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Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor.

Labor will rule," said Sidney Hillman in 1918. Steve Fraser recalls this statement to convey a dream that failed. But Fraser's book portrays more than the public life ad rise to power of Hillman, who was a leader of the clothing workers' union during the first half of the Twentieth Century. To Fraser's credit, he interweaves with that personal story the wider historical one - the roles of Congress, industry, and government agencies in policy formation.

Fraser describes Hillman's rise from a shop worker to a labor leader of national stature, battling steadily in the industrial and political arenas for a better life for workers. Providing a balanced view, Fraser credits Hillman with his overwhelming dedication to the labor movement and its membership while not overlooking the less noble side of his character. In pursuing power, he could be arrogant, self-righteous, and unkind to subordinates who opposed his policies - but dignified and self-controlled with those more powerful than himself.

This fusion of pragmatism and social idealism was Hillman's lifelong trademark, Fraser says. In Hillman's youth in Russia, he did not complete the rabbinical training that his ancestors had undergone, but organized for the Bund, a secular Jewish workers' movement carrying on practical work in trade unions. Politically, he supported the Mensheviks.

Because of the repressive nature of the Russian government, Hillman emigrated and settled as a cutter in a Chicago garment factory in 1907, soon becoming a business agent for a United Garment Workers local. A 1910 strike brought him to the attention of Chicago's leading progressives, some of whom became his mentors. An attraction to intellectuals characterized his entire life. Fraser suggests this was because he was "always sensitive to his lack of a formal education."

But a deeper interpretation might be that Hillman, like other Jewish immigrants - even those as prominent as Felix Frankfurter - felt that his origins stigmatized him. To compensate for this insecurity, he may have created an idealized self-image requiring constant confirmation by leaders in society whom he admired. As Fraser hints, such associations had a moderating influence on Hillman, enhancing the pragmatic side of his character.

Fraser thoroughly documents how Hillman's energy, ambition, and workaholic habits brought him high office and contributed to his desire for power, status, and relationships with other national figures. However, he paid a price. The Far Left, as Fraser shows, derided him as a class collaborator. Socialists reproached him for not purging communists. Industrialists and military leaders disliked his presence with them on Government defense boards. American Federation of Labor leaders resented his closeness to President Franklin Roosevelt and circulated stories of his administrative incompetence. Conservatives in both parties and the media smeared him as a foreign-born, Jewish radical, subversive of American institutions.

The Depression of the 1930s and Roosevelt's New Deal brought Hillman to the fore. A secessionist group of the United Garment Workers chose him as president of their new Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. As one of eight union presidents to break ranks with their AFL leadership for its reluctance to organize the mass industries, Hillman aided in the creation of a "committee for industrial organization," which became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

"For the rest of his life," Fraser notes, Hillman's "preoccupation" was asserting labor's role in national politics to pass legislation providing security and economic benefits to union members. As a Keynesian, Hillman saw under-consumption as a cause of the Depression and "was convinced," Fraser writes, "that maintaining and expanding levels of mass consumption was even more vital than social efficiency. ... For Hillman the subordination of the new [CIO] labor movement to the fate of the New Deal was a fact of political life." When the CIO established a political-action committee in response to the passage of the Smith-Connally Anti-strike bill in 1943, Hillman's reputation for espousing political action gained him the chairmanship of the CIO-PAC.

Hillman reached his peak of national political prominence in the early war years. He served successively on the five-man National Defense Advisory Commission, as associate director of the Office of Production Management, and as head of the labor division of the War Production Board.

As my labor-education friends remarked years later, "In Washington they thought he was a big man in New York, and in New York they thought he was a big man in Washington." However, the boards' industrialists and military leaders did not see Hillman as a "big man." As Fraser puts it, Hillman "served on the sufferance of other corporate, business, and Congressional elements who were determined to treat labor as a political pariah."

A new low in vicious attacks against Hillman came from the Republican Party and the media following the 1944 Democratic Convention. As Fraser says, it was "designed to arouse every nativist, anti-Semitic, anticommunist, and antilabor instinct in the electorate." A rumor circulated that Roosevelt had given Hillman power over the selection of his running mate. "Clear it with Sidney" became the smear phrase of 80 per cent of the nation's press, seeking to discredit the Democratic Party and weaken Roosevelt's reelection chances.

During my tenure in the 1960s as national education director of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, I discussed this story with Jack Kroll, the ACWU vice president, Hillman's assistant at the CIO-PAC, and later its chairman He said the story was a "damn lie" as Roosevelt had not bestowed such power on Hillman and Democratic leaders did not meet with him under any such misapprehension. The CIO favored Henry Wallace a New Dealer I over Southern conservative Hillman "may have indeed played a double game" of publicly supporting Wallace but "in private he began touting Truman in order to head off Byrnes." Such behavior "suggests not only how anxious he had become to stay close to the centers of power, but how relatively docile the CIO had become, Republican hysterics notwithstanding."

Fraser notes that Hillman, hoping to see a democratic European labor movement influencing postwar reconstruction, became vice chairman of the newly created World Federation of Trade Unions. His pursuit of denazification and democratization in German industry and labor met with little success, since the priority of the Allied bureaucracy was a Germany reindustrialized as an ally in a capitalist West.

Sidney Hillman's legacy to the clothing workers' union influenced me in becoming its national education director. This legacy endures, despite the vicissitudes the union encounters in the age of corporate power and a global economy. Unlike a majority of American unions, it pursues Hillman's policy of an education program for its membership that is not limited to bread-and-butter issues but offers a wide selection of liberal-arts courses. It continues the Hillman emphasis on participation by the union and its members in the political process.

The Amalgamated was one of a handful of unions supporting the peace movement in the 1960s, and I represented it in various peace organizations. The Hillman Foundation, by its financial support of progressive causes and the achievements of liberal thinkers and doers, is a worthy testimonial to his memory.

Fraser's ninety-two pages of footnotes read like a doctoral dissertation; in the main text, his sociological jargon and heavy style mar the drama of its content. And there is little in the book, as Fraser acknowledges, of "Hillman's private life with family and friends." Fraser is mildly critical of Hillman, hinting that his urge for power and entry to the parlor of the political and social world weakened his early socialism and ability to realize his potential as a labor statesman. My evaluation is more generous. Hillman took labor several steps further than it had previously gone. No labor leaders can transcend the character of the age of corporate power, whatever their effort or ideology, and for this they are not to blame.

However, the question remains: Who is the real Sidney Hillman? Did his pragmatic approach reflect his perception that the objective conditions of the American capitalist environment precluded the success of any stronger assault on corporate power? Or did he adopt pragmatism merely for personal reasons, such as his own wish for power wherever he could find it and reluctance to risk failure in seeking broader goals for labor?

Unfortunately, Fraser leaves the reader with insufficient information to make judgments on these crucial questions.
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Author:Karson, Marc
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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