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GARMENT WORKERS ORGANIZE
Garment District - 8th & Broadway

Union Label
Garment Union Label

Kansas City's garment industry dates back to the turn of the century. During and after World War I, KC became a leader in production of men's work clothes, ladies coats and suits and house dresses and by World War II was second in the nation.

Liberty Dress Workers
Workers at Liberty Dress Company, 1937

A ready supply of skilled immigrants like those who worked in and unionized the New York garment industry was not as plentiful here. Instead employers used division of labor and time-motion studies and created some of the largest factories in the country. In 1933 The Women's Trade Union League of KC went undercover into the shops. Their report characterized conditions as "appalling" with wages as low as $2 to $3 a week.

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1934 called Kansas City sweatshops "the plague spot of the union", and they began organizing the women's coat and suit shops and dress shops, mainly concentrated in the Garment District near Broadway and 8th Street. The union used sit-ins, boycotts, and militant mass picket lines. It violated injunctions when necessary, and members went to jail. They forced employers to agree to industry standards of $13 per week for 35 hours. By spring 1937 union contracts covered 2000.

Garment Organizing 1934
Garment Organizing 1934
On March 17, 1937, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union had a sit-in in the lobby of the building at 2617 Grand Ave. Kansas City where three companies operated garment factories. In this photo the police grab Wave Tobin, a union organizer, after she was attacked by an anti union worker. Wave gave her a bloody nose. The Kansas City Times said the two cops are holding her opponent at right "who swung a lightning quick hand bag."

In 1937 at its national convention, the union pledged $100,000 to organize the Donnelly Garment Company, a leading dress manufacturer whose home base with 1300 workers was Kansas City. Owner, Nell Donnelly, was active in Democratic politics and married to former Missouri Senator James A. Reed, a powerhouse in the Pendergast Machine. Donnelly organized a company union and got a federal injunction against the ILGWU in 1939 in a famous case which went to the Supreme Court. The federal court hearing in Kansas City pitted Reed against union lawyer Frank Walsh (see page on Walsh). But it was as much a battle over political influence as over the law. The union lost, and the Donnelly Company was not organized by the ILGWU until 1967 after Nell had retired.

Unions in the garment industry, however, continued to grow during and after World War II, and Kansas City remained in the forefront of the garment industry. Runaways to nonunion, low wage areas and the growth of foreign imports eventually brought decline in the 1970s and extinction in the 1980s. Today people who visit the Garment District's upscale, remodeled restaurants or bars know nothing of the vibrant culture of the workers who turned sweatshops into workplaces of dignity.

[click here to see Garment Leaflet - March 1934]
On March 15th ILGWU International President David Dubinsky spoke at an organizing meeting at the Musicians Union Hall on Washington Street in Quality Hill.

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