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The Dress Strike at Three Finger Brown's: The Complex Realities of Antiracketeering from the Union Perspective in the 1950s*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2015

David Witwer*
Affiliation:
Penn State Harrisburg

Abstract

In 1958 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union waged a strike in the dress industry. The union's central goal was to curb the growing influence of organized crime, particularly among the factories being set up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The Garment Workers’ leadership saw the conflict as a pivotal test for their organization. Drawing on newly available source materials, including FBI files and the records of a Senate investigation, this article argues that the union's approach to this strike reflected the complex realities it faced in dealing with corruption in the garment industry. Organized crime played long term and fundamental roles in the New York Garment District and especially in the industry's trucking sector. The union had found itself forced to accommodate aspects of the mob's role in order to build its organization. The 1958 strike was about curbing the mob sector and, in effect, renegotiating the previously made arrangements. It was, the article argues, a kind of real-world anticorruption effort, waged by union members and union leaders at some risk to themselves in mob-dominated towns such as Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2015 

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Footnotes

*

The research for this article was made possible with the help of a Research Council Grant from Penn State. The author would like also to express his gratitude to the staff at Cornel University's Kheel Center, in particular Cheryl Beredo. Thanks also to Robert Parmet, Roger Horowitz, Joshua Freeman, and the editors of ILWCH, including Nishant Batsha, who provided criticism and suggestions that improved the final product immensely.

References

NOTES

1. Sgt. Louis T. Shupnik and Trooper John A. Byerly to Commanding Officer, B-3, PSP, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, April 18, 1958, Folder: Strike Reports, Dresses, Eastern, Pennsylvania, March 5–May 25, 1958, Box 27, Record Group 30, Records of Pennsylvania State Police, Subgroup: Office of Commissioner Series: Strike Reports, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

2. Matheson quote and Pittston scene, Mitchel Levitas, “Dress Strikers Picket Pa. Shop,” New York Post, April 11, 1958, news clipping in, Folder 4E, Box 297; “dynamite” in Mitchell Levitas, “The ILG Pickets in a Tough Coal Town,” New York Post, March 25, 1958, Folder 7, Box 297, both in: David Dubinsky Papers, President's Records, 1932–1966, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Papers, Collection 5780/002, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

3. The quotes are from, Mitchel Levitas, “‘The Pajama Game’ in Pennsylvania,” New York Post, March 26, 1958; Shinski profiled in, Mitchel Levitas, “A Striker's Pride … And Need,” New York Post, March 28, 1958, both in Folder 7, Box 297, ILGWU Collection 5780/002.

4. David Melman, “The Cause and Effect of the ILGWU Dress Industry General Strike of 1958,” (master's thesis, Baruch College, City University of New York, 1994); Kenneth Wolensky, Nicole Wolensky, and Robert Wolensky, Fighting for the Union Label: The Women's Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 2002), 161–86.

5. Joseph Loftus, “Kohler Hearings Hit Three Ways: Committee, Union, Company Suffer,” New York Times, March 16, 1958, E9; Joseph Loftus, “Rackets Investigators Split Over Reuther,” New York Times, March 2, 1958, E4.

6. “Can the Labor Racketeer Be Stopped?” U.S. News & World Report, October 10, 1958, 52–57.

7. Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, Minutes of the Board, Directors Meetings and Executive Committee Meeting, April 29, 1958, to April 29, 1959, Board of Directors Meeting, September 26–27, 1958, 5, in Series I, Box 3, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Papers, Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, Delaware.

8. Wolensky, Wolensky, and Wolensky, Fighting for the Union Label, 50–88. Velie, Lester, “The Lady and the Gangster,” Reader's Digest 70 (January 1957), 4146 Google Scholar.

9. Arthur G. Kaplan to Robert F. Kennedy, Subject: Pittston Area—Mafia-Garment Industry Rackets—Min Lurye Matheson. January 7, 1958, Serial No. 18-218-96, Case File 18-218, Records of the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, Record Group 46, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereafter McClellan Committee Records).

10. Flier entitled, “Dressmakers’ General Strike Declared Today, 10 AM Sharp, Wednesday, March 5, 1958,” Folder 4B, Box 297, David Dubinsky Papers, President's Records, 1932–1966, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Papers, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

11. “Pa. Strikers Hear Dubinsky Hit Hoodlums,” New York Post, April 15, 1958, newsclipping, Folder 4E, Box 297, Dubinsky Papers, Presidents’ Records, ILGWU Collection 5780/002.

12. News Immediate Release, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, April 17, 1958, Folder 4B, Box 297, Dubinsky Papers, Presidents’ Records, ILGWU 5780/002.

