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The Militant, 20 July 1946

M. Stein

Sidney Hillman – An Appraisal

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 29, 20 July 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The death of Sidney Hillman became the occasion for glowing tributes – from President Truman as well as from William Z. Foster; from the Democratic National Committee as well as from the Communist (Stalinist) Party. Sidney Hillman is eulogized alike by clothing manufacturers, by labor leaders, by Democrats, Social Democrats and Stalinists. What was the true stature of the man who receives such wide acclaim? What were his views, his contributions?

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers, of which Hillman was president from its birth in 1915, grew out of a split in the United Garment Workers Union, AFL. The rank and file of the United Garment Workers rebelled against the union President, Rickert, Gompers’ right-hand man, an autocratic old-line AFL bureaucrat with a narrow craft outlook, uninterested in organizing the workers in the then barbaric sweat-shop industry.

The birth of the Amalgamated in 1915 was in many respects an anticipation of what was to come on a nation-wide scale in 1936 with the birth of the CIO. Many Socialists looked toward the Amalgamated with great hope. They saw in it an instrumentality for ridding the whole trade union movement of Gompersism, and thus revitalizing it. They saw in it the first important step in organizing the mass production workers. They saw in it the dawn of a new day for the American labor movement.

Other industries tried to emulate the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Thus, an Amalgamated Textile Workers Union was set up, an Amalgamated Metal-Workers Union, etc. But none of them had any real success; they failed to survive. Hillman thereupon set out to prove that his union is “respectable,” that it maintains “good” relations with the employers, etc. In brief, he became a foremost advocate of business unionism.

The narrowness of his outlook was crassly exemplified by his acceptance of the prosperity of the early twenties as the norm of American economic life. This was the era when Hillman and other official labor leaders Were positive that all problems, all contradictions, could be solved through compromise at a conference table; that the class struggle could be eliminated if only the workers bought shares in the corporations, set up their own banks and so on. All this, of course, seems ludicrous today in the light of the 1929 crash. But meanwhile many workers’ hard-won earnings were lost m these ventures.

Hillman was among the foremost proponents of union-employers collaboration in efficiency schemes. Through greater efficiency in the plants, through speed-ups, the employers would be assured of greater profits while the workers got a few extra pennies per day. These schemes gave rise to dissatisfaction in the young Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. A left wing came into existence. It was inspired by the ideas of the Bolshevik revolution; and it was led by the young Communist Party in this country. Here, too, Hillman was able to find a compromise.

Once the Russian Revolution proved successful; once it was firmly established and all its enemies were defeated in a bloody war, Hillman took a trip to the Soviet Union where he effected an agreement for the formation of the Russian-American Industrial Corporation. He set out to sell shares to workers in this country to raise funds for setting up clothing factories in the young Soviet Republic. To be sure, this was progressive, but this venture was short-lived. It lasted long enough to serve Hillman’s purpose. It presented him in the eyes of the workers as a friend of the Bolsheviks and disarmed the Communist opposition inside the union.

Sidney Hillman returned to the AFL about three years before the formation of the CIO. He joined with John L. Lewis and David Dubinsky in spurring the organization of the mass production workers into industrial unions. The defection of Dubinsky and later of John L. Lewis from the CIO cleared the road for Hillman. Where as in the early days of the CIO he was overshadowed by the personality of Lewis, he now became a dominant figure.

Rose with Labor Movement

Hillman’s meteoric rise in the labor movement and this country’s political life was due not to his personal talents, but rather to the transformation undergone by the trade union movement, which greatly increased the specific weight of organized labor in all fields.

We would look in vain for any clue to Hillman’s social outlook in his public pronouncements throughout his long career. The fact is that he had no guiding philosophy. He had no long-range goal. Whenever labor haters, all the Rankins and the Bilbos, attacked him as a Communist, he could smugly point to his own union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, as proof that he, too, fought the Communists ruthlessly. Nevertheless the struggle of annihilation which Hillman did indeed carry on against Communist Party influences in the Amalgamated, did not prevent him from blocking up with the CP on several occasions.

