The Return of ‘The Wobblies’

For May Day, a reissue of a classic documentary about a radical labor movement

Recently, a large group of Amazon employees in a warehouse in Staten Island won a highly contentious vote for a labor union by a considerable margin. As significant a win for organized labor as that was, it was merely the highest-profile case in what has been a broader trend toward unionization in the service sector. At least 16 Starbucks branches have officially formed unions, for instance. And then there are the employees at Apple stores in New York City and Atlantawho embarked on their own unionization campaigns, with the Atlanta employees filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize.

In short, workers’ rights are very much in the air. That makes it the perfect time for the re-emergence of The Wobblies in the cinematic landscape. The Museum of Modern Art has given Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s 1979 documentary about the early years of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a 4K restoration, and distributor Kino Lorber is giving it not only theatrical runs in select cities (including New York’s Metrograph theater), but also sponsoring special screenings on May Day, May 1, across the country (check out this site to see if it will be playing near you). For those, like me, who had never heard of the film before the announcement of the new restoration, the experience may prove to be an inspiring one.

Aesthetically speaking, The Wobblies is basically a talking-heads documentary, of a type that Ken Burns later popularized  in many of his television nonfiction epics. The film introduces all its interview subjects by name in the opening credits—and, in its most noteworthy aesthetic touch, subsequently never shows their names again onscreen, the opposite of what most documentaries do in order to help the audience keep the characters straight. Instead, it essentially makes all of these people equal—fitting for a movement founded on collective action. Interspersed among the film’s many interviews are copious amounts of archival stills and historical footage. Outside of the film’s onscreen interview segments, the film’s soundtrack features a wealth of folk songs from the era, as well as voiceover narration from Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lest that all make The Wobblies sound like merely a dry history lesson, the quality of the voices make the film as gripping as it is informative. In chronicling the IWW’s groundbreaking, incendiary early years, Bird and Shaffer went straight for people who were in the thick of it all. The directors constructed the film primarily out of eyewitness accounts offered up by many of the eponymous “wobblies”—the informal name given to members of the IWW—who participated in some of the crucial labor actions of the era. The 1912 “Bread and Roses” textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts—with immigrants making up many of the participants—gets considerable attention in the film, as does the 1917 miners strike in Bisbee, Arizona, that led a posse of lawmen to illegally arrest and deport about 1,300 striking workers outside of the town, among other landmarks in labor organizing.

The Wobblies

Naturally, by the time the directors interviewed many of the these people, they were all at an advanced age. But there’s nothing sclerotic about the passion they all exude as they reminisce about what they did and saw. If anything, it’s inspiring to see these people recount even their most harrowing experiences with something like nostalgic calm. These people have survived and lived to tell us all about being on the front lines of the fight for the rights and dignity of the kind of workers society at large had previously deemed unworthy of representation.

These testimonials infuse The Wobblies with an autumnal glow. That glow becomes especially poignant towards the end of the film, when Bird and Shaffer inevitably get to the schism that develops in the 1920s between IWW members who embraced Communism and those who looked at it with suspicion in the wake of the First Red Scare during World War I. But as capitalist exploitation has continued to persist in the ensuing decades, so has the IWW’s legacy of keeping the battle for workers’ rights alive. Bird and Shaffer’s sober, dignified, yet quietly impassioned tribute to an earlier generation of organizers and protesters offers a necessary reminder that, despite the considerable strides that have made since the 1920s, the fight is far from over.

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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