Barbara Hillman fidgets. She hugs herself as she rocks forward, the index and middle fingers of her left hand grasping an invisible cigarette and beating a tattoo against her right arm. She sticks out her chin, purses her lips, arches her eyebrows, peers over her black-rimmed reading glasses–the right earpiece connected to the frame with what looks like a hunk of paper clip–and speaks quietly, deliberately, pausing between words: “We are not . . . unaware . . . of your concerns.” Her accent sounds New Yorky with nasal intonation and Gs carried over: “That’s something gless than we’re asking gfor”; “You’re limiting git.” Always in charge, she commands the attention of her audience, usually nonverbally. Sometimes she has to issue a verbal reminder: “Listen to me! You always have to listen to me!”

Barbara Hillman is a tiny woman, diminutive in stature and slender, the result of a diet composed primarily of black coffee and cigarettes. Her hair is short, severe, black flecked with gray; combed back from a widow’s peak, an errant lock sometimes falls into her face. As she hunches over the negotiating table, dark, hooded eyes always on the move, her glance darts from face to face.

Barbara Hillman is a labor lawyer–one of the best, one of the first women in her field. She’s candid in her self-assessment: “I’m abrasive. I’m forceful. I’m certainly not a shrinking violet. You’re dealing with a lot of historic things. You’re dealing with a woman who became a labor attorney in 1966. I’m dealing with a lot of traditionally male, blue-collar unions. All that goes into shaping who you are. I don’t try to offend persons. My goal is the goal. I try not to have subsidiary goals. My role in court or arbitration hearings is to do my best for the union. If it advances the goal to be nasty, I’ll be nasty. I don’t think in most cases it does.”

The firm of Cornfield & Feldman occupies the 13th floor–or, according to one elevator, floor 12 1/2–of the Fisher Building, just north of Van Buren on Dearborn. Barbara Hillman has been a partner since 1971 in this 15-lawyer firm that handles everything for labor organizations from taxes to bankruptcy, from contract negotiations to getting a license to serve beer at union picnics.

Hillman’s office is on the scruffy side, with a view of the CNA building’s red bulk dead ahead and cranes atop the library-to-be next door. It’s a small office, with high ceilings buffeted by a constant blue cloud of cigarette smoke, smoke the noisy ventilation system does little to dispel. The floors are bare wood; a gangly rubber plant gawks toward the window.

Born in 1942, Hillman went to grade school in Cicero (“We were the only Jewish family in school”), to high school at New Trier, to college and law school at the University of Chicago. Later, representing a teachers’ union, she encountered an old principal from Cicero, by now the superintendent of schools; he was surprised by her role, she says, with a tight-lipped grin, since “I was a well-brought-up young child who never talked back.”

Hillman went into law because “there was not too much else to do after graduating from college. I was not really interested in being a doctor, and I couldn’t really see myself teaching.” In the bright shining days of the civil rights movement, “the law was seen–rightly or wrongly–as a means to effect change.”

The Hillmans were–and are–a liberal lot. Her grandparents were immigrants. Her mother was a clerical worker; her father (the source of her accent) went to City College of New York in the 30s, has a master’s degree in civil engineering, and was involved in union organizing in the 40s and 50s. “He was blacklisted a lot. I thought everyone’s father changed jobs every two weeks.” Labor organizer Sidney Hillman was a relative, but the family considered him a “right-winger,” and the branches seldom intertwined. Her family was Jewish, but nonpracticing: their real religion was politics. “It was all we talked about.” One of Hillman’s two sisters is a labor union attorney: the other is a labor organizer. Hillman’s parents still live in Chicago; unconventional candid photographs of them adorn one shelf of an etagere in her office.

A large black-and-white photograph over the desk commands the eye: it’s a picture of an elderly woman wearing glasses and a wide-brimmed hat, carrying a cane and a picket sign: “No man can serve two masters. Render unto God what is God’s . . . and to Caesar–what is Caesar’s. Let prayers be said in our blessed public schools. I am an American.” It was taken by Hillman’s late husband, Arnold E. Charnin, a partner at Cornfield & Feldman whom she married in 1967; he died of a heart attack in 1978. Hillman has not remarried.

