Classic Film Review: One of the Great Labor Documentaries is restored — “The Wobblies (1979)”

“The One Big Union,” they called it, an organization that would represent every worker laboring for “The Man.” Unlike the “skilled labor” guilds of the earlier American Federation of Labor, it would take in everyone, including the the extreme exertion “unskilled” jobs — farm labor, lumberjacks, longshoremen and miners. It would be a union whose work actions and strikes were meant to not just exercise some control over their work days, their wages and their safety It would struggle to gain outright ownership of the industries where the workers toiled.

The One Big Union would rattle “ownership” in America’s rapacious “gilded age” and threaten capitalism itself if it succeeded.

“The Wobblies” is a classic labor documentary from 1979, a film that gets back to the core meaning of the film genre — “to document,” to have history recounted by those who actually lived it. Filmmakers Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird interviewed the dying out members and eyewitnesses to the actions and struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World, “The Wobblies,” and let these old men and women speak of the idealism, desperation and determination that drove America’s most radical labor movement, which came to life in 1905 and then disappeared, after 20 years of strife, scapegoating and bloody attacks from America’s defenders of the status quo.

The newly-restored film is a reminder of the varied styles and formats of documentaries before PBS an Ken Burns codified and formalized these films into academics and “experts” and actors reading letters or performing speeches of the figures represented.

What that looks and sounds like is a tapestry of testimonials, on and off camera, recreating an era of child labor and the murderously callous reign of America’s first oligarchs — Rockefeller and Ford, Carnegie and J.P. Morgan.

“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half,” financier Jay Gould sneered.

And so he could. In an era where workplace safety was deemed an unnecessary bother, when giant lumber companies could strip America’s forests with a remote workforce they could underfeed and house under deplorable conditions, when mining disasters were a simple “cost of doing business” worth no one’s attention, when hired cops and militia could be relied on to mow down longshoremen striking for an eight hour day, capitalists and capitalism were literally killing much of America, and getting anybody to care was a near impossible struggle.

“The Wobblies” uses archival silent films, still photographs, posters and performed recitations to recreate the labor ferment that boiled over from the late 1800s into the early 20th century. Interviews then hammer home what the Wobblies — their nickname may have come from Asian workers’ inability to say “I.W.W.” — represented, an impatience with the pace of reform and change.

“Work, good wages and respect” was their credo, witnesses recount.

“Free speech” battles erupted as the right to organize and protest was assaulted from Minot, North Dakota and Butte, Montana to Everett, Washington and Lawrence, Massachusetts, site of an early Wobbly unionizing success.

A hostile press and a political system bent towards the whims of the celebrated robber barons, who would quickly call for and receive lethal assistance in attacking and imprisoning labor organizers and shooting strikers was what the Wobblies were up against.

“Shakedowns” from railroaders hired to transport farm workers and lumbermen from site to work site via boxcar were common, abuse on the job and across industries was common. The Wobblies vowed that they wouldn’t just take a punch waiting for a passive public and blind-eyed government to act. They’d punch back.

The lack of experts interviewed here leaves the film with an implicit, sympathetic bias, but also deprives it of academically underscored proof of the context all this struggle took place in. World War I and the first “Red Scare,” the birth of the Soviet Union,” took place just as as the Wobblies were on the rise. A refusal to condemn or support the war, or to call off strikes during the conflict, added to heated pushback, attacks and image tarring by the press and government.

The “bomb throwers” label slapped on every labor movement since the Haymarket Square Riot was unjustly attached to the Wobblies from their birth and on into the age of animated film.

Clips from Ford-sponsored silent cinema cartoons depicting IWW organizers as rats and even an early Walt Disney (he hated unions) effort, “Alice’s Egg Plant” remind us how quick conservatives were to tie labor to the brand new boogeyman — communism — and smear workers’ rights organizations with that.

“The Wobblies” is a bracing, enthusiastic film, with many an old Wobbly recalling mottos, chants and even songs.

One remembrance ends with words he recalled his sympathetic father passing on to him. A worthy cause with worthy goals, the old Wobbly remembers his old man saying. “But it’s just a dream. It’ll never happen.”

Rating: unrated

Credits: Directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer. A Kino Lorber re-release.

Running time: 1:29

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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