have seemed more appealing than the meat factories, though the difference tended to be a bit more ethnic than a choice-based situation. In other words, a lot of the various Catholic groups ended up in the butcheries but the Jewish immigrants tended toward the garment sweatshops. These Jewish immigrants also tended to be more politicized than the other immigrant groups, due to the leftist intellectual world that was the Jewish Bund of this time. Many immigrants fled home in part due to political repression, as well as religious persecution. So they brought a pretty well developed political consciousness into the sweatshops. This was not what the garment manufacturers had in mind.
The strike started on September 22, when sixteen women, led by a 17 year old worker activist named Hannah Shapiro, walked out due to bias in the bonus system and a decline in the piece rate that drove so much of the wages in the sweatshops. The strike spread quickly. This mostly female workforce was furious. 2,000 women were on strike by the end of the September. The United Garment Workers had some presence in the industry. This was a union started in 1891 but was really quite conservative and very uncomfortable with direct action by women. Men controlled it and they wanted good relations with the employers. Moreover, it was a union primarily made up of the skilled workers in the trade, which were mostly men, and did not have patience or interest in the unskilled workers who made up the majority and who were also mostly women. But forced into some kind of action, UGW leadership gave some support to the strike at first and many of its members walked off the job too. Eventually 41,000 workers were on strike.
It did not take long for the employer and the cops to start busting heads. This was shortly after the Uprising of the 20,000 in New York, when garment manufacturers out there had demonstrated how you could win a strike through beating women, though the workers did make some relatively minor gains. They hired private detective agencies to beat up workers or even worse. One detective killed a worker named Charles Lazinskas and then another worker named Frank Nagreckis was shot and killed while on a picket in mid-December. Five people total died in the strike. At least one was a company thug the unionists ambushed; another may have been a scab and wasn’t a member of the union in any case. The other three were definitely strikers. Then UGW leadership refused to call a general strike in the industry, which allowed HSW to subcontract out much of its production to nonunion facilities. By December, the UGW had simply pulled out of strike support entirely after a settlement it tried to work out was rejected by the workers.
The strike mostly came to an end in February 1911. Sidney Hillman was initially a rank and file workers in this strike. But he was a very skilled leader and as a man, had access to authority that the women unfortunately did not. Hillman helped settle the strike and became the new local’s business agent. He mostly took over the negotiations with HSW and while some of the workers wanted to stay on strike, he ended it by getting the company to accept many worker demands, including both recognition of the union and arbitration to settle future disputes. This was the solid foundation of unionism, even if it was not the revolution that the more radical workers wanted.
The factory was still in the UGW but in 1914, that conservative leadership tried to disenfranchise the militant workers, which was a common move in right-leaning unions that found themselves inundated with left-wing members. Not willing to accept this, the workers left the UGW and they formed the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Their leader Bessie Abramowitz contacted Hillman, who was by this time working for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York and asked him to come back to Chicago to run the ACW. He accepted. Oh and he and Abramowitz soon married, in 1916. They remained married until his 1946 death and had two daughters. She left active work in the ACWA after her marriage but was still an important labor figure, particularly in organizing laundries. The ACWA would hold off raids by the UGW and continue to gain power in the industry through militant tactics and a social movement unionism that included things such as building union housing projects. Soon the union would expand into New York and win a lot of shops there. The ACWA organized almost exclusively shops that made men’s clothing and the ILG organized shops that made women’s clothing. That was one way to limit raiding at the very least.
Though the ACWA remained small, Hillman would play an outsized figure in the American labor movement. He brought the ACWA into the CIO very early after its 1937 break from the AFL. Then Hillman became the conduit between the labor movement and the Roosevelt administration through World War II. As CIO Vice-President, he advocated close work with the Roosevelt administration. That alienated him from John L. Lewis, but he was definitely in the majority among CIO leadership. By the 1944 election, Republicans were claiming that FDR had to “clear it with Sidney” before doing anything such as picking his new VP, an openly anti-Semitic attack on Hillman that was pretty typical of reactionary politics of the time.
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