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July 10: Sidney Hillman

July 10, 2014

Sidney-HillmanLabor leader Sidney Hillman, head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and a key organizer of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), died of a heart attack at 59 on this date in 1946. Hillman was born in Lithuania and groomed to be a rabbi, but became a Jewish Bundist by age 16 and, after coming to America in 1906, a labor leader in the restless garment industry. When an insurgent group bolted from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to form the Amalgamated, Hillman, who had been chief clerk of the ILGWU, went with them and became the union’s president. He married a strike leader, Bessie Abramowitz, in 1916. While Hillman rejected Communist influence with the Amalgamated, he never conducted the kind of wholesale purge of the left that other labor leaders indulged in. More significant was his defeat of organized criminal influence within the Amalgamated, which meant confronting Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, among others (although some critics accused Hillman of accommodating such gangsters). Hillman built the Amalgmated into a 24-hour social institution, with housing, banking, and other key services for its members. During the Depression, Hillman was a close advisor to President Roosevelt and helped to draft the National Labor Relations Act. He was a CIO founder in 1935 and became vice-president to John L. Lewis. He also helped to found the American Labor Party in 1936.

“Politics is the science of who gets what, when, and why.” —Sidney Hillman