Unraveling Workers’ Letters: The Voices behind Nelly Don

Bursting at the Seams: Union Conflicts at the Donnelly Garment Company

Though written at a time when the Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) and International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) were engaged in fierce legal battles, the letters written by DGC workers primarily offer a positive argument about working conditions, wages, and collegiality on the factory floor. Few letters explicitly mention the ILGWU or its president, David Dubinsky.  Many of the letter writers who did address the ILGWU’s organizing campaign simply expressed their belief that affiliating with the international union would not improve their work lives, and they were unwilling to give up their right to represent themselves. Other letters suggest that the authors’ opposition to the ILGWU was more darkly rooted in anti-semitism and nativist attitudes.

Lucille Turner, Letter

Lucille Turner

Like many of her coworkers, Lucile Turner expressed her satisfaction with working conditions and wages at the DGC. She writes that she can’t imagine finding a better employer than Nell Donnelly Reed and she wishes “to continue working with Donnelly’s in the future, without the interference of the any outside Union.”

Iris Callowick, Letter

Iris Callowick

Opposed to “Big Shot” union leaders, Iris Callowick asserts that “a person we would choose from our own ranks” would be best suited to promoting the welfare of DGC employees.


Ethel Biewener, Letter

Ethel Biewener

Ethel Biewener opens her letter by challenging readers to consider the wisdom of challenging the collective judgment of the DGC workers.  She goes on to dub the ILGWU a “radical” organization affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Ora Brown, Letter

Ora Brown

Characterizing the DGC as an “all American factory,” Ora Brown is clear that she opposes joining the ILGWU.

Lynn Davis, Letter, page one

Lynn Davis

In her two-page letter, Lynn Davis opens with a quote from William J. Cameron, a journalist who handled public relations for Henry Ford and authored anti-semitic propaganda in the early decades of the twentieth-century.  Davis further aligns herself with Cameron’s attitudes when she disparagingly refers to the ILGWU president as a “ridiculous ‘Insky.’”