The Garment District War: How Lepke Buchalter created the modern labour racket

Documentary about labour rackeetering in the textile industry

Before Louis “Lepke” Buchalter became infamous as the head of the Mafia’s official death squad, he had been soldier for Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen, a powerful figure in the streets of New York. Having fought his way to kingpin status in New York’s “labor slugger” community, Orgen would represent militant locals of the International Garment Worker’s Union in 1926, as they took part in a strike which quickly turned violent. Soon after it was resolved, Orgen was shot dead, opening up the way for Buchalter to assume control of his operations.

Coming at a time of relative peace in American labour history, the strikes of 1926 rocked employers. That these were led by Communist Party’s Trade Union Educational League only added to the shock. In New York’s Garment District, radical locals of the hired sluggers from Orgen, while employers retained the services of his associate, Jack “Legs” Diamond. Violence soon broke out along the picket lines, forcing a resolution that was brokered by reputed mobster Arnold Rothstein, the son of a prominent factory owner in Manhattan.

This was a win for the Communists, and a death sentence for the gangsters who helped them get it. The first to go was Orgen, gunned down in 1927. Rothstein followed him shortly after, then Diamond in 1932. In their place rose Buchalter, who is generally credited with creating the labour racket. Instead of just renting themselves out to the highest bidder, Buchalter and his underlings would infiltrate the union itself. While this meant that employers had to pay kickbacks to headbreakers, these came with the implication that said headbreakers would prevent strikes from breaking out organically. Militants were bad for business, and they would be subjected to a campaign of terror by Buchalter’s goons.

During the 1930s, the Garment District was engulfed in a war between radical unionists and the hired muscle of their conservative rivals. Along with New York locals of the ILGWU, the main target was the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, led by Communist Party member Ben Gold. Members were intimidated, beaten and in the case of union official Morris Langer, killed. Blown up by a bomb, Langer’s death led to the creation of workers self-defence groups. They clashed with their Mafia opposition, who were backed by employers and corrupt elements of the police, in scenes that brought chaos to the streets of New York.

Documentary about the wider role of labour racketeering in suppressing radicalism

This trend of racketeer fighting radical was seen across the United States in this period. Along the New York waterfront, the International Longshoremen’s Associated harshly repressed any grassroots movement which called for union democracy. In 1939, a dockworker named Pete Panto had briefly rose to prominence as the head of the Brooklyn Rank and File Committee, leading mass rallies where he publicly denounced the ILA’s links to the Mafia and employers. Panto soon went missing, with his body eventually found a few years later by detectives working the information of Murder Inc gunman Abe Reles.

The case never went to trial however, because Reles fell to his death from a window while under police custody. This was deemed a failed escape attempt, with Reles said to have been attempting to flee the police officers protecting him from a vengeful Mafia. The explanation was met with incredulity by most, particularly Panto’s fellow workers, who were well aware of the lengths the power structure which ruled over them would go to protect itself.

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