13. News release, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, May 24 [1959], Folder 4A, Box 297, Dubinsky Papers, President's Records, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002.

14. Notes on a conference between Julius Hochman, Emil Schlesinger, and Lazare Toper, January 25, 1958, Folder 2, Box 20, Joint Dress Board Managers’ Correspondence, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/047.

15. Julius Hochman, Report to Joint Board, September 4, 1957, Folder 3, Box 6, Joint Board of the Dress and Waistmakers’ Union of Greater New York, Managers’ Correspondence, 1909–1978, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/047, Kheel Center.

16. Examples of the standard depiction of David Dubinsky and the ILGWU can be found in David Dubinsky and A.H. Raskin, David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor (New York, 1977), 80–82; Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 19331941 (Boston, 1970), 80–82. A striking reinterpretation of Dubinsky's relationship to the corruption that occurred in his union can be found in Robert D. Parmet, The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement (New York, 2005). I have been strongly influenced by Parmet's reinterpretation of Dubinsky's posture regarding corruption. A far more skeptical interpretation of the ILGWU's leadership, but one that focuses on the period from the 1970s forward is Hill, Herbert, “The Mob and Labor-Management Corruption in the Garment Industry,” New Politics 8 (Summer 2000)Google Scholar.

17. Julius Hochman, Report to Joint Board, September 4, 1957, Folder 3, Box 6, Joint Board of the Dress and Waistmakers’ Union of Greater New York, Managers’ Correspondence, 1909–1978, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/047, Kheel Center.

18. Report of Organization Drive, September–October 1948, Folder 9, Box 27, Joint Board of the Dress and Waistmakers’ Union of Greater New York, Managers’ Correspondence, 1909–1978, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/047, Kheel Center.

19. No author, no date, document entitled, “Possible, and perhaps probable, motive for the stabbing of William Lurye … on May 9, 1949, as a result of which he died.” In Folder 7, Box 25, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/005, Kheel Center.

20. David Gingold, Daily Journal of David Gingold, March 14, 1950; quote is from April 3, 1950, Box 1, Folder 17, Series IIB, Northeast Department Records, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/050.

21. Ibid., April 5, 1950.

22. See, for instance, September 15, 1950.

23. Jenna Weissman Joselit, Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 19001940 (Bloomington, 1983), 108–17. The quote is from p. 117.

24. Roy B. Helfgott, “Women's and Children's Apparel,” in Made in New York: Case Studies in Metropolitan Manufacturing, ed. Max Hall (Cambridge, 1959), 50–52, 55–57, 100–107, 114–16; Don Hogan and Peter Braestrup, “Truckers Bleed Garment Industry,” New York Herald Tribune, June 29, 1958, 1. Braestrup and Hogan estimate that twenty-five percent of the truck traffic was made up of over-the-road haulers, which apparently were larger operations. But even the biggest of the garment trucking companies were comparatively small. Interstate Dress Carriers, one of the biggest, employed 150 people and serviced about 500 accounts.

25. New York City Department of Traffic, A Study of Trucking Problems in the Garment District (February 1961), 5, 1113, 24–25Google Scholar; Helfgott, “Women and Children's Apparel,” 104–6; no author, no title, FBI Report No. 92-1730-38, December 1, 1972; Hogan and Braestrup, “Truckers Bleed Garment Industry.” Leigh David Benin, The New Labor Radicalism and New York City's Garment Industry: Progressive Labor Insurgents in the 1960s (New York, 2000), 119–20, 126; Ideal Trucking, FBI Report by John J. Ryan, Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, September 24, 1957, 62. Braestrup and Hogan estimate that twenty-five percent of the truck traffic was made up of over-the-road haulers, which apparently were larger operations. But even the biggest of the garment trucking companies were comparatively small. Interstate Dress Carriers, one of the biggest, employed 150 people and serviced about 500 accounts. For a description of Interstate, see Ryan, “Garment Trucking Investigation,” 66–67.

26. Thomas E. Dewey, Twenty Against the Underworld (New York, 1974), 305–309; FBI Report, Arthur P. Duffy, Report Titled, Abraham Telvi, was (Deceased) ET AL; Victor Riesel-Victim, April 24, 1957, Serial No. 72-964-770, 6–8, FBI Riesel File, acquired via Freedom of Information Request by author. A full account of Plumeri and Dioguardi's activities can be found in W. B. Herlands to Mr. Grumet, October 15, 1937, Re: Garment Trucking Racket, in Series 1, Box 90, Thomas E. Dewey Papers, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York.

27. Re: Garment Trucking Racket, 4–8.

28. FBI Report 72-964-770, 8; Dewey, Twenty Against the Underworld, 307–309; quotes are from p. 309.

29. Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 144–46, the quote is from p. 144.

