Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For nearly two decades, from 1944 to 1963, in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, a center of anthracite mining, Min L. Matheson (1909-1992) and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) were synonymous with notions of “community.”

A charitable event? Count on the ILGWU to provide volunteers and raise money.

Patients at an area veterans’ hospital in need of a bit of holiday cheer? Bet that Min Matheson would dispatch the ILGWU chorus to liven things up a bit.

A president or presidential candidate coming to town? Rest assured that Min – and her chorus – would be on the program.

Unemployed residents desperately in need of an advocate to voice their views to state and federal officials? Know that Min wouldn’t give a second thought to calling on Governor George M. Leader or Congressman Daniel J. Flood.

“We learned that, in order to organize, we had to have the community in our corner,” Min L. Matheson said in an interview conducted in 1988. “We participated in one community venture or another. We worked with the Committee of 100 to bring jobs to the area and became active in the United Fund and the Red Cross. I think the people supported us because they thought it was good to have an organization like ours that was community-conscious and upped the earnings of people.” Min L. Matheson understood the importance of community, she understood politics, she understood people and their problems and struggles. For she and her family, too, struggled against enormous odds for a cause that defined her life: the cause of working people.

Minnie Hindy Lurye was born the second of eight children to immigrant Russian Jews in Chicago. As a youngster she observed the intensity with which her father, Max Lurye, approached his life’s work to organize Chicago’s cigar makers. She listened intently as immigrants came to their apartment and talked with Max Lurye about their daily struggles and toil in this new land of great promise. She saw his efforts to stimulate their interest in the idea of collective representation. She heard the fiery speakers who gathered at Riverview Park on Sundays to talk of economic and social justice. And she witnessed, first hand, the intolerance of some toward those who struggled for fairness for working people.

“I’m not going to die, Minnie, I’m not going to die,” her father uttered as he battled to hold onto life after being gunned down on a Chicago street corner by lieutenants of gangster Al Capone (1899-1947) for “causing trouble” as a union organizer. He survived, but memories of the attack remained with Min throughout her life. “You assimilate a lot of that stuff. And it always stayed with me. It stayed with the whole family. But with me, more so.” Of the Lurye children, Min and her brother Will followed most closely in their father’s footsteps.

In 1928, nineteen-year-old Min Lurye fell in love with Bill Matheson, an activist twelve years her senior, whom she met at the Chicago Federation of Labor. With Bill’s encouragement she left Chicago in 1932 to help striking textile workers in Patterson, New Jersey. After the Patterson strike was crushed, Min moved to New York and began working as a dressmaker in Manhattan’s garment district. She befriended ILGWU members and leaders who were quickly impressed with her knowledge, social conscience, and ability to speak publicly. Garnering the respect of co-workers, she was elected chairwoman of ILGWU Local 22 in 1937. With thirty­-two thousand members, ILGWU Local 22 was one of the country’s largest. Bill soon joined her, and they both embarked on careers as union organizers.

In the early forties, Bill accepted an assignment in Sayre, located in Pennsylva­nia’s largely rural northern tier, just south of the New York border. Min chose a line of work that held great meaning for her: motherhood. She gave birth to two daughters, Marianne and Betty. One day in 1944 she received a telephone call from ILGWU president David Dubinsky. He was agitated, ranting in his usual combination of Yiddish and English, because more and more garment factories were “running away” from Manhattan to Pennsylvania and, in particular, to its anthracite region. What would be the effect of New York? And what would it mean to the small cities and towns of Pennsylvania?

The reason for the exodus was, quite simply, economic. The union had been organizing factories in Manhattan since its founding in 1900 and progress was steady. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, however, manufacturers began seeking cheaper labor and an escape from union contracts, and the Keystone State’s hard coal region seemed an attractive locale for “runaway” factories. Traditionally the breadwinners in the anthracite region, men were suffering periods of unemployment during mine closings and then joblessness as the bottom fell out of the coal industry. Families were desperate. Outmigration was growing. So was unemployment in newly emerging garment factories. The wives and daughters of coal miners were eager to sit down at sewing machines to earn what they could to support their families (see “Life After the Mines Closed” by Tom Dublin, and with photographs by George Harvan, Spring 1999). At the beginning they worked for paltry piece rates. The hours were long and the working conditions dismal.