She lives near the lake, on Wellington, and she likes to cook–dinner is her one meal of the day; if she eats breakfast or lunch, she reports, she gets sleepy. Hillman ran for state representative in 1980, as a Democrat, but was defeated in the primary. “Change in this country, the setting of goals, objectives, whatever, is a political process,” says Hillman, exhaling smoke. “When I was in law school, there was a feeling that things could be done through the court system. . . . I think we were fundamentally wrong. Whatever your goals are, it has to be a political process. Changes are going to be incremental.”

For the last few years, Hillman has spent a substantial amount of time catching airplanes like other people catch the bus. “I can’t remember a week when I haven’t been out of town for at least a portion.” She goes to New York to work on the LTV bankruptcy, to Denver for the Kaiser bankruptcy, to West Virginia, to Washington, D.C., often flying in and out of her destination on the same long day.

In Chicago her clients include AGMA–the American Guild of Musical Artists–the union that represents singers and ballet dancers. Members of the local include the singing, dancing, and stage managing employees of Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony, Grant Park Chorus, and Ballet Chicago. It’s a union that has negotiated powder-puff contracts for decades; while it is hardly at the hardball level of the powerhouse American Federation of Musicians, which represents instrumentalists, AGMA is finally graduating from whiffle ball to 12-inch softball. Hillman recently concluded contract negotiations with the Lyric–winning (with the unpaid chorus negotiating committee of which I was a member) an increase for the chorus of approximately 44 percent over a four-year contract, as well as numerous nonfinancial improvements in working conditions–and will be working for new contracts for the CSO and Grant Park choruses this year as well. How do singers and their concerns compare with those of, say, fire fighters or telephone workers?

“The issues are not terribly different,” replies Hillman. “In some ways, negotiating a contract is negotiating a contract is negotiating a contract–whether it’s mine workers or Lyric Opera or teachers. You’re still looking at job security, health issues, retirement.” She doesn’t have a lot of trouble understanding the concerns of her artistic clients: “I have a good memory. I’ve seen dancing, I’ve heard singing. I read.”

Hillman has very definite ideas on how negotiation is properly accomplished, and anyone who serves on a negotiating committee with her quickly finds that out.

“I am very much aware in every situation that I am not the union. I am representing, the lawyer for the union. As a matter of reality, whatever happens, it is not going to be my reality, and thus I will not make decisions. Now, obviously, I have a certain amount of experience, and if that experience doesn’t bring wisdom, at least it brings me some feel as to what is possible, and that feel is based on what’s going on in the world–what settlements have been nationwide, what settlements have been in the industry, what the problems have been. I really believe workers–and everyone I deal with is a worker–are not greedy or selfish, and that the demands that they make are not out of line. There’s usually a reason for why they want something. So that’s the basis for negotiating–trying to explicate or articulate the reasons.”

Hillman has a strict rule against letting committee members speak in negotiating meetings without her permission. “You can’t have negotiations where you have 20 people speaking. You gotta be focused. You can’t accomplish anything if you have 20 people talking–it’s counterproductive. I’m hired to talk.”

She also watches her language in the often heated negotiations. And she tries to make sure that management and her clients are still on speaking terms when a contract is agreed on. “I very rarely deal with one-case situations. I’m dealing with an organization that’s going to go on. My clients and their adversaries are going to be living together. . . . One has to be aware that one doesn’t poison relationships, or undercut relationships–or, on the other side, make [management] think they can get away with things.”

Bette McGee is the women’s chorus representative at Lyric Opera, chairman of AGMA’s Chicago board of governors, and a member of the national board of governors. A veteran of several previous negotiations as well as the session just past, she calls Barbara Hillman “very strong–the strongest negotiator I have ever worked with. Compared with the others, she’s willing to take direction; if there’s something you feel very strongly about, she will absolutely work with you. When we first met with her, she told us, ‘I’m here to represent you. Tell me what you want, and I will try to get it for you,’ and I liked that. She will advise you that she doesn’t think you’ll get everything, but she’ll certainly try.

