The Bitterest Battle: The ILGWU and Unionization in the Kansas City Garment District

Nell Donnelly Reed
Nell Donnelly Reed. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The history of the Donnelly Garment Company and its battle with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) is one that defies conventional understandings of American life in the Great Depression. It is a story of a female entrepreneur succeeding in an era of economic paralysis, and one of a union failing to organize a factory in a period when workers won substantive rights. ILGWU president David Dubinsky, Nell Donnelly Reed, and Senator James A. Reed were the principal figures in a contest to organize a single garment factory, a legal battle that came to represent much larger questions: what responsibility did employers have for their employees? To what extent would women, having recently won voting rights, take on a prominent role in the world of business and work? Was the federal government's support of unions allowing foreign radicalism to seep into American free markets?

In assessing these questions, an exploration of what ILGWU president David Dubinsky referred to as "the bitterest battle," a battle that culminated in several courtroom trials and appeals, reveal how a reputable and respected union leader, a uniquely self-made female entrepreneur, and a retired senator in his twilight years, came to embody the strains of Depression-era politics and society.

Mass-manufacturing of garments in Kansas City dates to the 1880s, but by the 1920s the industry was defined by historians as being "sick" and Dubinsky described the fiercely competitive textile industry as a "rag jungle." Business in garment production was beset by numerous problems, including domestic and foreign competition that lowered prices and overproduction in manufactured goods. American manufacturers, especially those dealing in cotton, responded to the poor conditions by moving their mills from the Northeast to the American South and Midwest to take advantage of cheaper labor, land, and production costs.

For Kansas City, however, the garment industry was anything but sick, and the interwar period hastened growth. As Kansas City grew as a railroad hub in the latter part of the 19th century, the city’s Garment District began to expand and eventually encompassed the area from 6th to 11th Streets and from Wyandotte to Washington Streets in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Employment averaging around 1,400 workers from 1880-1920, and garment production blossomed in the interwar period.

By 1940, over 4,000 workers found jobs in the garment industry, with annual business estimated at between $75-100 million, which meant that only the stockyards employed more Kansas Citians. Garment production had become the city’s third highest grossing industry, behind just livestock and grain. Historians Jeannette Terrell and Patricia Zimmer support this outlook, arguing that KC "suffered extensively" from the Depression, but the garment district remained relatively unscathed because it made essential and affordable apparel items.

The company that came to dominate the city’s garment industry, though, was always an outlier. It rested outside the official district at 1828 Walnut St., and it was also an outlier by the fact that its founder, Ellen (Nell) Quinland Donnelly Reed, was a woman. Biographies of Nell Donnelly Reed tend to tilt towards triumphalism. Terence Michael O’Malley, her great-grandnephew, produced a 2006 film, along with a companion book that describes her story as "the stuff of legend."

Nelly Don dress sketches
Nelly Don Dress sketches, 1922

In reality, Nell Donnelly Reed’s life and practices as an entrepreneur reveal a complex history. Born in 1889 in Parsons, Kansas, she was the 12th child of Irish immigrants. She moved to a boarding house in Kansas City at the age of 16 and married a stenographer, Paul Donnelly, a year later. At the age of 27, Paul gave her a $1,270 loan from his personal savings to start a garment company that she developed into a multimillion-dollar business. When her husband returned from World War I, he quit his job as a credit manager to become president of the Donnelly Garment Company.

While Paul managed the finances, Nell ran the factory, and in so doing, she displayed talent for the business. Her entrepreneurial instincts recognized a gap in contemporary women’s wear between fashionable and cheap housedresses. Due to seasonal variations and changes in fashion, women’s garments had tended to resist mass-manufacturing until late in the 19th century; those that were made tended to be bland and unfashionable. Additionally, women who could afford expensive imported fabrics tended to have skilled dressmakers sew their garments by hand to fit their body type, rather than purchase a dress that was mass-produced in factories.

Thus, Donnelly’s "section system" assembly line was designed to centralize and mass-produce fashionable housedresses, and she built and sustained her women’s clothing business on making stylish and affordable clothes for the average American woman. When depression paralyzed the country, the Donnelly Garment Co. continued to thrive, bolstered by the popularity of her Handy Dandy apron. She avoided widespread layoffs for the duration of the Great Depression and consistently maintained a factory with over 1,000 full- and part-time employees.

The secret of her success also rested in an understanding of the limitations of the Kansas City labor market. The city's garment industry had a relatively unskilled labor force. Rather than construct the garment all at once, each person in the company would have one responsibility, such as sewing a pocket, or snapping on buttons. In later court testimony, Donnelly claimed she had not been "able to get experienced operators," and she "started having to teach my own operators." She established a training section where operators learned at least three different types of assembly, so that if the company was short on work in one area, the operator could move to a different section. Later court testimony reveals that the company would "weed out" operators if they "were not adaptable or they were not good enough in any one particular way to make them valuable," which led to more than 5,000 "Nelly Don" dresses coming off the assembly line daily.

Despite her company’s expansive growth, Donnelly rejected the notion that she was revolutionary. She employed approximately 900 women and 100 men in 1932, and often provided upward mobility for her female employees. One notable example is Elizabeth Gates Reeves, who began working at the Donnelly Garment Company as a clerk in the payroll office in 1921. After six years in this position, Reeves earned a promotion to production manager in which she oversaw all production in the factory. Women clearly had opportunities in her company, but Donnelly resisted the claim that she supported the position of "radical" women reformers, tersely noting in a magazine interview, "We simply pick the person who is available, and who we believe can do the job. If that person’s a woman, well and good."

Nelly Don company picnic
Donnelly encouraged socialization and fraternization among employees by hosting Christmas parties, summer picnics, and other company sponsored recreational events. Courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City.

In her management style, Nell Donnelly advocated what is commonly referred to as welfare capitalism, or programs that offered health care, athletic teams, vacations, and social events. Employers designed these programs in the 1920s to instill worker loyalty to the company and undermine the potential of labor unions to organize. Her company paid for a physician to provide care for workers for one afternoon each week, and she later extended medical service to families of employees. She established a resort close to Swope Park for recreation and gatherings for company employees. In her opinion, she "adopted all the benefits that a union would offer." One employee, Lois Hall, recalled that "the hospital and medical care given to us are the very best," and Gladys Wilson testified that Donnelly made sure every child of an employee received a Christmas gift at the annual party.

Nell Donnelly's managerial style succeeded in establishing an entrenched loyalty that kept unions out of her shop. She showed ruthless calculation in growing her business, especially by creating a powerful political alliance with her marriage to three-time U.S. Senator James Alexander Reed, who retired from politics after an unsuccessful run for president in the election of 1928. In 1927, when the two began their relationship, Reed was still married to his wife Lura and Donnelly was still married to her first husband. The relationship possibly began during a lawsuit. Reed, a talented lawyer, successfully won a case for the Donnelly Garment Co., which had sued the R. Lowenbaum Manufacturing Company of St. Louis for stealing the Handy Dandy Apron design. He proved his mettle as the St. Louis Globe Democrat reported, "the silver-haired orator occupied himself intently on every technical detail of designing and manufacturing of aprons." Shortly thereafter, the Donnelly's moved behind Reed’s magisterial house on Cherry St., and eventually Reed and Nell Donnelly began an extramarital affair.

As Donnelly's business prospered, her home life came under severe strain. It first began when her alcoholic husband and co-owner, Paul, threatened to commit suicide if she ever gave birth to a child. She then consummated her relationship with the senator, and a pregnant Nell Donnelly briefly moved to Chicago in 1931, where she gave birth to a boy, David. Upon her return, she claimed the boy was adopted, but in reality he was James Reed’s son.

Photograph of the floor of the Nelly Don factory, showing well-lit working conditions
Pictures of the Donnelly Garment Company reveal bright lights and proper ventilation with ceiling fans and long open windows, indicating the sanitary conditions of her shop. ILGWU Regional Director Meyer Perlstein admitted that the Donnelly Garment Co. was "a fine shop with regard to cleanliness and lighting." Courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City.

The dramatic relationship between Reed and Donnelly suffered another hardship when, two months after returning to the city, she was kidnapped. In response, Reed threatened John Lazia, a Kansas City mafia leader, with blowing the cover of Lazia’s dealings with the Pendergast machine unless Donnelly was returned safely. Although Lazia and his men had nothing to do with the kidnapping, the investigative talent of the mafia located and returned her safely to her home in just over a day. When James Reed’s wife died in October 1932, Donnelly filed for divorce from her husband a month later, bought him out of the company, and married Reed in December 13, 1933.

In their marriage, the Reeds would forge formidable opposition to the ILGWU, as the union’s president, David Dubinsky, later claimed that Reed used his political weight to influence federal code hearings on wage standardization. The federal hearing eventually gave the company a recommendation that 85 percent of its work fall under the cotton code, whereas Dubinsky felt that it should have been only 71 percent. Reed saved the company money because silk workers were entitled to higher wages.

Lottie Conroy, a worker at Donnelly, fainted on the job and was taken out on a stretcher.
Lottie Conroy, a worker at Donnelly, fainted on the job and was taken out on a stretcher. A few days later, the girls in the section learned that Conroy had died, and co-workers believed it was a result of overwork. Donnelly Co. lawyers, led by William Hogsett, produced this death certificate to prove that Conroy was not killed on the job, but rather died of second and third degree burns when her dress caught fire on a gas stove in her own home. Courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City.

While Reed helped protect Donnelly's business in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the ILGWU neared collapse. In 1920, the ILGWU had 105,400 members and appeared healthy coming out of the Great War. Then, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), under William Z. Foster, developed its strategy of "boring from within," established trade unions by placing communists in control of positions of leadership. By the late 1920s, the ILGWU was on its deathbed as the issue of communism divided the union.

Born in Brest-Litovsk, Russia in 1892, Dubinsky grew up to have no love for communism. In his teenage years, he learned to be a garment cutter and eventually a committed trade unionist and socialist. After being arrested a few times as a youth, he fled Tsarist Russia and immigrated to America where he disavowed his earlier socialist beliefs. Upon becoming president of the ILGWU, he began to evict communist members, though at great cost to the union’s reputation and finances. By 1930, membership of the ILGWU had fallen to 32,300; the union was on the brink of bankruptcy. Dubinsky won the presidential election of the union in 1932, a position that he would hold for 34 years, and he would grow the ILGWU into what Current History magazine called "America’s best union."

The ILGWU decided to come to Kansas City in 1933 after a report compiled by the National Women’s Trade Union League indicated that conditions in Kansas City garment factories were "appalling." While not singling out specific companies, the report designated the factories in Kansas City as "sweat shops." The report claimed that the Kansas City garment industry offered low pay, unsanitary conditions, and a "speed-up system" to reach daily quotas, which left women fatigued.

Management at the Donnelly Co. consistently denied that they employed a "speed-up system" and instead touted their in-house nurses and "rest" room that allowed breaks for fatigued employees. Ellen Fry, an employee who joined the ILGWU in 1934 and was promptly laid off after joining, testified about her work as a tucker, which she referred to as an "unusually tedious job." It involved making ten tucks for each dress to match lengths, punch holes, and stitch the seams. Fry earned 25 cents per dozen dresses, and an individual tuck took about 20 seconds. In ideal conditions, without any breaks or broken threads, a tucker could tuck about 18 dresses per hour for a weekly wage of $15, which was also the established minimum wage for all employees in the Donnelly factory. Fry claimed that, because of this payment model, she left work so tired that she did not have the energy to eat supper at night, and that women throughout her section experienced fatigue. Reed countered that employees who earned a weekly wage of $15 were only operating at 75 percent efficiency.

The Donnelly Co. was not the only garment factory to experience tension with the ILGWU. David Dubinsky had sent an experienced trade unionist, Abraham Plotkin, to Kansas City in July 1933, where he began to organize and enroll members. The most notorious episode of early unionization efforts occurred when the ILGWU organized a strike at Gordon, Gernes, and Missouri Garment companies in March 1937, which resulted in a violent confrontation in which a strikebreaker stabbed a union officer with a pair of scissors.

Violence at other ILGWU strikes
Some minor episodes of violence broke out during the March 1937 strikes at the Gernes, Gordon, and Missouri Garment Co. strikes. Courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City.

These labor strikes provided ammunition for the Donnelly Garment Co. in preparing for the "bitterest" legal battle with the ILGWU. The ILGWU’s attempt to organize this factory was a forty-year battle that lasted until the union was finally accepted inside the Donnelly Co. in 1971, 15 years after Nell Donnelly Reed had sold all of her company stock. The main legal issues centered on an injunction issued by the Reeds against the ILGWU after the union had called for a boycott against Donnelly Co. housedresses. The injunction was designed to prohibit the ILGWU from administering a secondary boycott by using its weight to keep retailers from carrying Nelly Don dresses. Dubinsky devoted a "war chest" of over $100,000 to unionize Donnelly Reed’s company. While a district judge originally ruled in the company’s favor, the ILGWU appealed. In 1942, the injunction was overturned and a judge ruled in favor of the ILGWU. But even though the ILGWU won the legal battle, it failed to successfully organize the company while Donnelly Reed remained at the helm.

James A. Reed
H.L. Mencken wrote a glowing tribute to Reed that testified to his skills in oratory, stating, "The stature of such a man as Reed is not to be counted by his successes. The important thing is that he fights. Were there greater gladiators in the Senate in the Golden Age? I presume to doubt it…He is, for our time, the supreme artist in assault…The stone ax is not his weapon, but the rapier; and he knows how to make it go through stone and steel…He was, it appears, a purely destructive force." Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The bitter legal battle exemplified several conflicts that shaped the 1930s. First, the hostility that ensued between Dubinsky and the Reeds was an outgrowth of nativist and antiradical fears common in post-World War I America. Since Dubinsky was Russian-born, Sen. Reed employed his oratorical talents to position Dubinsky as a foreign radical. Dubinsky stated to the press that Reed "dares to pose as an American patriot," and shrewdly spoke that "it will be the object of our union to teach him a lesson in real Americanism." Reed countered: "He has the nerve to talk about Americanism, although he was born in Russia, and has only been in this country a few years!" Not one to back down, Dubinsky countered, "On the basis of this test of Americanism, we must be permitted to believe that Reed, when he was about to be born, decided to choose America as the place of birth, while I, given the same free selection, happened to pick Russia."

This exchange reveals the intensity of conflicting ideologies that emerged after the Great War. In the years of 1919-23, the United States government imprisoned and deported suspected radicals in what became known as the Red Scare. President Woodrow Wilson further expressed that Bolshevism is "a negation of everything that is American." Donnelly Reed also produced a few jabs at Dubinsky, claiming that she would resist all efforts by any "-sky" to unionize her plant, and referred to him as "butt-insky."

Letter to James A. Reed
Letter to James A. Reed. Sen. Reed received letters from supporters who expressed anti-Semitic views, including one from attorney Evan Hammett that tersely noted, "It is getting high-time that this country rid itself of Communistic Jews…and labor agitators. I extend you my full support in your gallant efforts to quell the Jew, Dubinsky." Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The Reeds' demonization of Dubinsky and the ILGWU also employed anti-Semitic remarks. A local organizer informed Dubinsky that Donnelly Reed and her supervisors brought the Kansas City ILGWU chairlady and vice-chairlady into her office, where they intimidated and harassed the union members by asking them "what in the world [do] they have in common with these little fat Jews?"

ILGWU Garment Workers Play
 ILGWU members offered a "hearty congratulations" to Dubinsky when this feature ran, with a New York based ILGWU member stating, "The fine educational and recreational activities of the ILGWU should prove a strong drawing card for the American native element." Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Many Kansas City garment companies were owned by Jewish migrants from New York City. Historian Laurel Wilson contends that the majority of Kansas City garment companies suggested "cooperation between Jewish and Gentile" employees and that the garment industry in the city was "integrated in terms of ethnicity, religion, and race." Yet, as much as one can tell from names, the payroll sheets of Donnelly’s Company suggest mostly anglicized, Gentile names, indicating that the company tended to hire non-Jewish workers when possible.

Anti-Semitic commentary was even expressed by local ILGWU members. Clara Bagley, a garment worker and member of the local ILGWU in Kansas City, wrote to Dubinsky requesting that he replace Abraham Plotkin, who was Jewish, because the dressmakers desired a "Gentile…who would talk in plain, rough middle-Western English." Bagley asserted that the chief obstacle that local unionists found in gaining support was that Christian women on the shop floor could not relate to Jewish union organizers.

Although Dubinsky dismissed her suggestion, it appears to have resonated with the union. In 1938, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a feature titled "Garment Workers Play" that profiled union women participating in various events, such as tennis, ballroom dancing, basketball, bowling, and acting. Not only was this a part of the ILGWU’s recreational program to combat the amenities offered by Nell’s company, it was also designed to win the hearts and minds of native-born Kansas Citians through Americanized recreation.

Dowdy's torn shirt
Photographs of Dowdy’s torn shirt were reprinted in the New York Sunday News, which Reed offered as evidence of the ILGWU’s debasement of female purity. Courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City.

Within this context, nativism empowered anti-radicalism, and in court Sen. Reed invoked fears of foreigners by displaying lurid images of physical and sexual violence during labor strikes. During the hearing in 1939, Reed referenced prior strikes and contended that the union waged aggressive destruction against American women. Even though strikes in the Kansas City Garment District, such as the one at Gordon Co., Gernes Co, and Missouri Garment Co. offered relatively minimal violence, Reed attempted to position the violence perpetrated by ILGWU members as representative of how the union operated. The former senator showed images from a nationally recognized case in Memphis, Tennessee, in which a strikebreaker named Velma Dowdy testified that ILGWU sympathizers "mauled her and stripped virtually all her clothing from her."

Reed produced a wealth of documented evidence that offered salacious details of prior ILGWU strike activities: a spanking of stripped female workers, the stripping of clothes and throwing of acid in St. Louis, and the removal of all clothes but shoes of a strikebreaker in the presence of "two Negro porters" in Dallas. Reed screened motion picture clips, waved pictures of stripped women, and grandstanded with inflammatory rhetoric, exclaiming, "If the devil scraped the cauldrons of hell, and out of the scum created a sensate being, he would not be as vile as this man [pointing his cane at ILGWU lawyer Dean Acheson] who comes here to defend stripping women naked in the streets of this city." Despite this extremist rhetoric, there were no actual, documented examples of violence on or near the property, and Judge Gunnar Nordbye ultimately ruled against Reed’s injunction in 1942.

Political cartoon
The senator saw himself as a watchman of fading chivalric values in the post-flapper age and, as such, depicted the ILGWU members as hyper-sexualized brutes who set upon themselves to ruin the virtue of wholesome mid-western girls. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Although the ILGWU won the legal battle, they lost the war with the Donnelly Co. The victory rested in how the Reeds insulated their company from outsiders. The ILGWU’s defeat can be attributed not only to the virulent rhetoric established within the company managerial hierarchy, but also in company policies that offered a combination of intimidation and incentive to remain loyal to Donnelly Reed.

Victory also rested in the company’s establishment of its own union. Initially referring to itself as the Donnelly Garment Company Loyalty League, management founded it in March 1934 when supervisor Rose Mary Todd called for a company-wide meeting to announce, "We do not need the help of outsiders." The meeting was timely and came as 15 workers in the factory had enrolled in the ILGWU. In 1937, a National Labor Relations Board report essentially declared that the Loyalty League was in violation of the law in that it denied the ILGWU access to Donnelly workers, and in response, the Loyalty League rebranded itself the Donnelly Garment Workers’ Union (DGWU).

The Loyalty League and its offshoot, the DGWU, sought to create a culture of loyalty and dependency to Nell Donnelly Reed. Certainly many women were legitimately grateful to have an employer like Donnelly Reed during the midst of the country’ worst financial depression. These organizations capitalized on those sentiments by organizing letter writing and Christmas card campaigns among employees to express their gratitude to their boss.

The ILGWU’s trial strategy brought women to the stand who had been fired or harassed on the job for joining the union. ILGWU members, Fern Sigler and Sylvia Hull, testified that loyal Donnelly employees shouted and sang at them as middle management looked on, implicitly supporting such intimidation tactics. Management further intervened by sending union members home without a definitive statement of when they could return to work. Although union members were eventually allowed back to their jobs, not all employees opted to return. As Donnelly Reed fostered a sense of loyalty among her workers, the ILGWU found it difficult to consolidate support inside the factory.

In evaluating the legacies of Dubinsky and the Reeds, it is reasonable to conclude that each contended with the larger forces that were shaping American history during the Depression era. Dubinsky had earned respect and admiration in much of the business community. He proudly showed that formerly ardent anti-union men, such as Kansas City garment factory owner Frank Prins, had become converts. Prins, in a letter to Dubinsky, which was duplicated and used as propaganda for ILGWU organizing, stated, "The day of unorganized labor is passing rapidly. Yet with it, contrary to past precedent, is going the long bitter antagonism of the employer towards unionism; the feeling that capital is capital and labor is labor and never the twain can meet on common ground is also disappearing."

But the success of the ILGWU’s unionization of the Kansas City Garment District would have a relatively short shelf life. Boosters had promoted in the interwar period that one out of every seven women in the country wore a garment that was made in Kansas City. The district then progressed into its own golden age of production and profits in the 1950s. However, by the end of the 1970s, the garment industry had essentially vanished from the city. Rising labor costs led to outsourcing to foreign countries, and most of the main historical figures of the Kansas City Garment District had either passed away or retired from the field.

Christmas Card
During the 1937 trials, 1,016 Christmas cards were sent to Nell Donnelly Reed, many of which, beyond wishing her a Merry Christmas, gave their thanks to her for being a wonderful employer.

Nell Donnelly Reed leaves a lasting impression as a dedicated and innovative entrepreneur, yet the bitter battle between the Reeds and Dubinsky reveals a larger truth: that despite cooperation between unions and most garment factories in Kansas City, in the Donnelly Co., nativism and fears of labor radicalism, Bolshevism, and violence remained. Conservative voices, represented by the Reeds, abandoned the Democratic Party under Franklin D. Roosevelt and emerged as hostile opponents to federal intervention, promoting, instead, free-market capitalism and privatized welfare programs for employees. The legacy to reflect on regarding Kansas City’s once-acclaimed status as a high-volume producer of clothing is that the relationship between employer and employee, between industry and the federal government, and between the liberalization of women’s roles in business and an unstable male-dominated capitalist system, remained unsettled and contested ground.

The Kansas City needle at the intersection of 8th and Broadway
The Kansas City needle at the intersection of 8th and Broadway, which marks the area where garment workers used to disembark from streetcars to arrive to work at the dozens of factories scattered throughout the district. The sculpture exists as a "tribute to the entrepreneurs whose genius and dedication is a Kansas City legacy to tell to oncoming generations." Courtesy of the author.

Funding for this essay is generously provided by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. Funding for this essay is generously provided by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. A longer version of this article is published in the book, Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era (University Press of Kansas, 2018), edited by Diane Mutti Burke, Jason Roe, and John Herron.