Complicating matters was the underworld. It was no secret that criminal elements had become a problem in the garment industry. Gangsters had plagued New York’s ILGWU for years. When the “runaways” began mushrooming in northeastern Pennsylvania communities, among them Pittston, Kingston, and Edwardsvile, organized crime followed. Dubinsky asked Min and Bill Matheson to “clean up the mess down there.” They accepted. Min was appointed manager of the ILGWU’s Wyoming Valley District and Bill its educational director.

When they arrived in the valley, conditions were worse than either had imagined. “All the mines were down. Men weren’t working,” she recollected. “We had organized in New York and surrounding areas. Wages were getting higher. The employers were looking for lower wages. And, things were happening with organized crime. The big shots in New York, the Genoveses [a noted mob family] and [Albert] Anastasia were having legal problems and wanted a legal front for their illicit activities, which included everything. The dress industry is easy. You need very little capital, a handful of machines, and you’re in business. So they were running. And they ran to coal fields of Pennsylvania.

“They told the women, ‘We’ll teach you to sew.’ they worked for weeks for nothing. And the hours! There were laws in the land but they weren’t obeying any of the laws. They did what they wished and made it easy for the women to come in any time of the day or night. Double, triple shifts. At the Pittston end of the valley it was as if every empty space was occupied by dress shops.”

The ILGWU initiated its local presence in 1937, but proved no match to the growth of the runaways. Minnie Caputo, a garment worker and Matheson ally, described conditions in the early days: “I started when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, non-union. I think I got around ten cents an hour. They were like sweatshops. They [the bosses] stood behind you and timed you and if one girl did eight operations he would say ‘Why not you?’ But, you know, not everyone had the same speed. If they didn’t want you they got rid of you fast. You were out. They were really sweatshops.”

Min found about six hundred and fifty union members in six organized shops when she arrived in 1944. By the time the Mathesons departed in 1963, the Wyoming Valley District counted eleven thousand members in one hundred and sixty-eight organized factories. The legacy of Min Matheson stretches for beyond the organization of garment factories, though. With the help of many, including her husband, she led the charge to transform power­less women garment workers into an influential, community-conscious coalition. She accomplished this by organizing the unorganized and establishing an activist movement. “It wasn’t that organized crime was exactly nonviolent, you know. We were scared. I don’t want you to think that we were so brave. We were scared,” Min emphasized as she described the task of building a union. “But I went on the theory that if you let one factory stay non­-union, it would contaminate the others. The union was here. They had to be union. We did not [yet] have the people. That’s true. They were controlled. But when we walked in it was as though … drama had arrived.”

She recruited Luzerne County residents to help the cause. Since legal problems might result, Min turned to former stage actor and up-and-coming lawyer Dan Flood, noted as much for his powerful presence as his grandiloquent oratory and sartorial splendor (see “‘Dapper Dan’ Flood, Pennsylvania’s Legendary Con­gressman” by William C. Kashatus III, Summer 1995). “Dan helped us all the time. With his mustache and mannerisms and all, he fitted just perfectly into what we were doing.” Members of other local unions, such as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), lent a hand as well. Min recruited people like Angelo “Rusty” DePasquale, a UMWA member and Pittston resident who knew the region well. “I was introduced to Minnie and she asked me about Pittston,” DePasquale recalled. “We went to Pittston and she showed me the shops. The way she talked. The way she spoke to people. She treated me well. I said, ‘Look Minnie, you want me to go along? I’ll help you. Whatever I could do for you.'” John Justin, an ILGWU educator, remembered some of the tactics the organizers used. “In organizing, Min used the pressure of getting as many people in the union as possible. Of getting the Teamsters not to deliver products. We would use everything possible – not violence – but everything possible.”

