The Garment Workers

Talk for Kansas City Labor History Tour - October 17, 24, 1992

Judy Ancel, Institute for Labor Studies

I once saw a union president hold a copy of his union contract up while he was talking to a college class and say this is a document of history. He dared them to pick out any provision in the contract which spelled out a right or benefit to workers and promised that he could tell them a story of management abuse which explained its existence.


This is the 1989 contract between Rice Coat Company and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 114 in Kansas City. It is an historic document. If you read between the lines, you will find the history of garment workers in Kansas City. It has provisions for a 35 hour work week, a standard established in the industry in the 1930s. A ban on homework, an abuse common to sweatshops where wages were so low that women took work home, extending the workday for themselves and bringing their children into production. It provides for no employment of children under the age of 16. It says work will be distributed in each department on a fair and equitable basis over each season, and during slack periods prefers equal division of scarce work to all over layoffs of some.


It includes detailed procedures for settling disputes over piece rates with binding arbitration if settlement can't be reached. Workers have the right to refuse to cross picket lines. There is language regulating the use of the union label. The contract incorporates OSHA standards into it, thus making violations of those standards grievable.


Reflecting the more recent past, there are many provisions for job security including a ban on subcontracting, double breasting and establishment of non union locations, banning moving the shop far away, barring imported parts of garments and insuring that the union contract will survive sale of the company.


One of the most unusual clauses in the contract is the human dignity clause which says, "In order to maintain an atmosphere conducive to industrial harmony and the maximum rights for all persons as human beings, both parties agree to deal with each other and with all employees with the maximum possible respect and dignity." That clause says a lot about the history of the garment industry in Kansas City. Even if it is only a hope, it expresses much about what the ILGWU was trying to do for its members. Before the union, however, conditions were anything but humane.


The garment industry in Kansas City dates back to the late 19th century. The first garment union, local 47, organized the Mogul Company in 1898. By the 1920s the garment industry was the 11th largest industry in Kansas City. While there had been considerable growth during and after World War I, especially in men's work clothes, ladies garments were specializing in coats and suits and dresses. Nell Donnelly established the Nelly Don label of housedresses in 1916 and in the 1920s Fashion Built, Brand & Puritz and Stern, Slegman & Prins were established by immigrant Jewish tailors from eastern Europe or by the sons of immigrant manufacturers in New York and Chicago who came west in search of new markets and lower wages. Kansas City was never a fashion center. It adapted eastern fashions to the tastes and budgets of Midwesterners and southerners. KC never had the abundance of skilled immigrant tailors and seamstresses that New York and Chicago had, and starting during and after World War I began to use more unskilled workers by developing what was called the "section system" of dividing the work and specializing the skills so that, for instance, one worker did pockets only. This gave KC the lower costs and efficiency to compete with larger eastern firms. It also led to much larger shops. From the 1930s on, the size of the major Kansas City shops ranged from two to three hundred up to Nell Donnelly's 1300 in 1937 the largest dress establishment under one roof in the world and Gay Gibson which by the 1960s had 2000 employees. Back east the typical shop had less than 100 workers.


The Kansas City industry also went to the customers, unlike New York and Chicago where buyers would go to them. The companies here had crews of salesmen who scoured smaller towns selling to specialty stores in the Midwest and South. The heyday of the industry was in the 1950s and 60s. In 1956 apparel and related products was the second largest employer in Kansas City. There were 147 major firms and 72 secondary firms with sales over $100 million a year. The ILG had 3000 members in Kansas City and another 3000 in surrounding towns.


There was little unionization of the garment industry in Kansas City in the 1920s. The crash and ensuing depression shrank the clothing market drastically. Cutthroat competition followed with unemployment for many and slashed wages and long hours for some. In 1933 the Kansas City branch of the National Women's Trade Union League, issued a report on conditions in the garment industry. The WTUL was an organization founded by middle class women in the early part of the century to help working women organize to get into AFL unions which kept them out. The branch here sent members incognito into garment shops to work or to interview workers as they left work. It reported that "the old sweatshop has returned with all its misery" and called conditions "appalling." They found that one shop was paying girls at piece rates 404 a dozen for items that retailed at $1.95 each. There was no enforcement of Missouri's 9 hour law for women, unsanitary conditions in factories and wages averaged $2-3 a week even for experienced workers. While the better factories still paid $6-10 a week, they had once paid $13-25. The WTUL called for the organization of the workers and wrote David Dubinsky, President of the ILGWU, asking that an organizer be assigned to Kansas City.


Dubinsky rose to the Presidency of the ILG in 1932 ending years of internal feuding. From that point on the union launched vigorous organizing drives in 60 cities and, over the next few years waged successful strikes in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Louis. In 1933 the US government, under the NIRA, National Industrial Recovery Act which aimed at stopping the slide downward of wages, issued its code for the coat and suit industry which called for average wages of $13 for a 35 hour work week. The ILG made enforcement of the coat and suit code its demand. The trouble was, the NRA had no enforcement powers. It was up to the union to organize to win contracts embodying the code.


