Working Class Hero : LABOR WILL RULE: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor, <i> By Steven Fraser (The Free Press: $29.95; 600 pp.)</i>

<i> Freedman is the author of "Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School," a finalist for the 1990 National Book Award. He is now writing a book about a black church in Brooklyn</i>

When the Reagan Administration refused to negotiate with striking air-traffic controllers over any issue except the terms of their surrender, it broke more than a union. After nearly half a century, the consensus that organized labor was a legitimate and acceptable partner in American affairs was ruptured. And the spectacle of an elected government defying a peacetime picket line was only one image among many of unionism in decline.

In the 1980s, the common tongue of contract negotiations became not wage increases but “give-backs.” An endorsement by labor opened a political candidate to charges of being beholden to “special interests.” An economy built on overseas production and international finance made domestic unions increasingly vestigial organs.

Against such a backdrop, it strains both memory and credulity to recall the idealism and courage once associated with labor, but Steven Fraser has largely and unsentimentally succeeded in evoking those qualities in “Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor.” The title errs only in one respect: While the narrative indeed follows Hillman’s path from immigrant garment worker to union president to confidant of a President, it more importantly prophesies the impending descent of the American union movement.


Fraser hardly could have chosen a better vehicle for his ambitious account than Hillman (1887-1946). He was, at one level, a virtual archetype of the Jewish (or Italian or Slavic) radicals who forged trade unionism in this country. And he was, at another, a presence in so many other areas of domestic and international politics that to write about Hillman is to write about immigration, two world wars, the Great Depression, the New Deal and the dawning of the Red Scare.

It becomes clear in Fraser’s narrative that Hillman could inhabit so many situations and survive so many crises because of his constant emphasis on diplomacy and compromise. Of all sobriquets applied to him, Hillman most appreciated “labor statesman,” and surely he earned it. His most important influences--tutors, really--were such Midwestern progressives as Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow.

Early in his career, organizing for Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Hillman navigated a middle path between Wobblies and syndicalists on his left and the quiescent United Garment Workers on his right. That balancing act would remain typical of Hillman for decades, and so would his appeal to the garment industry: With a union in your factory and others like it, ending the cutthroat competition between small manufacturers and instilling the principles of “scientific management,” you will enjoy more stability and productivity. So convincing was Hillman that his management foe in one Chicago walk-out said: “When I found out late the conditions that had prevailed, I concluded that the strike should have occurred much sooner.”

Under Hillman, the Amalgamated grew into an innovative and compassionate union, providing its members with education, subsidized housing, health care and unemployment insurance years before the New Deal and the Great Society brought the nation such a social compact. His detente with management included lending union money to troubled factories, the better to protect jobs.

Impatient with a single union’s limitations, Hillman went on to help form the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the CIO’s might brought him into the Roosevelt Administration. His bureaucratic title (associate director of the Office of Production Management) belied his enormous influence, which was, as it developed, a dubious prize. Roosevelt was rumored to have told Democratic leaders, in reference to his 1944 vice presidential choice, “Clear it with Sidney,” and although the story was false, it was repeated often enough in the press to become as damaging as truth. Under unceasing attack, Hillman left not only the President’s inner circle but the mainstream Democratic Party.

Hillman’s fate suggests a second layer in this book. As much as Fraser chronicles several decades of labor history, he tells a cautionary tale about Jewish life in the United States. Except for his left-wing politics, which included lending expertise to Russia’s industrial sector after the Bolshevik revolution and making occasional alliances of convenience with American Communists, Hillman sought assimilation assiduously.

The product of a religious education in his native Lithuania, he rarely visited a synagogue in his adopted country. As a union leader, he often refrained from public speaking, remaining embarrassed over his accent. Whether supporting America’s entry into World War I or advocating management’s right to efficiency, he strove for moderate positions. Yet he was the object of FBI surveillance for the last 24 years of his life, and a favorite target of newspaper columnists and conservative politicians as he gained access to Roosevelt. Such opponents conveniently conflated Hillman’s ideology and his ethnic identity, so that virtually every attack was tainted with antisemitism.

Such a life should provide the stuff of rare and compelling drama, and yet, perplexingly, it does not. The executive editor of Basic Books, Fraser has done a staggering amount of research, and he has written with great elegance. Yet his gifts manifest themselves more in depicting organizations than individuals.

Whether describing a Lithuanian shtetl or a Chicago sweatshop, a company town or a political- action committee, Fraser brings vivid detail and keen analysis to the way social organisms operate, to their alternating currents of unity and civil strife. Yet the man at the center of this biography remains, at least to my taste, curiously bloodless. Certainly one is grateful that Fraser does not indulge the trend for “psycho-biography” that has been inflicted on victims from Pablo Picasso to Richard Nixon. But one longs for a palpable human presence, like Diane Arbus in Patricia Bosworth’s biography or Robert Moses in Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker” or Martin Luther King Jr. in David Garrow’s “Bearing the Cross.”

To be fair to Fraser--and he deserves an extra measure of fairness because so much else in his book is exemplary--Hillman must have been a particularly difficult character to capture. He was, in Fraser’s phrase, “a visionary pragmatist” whose genius resided less in the bold stroke than the deft sidestep. Yet I felt deprived when I came upon this passage late in the book, in which Fraser quotes a magazine article about Hillman:

“Power and passion . . . make him another man when he is crusading. Then his body becomes compact with everything in him mobilized and in action. His pleasantly molded chin and jaw take on a bulldog thrust and aggression. His voice rasps and rings, his consonants are hard and sharp. He uses few gestures, with the result that what he says acquires an impact almost muscular.”

That personal impact is all too often muted in “Labor Will Rule.” A reader sees Hillman’s clout but rarely feels the charisma that made it possible.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from “Labor Will Rule,” see the Opnion section, Page 3.