30. See no author, no title, FBI Report No. 92-7130-11, October 11, 1972; no author and no title, FBI Report No. 92-7130-80, December 20, 1972; and no author and no title, FBI Report No. 92-7130-79, December 21, 1972. This perspective is borne out by Helfgott, “Women's and Children's Apparel,” 104–106.

31. Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 145–46.

32. Ibid., 146.

33. No author, “Report: Sam Berger, Manager of Cloak, Dress Drivers and Helpers Local 102, I.L.G.W.U.,” November 5, 1948, Folder: Yale Trucking Company, Box 4197, District Attorney's Investigative Case File on John Dioguardi, June 1956, New York Municipal Archives. The quote on “Seigel and Lenikoff,” 15.

34. Walter Goodman, “Muscling In On Labor,” New Republic (April 30, 1956), 10; Velie, “Gangsters in the Dress Business,” 62; Report by William J. Roemer, Title of Case: Harry Strasser, July 10, 1959, FBI Serial No. 92-1473, NARA Serial No. 124-10347-10072, FBI Subject Files: James Plumeri, Warren Commission.

35. No author, no title, FBI Report Non. 92-7130-317, September 20, 1973.

36. Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 7, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 102; Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 149–151.

37. Regarding Glassberg's business partnership with Sara Chait, see Don Hogan and Peter Braestrup, “I.L.G.W.U. Strike Hard on Rackets,” New York Herald Tribune (June 27, 1958), 6. Regarding Fishgold, Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 146; John J. Pezzent, Pennsylvania State Police, untitled memo from head of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, at Troop “B,” Wyoming Pennsylvania, no date, Serial No. 18-193-573, Case File 18-218, McClellan Committee Records.

38. FBI Report by John J. Ryan, Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, September 24, 1957, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-133.

39. Don Hogan and Peter Braestrup, “Chait One of the Biggest of ‘Big 5’ Racketeers,” New York Herald Tribune (June 23, 1958), 1.

40. No author, Report: Sam Berger, Manager of Cloak, Dress Drivers and Helpers Local 102, I.L.G.W.U., November 5, 1948, Folder: Yale Trucking Company, Box 41947, Case File Number 3091, John Dioguardi, New York County District Attorney's Records, New York City Municipal Archives, New York, New York.

41. SAC, New York to Acting Director, FBI, Subject: Garment Industry, New York, May 15, 1973, FBI Serial No. 92-7130-187, 6–7.

42. Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 213.

43. Ibid., 143.

44. No author, no date, document entitled, “Possible, and perhaps probable, motive for the stabbing of William Lurye … on May 9, 1949, as a result of which he died.” In Folder 7, Box 25, Collection 5780/005, ILGWU Papers, Kheel Center.

45. Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 147–48. The quote is from p. 144.

46. Regarding Abe Chait's role, see Don Hogan and Peter Braestrup, “Chait One of the Biggest of ‘Big 5’ Racketeers,” New York Herald Tribune (June 23, 1958), 1; FBI Report by Russell E. Hogg, Title of Case: Sam Berger, July 10, 1959, FBI Serial No. 92-1469, NARA Serial No. 124-10347-10073, 5–6, in FBI Subject File: James Plumeri, Warren Commission Files, National Archives. An FBI report from 1956, referred to Lucchese as “the head of the Italian mob in the garment industry … . He was believed to be a partner of Abe Chait, garment trucking czar.” Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 221.

47. Ralph Salerno, “The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Organized Crime: Report of Ralph Salerno, Consultant to the Select Committee on Assassinations,” included in U.S. House of Represenatives, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Appendix to Hearings, Volume IX, Staff and Consultant's Reports on Organized Crime, (Washington, DC, 1979), 9–10.

48. Report by Anthony J. Maloney, Jr., Title: Garment Trucking Investigation, April 17, 1956, FBI Serial No. 92-1795-29, 147–48. The quote is from p. 147.

49. Julius Hochman, Report to Joint Board, September 4, 1957, Folder 3, Box 6, Joint Board of the Dress and Waistmakers’ Union of Greater New York, Managers’ Correspondence, 1909–1978, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/047, Kheel Center

50. Ibid.

51. Reference to bullet fired into Jack Retowski's house, no author, typed memo, April 2, 1958, Folder 7, Box 297, “full of fear,” Min Matheson to David Dubinsky, no date, Folder 4B, Box 297, both in ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002, Kheel Center.

52. Wolensky, Fighting for the Union Label, 257.

53. An untitled personal chronology of the strike that details Dubinsky's personal role in the negotiations and refers to himself in the first person, “me.” Time line of negotiations with PGMA, March–April 1958.” Folder 4B, Box 297, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002, Kheel Center.

