The Wobblies by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer is an inspiring and moving history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) , researched and corroborated by the reminiscences of some of the union's former members. [ChristieBooks]
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Wobbly is a self-ascribed nickname for members of the International Workers of the World (IWW), an international union that represents both skilled and unskilled laborers. The IWW was formed in Chicago in 1905 by a group of 200 socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists. Though the IWW uses its influence to organize strikes for increased wages and shorter work days, their ultimate goal has been to eventually abolish the wage system altogether. Their goals include instituting workplace democracies, in which employees elect their supervisors, who then would serve at their behest.
Shortly after their founding, Wobblies began organizing non-violent strikes across the United States. Though these actions resulted in countless arrests, and many deaths, IWW demonstrations often succeeded in achieving their demands. In response, the unyielding pro-business government worked to repress the Union's organizing ability and launched a smear campaign against the IWW. Still, at the height of its powers, in 1923, the IWW had over 100,000 members, and was supported by over 300,000 workers. In 1924, the IWW split due to internal disagreements and government pressure. Though they are still in existence, and currently count approximately 2,000 members, the Wobblies achieved their greatest success in the first quarter of the 20th century.
The Wobblies is a documentary showcasing the formation of the IWW and those successes. It was produced and directed by Steward Bird and Deborah Shaffer and was originally released in 1979. The bulk of the film consists of interviews with individuals who were members of the IWW during its salad years in the 1910s and 1920s. As you can imagine, most of the interview subjects are old, but they certainly belie the stereotype of elders as conservative and reserved. Despite their advanced age, many look back fondly on their days resisting arrest and getting beaten by the police. One crusty character describes cutting the initials IWW into the faces of train conductors and then rubbing potassium into the wounds so that they would never fully heal. Due to the fact that there are few, if any, surviving members of the IWW from this period, these interviews serve as a valuable first hand account of the early stages of labor unions in America. Listening to their reminisces reminds me of listening to my own grandparents: they ramble and are occasionally difficult to understand, but if you listen attentively you will discover their experiences are rich and interesting.
Thankfully, Bird and Shaffer break up the interviews with great b-roll footage documenting the horrifying working conditions for millions of laborers at the turn of the century. Intercut with these are shots of IWW rallies and strikes and the often violent reprisals by strikebreakers and local police. Like the talking heads, these shots of a United States that no longer exists (and is beyond the ken of most Americans) will be highly enlightening for interested viewers.
As an added bonus, over shots of the IWW in action, the filmmakers often play snippets of songs that are featured in the Little Red Notebook. The Little Red Notebook is a collection of songs the Wobblies began singing at their rallies to drown out opposition groups who would often use to noise to distract Wobbly speakers. These songs often use the tunes of Christian hymns with altered lyrics that champion the rights of common laborers. I had never heard these songs before watching The Wobblies, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many are on par with some of the great protest songs of Woody Guthrie.
The Wobblies is going to be an informative and enlightening film for anyone interesting in the American labor movement. Unfortunately, with a grainy picture (largely due to the film's advanced age) and long-winded talking heads, this documentary will not draw in uninterested viewers. Still, it is labor unions like the IWW that created the groundwork for the wide array of worker's protections that all of us in America now enjoy. This movie is probably the best video document of their organization, and is worthwhile viewing.