Virtual seders are a way to connect this Passover – Wilkes Barre Times-Leader

Posted By on April 11, 2020

April 03, 2020

You look as white as a ghost, the bartender said.

Ive just spent five hours with a saint, author Robert P. Wolensky explained.

The 5-hour interview Wolensky had completed that day, several years ago in the Wyoming Valley, had been with Min Matheson, a tireless labor organizer who had been at the forefront of bringing the Ladies International Garment Workers Union to Northeastern Pennsylvania.

She was indefatigable, fearless, obsessed with unionization. She was selfless and dedicated to her girls, said Wolensky, who admired the way Matheson stood up to threats from mob bosses who wanted to keep the union out, and persevered despite the murder of her brother and fellow labor organizer William Lurye, who was stabbed with an ice pick in a New York City telephone booth.

The stories Wolensky collected from Min Matheson and 15 other people are part of Sewn in Coal Country: An Oral History of the Ladies Garment Industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1945-1995, which was recently published by The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Page through the book and youll realize its a history not only of Matheson and her husband, Bill, but of thousands of local people who worked at hundreds of local shops.

If you look at the local photographs, several of which were used courtesy of Lukasik Studio from Dupont, you may even recognize a grandmother or great-aunt in the images of ILGWU members being sworn in to office aschairladies circa 1970, or practicing a song with the ILGWU chorus circa 1960, or contributing to a Red Cross truck at the Knox Mine disaster in 1959.

Photos that show ILGWU members bowling or singing or gliding down a street on a parade float, and memories about raising money for orphanages and other charities, show how the union became part of the social fabric of its members lives, Wolensky said.

But its primary objective was to improve and safeguard working conditions for women who had been working long hours for low wages, especially in northeastern Pennsylvania, which some shop owners considered the hinterlands.

There were laws in the land, Matheson said in her oral history. But they (the owners) werent carrying out any of the laws. They did what they wished and made it easy for the women to come in any time of the day or night. Double, triple shifts.

If anybody could build enthusiasm for a cause, those who knew Min Matheson said, she could.

She was very, very fiery. She made the best speeches, garment worker and union business agent Dorothy Ney said in her oral history. She once worked in a factory and she knew what it was to work.

I think she almost single-handedly got Dan Flood elected (to the U.S. House of Representatives,) printer and labor advocate George Zorgo said.

She was a good negotiator and she had a way with people, garment worker and union business agent Clementine Clem Lyons said, adding It seemed to be in Mrs. Mathesons blood and, boy, she could play up a situation like a fine-tuned fiddle.

In one of the more light-hearted memories shared in the book, Lyons reminisced about Mathesons attention-getting idea in which Wyoming Valley workers who sewed swimsuits traveled to New York to picket against the owner of a local shop while wearing bathing suits.

We held up traffic at the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue for an hour and a half, Lyons said, recalling she was one of nine picketers. All we wanted was for Mac Kahn to sit down and negotiate with us.

The women were arrested and charged with being more than 300 yards from the nearest swimming pool, Lyons said, recalling the judge could barely restrain himself from laughing when they came before him.

It was a real Madison Avenue approach to a very bad situation, Lyons said.

Other stories are more somber stories about a police officer twisting Mathesons arm almost to the breaking point; a paint bomb thrown at the Matheson house, striking girls smashing windows on a truck and a union enforcer shooting at another truck that was transporting finished clothing to New York.

The times were dangerous, and Sewn in Coal Country mentions men who didnt want their wives to be in danger, so they sometimes pulled them off picket lines.

There also are stories about people taking a stand despite being scared.

In Min Mathesons oral history, she talks about her dismay that, even though womens suffrage was passed in 1919, at some polling places in the Wyoming Valley women were not allowed to vote. Their husbands, or maybe their boss at the sewing factory, would vote for them.

Matheson recruited a Pittston couple, Carmella and Nick Salatino, who tried to break down the barrier at their voting place.

Matheson knew the couple was taking a risk, and recalled the arguing at the poll went on for quite some time, with the Salatinos saying Carmella should cast her own vote until poor Carmella practically fainted. She had just exhausted her strength.

So Nick voted on Carmellas behalf, and Matheson reflected, Well, we didnt win that day but we made a start.

Wolensky, who grew up in Swoyersville, admires the spirit of the hard-working women whose stories appear in his book, and wishes the garment industry had not moved over seas.

An adjunct professor at Kings College, he usually travels to Kings to lecture three or four times a year. The rest of the time, he works at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

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Virtual seders are a way to connect this Passover - Wilkes Barre Times-Leader

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