Initially, the union targeted factories not controlled by organized crime. Although appre­hensive at first, workers began to pay attention to Min’s soapbox speeches. “They used to just pack the union hall because they loved to hear Min talk,” said garment worker Dorothy Ney. “She could convince anyone to join the union.” She did not limit herself to speeches, however, Ney explained. “Min was right on the picket line with us. She went at six o’clock in the morning like we did and she was on the picket line most every morning.” Minnie Caputo recalled that, “If we didn’t have somebody like Min Matheson with us, I think we would have given up. She was so strong and she was right there with us. She fought for every­one. The girls were one hundred percent behind her because they knew that if we went on strike, we were going to get what we wanted. You could count on it and you could count on her.”

Min then turned attention to the mob­-controlled shops, often making live radio broadcasts, to bring attention to the workers’ situation and to rally workers to the union cause with fiery orations penned with the assistance of her husband. One garment worker quipped, “Bill made the snowballs and Min threw them!”

Pittston mobsters on one occasion verbally attacked Min as a harlot, unfit to lead the women. She was infuriated. She telephoned the union hall and asked an associate to dress her two pre-school daughters in starched pinafores and bring them to the picket line. When they arrived, she handed the little girls picket signs and led them to the head of the column. How could the toughs call her such things now? The local press gave great play to the story “Children on the Picket Line.” At another picket line, a reputed underworld boss shouted that Min should bring her “feeble'” husband to the protest to see how long he would last. Irate, she walked up to him, pointed her finger in his face and announced for all to hear, “I don’t need to bring Bill up here because I’m twice the man you’ll ever be!”

By the mid-1940s, the ILGWU’s momentum began to build. Garment workers were becoming increasingly aware of Min Matheson. Contracts began to be negotiated, and more workers were joining union ranks. While continuing to organize, Min worked to create an activist movement. In 1948, the union opened a district health care center in Wilkes-Barre, the only one of its kind designed to serve the entire anthracite region. Garment workers and their families from Pottsville, Schuylkill County, in the south, to Scran­ton, Lackawanna County, in the north, could take advantage of free medical check-ups, immunizations, examinations, screenings, and x-rays. The center provided a wide range of services to thousands of individuals in the region.

At about the same time Min asked ILCWU members Clementine Lyons, Bill Gable, and Jim Corbett to organize a chorus and plan performances. It was important, Min thought, for union members to enjoy social activities through which they could become more familiar with each other and their union. It was also important to her that the community see another side of the ILGWU. The chorus performed for community activities, charity functions, political events, and holiday festivities. It was common for its annual musical revue to sell out multiple shows with most, if not all, of the proceeds destined for local charities.

“We were one of the first ILGWU districts to ever put on a musical revue,” Clem Lyons remembered. “We had our first show at the Kingston Armory. Then Mrs. Matheson wanted us to do a kiddie show. We did, and called it the ‘Lollipop Revue.’ We used to go to the Veterans Hospital to perform. We performed for the American Italian Association and the American Legion. Then we had a regular annual musical. Every year we had these shows, from 1949 to 1976.”

Popularity earned the chorus prominent bookings. It performed during a local welcoming ceremony for President Harry S. Truman, and at a rally in Harrisburg for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Invitations to present holiday revues at New York union headquarters were issued frequently.

Min recognized that routine factory work provided few avenues for intellectual stimulation. With Bill’s guidance, she set out to develop a comprehensive curriculum for workers ranging from courses on factory safety and personal health, to daylong symposia on federal, state, and local policy and legislation, and to programs about the availability of community social services. The union regularly bussed workers to Unity House, its sprawling vacation and conference center nestled in the Pocono Mountains to hear prominent speakers discuss topics of relevance to working people (see “Unity House: A Workers’ Shangri-La” by Kenneth C. Wolensky, Summer 1998). Factory workers also traveled to Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., to tour, meet with policymakers, and attend legislative hearings, and to New York to visit landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations.

One of Min’s proudest accomplishments in the area of education was forging a partnership with Wilkes College (now University) in the Luzerne County seat of Wilkes-Barre which gave workers the opportunity to do something practically unheard of at the time – to attend evening college courses. “I worked with Dr. Farley, who was president of Wilkes College,” Min recounted. “With his help, and Dr. Rosenberg, who was teacher of economics, we instituted a series of courses and our people went to college. They were giving them a pretty rounded view of history and economics and so on. We graduated quite a few of them.”

