Gangsterism in the Shmatte company

When I started reading Andrew Gross’ “Button Man,” a historical novel loosely based on the life story of Gross’ grandfather, I couldn’t help but think of my own father. . The opening chapters tell us of the humble beginnings of the Rabishevsky family. Immigrants from the city of Minsk, the Rabishevskys settled in a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn. The youngest son, Morris, witnesses his father’s death at the age of twelve. My father grew up on Colonial Street in Montreal, also a tough neighborhood at the time. He also lost his own father when he was only twelve years old. Morris was forced to leave school and go to work. My father also had to drop out of high school so he could work to support his mother and three sisters. Morris went to work for an established clothing manufacturer and learned to pattern and cut fabric and make markers, just like my father. After learning the trade, Morris went into his own business, just like my father. My father and Morris Rabb faced major challenges in their dealings with customers, suppliers, unions and banks. My dad used to say that being in the ladieswear industry was like having to start a new business every three months.

Having worked alongside my father for fifteen years, I realized that running a unionized factory, delivering fabrics and trimmings on time and trying to satisfy the most finicky customers with new styles and on-time deliveries was not not an affair of the fragile heart.

But dear readers, that’s where the parallels end. Morris Rabb not only has to deal with the day-to-day running of his business, he also has to fight to keep his business from being taken over by a conglomerate of gangsters who have made it their mission to control the needle trade in New York. Town. Much to his dismay, one of his brothers, Harry, is involved with these racketeers.

Those who have read Rich Cohen’s “Tough Jews” will recognize familiar faces in “Button Man.” Garment unions in New York were mostly under the control of a certain Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a reform school dropout who had been making life difficult for Morris since they first met on the streets of Brooklyn. Lepke and his gang of henchmen would use any means, including threats, torture, and murder, to gain control of the unions and, eventually, the garment manufacturers themselves.

On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan killed 146 garment workers; 123 women and girls and 23 men died as a result of the fire, smoke inhalation, falling or jumping. Most of the victims were Italian or recent Jewish immigrants between the ages of 14 and 23. Because stairwell and exit doors were locked, a common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft, many workers could not escape the building in fire. This tragedy, along with the lure of socialism, helped spur the growth of trade unions, whose primary and noble goal was to fight for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

However, when the gangsters took over the unions, they became a cash cow for the mob. Union dues were set arbitrarily and automatically deducted from workers’ wages. The union forced manufacturers to buy materials and trim from suppliers who gave “kickbacks” to union leaders. Companies that refused to join or attempted to act independently were threatened with consequences, including violent acts of destruction and bodily harm. In an era that began with the end of Prohibition, gangsters were looking for new, more lucrative businesses and many syndicates became corrupt as racketeers infiltrated and eventually controlled the syndicate.

Our hero, Morris Rabb, is one of those holdouts. He refuses to submit to the demands of Lepke and his gang, and he must suffer through battle after losing the battle in order to maintain his independence. Threats are made and carried out despite heightened vigilance. Corrupt cops, bribed guards, and even members of Morris’ own family are under the influence of the gangsters and are used to betray Morris at every turn. His wife and brother Sol beg him to succumb to Lepke’s demands, but Morris refuses to submit and has to deal with the setbacks in his own way.

The story is one of Jewish survival, surely not as painful as the Nazi concentration camps, but as an example of a man who stood up for his beliefs and was always ready to help and defend his friends and family in the tough New York streets. during very dangerous times.

The story is one of Jewish survival, surely not as painful as the Nazi concentration camps, but as an example of a man who stood up for his beliefs and was always ready to help and defend his friends and family in the tough New York streets. during very dangerous times. It’s an interesting story that will be hard to put down once you start reading.

The acknowledgments reveal that the story is loosely based on the author’s grandfather, Freddie Pomerantz, founder of the famous clothing company, Leslie Fay. During his research, Gross learned that his grandfather’s story had been recorded and archived in the library of the Fashion Institute of Technology, so that thirty years after his death he could hear his grandfather tell his story in his own voice.

Like me, the author spent fifteen years working in the business of “shmatte” before turning to writing. He remembers industry veterans as tough, uncompromising and stubborn men, feared by their employees and competitors. The author states that “As a generation, their lack of formal education coupled with their success will likely never be seen again.”

“Button Man” brought back fond memories of the needle trade and tragic memories too. A once thriving clothing industry in Montreal no longer exists as most production has been relocated. The once mighty ILGWU (“remember to look for the Label Union”) has disappeared and the many supporting trades like button makers, sewing machine purveyors and lace makers have gone out of business. I will never forget my father, with his leather apron, pencil in his ear, arranging the cardboard patterns on the felt to save as much fabric as possible.


Paul J. Starr is a recently retired systems analyst who has lived his entire life in Montreal, Canada. On Sunday mornings, he “lives the dream,” hosting a two-hour Internet radio show featuring music from the 50s and 60s called “Judy’s Diner.”

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