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From Rebel to Bureaucrat

Sidney Hillman
Sidney Hillman; drawing by David Levine

In 1903, at the age of sixteen, in an obscure Lithuanian shtetl, Sidney Hillman, the son of poor, Yiddish-speaking parents, joined the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement of Russia and Poland, taking as a first assignment the smuggling of his local group’s hectograph from one hiding place to another. Some forty years later he would be a high official in the United States government during the Second World War, serving as labor’s representative on various boards where he collaborated, if not quite on equal terms, with William Knudsen, head of General Motors. Chastened by American experience, the young revolutionary had become a “labor statesman.” Yet it’s an essential part of his story that Hillman never felt entirely at ease in his new role. He saw himself as a “half intellectual” hard pressed to compete with Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers and, all the while, inescapably marked by a thick Yiddish accent.

Now, almost half a century since his death in 1946, Hillman is the subject of an enormous and enormously ambitious biography by Steven Fraser, a book that encompasses not just the story of Hillman’s public life (there is little about the private man) but also a segment of social history before and during the New Deal years. Despite some flaws, to which I shall return, this deeply researched and extremely dense work is a major achievement in American historical scholarship.

Because tsarism imposed on oppositional movements conditions of semi-legality, the Jewish Bund had to compress within itself the not-always-harmonious activities of a high-spirited socialism and a practical unionism. As if by instinct, the young Hillman aligned himself with the unionist side of the Bund, even while employing the rhetoric of socialism. This apprenticeship in dissent gained him, in Mr. Fraser’s words, “self-discipline, social solidarity, and a sense of mission one that helped supplant the age-old resignation…of the shtetl.” With the Jewish sentiments of the Bund, however, Hillman seems never to have been at ease. In 1905 he switched to the Mensheviks (or Russian Social Democrats), who advocated a somewhat bleached internationalism. Many Menshevik leaders were Jewish, but they disdained as parochial the Bundist desire to maintain Jewish social and cultural identity.

After the collapse of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Hillman, like many others in his generation of Russian radicals, fled to America. He drifted to Chicago, where jobs in the garment industry were more available than in New York. He worked for sixty to seventy hours a week at menial tasks for miserable pay. In 1909 he became an apprentice cutter in the men’s clothing factory of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, his last job as a wage earner.

Within a year there broke out one of those bitter strikes—they resembled a communal civil war—with which the early years of Jewish immigrant life were punctuated. “Hart, Schaffner & Marx had a well-deserved reputation for Prussian-style management,” and once the largely immigrant workers began to rebel, Hillman became one of their leaders. The training he had received in the Bund gave him an advantage over competitors: he could speak, clearly if not eloquently, he knew the rudiments of organization, and he showed a certain skill at holding together the diverse ethnic groups (Jewish, Italian, Slavic) among the strikers. The language of Bundist insurgency came back to him—it always would in the heat of strikes.

What Hillman had thus far experienced was not very different from what other Jewish radicals in the garment unions were experiencing. One aspect of his career, however, is seen by Mr. Fraser as distinctive, and that is his encounter with Midwestern Progressivism. Figures like the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the social worker Jane Addams, and Professor Charles Merriam of the University of Chicago, who gave a somewhat theoretical cast to Progressivist politics, came to the aid of the strikers, or tried to mediate between them and the employers, a few of whom had also been touched by Progressivism, especially by the Progressive belief that social harmony could be had through collective bargaining.

For a few years the Chicago garment workers under Hillman’s leadership were locked into a sclerotic AFL union, the United Garment Workers, but by 1914 a national network of insurgent cloakmakers bolted to form the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Hillman, at the age of twenty-eight, became its president. Charged by the AFL with “dual unionism for having dared to abandon the moribund” UGW, the Amalgamated drew for its leadership upon a cadre of Jewish radicals, mostly Bundists, but also a few Italian Socialists. Not until 1933 did the Amalgamated finally join the AFL—though its separation from the main labor movement allowed it to advocate a more progressive social program than any then advocated by traditional unions.

Hillman now began to understand that if a union were to be established in the garment industry, that jungle of destructive competition, it would have to assume the tasks of an industrial policeman, enforcing fair work standards and some rationalization of production (“scientific management”). About such matters he had not heard in the Bund.