The union continued growing and it was divided into three locals at Pittston, Nanticoke, and Wilkes-Barre. More and more factories were being organized. Garment workers were becoming part of something much larger than themselves. Min and Bill Matheson had made significant inroads, but not without a cost. Organized crime would continue to haunt them. Someone once lobbed a red paint bomb at their house; on several occasions they had to send their children to visit friends because they feared reprisals; and threatening telephone calls were frequent. In May 1949, the unspeakable occurred. Min’s brother, Will, working as an organizer for the ILGWU in Manhattan, stepped into a telephone booth on West 35th Street. Two men forced open the door and stabbed him to death with ice picks. The tragedy shattered the Lurye family and stunned the labor movement. One hundred thousand garment workers marched in the funeral procession through Manhattan’s garment district. Popular journalist and commentator Walter Winchell, who closely followed the story, hinted that the real reason for Will Lurye’s death could be found not in New York, but in Pennsylvania’s coal fields and garment factories. A distraught Max Lurye suffered a heart attack and died one week later. Max and Will Lurye are buried side-by-side, their tombstone emblazoned with the inscription: “Father and Son, They Lived and Died for the Cause of Labor.”

To make matters worse, the accused murderers, lieutenants to New York crime boss Albert Anastasia, were tried and acquitted after several eyewitnesses suddenly changed their stories. Despite the enormous loss, Min didn’t give up. With Bill’s help, she continued marshalling garment workers into a community­-minded and politically active force.

The ILGWU desperately wanted to ameliorate the distressed economy of the anthracite region. The sagging job base was of chief concern to business, commu­nity, labor, and academic leaders. Congressman Flood and Governor Leader responded by introducing federal and state legislation to secure government aid for economic development. Min mobilized ILGWU support for these measures and union members testified at government hearings in Scranton, Harrisburg, and Washington. Workers wrote to officials in Washington and Harrisburg, urging passage of the measures. The union partnered with local private sector interests to become a member of the “Committee of 100” that raised economic development funds to lure new enterprise and lobbied for government aid for economic assistance. On one occasion Min gave a dramatic performance before the U.S. Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, urging members to pass Flood’s Area Redevelopment Act. A Washington journalist characterized her oration as one that would assuredly convince wavering politicians to vote in favor of the measure.

Governor Leader’s economic development package, which created the Pennsyl­vania Industrial Development Authority, was enacted in the late 1950s. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Flood’s bill into law, eventually creating the Appalachian Regional Commission. Along with significant private sector investment, government aid lured many new employ­ers and created eighty thousand new jobs in the coal region between 1960 and 1980. The era of public-private partnership for economic development had arrived and Pennsylvania led the way. New businesses put a significant dent in the double-digit unemployment rates, which had plagued the anthracite region for a fair part of the twentieth century. By the early 1960s the economy in the Wilkes-Barre area began a gradual turnaround. Unemployment dropped to an unprecedented seven percent. “In a very real sense, the commu­nity lived for twenty years, into the 1980s, on the fruits of what was accomplished in the fifties and sixties,” one historian noted. Min Matheson and the ILGWU played an active part in these accomplishments.

Min Matheson and the ILGWU joined with many of the same politicians in advocating a number of initiatives. These included Flood’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage and to lower the social security retirement age; Governor Leader’s work to overhaul the state mental health treatment system; and Governor David L. Lawrence’s successful effort to swing Pennsylvania in favor of Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

Before long, politics and the union became inseparable; the ILGWU and politicians became allies. Snapshots of history include Min and the garment workers on stage for Harry S. Truman’s 1952 visit to Wilkes-Barre; Min and the garment workers making a presentation to 1954 presidential candidate Adlai Steven­son during a rally in Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square; Min and the garment workers campaigning for candidates for local, state, and national offices; Min speaking at John F. Kennedy’s crowded assembly during a visit to the area; and U.S. Senator Joseph Clark, Congressman Flood, and Governors Leader and Lawrence attending ILGWU educational programs at Unity House and annual picnics at Sans Souci Amusement Park in Nanticoke (which, by the late 1950s, drew fifteen thousand garment workers and family members). These alignments – some odd, several curious­ – meant votes. They meant action. And they meant that working people had access to those who made the policies that impacted their daily lives.

