During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labor unions actively supported the workers’ rights to a clean, safe workplace, no competition from child labor, a reasonable work day, and adequate wages. Union members held strikes against employers they believed to be unfair, and members of other unions boycotted firms and products made by unfair employers.
The unions’ efforts were largely unsuccessful during the 1890s, according to historians Lawrence Christensen and Gary Kremer. Although union membership increased curing the first decade of the twentieth century, only about eight per cent of Missouri’s factory workers were members of a union. Only about 2 percent of the women employed in factories, mostly workers in garment and shoe factories had joined unions.
Sedalia had been since the 1870s a strongly union town, with an Ancient Order of United Workmen and trade unions representing the railroad trades, the cigar makers, theater workers, garment makers, and other factory workers. By the late 1890s, Sedalia factories had begun to hire women. These women tended to be, in the words of an article about female factory workers by Hazel Hammond Albertson, “the most underpaid and misused factors of our industrial life.”
The Twentieth Century magazine reported on the actions of a group of about a dozen Sedalia factory workers. They had decided to strike and had been unsuccessful in having their demands met. The magazine does not reveal the reason for their strike, nor does it name the company they were striking against. What it does report is the action the women took.
They decided to start their own factory — the Union Garment Workers Co-partnership Factory. They manufactured shirts that were “planned with respect to the comfort of the wearer and the durability of the material.” The quality of their product reflected their “enthusiastic” attitude toward their work. The shirts were sold under the brand name “The Co-partner.”
The Co-partner factory was “owned, operated, and controlled” by the women who worked there. The co-partners, as the women working at the factory called themselves, invested their labor.
Start-up money came in the form of interest free loans from Sedalia area labor unions. Every local union contributed in amounts ranging from five to one hundred dollars. Individual union members also contributed. The money was to be repaid in the order in which it was received.
The women of the Co-partner Shirt Factory organized the monetary aspects of the operation in what seems to have been a business-like manner. The net profits were distributed twice a year. Fifty percent of the net profits were distributed to the employees in proportion to the wages each employee earned. Five percent of the net profits was earmarked for sick pay and death benefits, something that many factories did not at that time provide. Five percent was to be used to pay for improvements to the workplace.
Twenty percent of the net profits was banked as surplus capital. Ten percent went into a building fund, and the remaining ten percent was saved to cover depreciation and replacement of equipment.
Should losses happen, they were met by making a pro rata assessment on the wages of the co-partners.
Next week I will try to learn more and report more about the Co-partner shirt factory, more background on the strike that prompted its establishment, and the eventual outcome of the venture.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.