In Chicago Hillman learned another important lesson: that while the rhetoric of insurgency could inspire and cement the ranks, you needed some influence within the larger society in order to settle strikes—and for this, the Progressives were very useful. Did Hillman also begin to shift in his mind to something like a Progressive outlook, abandoning his earlier socialism, or did he simply see the Progressives as a convenience to be called upon in need? Mr. Fraser does not say and he is right not to: such distinctions are seldom clear-cut, the premises most people in Hillman’s situation work from are often blurred. If, for a moment, we were to revert to the categories Hillman inherited from the Bund—he must, after all, have remembered them—we can say that he was coming to recognize that an American union, even if made up mainly of Jewish immigrants, had to combine “class struggle” with “class collaboration.” Even the most militant unions had to accept the rules and norms of the existing society, e.g., signing contracts (when the syndicalist IWW refused to sign them, it lost a good part of its membership).

The prodigy of the Bund was now on the way to becoming “the tribune of modernity, in this case, the industrial modernism of contractual obligation, economic equity, and productive efficiency.” It’s also true that he “never entirely lost touch with the world of socialist yiddishkeit, especially in his private life, but it became more the shadow than the substance of his being.” A very pale shadow, I’d add.

Friends and critics were quick to notice these changes in Hillman. That he would address “the [Chicago] Women’s Club, where he was warmly received by the city’s social elite”; that he developed warm relations with a few enlightened businessmen, like Edward Filene and Milton Florsheim—these were things that neither the stolid AFL leaders nor the Jewish Socialists of the neighboring International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) could regard with much enthusiasm. In fact, between Hillman and the Jewish Socialists around the Forward, their Yiddish newspaper, relations were seldom more than polite. They felt he was too eager to become cozy with the goyim, too ready to work with politically neuter technocrats.

I can remember from my socialist youth during the late 1930s that, while both Hillman and David Dubinsky, head of the ILGWU, were criticized for backsliding into liberal reformism, still we felt closer to Dubinsky than to Hillman. There was something “dry” and distant about Hillman; he wasn’t (we sensed) the kind of man who troubled to look back. Dubinsky, though also a fervent supporter of Roosevelt, was still “one of us,” plebeian and unpretentious. You couldn’t help liking, or being amazed by, the ebullient Dubinsky, a natural performer, while Hillman seemed stiff, authoritarian. I still think these impressions had a point—Mr. Fraser remarks in passing that Hillman, a virtuoso at containing his feelings, would suffer periodic semi-breakdowns.

Hillman was an opportunist, both quick to seize new opportunities and not always letting principles stand in their way. I suppose it was inescapable that he should come to the ideas he did about the future of American unionism: there was no avoiding the maneuvers of major party politics, there was a genuine need to find a few allies within the business world, and there was a natural inclination to join the political enterprises of Progressivism as these would meld into the New Deal. What Hillman became was a sort of Jewish-American Fabian committed to a rather bureaucratic version of reformist gradualism, or, in Mr. Fraser’s terms, a “social Keynesian” favoring state capitalist planning, or, if you prefer New Left language, a “corporate liberal.”

Hillman was also opportunistic in another sense: his repeated readiness to form an alliance with the Communists, first in the early 1920s, during the late 1930s, and lastly during the Second World War. A convert to notions of “scientific management,” he felt a certain kinship—nor was he entirely wrong—with Lenin’s espousal of Taylorism (systematized work efficiency) during the years of the Bolsheviks’ New Economic Policy in 1921, and afterward. There were more immediate reasons as well for his amiable relations with the Communists in the early 1920s, including the financial support he gave their Yiddish paper, the Freiheit. As Mr. Fraser remarks, Hillman’s “deep affinity…for the Bolsheviks” derived in part from “his own magnetic attraction to power,” and this meant power not only in the Soviet Union but also within the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Because he dealt with the Communists, “the CP aligned itself more often in support of the union leadership than against it,” and thereby he avoided the brutal factional wars between Communists and Socialists which would soon rip apart the other garment unions.

