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Labor lawyer Peggy Hillman, who went undercover for meatpacking probe, dead at 71

Labor attorney Peggy Hillman (provided photo).

To find out what meatpacking employees experience, labor lawyer Peggy Hillman went undercover in 1984, working for two months in a Kansas plant where she hacked kneecaps out of beef carcasses.

The grueling job resulted in her testifying before a congressional subcommittee on meat safety. She found training was minimal, washrooms and lunchrooms were filthy, and managers hounded workers by speeding up production lines, according to an interview she did with the Milwaukee Journal in 1987.

“I was given no instructions at all,” she told the subcommittee, “about the proper use of a knife or how to sharpen the knife or that the knife was supposed to be changed several times a day.”

When she left the plant, she had carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful pinched wrist nerve from repetitive movements, according to her family and friends.

“When I got to work each day, I would physically push the fingers of my left hand around the meat hook, and that was the position in which those poor paralyzed fingers stayed all day,” she wrote about her job.

“She was nothing if not tough,” said her sister, Carol Hillman.

In 1987, Ms. Hillman helped win a $9 million settlement for former Iowa meatpackers in one of the biggest back-pay cases at that time.

Ms. Hillman, 71, died Monday after a drunken driver struck the bicycle she was riding a few miles from her home in Lakeside, Michigan, according to the Berrien County, Michigan, sheriff’s department. She was wearing a helmet but suffered severe injuries from being thrown from the bicycle. The driver was charged with driving while intoxicated.

Ms. HIllman was born in Indiana to Anita and James Hillman, a civil engineer. Her paternal grandfather was a first cousin to Sidney Hillman, founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and labor adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Her family moved to Wilmette, where she attended Avoca grade school and New Trier High School. She played the flute and piano and worked on Lagniappe-Potpourri, New Trier’s annual student-written revue. During the summer, she waited tables at the old Holloway House restaurant in Skokie. She graduated in 1962.

Ms. Hillman got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. After graduating from law school at the University of Chicago, she practiced in Honolulu and in Plains, Montana, then “population 1,200, and one and a half blocks long,” her sister said.

In 1975, she joined the labor law firm Cotton, Watt, Jones & King. The firm represented the United Packinghouse Workers of America, which merged into the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. While at the firm, she did her undercover investigation.

“That was totally her idea,” said Thomas Allison, a former partner at the firm. “It was exceptional.

“She had done a lot of packinghouse work around the Midwest. She was all over Iowa and Nebraska and in these little tiny towns where the packinghouse was an integral part of the town. It was a place where a person without much in the way of education could work and make a living and raise a family. And then that all began to be destroyed with attacks on the union and the meatpacking industry.

“She wanted to figure out how they lived and what they were doing,” Allison said. “Maybe you could figure out how the union could do more to help them.”

In 1991, attorney Michael Holland hired her to work on a massive Teamsters election, the result of a federal racketeering case against the union to open up its polling.

“Instead of 1,000 [delegates] voting, you had 449,000 [rank-and-file members] voting,” he said.

“She was encyclopedic,” Holland said. “She knew labor law — the National Labor Relations Act, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act — like the back of her hand.”

Ms. Hillman worked pro bono for the group Women Employed in a landmark discrimination case involving Harris Bank. In 1989, the bank and the U.S. Department of Labor agreed to a $14 million settlement for women and minorities who said they’d been unable to advance at work, said Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed.

Lawyer Peggy Hillman

Her sense of humor lightened tense negotiating sessions.

“She always brought the right degree of seriousness and humor,” Ladky said.

“My sister Peggy was a competent and devoted attorney, caring about women’s issues and justice for all working people, a great wife and wonderful sister,” said another sister, Barbara Hillman.

Ms. Hillman had lived in Indianapolis with her husband, Herbert Kirst, a chemist for Eli Lilly. Both had retired and were planning to move back to Chicago. Relatives said they will receive condolences at the Chicago home of Barbara Hillman from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.