54. Michael J. McInerney to File, Subject: Abe Chait, Burton Chait, Sara Chait, September 4, 1958, Serial No. 18-173-270, Case File 173, McClellan Committee Records.

55. Newsclipping, “Union Will No Longer Negotiate With PGMA,” Wilkes-Barre Record, April 4, 1958, in Folder 4E, Box 297, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002; Wolensky, Fighting for the Union Label, 176–77.

56. Wolensky, Fighting for the Union Label, 180–82; Melman, “Cause and Effect of the ILGWU Dress Industry General Strike,” 28–31.

57. Min Matheson to William Ball, April 10, 1959; Min Matheson to David Dubinsky, April 28, 1959, both in Folder 4A, Box 297, ILGWU Collection 5780/002; newsclipping, “Dress Strike Hearing: 5 Held Under Bail in Dress Strike Plant Strike,” Evening News [Wilkes-Barre newspaper], April 3, 1959, Folder 4E, Box 297, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002.

58. News Release, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, May 24 [1959], Folder 4a, Box 297, Dubinsky Papers, President's Records, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002; A.H. Raskin Interview with David Dubinsky and Charles [Sascha] Zimmerman, 6–7, Box 2, A. H. Raskin Collection 6036/012, Kheel Center.

59. David Dubinsky to William P. Rogers, May 22, 1959; William P. Rogers to David Dubinsky, May 29, 1959, Folder 4A, Box 297, ILGWU Collection 5780/002; in regard to number of racketeering investigations, see Labor Racketeering,” Fortune 52 (July 1955): 50, 54Google Scholar.

60. Robert F. Kennedy to Harold Brislin, September 9, 1958, Serial No. 18-193-514, McClellan Committee Records.

61. Gus Sedares, Dear Mr., draft letter dated, May 26, 1959, Folder 4a, Box 297, ILGWU Collection No. 5780/002.

62. Benjamin M. Shieber to Morris [no last name given], May 28, 1959, Folder 4A, Box 297, ILGWU Collection 5780/002.

63. “Retailers—Whose Side Are You On?”, no date, Folder 4e, Box 297, ILGWU Collection 5780/002.

64. For a review of the ways in which labor historians have and have not addressed the problem of union corruption see, Witwer, David, “The Chapter Left Untold: Labor Historians and the Problem of Union Corruption,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 8 (2011), 3758 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. That article forms part of a debate over the sufficiency of such studies and it includes the following entries: Andrew Wender Cohen, “There Was a Crooked History,” 59–63; Rosemary Feurer, “How and Where to Look for Corruption,” 65–69; Joshua Freeman, “Corruption's Due (Scholarly) Reward,” 71–75; Jennifer Luff, “Historical Contributors Versus Sectoral Tendencies,” 77–82; and Witwer, David, “Response,” 83–87; all in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 8 (2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65. Steven Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (New York, 1991), 251–54.

66. Max Block and Ron Kenner, Max the Butcher (Secacus, 1982), 164. The quote is from a conference paper by Roger Horowitz, “Kosher Food and the Mob: The Kashrus Supervisors Union and Labor Politics in Postwar New York City.” Labor and Working-Class History Conference, June 7, 2013, 8 (cited here with the gracious permission of the author).

67. Witwer, David, “The Different Meanings of Corruption in the Context of the Teamsters Union,” Journal of Labor Research 21 (2000): 287303 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68. Andrew Wender Cohen, The Racketeer's Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 19001940 (New York, 2004), 260.

69. Witwer, David, “Westbrook Pegler and the Anti-Union Movement,” Journal of American History 92 (2005): 527–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70. David Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union (Chicago, 2003), 103.

71. Witwer, David, “The Racketeer Menace and Anti-Unionism in the Mid-Twentieth Century U.S.,” International Labor and Working Class History 74 (Fall 2008): 124–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The quote is from p. 132.

72. Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 19451960 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 268.

73. Alan K. McAdams, Power and Politics in Labor Legislation (New York, 1964), 2–4, 52–54, 68–71; Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise, 258–61; William H. Mierynyk, Trade Unions in the Age of Affluence (New York, 1965), 13–14; Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modern America (Chapel Hill, 1994), 218–21; Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union, 204–11.

74. No author, “Meany Bids Labor Fight Union Curbs,” New York Times (June 2, 1959), 28.

75. “Report of Charles S. Zimmerman, General Manager, Joint Board of Dress & Waistmakers Union, to the General Executive Board Meeting, August 22, 1960, ILWGU Papers, Collection 5780/047, Joint Board Dress & Waistmakers’ Union of Greater New York, Managers’ Correspondence, Box 5, Folder 9, Kheel Center.”

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