In 1924, however, this alliance fell apart, when the Amalgamated endorsed the third-party presidential campaign of Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, and the Communists, in one of the bizarre sectarian swings ordered by the Comintern, opposed it.

A more disturbing relationship concerns that between the garment unions and the Jewish racketeers headed by the notorious Louis Lepke and Jake Gurrah. Mr. Fraser is careful here, since evidence is hard to come by, but it seems clear from his pages that these gangsters preyed upon the small and vulnerable businesses in the garment center while providing unions with “services,” ranging from handy loans to the bashing of workers’ heads. (The gangsters didn’t care whether those heads were Communist or anti-Communist; it was just a question of who paid.) During the 1920s Lepke and his goons gradually “encroached on Amalgamated territory…and in some instances ended up defending rather than assaulting strikers.” Hillman later claimed that he was unaware of this criminal infiltration into the garment center during the pre-Depression years, but “it’s a hard claim to credit,” adds Mr. Fraser, “given his keen intelligence and his almost compulsive monitoring of all union affairs. Graft and corruption among union officials were diseases endemic to the industry.”

Under the leadership of one Abe Beckerman, a right-wing Socialist, who made “deals with manufacturers to establish out-of-town nonunion shops, a process abetted by trucking concerns under the control of Lepke,” Local 4 of the Amalgamated became an almost autonomous structure within the union. Finally, in 1931, apparently recognizing that things were getting out of hand, Hillman launched a “war” against racketeers and ousted the Local 4 leadership.

There is also, according to Mr. Fraser, “some fragmentary evidence” that Hillman himself connived in “reaching an understanding with Lepke and Gurrah” which helped reestablish the strength of the Amalgamated in 1932, possibly paying between $25,000 and $50,000 as part of the new relationship. Twelve years later Lepke was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, whereupon Norman Thomas, no admirer of Hillman, remarked: “I think it was very fortunate for Mr. Hillman that Mr. Lepke went to the electric chair without talking more than he did.” The issue was not Hillman’s personal rectitude—no one questioned that. It was the deep, perhaps inextricable, connection between the industry, including its unions, and the racketeers, one of the more notable features of the “free market,” New York style.

The most valuable part of this book is a richly detailed segment, some 150 pages in length, offering a critical analysis of labor’s relation to Roosevelt’s New Deal. This book-within-a-book provides an excellent account of the internal divisions of interest and ideology within the New Deal bureaucracy—equaled, if at all, only by Kenneth S. Davis’s somewhat neglected The New Deal Years.*

It was now that Hillman came into his own, especially during the mid-1930s, when, in the blend of styles that best suited him, he combined the roles of insurgent and bureaucrat, major leader in the rise of the CIO and infighter within government for “left-Keynesianism.”

Franklin Roosevelt was putting together an administration that, while heterogeneous in politics and style, had as a primary end the revival, which also meant the significant modification, of a capitalism close to collapse. Roosevelt improvised, but the materials of his improvisation were drawn from long established theoretical positions. The figures around Roosevelt came together in shared suspicion, like wary circus performers disciplined by a brilliant impresario. There were conservatives like Lewis Douglas, who complained that Roosevelt’s decision to take the US off the gold standard meant “the end of Western civilization”; proponents of a sort of guild corporatism like Bernard Baruch; bright young intellectuals like Rexford Tugwell and Jerome Frank, not really the socialists that fevered Republicans thought they were but technocrats ready to experiment with national economic planning; offspring of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressivism, like Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes; and advocates of mass-consumption industrial democracy (“social Keynesianism”) like Frances Perkins, Felix Frankfurter, and Hillman himself.

Out of this unlikely gathering Roosevelt created the managers for a semi-welfare state, quite skimpy by comparison with some Western European models but revolutionary by American standards. The country was stumbling into the twentieth century, where despite all the cant about the “free market.” there kept occurring a steadily increasing interpenetration of government and economy. Socialists like Norman Thomas argued that even during its left phase in 1935 and 1936 the New Deal kept firmly within the limits of capitalism. True enough; but what Thomas failed to grasp—he did later—was the extent to which the New Deal reforms might change the inner balance of social relationships.

