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Gangsterism in the Shmatte Business

When I first started reading "Button Man" by Andrew Gross, a historical novel loosely based on the life story of Gross’s grandfather, I couldn’t help but think of my own father.
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September 29, 2022

When I first started reading “Button Man” by Andrew Gross, a historical novel loosely based on the life story of Gross’s grandfather, I couldn’t help but think of my own father. The first few chapters tell us about the humble beginnings of the Rabishevsky family. Immigrants from the town of Minsk, the Rabishevsky’s settled in an impoverished area of Brooklyn. The youngest son, Morris, witnesses the death of his father 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. Morris was forced to quit school and go to work. My father also had to forego a high school education so that he could work to support his mother and three sisters. Morris went to work for an established garment manufacturer and learned how to lay and cut fabric and make markers and so did my dad. After learning the trade, Morris went into his own business and so did my father. Both my dad and Morris Rabb faced major challenges in dealing with customers, suppliers, unions and banks. My father used to say that being in the ladies wear industry was like having to start a new business every three months. 

Having worked alongside my father for fifteen years, I understood that managing a unionized factory, getting fabric and trimmings in on time, and trying to satisfy mostly fickle customers with new styles and on-time deliveries was not a business for the faint of heart.

But dear readers, this is where the parallels end. Morris Rabb does not only have to contend with the day to day activities of his business, he also has to fight to keep his enterprise from being taken over by a conglomerate of mobsters who have made it their goal to control the needle trade in New York City. Much to his dismay, one of his brothers, Harry, is involved with these racketeers. 

Those who have read “Tough Jews” by Rich Cohen will recognize some familiar faces in “Button Man.” The garment unions in New York were mostly under control of one Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a reform school dropout who has been making life difficult for Morris since their first encounter on the streets of Brooklyn. Lepke and his gang of henchmen will resort to any means including threats, torture, and murder to gain control of the unions and subsequently, the garment manufacturers themselves. 

On March 25th, 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan caused the deaths of 146 garment workers; 123 women and girls and 23 men who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23. Because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked, a common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft, many of the workers could not escape from the burning building. This tragedy, along with the lure of socialism, helped spur the growth of unions, whose main and noble objective was to fight for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

However when the gangsters took over management of the unions, they became a cash cow for the mob. Union dues were set arbitrarily and automatically deducted from the workers’ paycheck. The union forced the manufacturers to buy materials and trimming from suppliers who were giving “kickbacks” to the union executives. Those companies that refused to join, or who tried to act independently were threatened with consequences that included violent acts of destruction and bodily harm. In an era that started with the end of prohibition, mobsters were seeking out new and more lucrative money making ventures and many unions became corrupt when the racketeers infiltrated and eventually controlled the syndicate. 

Our hero, Morris Rabb, is one such holdout. He refuses to submit to the demands of Lepke and his gang, and he must suffer through battle after losing battle in order to maintain his independence. Threats are made and carried out despite added vigilance. Corrupt cops, bribed watchmen, and even members of Morris’ own family are under the influence of the mobsters and serve to betray Morris at every turn. His wife and his brother Sol beg him to succumb to the demands of Lepke, but Morris refuses to submit and must 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 one man who stood up for his beliefs and was always ready to help and defend his friends and family on the tough streets of New York 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 one man who stood up for his beliefs and was always ready to help and defend his friends and family on the tough streets of New York during very dangerous times. It is an interesting tale that will be difficult to put down once you start reading.

The acknowledgements reveal that the story is loosely based on the author’s grandfather, Freddie Pomerantz, founder of the well-known dress company, Leslie Fay. During his research, Gross learned that his grandfather’s story has been recorded and archived in the library of the Fashion Institute of Technology, so that thirty years after his death, he was able to hear his grandfather recount his story in his own voice. 

Like me, the author spent fifteen years working in the “shmatte” business before turning to writing. He remembers the old-timers of the industry 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 some fond memories of the needle-trade and some tragic ones as well. A once thriving garment industry in Montreal no longer exists as most production has been moved offshore. The once mighty ILGWU (“remember to look for the Union label)” has disappeared, and the many supporting trades like button manufacturers, sewing machine suppliers, and lace makers have closed shop. I will never forget my father, with his leather apron, pencil in his ear arranging the cardboard patterns on the marker to save as much fabric as possible.


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

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