THE WOBBLIES (Stewart Bird, Deborah Shaffer, 1979)

The target of a national campaign of terror during its lifetime in the early twentieth century, and the recipient of historical neglect after its destruction, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) was a massive American labor union of unskilled laborers, largely immigrants: migrant workers, miners, textile workers, loggers, longshoremen, grain harvesters, etc.—treated like “nobodies,” people who wanted to “be people.” The inclusive union brought both genders, all races and ethnicities. Its idealists were free speech advocates; Roger Baldwin, a key I.W.W. figure, also helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. However, Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s spirited, deeply moving documentary The Wobblies—members were familiarly called this—focuses on ordinary former I.W.W. members, adding their interviews to its rich store of archival materials. Bird has thus explained the film’s aim: “To tell history from the ground up.”
     Solidarity: This was the organization’s soul. Too bad that the film’s procedure, its unifying principle, greatly simplifies the 1912 Arlington Mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and even eliminates from its account the reversal of worker gains following the I.W.W.’s initial success there. Another issue excluded from Bird and Shaffer’s concerns is the competition of unions to organize and represent workers.
     But the film compellingly recounts the I.W.W.’s decline during the First World War when the I.W.W., seeing the desire to expand markets, not to make the world “safe for democracy,” as the motive behind America’s (delayed) entrance into the war proceeded with industrial strikes that the press and the government exploited to make the union seem disloyal, unpatriotic. Abuse increased against I.W.W. leaders: arrests, beatings, prison terms.
     The Wobblies also regales us with the joyfulness of the I.W.W. (“We want bread, but we want roses, too”), as expressed in their Little Red Songbook, from which they sang to drown out hecklers (and worse) and just for the heck of it. Joe Hill’s song “The Preacher and the Slave” commemorates the I.W.W.’s competition with the Salvation Army for streetcorners from which to give inspiring speeches. But there are so many songs here—wonderful songs.
     The film closes with a montage of the participating former Wobblies, each silent except for his or her thought in voiceover, and then, in another montage, absolutely silent. James Fair, an African-American one-time longshoreman, looks briefly into the camera—like Cabiria in the woods in Federico Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (1956). His thus finding us, although contrived, isn’t easily shaken off.

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