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David Coolidge

Sidney Hillman’s Career
in “Business Unionism”

(22 July 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 29, 22 July 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The sudden death of Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and chairman of the CIO Political Action Committee, should command the attention of all workers who lay claim to any concern with the economic and political problems facing the labor movement in the United States.

Hillman was not an ordinary labor leader and his death was something more than the mere “death of a labor leader.” Certainly, there were times when one could entertain legitimate doubts as to whether Hillman was a labor leader other than in a perfunctory, formal or fortuitous sense. For it could be said that he was more than a labor leader while at the same time less than one.

Hillman rose to prominence in and with the labor movement. His base was always his own Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the labor movement in general. He was not one of those capitalist politicians or employers who flashes his old union card or boasts of his trade union beginnings many years or decades after he had ceased to be a part of the working class.

Hillman was a part of the working class and of the labor movement. Yet, to say that he was a “labor lieutenant of capital” would be correct but to equate him and his role with the capitalist and the role of the capitalist would be incorrect and misleading. It would not aid the working class to understand its own role in modern capitalist society and the part played by the trade union bureaucracy.

A Proponent of “Business Unionism”

From the earliest days in Chicago, the youthful Sidney Hillman – a poor Lithuanian immigrant, a Jewish “pants presser,” one of the crowd around Jane Addams’ Hull House – must have been possessed with the notion of becoming a “successful” American as well as a successful trade union leader. After his activities in the strike against Hart, Schafner and Marx, the many militant struggles of the garment workers, and the final stabilization of the union, Hillman continually oriented the union along the lines of the trade union philosophy of Sam Gompers.

He became increasingly a proponent of what has been called “business unionism.” He was for fewer strikes, less militancy, and more peaceful agreements on the basis of “understanding” of and concern with the welfare of the industry.

“There is no chance to bargain efficiently with an employer,” said Hillman, “whose business is not prosperous; labor must be industry conscious.” Here was the “poor Lithuanian boy” speaking who was no longer a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant but an “American citizen.” Here was a man speaking who, in the language of Hoover, believed that “American workers had more bread and butter than any other workers in the world.”

Not only this, but Hillman was strongly impressed by the fact that a “poor Lithuanian boy” had become the confidante of a president (Roosevelt) of the mightiest nation in the world. He was an integral part of the saga of America. Or so he thought.

Sitting beside Knudsen, of General Motors, in the Office of Production Management and helping to determine the course of war production, he had arrived. As head of the CIO’s PAC, he was at least in the ante-room of the Democratic Party’s GHQ. “Clear it with Sidney” was a sort of baptismal benediction which was a rare honor for a “poor Lithuanian boy.” Sidney Hillman had arrived politically!

Politics of Class Collaboration

But in contemplating his own personal success, Hillman, like the whole host of labor leaders, developed a blind spot for the still humble and obscure status of the hundreds of thousands of members in his own union and the working class as a whole. These millions had not arrived and they could not with the Hillman formula and the Murray-Green formula; which was basically the same as Hillman’s. For implicit in this formula is the myth that the road to similar success is open for every immigrant and to every toiler. Implicit in such a formula is the belief that capitalist society and capitalist democracy are precisely what they are said to be by the defenders and benefactors of capitalism. Under such a formula there can be no significant difference between the exploiters and the exploited, between the owners of property and the property less, between those who hire and those who are hired.

To be sure there are “the poor” and “the rich” but the labor leaders, such as Hillman, always obscure the fact that such distinctions are not what is basic to an understanding of the main problem facing the working class. They obscure the fact that “the rich” are one class in capitalist society and “the poor” are another. The Hillmans obscure the fact that not only are “the poor” and “the rich” separate classes but, also, that those separate classes will remain so long as capitalism remains, that the interests of the two classes are in irreconcilable conflict, that there is an incessant class struggle between the two classes, that the toilers must press this struggle everlastingly under capitalism. The Hillmans obscure the fact that this struggle between the workers and the owners can only end successfully for the toilers when capitalism has been destroyed, when the workers are the ruling class and the government of the nation is a workers’ government.

Because he had a false concept of the meaning of being an American citizen, because he was not a militant and class-conscious leader of the toilers of the land, Hillman was satisfied that the PAC be a mere gathering of workers’ votes for the Democratic Party. Hillman measured success by his own particular standard. According to this kind of leadership the working class does not need a political party of its own: the parties of Morgan and Owen D. Young, Bilbo and Taft are good enough for the workers and their families.

This attitude, this class collaboration, this bootlicking of capitalist politicians and of capitalist society as advocated and practiced by the Hillmans of the labor movement is the chief curse of the working class and its mass organizations. It will not pass with the passing of Hillman. He was only an outstanding labor leader who was catapulted to prominence by the Democrat capitalist politicians because he was willing to do a job among the workers which the capitalist politicians could not themselves do. They do not have the confidence of the working class. Hillman not only was willing but he had prestige and ability. He could organize and speak, think and plan. He was a “labor statesman.”

These are the main lessons for labor to learn from the career of Hillman. He summed it up very well himself when he took the position that the working class should not be class consciousness with all that it implies but “labor must be industry conscious.” That was really what endeared Hillman to Roosevelt. That is what the capitalist ruling class means by “responsible trade unionism.” That is what they call the correct approach to harmonious labor-management relations.

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