And here, I think, Hillman was very keen in his perceptions. John L. Lewis, then the pugnacious head of the CIO, saw the New Deal primarily as an opening for the establishment of industrial unions in steel, auto, and rubber, industries the stick-in-the-mud AFL had failed to organize. The leaders of the ILGWU, Socialists or soon ex-Socialists, saw the New Deal as primarily an opportunity to regain the ground they had lost during the 1920s. But Hillman recognized the partial “openness” of welfare-state capitalism, sensing that the ideological replacement of “rugged individualism” by a “socialization of concern” meant that labor now had a chance not only to make gains within the society but, at least as important, also through the state.

In the first few years of the New Deal, when its policy was more an effort to straighten out the chaos of American business than to introduce significant social reforms, Hillman kept sounding a militant note:

“You don’t transfer power by statute…. You don’t expect the Government to send the American working class to Labor Unions. That is the union’s job.”

But he was also quick to see that, from the standpoint of all constituencies, not only labor, previously locked out of government, the New Deal—indeed, the welfare state in general—should be regarded as an arena for social struggle, one in which class conflict had become intensely politicized. Mr. Fraser puts this well:

The state itself became a locus of activity for contending elites, for the suddenly articulate armies of the shop floor, for the organizational dynamics of electoral politics, and for the brute force of the marketplace.

If, however, Hillman and his allies made up “the whole left wing of the New Deal,” that isn’t to say that both wings were able to exert equal force. Partly because of disillusionment brought on by the Depression, partly because of Roosevelt’s occasional anti-business rhetoric, and partly because the left, while never a major force, could exert a certain impact on American social life (e.g., through several CIO unions), the business community had lost what Gramsci calls cultural hegemony. A good part of American business remained opposed to the New Deal, obtusely refusing to see that Roosevelt might be its savior; yet within the New Deal bureaucracy, except perhaps for a few years in the mid-1930s, the interests and outlooks of business continued to remain strong, often to Hillman’s bafflement.

Mr. Fraser tells an interesting anecdote. During the early 1930s Hillman was working as an official in an industry-wide board that was supposed to enforce the “codes” of the NRA (National Recovery Act). He kept nagging at the board’s administrators that labor regulations were not being properly enforced. The deputy administrator, Lindsay Rodgers, tried to shake him off, but Hillman persisted. So they went to General Hugh Johnson, then head of the NRA, where Rodgers suddenly accused Hillman of having arranged for a telegram “quoting Rodgers to the effect that Johnson…didn’t care about enforcement.” Whereupon Johnson made vague noises about enforcement and Hillman left “satisfied.” (Whether he was, we’ll never know.) According to Rodgers, Johnson then said, “It’s just the kind of stunt that a [Jew] likes to pull,” a remark, comments Mr. Fraser, “that would not have been out of character [for Johnson], given the General’s notorious impulsiveness, vulgarity, and prejudice.” For all his skill and stubbornness, Hillman remained an outsider: he was a “union man,” he didn’t speak English as Groton graduates did, and, at least in Washington, he still carried a faint aroma of the radical.

How quickly the Roosevelt administration dropped “left-Keynesianism” during the war and how Hillman’s influence correspondingly shrank, Mr. Fraser describes in a strong chapter, “Wars, Foreign and Domestic.” In those years Hillman held a number of high posts, but

it is the underlying irony of this phase of his career that [his] actual power to determine the contours of public policy declined in inverse proportion to his official position…. Roosevelt had invited him to become part of a government of national unity…in theory deaf to the pleadings of special interests. In reality, the agencies of economic mobilization were honeycombed by such interests and…the voice of the corporate old guard drowned out all other contending parties. The war turned out to be the gravedigger of domestic economic and social reform.

Hillman became “more and more strident and scolding, thereby cutting away at his diminishing credibility as a partisan of the disadvantaged;” His exit from the government now seemed inevitable. Nor was he alone: the whole tribe of New Dealers felt themselves cut adrift. By April 1942 “there seemed to be nothing left.”

Behind Hillman’s double role as insurgent and bureaucrat there was both a keen intelligence regarding the nature of the modern state and a deep uncertainty, even confusion, regarding the place a “union man” could find in that state. “A question would arise,” concludes Mr. Fraser, “as to whether…Hillman represented the needs of labor within the councils of national power or…the viewpoint of a self-aggrandizing state within the councils of the labor movement.” The question has persisted since Hillman died in 1946, at the age of fifty-nine.