The ILG was aware of the conditions in Kansas City. In 1935, the Kansas City Joint Board wrote a letter which said, "Kansas City was the plague spot of the International. Conditions in this city one year ago were so horrible, the workers were so beaten by the sweatshop conditions under which they were employed that when the International made a survey of the field, it was decided that it was hopeless." They also said "the Kansas City market became notorious as the worst sweatshop market in the US.


In July, 1933, the ILG sent in Abraham Plotkin as a full-time organizer. We don't know much about Plotkin, but over the next nine months, he sent numerous telegrams and letters to Dubinsky reporting progress, setbacks, frustrations and victories and always asking for more money to feed strikers, pay their carfare or print leaflets and forgiveness for not paying the per cap to the International.


Plotkin set out to organize coats and suits, the aristocracy of the garment trades. Seven employers organized quickly and selected Prins of Stern, Slegman and Prins as their leader. With the help of the Central Labor Council, Plotkin sat down with the employers to negotiate the implementation of the code. By the end of July he wrote Dubinsky, "The difficulties of organizing women, you know yourself." Employers balked at paying women the code wages men were to receive and claimed their shops were not as efficient as eastern shops. Within days, Stern Slegman Prins was organizing a company union. Plotkin began signing up members, holding secret meetings, and by August 15, he had his first strike to contend with. He didn't need to call it. Over half the workers at Karrosen Coat company went out when 15 were fired. Meanwhile he noted a hardening of employer attitudes. Dubinsky sent him $100 for the strikers.


Plotkin did get a few employers to sign contracts embodying the NRA code, but the major ones balked. He began investigating and reporting on code violations and found that Stern Slegman was classifying skilled finishers with 25 years experience as apprentices and paying them $.47/hour. On the 20th he wrote Dubinsky that Karrosen tried to get Prins's pressers who were black to work nights. "I threatened to swear out a warrant for their arrest if they worked outside code hours," he wrote, and reported that Karrosen was advertising heavily for scabs. He said he was buying weekly car tickets for the strikers to come to picket, that women were cooking lunches at headquarters and that they were getting food packages for the strikers from the Central Labor Council relief department. He feared the first of the month when rents came due. He concluded by saying ". . .send out word, if you will, that American girls and colored men and women are making a fight of it on the picket line that is a joy to watch."


On the 29th he reported that many of the shops were forming company unions and telling their workers that the union had come to destroy the market here and that they're in league with the New York manufacturers to destroy them. He also said that no union member had so far crossed the line at Karrosen, and that he now had organized 450 members. That's a pretty good month's work! But that unemployment was skyrocketing and girls were coming daily to the office to ask to share the food for the strikers. He wanted to establish a soup kitchen at the union hall, but needed money. The correspondence breaks off then until January.


By then Plotkin is anticipating an industry-wide strike when work picks up, is writing a new leaflet every day and has a committee visiting dozens of unorganized workers' homes each night. He's begging Dubinsky to come to Kansas City to speak and overcome the propaganda against the union being put out by the employers. Late that month a new element appears. Plotkin reports that just as he thought the employers were ready to settle, Fashionbilt, Caplans, Brand and Puritz and Stern Slegman Prins called their workers to a meeting where they were addressed by a D. Ahern, a St. Louis strikebreaker who has caused much trouble there. Ahern told the workers that if they struck the companies would import St. Louis scabs and never settle with the union.


In February the union won a strike at Mary Dean Dress Company on 8th Street after union members were fired. The Women's Trade Union League helped out. In March the International Executive Board met in Kansas City, and Dubinsky addressed members and the unorganized at Musicians Hall on Washington street, telling them of the organizing successes and strikes of 60,000 garment workers throughout the country. He said, "The cloakmakers have been organized almost 100% except for the dark spot in Kansas City and one or two other small centers."


The following month Frank Angalone, an undercover organizer spent two weeks in Kansas City. He wrote Dubinsky, "I don't say that I have already succeeded the way I would like to, but I am working very quiet because most of the workers when the manufacturer finds out that they have joined the union or are union members they soon are fired and that's why they are so afraid to lose their jobs." At a strike at Missouri Garment Company in August, a woman union officer was stabbed on the picket line by a scab with a scissors. Meanwhile the Women's Trade Union League sent a report to the National WTUL that 15 girls from Nell Donnelly Company were holding secret meetings every week at their office. The following January these women chartered Local 124 of the ILGWU to organize and represent Donnelly workers.


