.The Re-release of Kino Lorber’s The Wobblies

Who fought for workers’ rights before your grandparents were born? The ‘Wobblies’

A few short notes on Kino Lorber’s re-release of the angry, exhilarating 1979 documentary The Wobblies, the story of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), America’s most dynamic example of “revolutionary industrial unionism”: 

Filmmakers Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird were far-sighted enough to produce their filmed civil-rights history lesson in the late 1970s, when many of the original Wobblies—the popular nickname for the IWW—were still alive and kicking. When original participants like textile worker Angelo Rocco, silk weaver Sophie Cohen or woodsman Tom Scribner describe the callous greed of factory owners or the experience of being beaten by police and company goons called out to subdue “outside agitators” (i.e., picketing union members) in the early 20th century, their outrage is red-hot and infectious. 

These Wobblies were tough. Ever since the IWW’s founding in Chicago in 1905, it was determined to organize all working people—men and women of every race, recent immigrants, mill workers, farm hands, lumberjacks and Black New Orleans stevedores, not just the skilled laborers of established unions—into one big union, in the spirit of socialists “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene V. Debs and “Mother” Jones. The IWW’s efforts attracted fierce opposition that makes modern-day workplace discord seem like Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

The Wobblies’ anti-capitalist rallying cry for universal social reform made them targets for bankers, manufacturers, merchants, scabs, police, army troops, the courts, newspapers, movie studios and sometimes even other labor orgs—notably the American Federation of Labor, AFL. Today’s most persecuted workers—ride-hail and delivery drivers, fast-food servers, clerks, hotel staff and service providers—seem pretty meek and submissive compared to the folks who were vilified as Bolsheviks and got their heads cracked open by cops in “labor riots.” When assaulted, the Wobblies usually fought back.

The doc comes across a bit raw and unpolished. The IWW’s senior-citizen talking heads often express themselves and their history in rough terms that may make 2022 audiences wince. We have to remind ourselves to get over the homemade-looking film techniques—to keep in mind that these are the unfiltered memories of people who lived through the struggles that paved the way for the civil and labor rights many of us take for granted (the Wobblies’ “strike on the job” work slowdown tactic is credited onscreen with forcing the adoption of the eight-hour workday). It’s as if they didn’t have time to be slick and glib. They were in a hurry to change the world, like all revolutionaries.

The film’s wonderful archival footage, stills and graphics from the 1910s-20s show horse-drawn wagons, newsboys hawking daily papers, women workers punching their time clocks, etc. The mass media of the day (such as it was) almost uniformly joined such big-business bullies as U.S. Steel and Ford Motor Co. in fiercely denouncing the IWW for engaging in “anarchy, sedition and lawlessness,” on little or no evidence other than putting a damper on profits. Political cartoonists used the standard scare image of a scruffy, “foreign-looking” character wielding a bomb with a lit fuse, to illustrate the dangers of organized labor.

The IWW’s counter to that was their rousing songs, sung in unison while marching down the street (and heard on the film’s soundtrack): “Union Maid,” “On the Good Old Picket Line,” “Solidarity,” “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and the popular “Rebel Girl.” 

As one proud female former factory worker puts it: “There was only one thing to do. You either had to stop living or become a rebel.”The Wobblies began streaming on all major TVOD platforms (Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube, etc.) on May 31.

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