“The first impression puts you off–I wish everyone in the chorus could be on the committee and see her work. When you first meet her, with the way she expresses herself, you think she’s lacking in tact. Not so. She’s a very intelligent, very clever woman. She picks things up very quickly. If you say something, she sees all the ramifications of it, even though she’s not familiar with the milieu of opera. She certainly commands respect, and she’s really in charge of the meeting. She chairs the meeting. And she never forgets [negotiating] points–she knows just where we are on each one.”

McGee has only two complaints about Hillman: one is a tendency common to labor lawyers to “steamroll” her own side as well as management when she decides it’s time to settle; McGee feels a few more things could have been squeezed from Lyric’s team, although she’s essentially very pleased with the new contract. The other complaint from McGee, an asthma sufferer, is Hillman’s smoking; while she doesn’t light up during meetings with management, she puffs away nonstop and unapologetically with her committee. “I put up with it–because she’s doing a lot of good for our side.”

Gil Feldman hired Hillman back in 1966. “She was probably the first of the new breed of female negotiators, and she’s the best. We were concerned that it would be hard for her in ’66, but it didn’t work out that way. Even in the steel mills, our initial anxiety was short-lived. What you can do for them–that’s what they base their judgments on.”

Actually, Hillman’s gender turned out to be an advantage for her, “because there were so few female negotiators at the time. And female-dominated bargaining units felt more comfortable with a tough lady lawyer. . . . She’s one of the best bargainers in the city.”

Hal Lewis has been sitting across a bargaining table from Barbara Hillman on the Kaiser Coal and Steel bankruptcy for a little more than three years. “We’ve been adversaries in a dozen different situations,” he says. “She’s articulate, bright, she has a lot of energy. I have the highest respect for her.

“She is very dedicated to the unions’ positions, very articulate and aggressive in pursuing the unions’ positions. She’s willing to wait–she will stay with her position for a long time. She doesn’t give up readily. She knows how to strike a balance between a very aggressive stand on a union position, and reaching a solution that’s fair for everyone. It sounds as if I’m the head of the Barbara Hillman fan club–but that’s not the case.

“In the final analysis, though, she’s very fair, and knows when to be aggressive, and when it’s best not to pursue her position to the ultimate. She has a good feel for the overall purpose of a big bankruptcy case, and a good feel for compromise, for working through situations and coming to a reasonable solution. She’s one of those people who, over the course of a long case, even though you’re adversarial, you know will deal with you with the utmost professionalism.”

Is Barbara Hillman a feminist? She thinks, purses her lips, pauses for a moment before she answers. “Sure I believe in women’s rights. I believe in ERA. I think most of the rules that limit women’s participation in society are outmoded and foolish. I don’t take offense at almost anything the women’s movement has done.”

Hillman, who says she doesn’t get involved in women’s issues herself because she doesn’t have time, endorses the concept of comparable worth in setting wages. “But I think that, for a variety of reasons, it’s not a concept for which relief will be granted through the courts at the present time.” She says that the market, after centuries of higher wages for jobs that men usually do than for jobs women customarily perform, is “tainted–and it can’t be untainted.”

She also approves of affirmative action, because “I think it’s necessary. One, I think that the only way we can assure the participation [of women and minorities], given the history of discrimination, is by giving jobs [to members of those groups]. Two, I think in most situations, we don’t know what meritocracy is, or can’t measure merit. We need to assure the participation of all segments of society–and goals and timetables are a way to do that.”

Barbara Hillman is the first to acknowledge it: “These are tougher times for labor organizations. Public attitudes have changed. There are arbitrations I lose that I know I would have won five years ago or ten years ago–the same type of case, the same arbitration.”

