Overlooked No More: Min Matheson, Labor Leader Who Faced Down Mobsters


This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

It was in northeastern Pennsylvania that Min Matheson earned her reputation for fearlessness. Over her 20 years as director of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union there, she repeatedly faced down mobsters in her fight for fair wages and safe conditions for women workers.

In one incident, she confronted several menacing “tough guys,” as she called them, in Pittston, Pa., where she was marching on a picket line alongside other women.

She told them, “You rotten hoodlums! What are you doing in this town?” she recalled in an oral history interview. “You don’t live here. We live here. This is our town, not yours.”

Nearby homeowners opened their windows to watch the ruckus. “There are witnesses to anything you think you are going to do,” Matheson told the thugs. They slinked away.

“These men almost went crazy,” she said later. “It was like, my God, how can you do anything with a bunch of crazy women like that?”

Five foot two and with considerable charisma, Matheson had huge success as a union organizer beginning in the mid-1940s, when she became head of the I.L.G.W.U.’s northeastern Pennsylvania region.

At the time, many apparel producers were moving their operations there from New York’s garment district, where wages had risen. The anthracite coal industry that had fueled the region’s economy was in decline, and organized crime played a major role in running the apparel industry, even owning many factories. With men losing their jobs in the mines, the factories offered their wives employment and opportunities to support their families.

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

At first, many of the factories were dirty, dreary and cramped, with women hunched over sewing machines. The bosses screamed and belittled them and would bar them from going to the bathroom except during sanctioned breaks. Many factories offered low rates per piece and cheated workers by undercounting how many garments they worked on.

Matheson won raises and health benefits, maternity benefits, death benefits and better treatment for the workers. And her union created free evening classes, a mobile health care unit and a scholarship program for workers’ children.

She also sought to shake up the mob-dominated status quo, and the mobsters pushed back, menacingly. She had tense confrontations with them — on the street near the union’s offices, outside factories when she talked 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 threw a red paint bomb at our house. It could have been a real bomb. The whole neighborhood wanted us to get the hell out.”

Minnie Hindy Lurye was born on Jan. 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 a labor activist who took Min along to union meetings. After cigar companies blacklisted him for pushing to unionize, he scraped by as a junk peddler.

Min dropped out of school in the ninth grade and took a job as a secretary. When she was 19, she met Bill Matheson, a union activist. They moved east in 1932 to join a textile workers’ strike in Paterson, N.J. She worked for several years as a garment worker in Manhattan, with the hope of landing a job with the I.L.G.W.U. She did, becoming the head of a 32,000-member I.L.G.W.U. local 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 I.L.G.W.U. leaders told them to “clean up the mess down there.”

For Matheson, fearlessness was a family tradition. Several days after her father spoke out at a meeting against Al Capone’s efforts to muscle in on the junk dealers’ business, a gangster shot him three times in the groin. He survived.

Her brother William Lurye, who was also an I.L.G.W.U. organizer, was stabbed to death in a phone booth in Manhattan in 1949 while working to unionize several mob-affiliated factories. His funeral procession attracted 100,000 people. Two men were indicted but never convicted.

“What happened to her father and brother gave her extra motivation to fight for the union and fight against organized crime,” said Robert Wolensky, who, along with his brother, Kenneth, has written extensively about Matheson. “She realized that if I don’t do this, if we let these bastards win, then my father’s whole life is wasted, my brother’s whole life is wasted, and my life is wasted.”

Her fight involved impassioned speeches and tireless dedication; many mornings she left home for picket lines before her daughters woke up. “The workers saw her as someone who was completely committed to the cause,” said David Scott Witwer, a Penn State Harrisburg professor of American studies who has written about Matheson. “She was utterly fearless on the picket line.”

Once, a mobster approached Matheson while she was picketing and told her that she should bring her “weakling husband” there and see how long he would last. Her husband was the union’s education director for eastern Pennsylvania.

Matheson then walked over to a man standing nearby: Russell Bufalino, the region’s top crime boss. “I don’t need to bring Bill here, Russ,” she told him, according to oral history interviews with her and other workers, “because I’m twice the man you’ll ever be.”

One way the mob sought to maintain control was by preventing women in the area from voting, so Matheson accompanied a female worker to a polling place to make sure she voted.

“Everything she did for the union was to elevate women in society,” said Catherine Rios, a Penn State Harrisburg professor of humanities who has written about Matheson.

To help organize workers, Matheson’s union built strong community ties. It joined charity drives and set up a chorus, a newsletter and a radio show.

Matheson took a pragmatic approach, not wanting to drive shops out of business and cause workers to lose their jobs.

“She was fair to the owners of the dress shops,” her daughter Marianne Kaufman said in an interview. “She knew that they had to make a living. She would get some flak from New York headquarters, saying she wasn’t setting her sights high enough in negotiations. She would tell them: ‘This isn’t New York. We can’t ask for the same things you ask for. We have to be fair.’ The factory owners came to realize she just wanted a decent wage and good working conditions for the women.”

In 1963, David Dubinsky, the union’s president, transferred Matheson to Manhattan to head the Union Label department, which urged consumers to buy apparel that had an I.L.G.W.U. label. The department developed the popular “Look for the Union Label” jingle.

Matheson saw unions as pivotal to empowering average workers. She said, “If you don’t have a labor union or you don’t have an organization to represent you on the job, you’re really being denied your rights, your democratic rights.”

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

Matheson died on Dec. 8, 1992, in a hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was 83.

Rios said someone as talented as Matheson should have risen higher in the I.L.G.W.U. “There were no women in the union’s national leadership team,” she said. “She would have stepped right up to the top of the ladder if she had been given the opportunity.”



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