Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer's ardently pro-labor documentary, THE WOBBLIES, tells the brief history of the Industrial Workers of the World--The Wobblies--through the first-hand accounts of the organization's former members. Narrator Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, explains that by the beginning of the 20th century, the...read more
Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer's ardently pro-labor documentary, THE WOBBLIES, tells the brief history of the Industrial Workers of the World--The Wobblies--through the first-hand accounts of the organization's former members.
Narrator Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, explains that by the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had become an urban industrial society, essentially managed by heads of large industries. While all workers were exploited under this system, those who were
unskilled received particularly bad treatment. In 1905, under the leadership of such labor stalwarts as "Big Bill" Haywood, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones, the Industrial Workers of the World was founded to organize and protect such workers. Nicknamed the Wobblies, the IWW was distinguished from
other unions in being open to all workers, irrespective of work type.
From its inception, the IWW was racially integrated and receptive to immigrants. Its first major victory resulted from a 1912 mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which endured and succeeded despite efforts of mill owners to break it. A subsequent strike in Patterson, New Jersey, however,
failed after police brutally attacked the strikers. The IWW recruited new members through street rallies, but such assemblies were eventually outlawed.
In the wake of the 1916 killing of five striking workers in Everett, Washington, loggers in the American Northwest struck successfully for improved safety and better logging camp conditions. In the summer of 1917, the IWW organized a strike among lumber and mine workers, hurting industries that
were producing materials for the military. Although better conditions were secured for workers, the IWW was accused by the US government of subversion, accusations that were echoed in the mainstream press. Leaders of the union were tried and convicted for antiwar activities, many were either
jailed or deported, and the Wobblies were effectively shut down. Although the union was broken, its spirit lived on in surviving members, who continued their struggle on behalf of the world's workers.
The strength of Bird and Shaffer's documentary lies in the degree to which it lets former members of the Wobblies--the makers of the history that this film relates--speak for themselves. Although Roger Baldwin (himself a former Wobblie) serves as the film's bridging narrator, the story of the IWW
is really told through the recollections and ruminations of those who participated in individual strikes that marked the movement. By presenting their subject in this manner, the filmmakers not only bestow upon the speakers a befitting dignity, they also offer an authentically alternative history
of the American labor movement, one created not from "authoritative" sources (such as newspaper reports), but from the words of the workers who actually lived it. Shaffer and Bird's thoughtful approach verifies the diversity of the IWW as well. Among those interviewed are migratory and textile
workers, silk weavers, and lumberjacks. Beyond the occupations, the voices of those interviewed further confirms the IWW's far-reaching influence, containing as they do a variety of American regional and European accents.
Throughout the film, Bird and Shaffer illustrate the speakers' comments with a wealth of archival material, including stock footage and photographs, old song recordings, pro- and anti-IWW posters and political cartoons, paintings, newspaper clippings, and even a few silent era cartoons. (The
highlight among these is an entry from the "Alice" series, a pre-Mickey Mouse creation of the vehemently antilabor Walt Disney). As fascinating as this material is, though, the filmmakers never allow it to overwhelm their principal sources. The true sense of history this film provides comes not
from an old newsreel clip, but from interviewees who recount the minute details of the actions they took to protest atrocious working conditions, or who sing from memory old union organizing songs. THE WOBBLIES is not nostalgic, however. Nor is it elegiac. It's a sober and admiring remembrance of
a significant chapter in labor history, and the individuals who wrote it.
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