She thinks unions no longer have as much strike power, and she sees Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers as a harbinger of the erosion of that power. “The PATCO strike was the first time there was public approbation at the highest level, saying, “It is appropriate to fire people rather than talk to them.’

“Union jobs are good jobs, particularly compared to nonunion jobs. People are more willing to cross picket lines.” Although some backbreaking union coal-mining positions paying 15 or 16 dollars an hour are, in Hillman’s words, “horrible jobs, someone in Virginia who’s working for 5 or 6 dollars an hour will be willing to break that strike.”

Another problem, from the labor unions’ perspective, is the greater focus on the individual today. “People concentrated in the 80s on themselves. I think in some way labor unions are the antithesis of individuality.

“Unions are communities, a certain kind of community. They’re democratic–sometimes too democratic,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “I don’t think rampant individualism is a very effective method of organizing. Unions in certain situations require subordination. I don’t believe people deal with society as individuals–I think they deal with it as communities, and unions are a certain type of community. I think whatever gains this country has made in terms of providing its citizens with the good life has resulted in large part from the union movement. . . . I believe in that sense in collectivism.” She pauses and takes a drag, as if daring me to challenge her statement, which dismisses the contributions and achievements of millions of pioneers and entrepreneurs over the last three and a half centuries.

“I think individual workers and society as a whole would benefit by unionization in sectors where there’s not unionization today,” she continues. Hillman believes the American Medical Association and American Bar Association “are not terribly different from craft unions, and I think we’ll see more [of that aspect] as doctors are employed instead of operating their own practices.”

There are several hard issues to be raised about labor unions. One of these, individual rights (the rewarding of seniority over talent, for instance), Hillman has waved aside as she would a puff of smoke as essentially irrelevant. Another, union violence, brings her forward in her seat, poking the air with the omnipresent cigarette. “Strikes are not conducted with parasols on Main Street. This is not to condone violent or inappropriate actions, but these are very difficult struggles. The strike is really a union’s only weapon.” The threat of permanent replacements, she points out, “obviously makes for a very confrontational situation.”

Hillman asserts that company guards often provoke violence, with taunting, dogs, and dressing in black uniforms, and that, for that matter, mine owners provoke strikes, seeking to get rid of union contracts. As for union corruption, “No one condones union leaders who sweetheart, who steal, who cheat, and to the extent that that goes on, it has to be dealt with.”

When it comes to union insensitivity and outright discrimination against women, minorities, and other outsiders, Hillman, although not condoning it, still finds an explanation. “Part of the idea of the craft union is really to control the availability of labor. To the extent that there is an oversupply, [unions] lose their bargaining power. To the extent that it is the design of craft unions to limit the available pool, [the charges of discrimination are] true.” But look at it from another angle, she urges: if you own a business, someday you can hand it on to your son or daughter. “If you’re a carpenter, what you can give your child is the right to become a journeyman. . . . We see it in all the professions.” Doctors get their children into medical school; lawyers help their children to become partners in the family firm. And stagehands can give their sons a coveted union card and the right to shift scenery for big bucks.

“We’re seeing some changes now, with lawsuits by groups historically excluded. It’s easier in a period of an expanding economy. Unfortunately, that has not been true in the last ten years.”

Hillman hardly comes across as a crazed optimist, but she claims to find encouraging news in what are, from her point of view, discouraging trends. “Labor unions as a whole are getting better–partly because there are more women working, partly because they’re losing membership. There’s an impetus to organize in what were previously unorganized areas. The women’s movement made labor unions more sensitive; they’ve always been at least politically allied with the civil-rights and women’s movements. The AFL-CIO was one of the major supporters of the Civil Rights Act. Their interests are allied in a lot of different areas; therefore they support each other in a lot of other areas.

“I believe in labor unions, I believe in the labor movement. There are times when I think it’s a little stodgy, and needs to be kicked a little. But it’s maintained itself. It’s broad-based.

“I’m not an anarchist. I believe in organizations–and that that’s how to achieve goals.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.