Historical Markers
Workers in Greater Pittston's Garment Industry Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Workers in Greater Pittston's Garment Industry

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
S Main St., between Market and Kennedy Sts.

Dedication Date:
June 9, 2006

Behind the Marker

Bird's eye view
Pittston and West Pittston, PA, circa 1892.
Developed as a "hard-coal town," Pittston suffered when anthracite production slumped in the 1920s. Taking advantage of the situation, "runaway shops" from New York City's heavily unionized garment district moved to Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley in the 1930s, hiring the wives and daughters of often unemployed or underemployed miners in places like Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton. To support their struggling families, the women worked in appalling conditions for low wages. "Jobbers" shipped materials to these independent shops, which used a "section work" as opposed to "whole garment" system, paying by the piece instead of by the hour to encourage rapid production of low-cost women's and children's clothing.

Min Matheson photgraph, head and shoulders, black and white.
ILGWU labor organizer Min Matheson, circa 1975.
Although the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) had established a local presence as early as 1937, union organizers Bill andmarker Min Matheson found only 650 members in six organized shops when they arrived in 1944. Given the Valley's pro-unionism, the Mathesons had early successes in Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, and Nanticoke.

In Pittston, however, organized crime, which had a long history in the valley, hindered their efforts to organize the garment workers. A group of struggling Sicilian miners who had arrived in the 1880s had cultivated criminal links. Known as the "men of Montedoro," they had gained control over a number of mines and infiltrated locals of the United Mine Workers, using "sweetheart" payments to prevent labor disruptions and investing their profits in bootlegging, gambling, loan sharking, and eventually, the runaway garment business. In time, they owned as many as fifteen to twenty of the forty to fifty Pittston shops, intimidated a number of others, and made in-roads into the associated trucking industry. They also cultivated close ties with the local police and in 1946 helped start the Anthracite Needle Workers Association of Luzerne County to oppose the ILWGU.

As manager of ILGWU's Wyoming District, Min Matheson worked to organize Pittston, starting with shops lacking known criminal ties. Refusing to be intimidated, she reportedly responded to a taunt to bring along her husband by sticking her finger in the face of crime boss Russell Bufalino and shouting, "I'm twice the man you'll ever be."

In 1945, Matheson successfully organized the West Pittston branch of McKitterick-William, helped by a sympathetic manager, but the "tough guys" still controlled many shops on Pittston's Main Street. Enlisting the aid of the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters, she also challenged the local practice whereby men would vote for the women. To cultivate local elites, she persuaded the union locals to participate in the Community Chest, United Fund, and Red Cross, and attempted to minimize union violence. Nevertheless, organizing remained dangerous. Min's brother, an ILGWU organizer in New York, was murdered with an ice pick in 1949, and in Pittston, "tough guys" threatened and even beat picketing workers.

Pennsylvania mobster Russell Alfred Bufalino, December 06, 1968.
Bit by bit, the ILGWU made inroads into the Pittston shops, organizing Pittston Apparel Company in 1949, the Del-Mar Dress Company in 1952, and the women's blouse division of Pittston Sportswear in 1955. Fearing the imposition of uniform pay rates, the Pennsylvania Garment Manufacturers Association (PGMA) locked out workers for three days in October 1957 and announced plans to pull out of the industry association that tied them to New York agreements.

In November, the ILGWU's General Executive Board in New York authorized an industry-wide strike if negotiations failed, and "120 racketeers" met in Appalachin, New York. Following the apprehension of fifty-eight attendees, Arthur Reuter reported to New York Governor Avril Harriman, "They are the key figures in the non-union garment industry existing in Pittston, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania sweat-shops, muscle-protected trucking bosses and double-dealing officials have collaborated to undercut the legitimate unionized garment industry of New York City." Reuter speculated that they met "with particular reference to the strike in the Pennsylvania's women's apparel industry."

The dress-making general strike, called on March 5, 1958, involved more than 140 factories and 6,000 workers in the Wyoming Valley. Three shops tried to reopen, including Ann Lea Frocks and Jane Hogan in Pittston, both with suspected criminal ties, but pickets succeeded in blocking them. After damage to a non-union factory, twenty-five of Pittston's non-union factories joined the walkout. The three-year contract signed on March 11 excluded the PGMA shops. Their Wyoming Valley shops suffered from continuing pickets and attacks on their trucks.

By late April, many contractors pulled out of PGMA and signed with the ILGWU, awarding workers a thirty-five-hour work week and increased wages, but still discounted piece rates, citing transportation costs. The remaining firms clinging to the PGMA included several controlled by Bufalino and New York's "Three Finger" Brown. In Pittston, on-going picketing plagued Jenkins Sportswear, owned by Bufalino's niece, which finally settled with the union in 1960.
Min Matheson with ILGWU strike workers.
ILGWU labor organizer Min Matheson speaking to striking garment workers in Pittston,...

When the Mathesons left the valley in 1964, the Wyoming District included 168 organized shops and more than 10,000 members, but workers still faced hard times. In 1959, themarker Knox Mine disaster stopped what little mining was left, so many miners continued to rely on their wives and some sought outside work, including jobs at the Fairless steel plant near Levittown and at the Tobyhanna Signal Depot in Monroe County.

The garment industry also struggled as shops opened in the South and Japanese imports arrived. The Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (begun in 1956), the Area Redevelopment Act (signed in 1961 by President Kennedy after two Eisenhower vetoes), and the Appalachian Regional Commission (established in 1965), all promoted development in the area, and in 1968, the garment industry reached its peak employment. Unfortunately, surging imports in the 1970s devastated the industry, one of the first consumer sectors to be overwhelmed by foreign competition.

As jobs left, ILWGU membership declined, forcing the closure of its groundbreaking health center in Wilkes-Barre in 1986 and themarker Unity House resort in 1990. In 1997, Leo Gutstein, owner of Lee Manufacturing, observed, "Pittston alone had, on Main Street, forty factories at one time. Today we are sitting in the only one that is left."
Back to Top