Sometime that year Plotkin was reassigned to Chicago and replaced by Meyer Perlstein who became head of the Region. His reports to Dubinsky tell of a strike against Stern Slegman Prins, one of the big holdouts in coats and suits, of a constant battle to keep the shops that are signed from going nonunion while trying to organize the others, of the dirtywork of Ahern and the kidnapping and severe beating of Samuel White, an officer of the union.


One bright spot was the ILG Pageant, Surging Forward, a history of fighting garment workers which came to Kansas City from St. Louis August 29, 1936 with a cast of 100, during the Stern Slegman strike. It was opening night for the Municipal Auditorium and the employers went to City Manager McElroy, Pendergast's first in command, demanding it be canceled. Wave Tobin later wrote Dubinsky that she met with McElroy and he told her the union couldn't use the auditorium. "I told him of the conditions of the workers in the shops here, compared them to other cities, of the company union, of the fact that it was organized and controlled by a strike breaking agency, of the educational work being done by our International. Finally he agreed we could put the show on. I think he was influenced by the fact that his name is McElroy and mine Tobin; the solidarity of the Irish, you know." McElroy promised to attend and bring other city officials, which he did. Afterwards, Tobin writes, he came up to her and said that "if all unions used such methods, the labor movement would profit much, that if I had any problems he could help me with, I should come to him and he would be glad to give me help and advice when he could." 1300 people attended the pageant including many of the police who stood guard at the Stern Slegman Prins picket line to whom the union gave free tickets. Tobin said the production had a real affect on their attitude. Doris Wheeler, regional education director said that police harassment stopped after that and the strike was soon settled. She said Meyer Perlstein credited the Pageant with making a big impression on the city fathers.


By 1938 the coat and suit industry in Kansas City was completely unionized, and the union had begun to organize the dress shops. Membership in early 1937 had already reached 2000. Contract after contract was won through recognitional strikes, militant picketing, and sit-ins. Benny Kwiatuk, a retired worker who I interviewed, told me that violence, especially scratching was common on the picket line. I showed him two pictures from the Kansas City Star, one was of a two women fighting. The caption reads, "Fighting Workers - The tall blond counterpuncher at the left is a member of the ILGWU. the brunette with flailing fists is a nonunion worker. The strikers last night remained in the building housing three garment shops sleeping on cots. Benny identified the tall blond as Wave Tobin. In the next picture a cop has Wave by the neck, and the caption reads, "the union member at the left drew blood from her adversary's nose before the police sergeant swung her away from the fray. Two more policemen are holding her nonunion opponent who swung a lightning-quick handbag."


Benny was an immigrant from Poland. He was in his early 20s during the depths of the Depression and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and was sent to California in the early 30s. In 1934 he came home to KC and got a job as a threader at Missouri Garment at $7 a week. He worked his way up to cutter, a job reserved for men, making $15 a week. He said it was hot, noisy and you had to work any hours with no overtime pay. After he got organized his wages increased to $25. He worked 35 hours a week and bought himself a new Dodge for $835. I asked Benny what made people risk firing, assault and arrest to organize, and he said, "People wanted to better themselves. When you're fighting for a living, people will do anything."


By 1937, the union was ready to take on Nell Donnelly. Without organizing her company, the union in the dress industry would be undercut, but Donnelly was not only huge, she was powerful. She was active in the Democratic party and married to former senator James A.Reed, a kingpin in the Pendergast machine and nominated for President in 1932 by Pendergast. At its 1937 national convention, the ILG appropriated $100,000 to organize Nellie Don, but it was not to be for 30 years. Donnelly was a master at fighting the union. She organized a company union and managed to avoid a 1940 NLRB decision ordering it disbanded until 1948. She was a pioneer in union avoidance, cultivating personal loyalty among her workers that defied their own self interest, she inculcated anti-Semitism in them to sew distrust of the ILG leadership and finally by the 1950s she began to match union contracts, almost, to keep the union out. Only after she had died and the company was sold, did her workers finally organize. Renaldo Panetta, currently working for the union in St. Louis told me it was an organizers dream, a
bottom-up campaign, organized in a whirlwind of demonstrations and housevisits. All three Donnelly plants in Kansas City, St. Joe and Nevada voted for the union. But by then the company, and the industry were going into decline. It went out of business in 1978, and over the next ten years, most of the other garment companies followed.


For thirty years, however, the ILGWU turned sweatshops into workplaces of respect and dignity. The union was an active one which involved its members in both traditional union activities as well as classes on everything from hat making to children's dance classes to painting. It involved members in politics and community service. "It was a real union", said Lillian McKittrick who came into a segregated local in 1957 and rose to become a full time union rep servicing many shops. Both employers and union members and leaders have told me that the industry was a community, and once recognition was achieved, there was much cooperation and good fellowship. Perhaps because these were family businesses in which many owners were former workers, there was a mutual respect that is unusual in our labor movement.