Murder in the Garment District

The Grip of Organized Crime and the Decline of Labor in the United States

The thrilling and true account of racketeering and union corruption in mid-century New York, when unions and the mob were locked in a power struggle that reverberates to this day

“The murder had taken place ‘in one of the most congested areas of the city,’ the District Attorney noted. And yet, he told the press, ‘Not a single witness came forward.’”
—from Murder in the Garment District

In 1949, in New York City’s crowded Garment District, a union organizer named William Lurye was stabbed to death by a mob assassin. Through the lens of this murder case, prize-winning authors David Witwer and Catherine Rios explore American labor history at its critical turning point, drawing on FBI case files and the private papers of investigative journalists who first broke the story. A narrative that originates in the garment industry of mid-century New York, which produced over 80 percent of the nation’s dresses at the time, Murder in the Garment District quickly moves to a national stage, where congressional anti-corruption hearings gripped the nation and forever tainted the reputation of American unions.

Replete with elements of a true-crime thriller, Murder in the Garment District includes a riveting cast of characters, from wheeling and dealing union president David Dubinsky to the notorious gangster Abe Chait and the crusading Robert F. Kennedy, whose public duel with Jimmy Hoffa became front-page news.

Deeply researched and grounded in the street-level events that put people’s
lives and livelihoods at stake, Murder in the Garment District is destined to become a classic work of history—one that also explains the current troubled state of unions in America.

Praise

“A powerful page-turner that completely reshapes how we think about the connections between unions, corruption, and organized crime, and a critically important work for anyone interested in reviving the power of the American working class.”
—Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes and Out of Sight
“A muckraking study by David Witwer and Catherine Rios that opens with a shocking killing of a labor organizer.”
—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“Fans of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman or perhaps even the garment subplots in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will find great intrigue with this hardboiled look at racketeering and the mob’s gradual influence over labor unions.”
The Bowery Boys
“A cast of ruthless mob bosses, crooked politicians, corrupt journalists, conniving contractors, and gutsy working-class heroes springs vividly to life in these pages. Witwer and Rios uncover a fierce yet all-but-forgotten battle for the soul of the union movement—a battle whose ambiguous outcome haunts us still.”
—Joseph A. McCartin, author of Collision Course
“This unflinching analysis of ‘mobbed-up’ unions reveals that they flourished in contexts where corrupt police forces looked the other way, and where employers rejected honest unions in favor of sweetheart contracts. A must-read for anyone interested in labor’s future.”
—Ruth Milkman, author of Unfinished Business and Gender at Work
“Witwer and Rios highlight the dark side of organized labor’s decline from public influence since the 1950s. A compelling account of mob threats and violence regularly visited on garment and teamster union organizers, Murder in the Garment District reminds us of the defining power of coercion in American labor-management relations.”
—Leon Fink, author of The Long Gilded Age and Workers in Hard Times
Murder in the Garment District is well-documented, well-written, and altogether terrific. Its honesty is refreshing, reminding us that even before the forces of globalization and technology battered the American labor movement there was a serious disease that contributed to its decline. The persistence of that malady, and its impact on workers, must continue to be addressed.”
—The New York Labor History Association
“A painstaking reconstruction of a sensational 1949 murder and a tumultuous era that marked the beginning of the long decline of American labor unions.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Combining masterful storytelling with rigorous research and analysis . . . this isn’t a story with clear heroes and villains, but one where characters must react to the flawed realities in their operating environment, sometimes with historically tragic consequences.”
—David Rolf, founder and president emeritus, SEIU 775, and author of The Fight for Fifteen