William Z. Foster now tries to explain this away as follows: “Because of his (Hillman’s) progressive role on many questions, it was possible for the Communist Party to collaborate with him on important economic and political issues confronting labor and the nation.”

The truth is, however, that the collaboration between Hillman and the Stalinists was made possible not by Hillman’s “progressive role” but by the reactionary role of the Stalinists. It is by no means accidental that the period of the closest collaboration between Hillman and the Stalinists coincided with the wartime “comradeship” between Stalin and Roosevelt and Churchill. The Stalinists embraced Hillman and leaned on him most heavily during the so-called Browder Era. which Foster himself characterized as a complete surrender of even a pretense of struggle in behalf of the workers. Foster now omits to mention this rather embarrassing detail.

Lacked Political Perspective

Hillman lacked any kind of social insight or political perspective. He was not an eloquent speaker, nor did he ever contribute anything as a writer or thinker. His skill was that of a tradeunion boss. His method was compromise. He sought to find a way out of all difficulties through that method alone. The conference table was his panacea for all problems. In this he did not differ from other trade union leaders. But, he was distinguished by a certain boldness of method, which is often confused with the pursuit of bold objectives.

The deep social crisis resulting from the economic collapse in 1929 brought Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the fore. In behalf of capitalism Roosevelt sought to soften through compromise the social paroxysms engendered by the crisis. He found inside the labor movement his counterpart, Hillman, and so a “partnership” was formed. All the profits of this partnership went to the capitalists, thus enabling them to survive bankruptcy. The trade unions were thrown a few sops in the form of the Wagner Act, social insurance, public works projects, etc. Capitalism survived the crisis with the aid of the Hillmans, just as it survived the war with the aid of the Hillmans. Drunk with power the capitalists now feel far less need of compromise or compromisers. As a matter of fact, they are now busily engaged in a vicious offensive against labor, seeking to take away even the meager gains of compromise.

When Roosevelt began to prepare in earnest for war he called upon Hillman to be co-chairman of the Office of Production Management. Hillman’s talents were invaluable to Roosevelt in subordinating the trade unions to the war effort, in keeping them docile. Hillman helped put over the wage-freeze, the job-freeze, the no-strike pledge, and all the other measures that served to shackle the workers while the monopolists coined billions out of the war.

Role of the PAC

The organization of the PAC, of which Hillman was chairman and the moving spirit, was a perversion of the idea of an independent labor party. The workers wanted to assert themselves politically through their own party. The PAC frustrated them.

More and more the workers feel how limited is the scope of purely economic struggle. Trade unions – grown into powerful organizations embracing some 15 million members – find them selves powerless in the absence of their own political party.

The PAC set out to mobilize the political power of labor, but – for what purpose? It was not in behalf of labor’s own candidates, but in behalf of President Roosevelt, running for a fourth term, and in behalf of Congressmen – “labor’s friends” – running on the Democratic and Republican tickets.

The bankruptcy of this policy was revealed completely when President Truman and the Congressmen elected with PAC support turned viciously upon the labor movement in connection with the recent railroad strike.

Product of Compromise

Hillman rose tola position of prominence in the trade union movement and the political life of the country at the very time when the capitalist class found it necessary and possible to soften the class struggle through compromise. Capitalism prefers this method so long as it serves to keep the working class docile and dormant. The Sixty Families controlling the wealth of this nation, its production, its political parties, its newspapers and its radio are perfectly satisfied to rule through compromise, so long as their mastery remains unchallenged. But the American working class is awakening to a realization of its own power.

once awakened it will rise up to its full stature and push to the fore leaders made of different clay from Hillman. Leaders who are not compromisers but fighters. Leaders who are not satisfied with crumbs but who genuinely safeguard and raise the living standards of the workers. Leaders who will organize the attack upon the citadels of the whole system of wage slavery and usher in a society of peace, freedom and plenty for all.

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