Garment Worker & Labor Leader

Bessie Abramowitz Hillman

Bessie Abramowitz Hillman, a leading labor organizer in Chicago, was born on May 15, 1887. Abramowitz immigrated to the United States in 1905 and found work in the garment industry in Chicago as a button sewer. She quickly became a leader in her workplace, organizing fellow workers to protest cuts in their wages and unsafe working conditions. In 1910 she helped to lead what became a citywide strike of the garment industry.

Basheva Abramowitz was born in a village called Linowo, Grodno Province (today Лінова, Belarus). In 1905 at the age of 18 she immigrated to the US to join an older cousin already here. She found work as a button sewer in Chicago where some distant family lived. She was fired from her first job for organizing a protest against low pay and poor working conditions.

Freshly arrived in Chicago, Abramowitz enrolled in night school at Hull House while working during the day in a garment factory. Hull House was a settlement house, part of a movement of organizations to help new immigrants and poor workers with services like daycare, healthcare, and educational opportunities. The Chicago Hull House was founded by Jane Addams, who later supported the 1910 garment workers strike of which Abramowitz was a leader.

After being blacklisted for her role as a labor agitator, Abramowitz found work at the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx factory under an assumed name. But she didn’t stay out of trouble; in 1910 she led a walkout of 16 workers to protest a cut in the piece rate. This walkout gained support and by October most of the 8000 workers at the factory had joined the strike, including Abramowitz’s future husband, Sidney Hillman.

Abramowitz and Sidney Hillman developed a friendship through their union involvement that eventually became a romantic relationship. They kept their relationship secret—so that Abramowitz could continue working—until May Day 1916 when they announced their engagement by walking arm in arm at the head of the Chicago May Day parade. They were married three days later.