No reader of this book is likely to doubt that Hillman was an important and impressive figure. He arouses respect, but not, at least for me, affection. One senses in him an excess of repressive calculation, a lack of human spontaneity—he is all too much a man of the historical moment. A political anecdote may illustrate the point.

After the fall of Poland to the Nazis, the leaders of the Jewish Bund, Victor Alter and Henrik Ehrlich, fled to the Soviet Union. At first cordially received, they were later arrested and in 1943, for no declared reason, executed by Stalin’s secret police. A large protest meeting, sponsored by the liberal and anti-Stalinist left communities, was organized at Madison Square Garden. “Of course, the CP did not attend. Neither did Sidney Hillman.” So close were, by now, his political relations with the New York Communists and so important a force did they seem to him for mobilizing electoral support for Roosevelt, that he decided it would be better to avoid a show of solidarity with the martyred Bundists. Hillman surely knew that Alter and Ehrlich were men of the highest probity, he must surely have remembered, if only at occasional moments, something of what the Bund had once meant to him. Afterward, in New York labor and socialist circles, his name evoked contempt.

In detailing Hillman’s dealings with the Communists Mr. Fraser writes as a responsible historian, but when it comes to the phenomenon of “anti-communism” he writes as if he were an unregenerate New Leftist. How so sophisticated a man can reduce the numerous varieties of anticommunism, ranging across the entire political spectrum, to “an all-purpose, manipulated mass sentiment,” or how he can say (what his own book shows to be false) that anticommunism was “an obsession that despite the putative object of its wrath, had precious little to do with the Soviet Union,” I fail to grasp. In reality, opposition to communism had almost everything to do with the Soviet Union—and with the wave after wave of revelations of the dictatorial brutality that was practiced there.

This simplistic treatment of anticommunism is an occasionally irritating fault. A larger failing is that Mr. Fraser, after all his massing of historical materials, lacks a concluding, more theoretical, chapter. He ought to have ended by raising questions of the relation of labor struggles to state bureaucracy in the last years of our century. For the problem has become more acute since Hillman’s day, and the Amalgamated, despite a serious and devoted leadership, still suffers from the inability, or refusal, of the labor movement as a whole to grapple with this question.

I will mention only a few aspects of this problem. Insofar as the welfare state is the setting for dynamic social changes, it needs constantly to be renewed from below, through popular participation and pressure. (In this society, it takes a lot of running just to stay in place). But the labor movement has gone through varying periods of advance and retreat—so that a time arises in which it lacks the social strength that might enable it to exert the kind of influence within the state apparatus that Hillman envisaged. Meanwhile, the right wing has become much more sophisticated, discovering that the structure of the welfare state, when packed with its own people, can be bent in its direction at least as much as it could be bent in behalf of labor. This, in turn, became a signal for some sectors of business, during the Reagan years, to engage in old-fashioned union-busting, beginning with the treatment of the air-traffic controllers by the administration itself. Add to these factors the internationalization of the economy and the growth of the multinationals, which tend to weaken unions both in negotiations and strikes, and you can see how difficult things have become for even the most alert and progressive unions.

The labor movement has also contributed to its difficulties. Partly because the top AFL-CIO leadership routinely supported the Vietnam War, thereby cutting itself off from potential allies; partly because new social movements (blacks, feminists, environmentalists) have resisted the claims of labor to dominance in the progressive camp; and partly because of conservative inertia within the labor leadership itself, the image of labor as the central agent of social reform—so strong in the years of my youth—has faded among young people. So far, the AFL-CIO has not shown much capacity for self-renewal such as marked unionism in the 1930s.

These are but a few of the reasons for wondering whether Hillman’s version of “the new unionism” is still workable. I don’t fault Mr. Fraser for not having answers to these problems—it’s not clear that anyone has—but I think he should have tried systematically to deal with them at the end of his book. Perhaps he will in the next one.


How They Died November 21, 1991

  1. *

    Random House, 1986.