“The ILGWU was located in other parts of the state, but they weren’t a force like they were up there in the Wyoming Valley,” Governor George M. Leader remembered. “Min wasn’t just a labor organizer. She was a political organizer. She was an educator. There is no doubt about the fact that Min had mobilized the ILGWU as a political and community force. They had a great influence on my industrial development policy. She was, without doubt, a great force. A courageous woman.” In his own inimitable style, Congressman Flood credited Min and the ILGWU for the “silver lining that it brought to the dark clouds of the economy of an area once dependent upon a single industry: coal mining.”

Min and Bill Matheson left the Wyoming Valley in 1963 for a new assignment with the ILGWU Union Label Department, despite the protestations of their eleven thousand members. Although he needed her in New York, David Dubinsky recognized that, because of Min Matheson, the ILGWU “is widely wel­comed as an integral part of all community activities in the Wyoming Valley.” To her supporters, Min explained that “this valley has been good to the ILGWU; the ILGWU has been good to the valley.”

The Mathesons returned to the area in June 1972, to live their retirement years close to family and friends. “I could have retired anywhere, Chicago, New York, but, to me, this is home,” Min said. She remained active in the community. Just a few weeks following her return, she helped organize the Flood Victims Action Council to advocate for the needs of residents who lost all they owned to the wrath of Tropical Storm Agnes. Min Matheson was back. And she was back as an organizer in the community she so dearly loved.

Two decades later, on December 8, 1992, Min Matheson died in Wilkes-Barre’s General Hospital. Her husband Bill preceded her in death five years earlier, in 1987. Their work, however, is far from merely a memory. Min remains very much a legend in labor circles, a hero to many, the stuff of folklore. “The memory of Min Matheson should be a permanent part of history,” opined a local newspaper writer. One politician called for the placement of a statute of “Min Matheson in Wilkes-Barre for all that she has done.”

And recognition is forthcoming.

On Friday, September 24, 1999, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, and the Pennsylvania Labor History Society will unveil a state historical marker on Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square to commemorate the work of Min L. Matheson. The marker recognizes the contributions of both Mathesons in building one of the most active, vibrant, and community-spirited ILGWU districts anywhere in the nation. The marker also honors their unflagging dedication to the communities and people of northeastern Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. Long before “network” became a fashionable buzzword among America’s corporate leaders, Min and Bill Matheson worked tirelessly to enlist politicians, government officials, business owners, factory supervi­sors, and area residents in their cause – the cause of fair and equitable treatment of working women and men in northeastern Pennsylvania. When the familiar blue and gold historical marker is dedicated in Wilkes-Barre this year, it will celebrate the ideals and beliefs shared by the Mathesons and their legion of loyal followers.

 

For Further Reading

Danish, Max D. The World of David Dubinsky. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1957.

Dubinsky, David. A Life with Labor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Genera­tion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Jensen, Joan M., and Sue Davidson, eds. A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike: Women Needleworkers in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

Lorwin, Lewis Levitzki. The Women’s Garment Workers. New York: Arno, 1969.

Stein, Leon, ed. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1977.

Tyler, Gus. Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Armonk, N. Y.: Sharpe, 1995.

 

Quotations and passages appearing in this article have been excerpted from interviews conducted under the auspices of the Wyoming Valley Oral History Project, co-directed by the authors. Ongoing since the late 1970s, the project has collected reminisces from more than three hundred subjects. Individuals who worked in the garment industry in northeastern Pennsylva­nia and are interested in sharing their memories are encouraged to participate.

 

The Wolensky brothers are writing a book on Min L. Matheson, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the growth and decline of the garment industry in Pennsylva­nia and, specifically, in its northeastern anthracite region.

 

Kenneth C. Wolensky, a native of the Wyoming Valley, is a graduate of College Misericordia, the University of Delaware, and The Pennsyl­vania State University. He is a member of the PHMC’s history division.

 

Robert P. Wolensky, also a Wyoming Valley native, is a graduate of Villanova University and The Pennsylvania State University. He is a professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for the Small City at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is n former PHMC scholar-in-residence.