Sidney Hillman’s Legacy: Honoring a Free Press, Advancing Workers’ Rights

Guest author Harold Meyerson, editor at large of The American Prospect, a former op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, a longtime judge of the Hillman Awards and a Shanker Institute Board Member, reminds us on Press Freedom Day that a free press and a powerful workers’ movement are two necessary components of a vibrant democracy.

This evening in New York, a number of journalists, union activists and kindred progressives will come together for the annual presentation of the Sidney Hillman Prizes, which for the past 72 years have been awarded to journalists who, as the Hillman Foundation puts it, “pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.” The Foundation bestows its awards in a number of categories: book, newspaper, magazine, broadcast and web, and this year, received more than 500 entries from which the judges chose the winners.

Unlike virtually every other journalism award contest, there’s no fee for submitting an entry. There is, in fact, a long tradition of Hillman exceptionalism, beginning with the fact that the awards and the foundation were created by a union. Sidney Hillman was the longtime president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the co-founder (with John L. Lewis) of the CIO, a lifelong champion of social unionism (to which the union’s construction of housing for New York’s clothing workers attests), and the labor leader who was closest to Franklin Roosevelt. When he died in 1946, the union began considering how best they could honor him. What they came up with was a foundation that would award journalism “in service of the common good,” a foundation that the union and its successors funded well into the current century.

What Hillman and his successors understood was that democracy requires both a vibrant free press and a powerful union movement – and that no democracy had long endured without both. In the years since awards began, they have gone to such brilliant “common good” story tellers as Murray Kempton, Edward R. Murrow (for his take down of Sen. Joseph McCarthy), Michael Harrington (for The Other America), and Spike Lee (for his Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke.”) They have gone to national institutions like PBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and courageous small-town papers and local broadcast outlets. 

This year’s awards are going to a similarly broad range of recipients, including Eyal Press for his book Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America; Ari Berman for his coverage of voting rights in Mother Jones; and an Arizona local broadcast affiliate of ABC TV, for uncovering the deceptions of the Phoenix police in charging protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s murders.

The Hillmans also bestow a lifetime achievement award every other year to a labor historian. This year’s award goes to Columbia University’s Eric Foner, whose brilliant histories dispelled the D.W. Griffith view of Reconstruction by documenting the rise of both Black democratic participation and white terrorism that actually characterized those years. 

On Press Freedom Day, the Hillman Awards remind us that a free press and a powerful workers’ movement are two necessary components of a vibrant democracy.