Depictions of workers and power:
Russell Bufalino’s fight with the garment workers and their union

January 20, 2019

The real-world efforts of The Irishman’s Russell Bufalino to exploit and control women garment workers in Pennsylvania’s coal country met with fierce opposition by the members of the Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and Min Matheson, the woman who led them. Their story provides an historical alternative to the hyped-up masculinity that dominates Hollywood’s depiction of labor and working people.

International Ladies' Garment Worker pickets in Scranton, 1958. Kheel Center, Cornell University

Depictions of workers and power:
Russell Bufalino’s fight with the garment workers and their union

We are enamored of depictions of mobsters and men who coerce, manipulate, and mangle their way to power. In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) negotiates familiar versions of American masculinity: on the one hand, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), an understated and unflinching mob leader; on the other, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a shrewd opportunist and a man of mission – and Sheeran, the man in the middle, who calculates the cost of his actions only at the end of his life in his barely there come-to-Jesus moment. 

 

Except for the moment in the film when Frank Sheeran’s daughter Peggy [Anna Paquin], asks, simply, “Why?” the codes that dictate their actions remain unchallenged. But, in the world beyond cinema, individuals did challenge the mob mindset of ruthless exploitation to fight for their lives and livelihoods, and even for their values and the collective good. And, in at least one instance, the strongest resistance to the mobsters and corrupt labor and business leaders was made by women workers and the woman who led them.

Russell Bufalino’s main adversary for control of northeast Pennsylvania’s garment industry was a woman – the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s [ILG] Northeast Manager, Min Matheson. Matheson would face-off with Bufalino for over a decade as she fought to defend workers from the exploitation and violent tactics employed by the mob-connected “open-shops” concentrated in Pittston and controlled by Bufalino and his criminal network. 

An immigrant working-class community with generations of Mafia influence located in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania, Pittston resisted union organization amidst a climate of violent labor struggles. In 1958, it became the target of the ILG Dress Strike, which strove to eradicate mob control of the industry by strengthening enforcement of the Union contract and eliminating special “accommodations” for select, mobbed-up shops. The conflict would escalate, dividing the alliance of the Pennsylvania Garment Manufacturers Association, testing the resolve of the union, and pitting the women workers of the garment factories against hardened gangsters.

The stakes were high – mob control of trucking and the open-shop manufacturers was highly profitable and conducive to money laundering, and it provided inroads to a legitimate industry for mobsters cloaked as businessmen.Garment contractors were drawn to this area because they could evade union control, and there was a plentiful supply of labor due to the decline of the coal industry. There were few other sources of employment, and for the wives of unemployed miners the dressmaking shops opened an economic lifeline for their families’ survival.

Min Matheson had come to the area in the 1940s and had worked as a sewing machine operator to earn the position of chairlady and then union leader. Having grown up in a fiercely progressive household with a defiant, union activist father, Matheson was a born activist. Her method was to organize from within, to cultivate a union culture through education and community, and to empower women workers to address their grievances and fight for livable wages and working conditions. Her union members knew that she had their backs, and that they could walk into her office and talk to her about anything at all – she would take care of it. And as a result, these members stood ready to back her up, to help her organize or to walk a picket line.

In the 1958 Dress Strike, Bufalino employed physical intimidation and all the power of his non-union network against these workers, often with the protection of the local police and the rest of the machine that protected the status quo in Pittston. At the picket-line, Matheson and her crew were motivated to fight viciously against labor practices that locked them into below minimum-wage compensation and sweatshop working conditions. With Matheson’s leadership, the women – under constant threat of assault – ­pressured the manufacturers for almost a year until most of the holdout employers abandoned their association and made individual settlements with the union. Though it was a measured victory for the union, it was a tangible victory for the garment workers of Pittston, who held off organized crime’s unchecked control in their local industry. 

With this episode, Matheson and her pickets offer a powerful counter-narrative to the hyped-up masculinity of the mob code so often celebrated in mainstream entertainment. What motivated these women, many of them mothers, to use their own bodies to block delivery trucks – even pinned against delivery docks as the engines gunned, threatening to crush them? And where are their stories? These are questions worth asking.

No matter how sensitively they are portrayed, mobsters are not working-class heroes. Workers are working-class heroes. When stories mythologize the mobster as some sort of working-class archetype, relegating actual workers to the background, we fail to recognize the full power and agency of workers, and we fail to examine the systems that perpetuate conditions of crime and corruption. True crime narratives are told from the (usually self-serving) point-of-view of the criminal, yet the events they portray have impact on people who often respond with remarkable courage, and who represent a diversity of human experience and motivation.

Although The Irishman attentively explores the personal impact of the mob ethos over a lifetime, it offers yet another narrow, male-centric vision of power. This is a shame, because even at the historic moment of the film’s events there were other compelling characters with compelling stories of power to tell. By continuing to overlook those stories we are bound to continue accepting and perpetuating a world view where corruption and crime serve opportunistic “heroes” and the women and “working stiffs” who pay the price are relegated to the background. Their perspectives offer alternative world views that are critically under-represented, but that represent powerful acts of sustained resistance and strength against corruption and violence. Aren’t those stories worth hearing?

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