No longer overlooked: Min Matheson, union leader who stood up to gangsters

This article is part of Overlooka series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths went unreported in the Times beginning in 1851.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, Min Matheson earned a reputation for fearlessness. During her 20 years as director of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union there, she repeatedly had to deal with gangsters in her fight for fair wages and safe working conditions for female workers.

In one incident, she encountered several threatening “tough guys,” as she called them, in Pittston, Pennsylvania, where she was marching on a picket line with other women.

She told them: “You lousy gangsters! “What are you doing in this city?” she remembered an oral tradition Interview. “You don’t live here. We live here. This is our city, not yours.”

Surrounding homeowners opened their windows to watch the commotion. “There are witnesses to everything you think you’re doing,” Matheson told the thugs. They slunk away.

“These men have almost gone crazy,” she said later. “It was like, my God, how can you relate to a bunch of crazy women like that?”

Matheson, six feet tall and with considerable charisma, enjoyed great success as a union organizer beginning in the mid-1940s, when she became head of the ILGWU Northeast Pennsylvania Region.

At this time, many clothing manufacturers moved their operations there from New York’s Garment District, where wages had increased. The anthracite coal industry, which had boosted the region’s economy, was in decline, and organized crime played a major role in the garment industry and even owned many factories. As men lost their jobs in the mines, the factories provided their women with employment and opportunities to support their families.

When Matheson arrived, only six of the area’s garment factories and 650 workers were unionized. When she left the company in 1963, 168 factories with more than 11,000 workers were unionized.

At first, many factories were dirty, dreary, and cramped, with women hunched over sewing machines. Supervisors shouted and belittled them and forbade them from going to the bathroom except during approved breaks. Many factories offered low unit prices and defrauded workers by undercounting how many garments they processed.

Matheson received raises and health benefits, maternity benefits, death benefits and better treatment of workers. And her union set up free evening classes, a mobile health clinic and a scholarship program for working-class children.

She also tried to shake up the mob-dominated status quo, and the gangsters fought back menacingly. She had tense confrontations with them – on the streets near union offices, outside factories when speaking to workers, or during strikes.

“Her life was threatened many times, but she never gave in,” Matheson’s daughter, Betty Matheson Greenberg, said in an interview. “They dropped a red paint bomb on our house. It could have been a real bomb. The whole neighborhood wanted us gone.”

Minnie Hindy Lurye was born on January 19, 1909 in Chicago to Max and Anna (Kahn) Lurye, Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her mother raised Min and her seven siblings, one of whom died as a baby. Her father was a cigar industry worker and labor activist who took Min with him to union meetings. After cigar companies blacklisted him for supporting unionization, he made a living as a scrap metal dealer.

Min dropped out of school in the ninth grade and took a job as a secretary. At 19, she met Bill Matheson, a union activist. They moved east in 1932 to join a textile workers’ strike in Paterson, New Jersey. She worked as a garment worker in Manhattan for several years, hoping to get a job with the ILGWU. She did this and became head of a 32,000-member ILGWU based in New York in 1937.

In 1941, Min had a daughter, Marianne; She and Bill married the same year. Their second daughter, Betty, was born in 1943. The next year, Min and Bill moved to Kingston in northeastern Pennsylvania after ILGWU leaders told them to “clean up the mess down there.”

For Matheson, fearlessness was a family tradition. A few days after her father spoke out at a meeting against Al Capone’s attempts to break into the scrap metal dealers’ business, a gangster shot him three times in the groin. He survived.

Her brother William Lurye, also an ILGWU organizer, was stabbed in a Manhattan phone booth in 1949 while working to unionize several Mafia-affiliated factories. His funeral procession attracted 100,000 people. However, two men were charged never convicted.

“What happened to her father and brother gave her additional motivation to fight for the union and against organized crime,” said Robert Wolensky, who did so with his brother Kenneth written in detail around Matheson. “She realized that if I don’t do this, if we let these bastards win, my father’s whole life, my brother’s whole life, and my whole life will be wasted.”

Their fight required passionate speeches and tireless efforts; Many mornings she left home to organize pickets before her daughters woke up. “The workers saw her as someone who was fully committed to the cause,” said David Scott Witzer, a professor of American studies at Penn State Harrisburg wrote about Matheson. “She was completely fearless on the picket line.”

Once, a gangster approached Matheson while she was picketing and told her to take her “weak husband” there and see how long he would last. Her husband was the union’s education director for eastern Pennsylvania.

Then Matheson walked over to a man standing nearby: Russell Bufalino, the area’s top crime boss. “I don’t have to bring Bill here, Russ,” she told him. according to oral interviews with You and other workers, “because I am twice as much of a man as you will ever be.”

One way the Mafia tried to maintain control was by preventing women in the area from voting. So Matheson accompanied a worker to a polling station to make sure she voted.

“Everything she did for the union was to advance women in society,” said Catherine Rios, a humanities professor at Penn State Harrisburg wrote about Matheson.

To organize workers, Matheson’s union built strong community ties. It took part in charitable activities and set up a choir, a newsletter and a radio show.

Matheson took a pragmatic approach, not wanting to see stores go out of business and workers lose their jobs.

“She was fair to the clothing store owners,” her daughter Marianne Kaufman said in an interview. “She knew they had to make a living. She received criticism from New York headquarters, saying she didn’t aim high enough in the negotiations. She would tell them, “This isn’t New York.” We can’t demand the same things you do. “We have to be fair.” The factory owners realized that all they wanted was fair wages and good working conditions for the women.”

In 1963, David Dubinsky, the union’s president, moved Matheson to Manhattan to head the Union Label division, which pushed consumers to buy clothing with the ILGWU label. The department developed the popular “Look for the Union label“Jingles.

Matheson saw unions as having a crucial role in empowering average workers. She said: “If you don’t have a union or an organization that represents you in the workplace, what you’re really doing is being denied your rights, your democratic rights.”

Matheson retired in 1972, and that year she and her husband moved back to northeastern Pennsylvania, arriving several months before Hurricane Agnes destroyed or damaged thousands of homes there. She founded the Flood Victims Action Council, which advocated for disaster relief. It also made national headlines When she confronted George Romney, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, at a news conference, shoved a photo of the flood destruction in his face and said, “You don’t care if we live or die.”

Matheson died on December 8, 1992 at the age of 83 in a hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Rios said someone as talented as Matheson should have continued to advance in the ILGWU. “There were no women on the union’s national leadership team,” she said. “She would have gone straight to the top of the ladder if she had the opportunity.”

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