Born Bas Sheva Abramowitz on May 15, 1889, in Grodno Guberniia, Belarus, Bessie Hillman would become a leader of American labor. Ms. Abramowitz set out for America in 1905 with an older cousin, reportedly to avoid the matchmakers. She was given the name Bessie at Ellis Island, and she headed to Chicago, where she had distant relatives. Bessie could speak only Yiddish and some Russian. She got work as a button sewer in a garment factory, and enrolled in night school at Hull House. In 1907, she financed two younger sisters’ journey to America, who went to work making bow ties.
Working conditions were poor and salary abysmal ($3 for a 60-hour week), and Bessie organized a protest. She was fired and blacklisted. She used a pseudonym and regained employment at Hart, Shaffner, and Marx. In September 1910, she organized a protest of the cut of a quarter-cent from the four-cent piece rate, and sixteen women walked out. Some other workers thought this laughable, including Sidney Hillman, then 24 years old, working as a cutter. By mid-October, however, most of the 8,000 workers were out on strike, and were joined by workers at other plants.
Sidney Hillman joined three weeks into the action, but soon became a leader. The strike gained the support of Jane Addams of Hull House and its Women’s Trade Union League, which hired Ms. Abramowitz as an organizer. Meanwhile, Bessie and Sidney developed their collegial friendship into a romance, and were secretly engaged in 1914. Since both were sending funds home to the old country, a marriage seemed importune (as back then wives did not work).
In 1914, after disagreements at the national convention of the United Garment Workers of America, Bessie led the split into the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. She was elected to the General Executive Board, and led the charge to get Sidney elected President (he had recently taken a job in New York with the ILGWU). He returned and the couple led a 1915 industry-wide strike in favor of the union. They announced their engagement while leading the 1916 Chicago May Day labor parade, and were wed two days later on May 3rd. They moved to New York to head the union.
From that time until Sidney’s death in 1946, Bessie Hillman continued her huge amount of union work as an unpaid volunteer. They had two daughters (born in 1917 and 1921) and in 1924 Bessie began organizing in Pennsylvania, Ohio, upstate New York, Connecticut, and beyond. In 1937, she became the education director for the Laundry Workers Joint Board, affiliated with the Amalgamated. She encouraged the likes of Zero Mostel, Judy Holliday, and Sam Jaffe (whose birthday is May 21st). She backed these artists even through the HUAC blacklist. She also got involved in civil rights, a cause which continued throughout her life.
During WWII, Sidney helped cement bonds between labor and the Roosevelt administration, and Bessie was named by Governor Herbert H. Lehman to the advisory board of the New York Office of Price Administration. Throughout the 1940s the Hillmans were strong supporters of the war effort, bearing the plight of their relatives in Europe in mind. Bessie learned of the loss of those of her family who remained in Europe in 1946, and Sidney died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. Sidney had always insisted on a standard of living no better than that of a cutter in his union, and when he died he left virtually no estate. The Amalgamated hired Bessie as a paid vice president in charge of the union’s education programs.
Through the years, Bessie would serve with the CIO and AFL-CIO Civil Rights Committees, the CIO Community Services Committee, the National Consumers League, the American Labor Education Service, the Committee on Protective Labor Legislation, the American Association fo rthe United Nations, the Child Welfare Committee of New York, and the Defense Advisory Commission on Women in the Services. President Kennedy appointed her to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Ms. Hillman remained active until her death on December 23, 1970.