The Wobblies (1979) — There is Power in the Band of Workingmen When They Stand Hand in Hand

  • I am normally somewhat annoyed by documentaries that only show the interviewees’ names at the very start and then never identify them again, but it works here to emphasize the important thing isn’t any one person’s personality or appearance, it’s the stories they have to tell and the unity amongst their number. S’an impression helped along by the backing music of a choir singing “There Is Power in a Union” during roll call. I will, however, do my best to credit the speakers by name when referencing their segments.
  • I deeply appreciate lumberjack Tom Scribner’s contributions to the film, as he regularly provides the realist’s viewpoint on the IWW, admitting they were maybe a little pie in the sky on their own goals (ironic, given the phrase “pie in the sky” originates from a Joe Hill song written to mock preachers who promise heaven for a lifetime of hell) without once acting as if the goals were not worth pursuing or his time with the union anything less than noble and proper. Plus he plays the singing saw as a transition into wintertime lumberjack footage at one point, so I gotta love him.
  • Longshoreman James Fair is the first of many members to tell a story to the effect of outlining the horrible situation he faced at baseline before the IWW’s arrival (in his case being regularly forced out of a job by white laborers the bosses would prefer), but he has a wonderfully smooth way with words that clearly outlines the circumstance and makes him a great first-at-bat for the trend.
  • The section covering the 1912 Lawrence textile strike (primarily hosted by Angelo Rocco standing outside one of the old mills) does a good job illustrating how much of the IWW’s bad reputation amongst the press was the result of tactics forced by abhorrent treatment leveraged to show the public just how wretched things were. Children sent away in a public forum to live with sympathetic families because their families could not fight for fair treatment and feed their youth at the same time, women marching at the front of the picket line before armed militias because they would otherwise be forced out of the picket line, hard rhetoric about the violence of withdrawn labor adopted because nobody would stop calling them violent. Makes for a compelling picture of just why the business owners folded so readily in face of such determined opposition; would be nice if the documentary also afforded some time to how the strike’s gains were quickly overturned and the IWW chapter in Lawrence collapsed in a year.
  • Mark you, the coverage of numerous failed strikes and the tragedy of the Bisbee deportation with relatively small but pointed mentions of how the Wobblies never kept their attention in one place long does underscore the primary point of the feature. We are here to celebrate a legacy and argue it must continue on long past its supposed dying, but those who blazed the trails were not perfect in their day, and even those who were true blue believes for the time they were involved can admit as much.
  • Irma Lombardi of the Paterson silk strike is one of my favorite recurring commentators in the film. Every time she shows up, she’s got a sharp-tongued response to some piece of bullshit anti-union propaganda from a lifetime ago with the same level of disgust at the lies as she must have harbored back in her day. My personal favorite is when she responds to calling Wobblies “agitators” by saying, “They weren’t agitating anyone, they were telling the truth!”, although her memory of rejecting a date offer from a cop who’d previously arrested her is a close second.
  • No real substance to this note: I just find the combination of period illustrations of the homeless and starving beneath Haywire Mac’s brief rendition of “The Preacher and the Slave” plain lovely, very touching. Same praise for his go-around on “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum!” and T-Bone Slim’s late-movie performance of “They Go Wild Over Me” to compliment footage of mass arrests. I assumed these performances were by Utah Phillips before checking the credits, and now I’m not sure where he is in the picture. Maybe someone in the comments knows?
  • The storytelling tagteam between Nels Peterson and I believe Nicholas Steelink in relaying the Everett, Washington massacre proves a strong means of demonstrating the solidarity shown by the workers aboard the besieged boat, and moreover proves the two directors had finely-honed editing skills so early in their careers to make it play so fluently between the two speakers.
  • The double-whammy segment outlining the abuses faced by the loggers in the north and the conscripted labor of migratory workers in the south west makes the lead-in to the section about sabotage as a tactic all the more impactful as we move in on images of Sab-Cat art beneath a rousing rendition of “Ta-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” with notes by Joe Murphy and Jack Miller on the term’s origin in French wooden shoes and meaning as the conscious withdrawl of efficiency respectively. For all these virtues, I’m primarily glad for this section because it closes on a segment from an early Disney Alice Comedy portraying the IWW as Russian fifth columnists, which both ensures proof Walt was an anti-worker bastard at the earliest stages of his career is preserved in the registry, and ensures proof Walt sucked absolute ass at portraying striking workers as anything other than admirable when trying to demonize them is out there as a highlight on its own.
  • A broad sentiment for the entire movie, but inspired specifically here by the segment discussing riding boxcars and watching men shoved off to “grease” the rails: this film is doing a lot to reinforce my belief there ought to be someone going around to random folk and sitting them down for an hour or two to talk about their life, for there must be a million such fascinating tales of the sorts you never conventionally hear about just waiting for a camera and microphone to put them on record.
  • Much as it’s easy to look back and realize the attempted general strike in protest of American entry into WWI was perhaps a massive mistake that broke the IWW (kinda funny how their acronyms are opposites of one another, innit), the way the talking heads lay out the sheer level of organization of lumberjacks for example, the buffoonish of the boss’ attempts to replace workers with unskilled soldiers (“They’d get lost if they walked around a big stump”), and the effectiveness of alternative striking techniques when striking on the job they won them 8 hour day, you can almost see where the organization got the idea it MIGHT take when applied to a wider cause.
  • The media and government smear tactics against organized labor haven’t changed a goddamned whit since 1917, have they. Just different names for the communist/socialist sympathizers, and less overt employment of rough men to burn down headquarters.
  • I know Rip Torn provided some voicework for the passages when they quote historical figures who were long dead before production, and I WANT to say he’s the one speaking as the prosecuting attorney A. Michael Patterson whose indictment of the Wobblies as communist subversives comes at movie’s end as a representation of the final blows against IWW cohesion. Great thing to have all speakers come in after his speech to either deliver a final line of defiance or give one last lingering look into the camera. Keeps the legacy alive, God rest their souls.
Thanks to YouTube user OttOmOlOtOv for all the clips

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Gargus

Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus