When the Pendergast machine was at the height of its power, Kansas City’s economy was dominated by major industries related to railroads, stockyards, garment manufacturing, agricultural production, automobiles, and more. Several local industries were among the largest of their type, which gave national significance to the many local disputes between labor and management.
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.